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NFL Playoffs previews and predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
AFC Championship Game
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
How the Ravens can win:
None other than Ray Lewis himself has put the weight of the world on the right shoulder of quarterback Joe Flacco. “You’re the General, lead us to victory,” Lewis told Flacco. “Smokin’ Joe” will need to deliver another knockout blow on the road against the AFC’s reigning heavyweight champion Patriots.
Flacco will have plenty of help, however, as home-run threat Torrey Smith and physical target Anquan Boldin line up out wide, while multi-threat running back Ray Rice and rookie runner Bernard Pierce handle the workload on the ground behind a solid O-line.
Although the offense will need to keep up on the scoreboard, the Ravens’ defense will be charged with containing Tom Brady and Co. The usual suspects of Lewis, safety Ed Reed, tackle Haloti Ngata and edge rusher Terrell Suggs will need to bring the heat in New England. In the end, it may come down to rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who will need to avoid the fate of Billy Cundiff, the goat of last year’s 23–20 AFC title game defeat in Foxborough.
How the Patriots can win:
Brady has more playoff wins than any other quarterback in history — with a 17–6 postseason record, including an 11–2 mark at home. Coach Bill Belichick will put the ball in Brady’s hands and let him work the magic that has already earned the duo five trips to the Super Bowl and three Vince Lombardi Trophies during their time in New England.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured, but these Patriots are still loaded with playmakers like slot receiver Wes Welker and versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez. The power and speed backfield combo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen has become nearly unstoppable as the season has worn on.
Defensively, 320-plus-pounder Vince Wilfork continues to anchor the unit, while playmakers like linebacker Jerod Mayo, hybrid end Chandler Jones and cornerback Aqib Talib fly around the field.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko and a return game led by Welker and Devin McCourty round out a solid squad.
What will happen: New England by 5
Patriots march to Super Bowl XLVII; Ravens fly home for winter.
NFC Championship Game
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, FOX
How the 49ers can win:
If dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s second career playoff start is anything like his first, then San Francisco should cruise to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Kaepernick posted 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards and four total TDs against Green Bay in just his eighth career NFL start.
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club is far from a one-man team. Veteran running back Frank Gore, wideout Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis have all had their own breakout playoff performances. And the Niners’ O-line is arguably the best in the business.
Defensively, San Francisco’s lineup reads like the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster, with All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, and end Justin Smith leading the charge.
Special teams was the Achilles’ heal of San Fran’s NFC title game effort last season and could be again this year, with kicker David Akers showing signs of physical and mental fatigue down the stretch.
How the Falcons can win:
Matt Ryan finally ripped the playoff monkey off his back, winning his first career postseason game in his fourth attempt. But he’s far from satisfied. It will be up to “Matty Ice” to keep his cool against an aggressive 49ers defense that will bring exotic blitz packages from their 3-4 scheme.
Ryan’s fleet of pass-catchers is easily the best remaining in the playoffs, as receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are joined by future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. In the backfield, Michael Turner has split more time with Jacquizz Rodgers of late, giving the Falcons a variety of offensive looks.
Atlanta’s defense will need to do to Gore what it did to Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (16 carries, 46 yards) while not allowing Kaepernick to do what Russell Wilson (385 pass yards, 60 rush yards, 3 TDs) was able to do both through the air and on the ground.
Kicker Matt Bryant already has one playoff game-winner, giving coach Mike Smith confidence in what should be a close contest.
What will happen: San Francisco by 3
49ers strike Super Bowl gold; Falcons’ wings clipped at home.
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 178-86
When placed directly in the spotlight of the NFL Playoffs, many players shrink amid the added scrutiny, while others shine brightest when given national attention.
Heading into San Francisco’s Divisional Round playoff showdown with Green Bay, no one was quite sure which type of player 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would be.
The second-year dual-threat signal-caller out of Nevada was making just his eighth career start since replacing veteran Alex Smith — who led the Niners all the way to the NFC title game last year before being concussed in Week 10 this season and never reclaiming his starting job.
Clearly Kaepernick looked the part during the regular season — posting a 5–2 record while completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards, 10 TDs and three INTs for a 98.3 passer rating, while scrambling for 415 yards, on 6.6 yards per carry, and five TDs on the ground.
The playoffs, however, are a completely different animal. And Kaepernick was the youngest quarterback (25 years, 2 months, 9 nines) to start for San Francisco since Joe Montana (25 years, 6 months, 23 days).
Kaepernick looked his age early on, throwing an interception that was returned for a 52-yard TD by Packers cornerback Sam Shields, giving Green Bay an early 7–0 lead. But, as a young Joe Cool might have done, Kaepernick stayed calm and answered with an eight-play, 80-yard TD drive to tie the game at 7–7.
“He does a great job of responding. He has done that. Every time there’s been an interception that he’s thrown, or safety or turnover. He’s responded with a scoring drive. I think that’s rare. I think that’s a rare quality. And so far he’s shown that he’s got that ability to come back,” said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who was known as “Captain Comeback” during his playing days.
From that point on, Kaepernick was in total control of the 49ers offense and the Packers defense was helpless to stop San Fran’s new golden boy. Kaepernick completed 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards and two TDs, while running 16 times for 181 yards and two TDs en route to a 45–31 win. His 181 rushing yards broke both the NFL single-game and playoff game records for a quarterback, both of which were held by Michael Vick, as well as the 49ers’ team playoff record, held by Roger Craig.
And with running back Frank Gore adding 23 carries for 119 yards and one TD, the Niners’ play-action opened up the downfield passing game for wideout Michael Crabtree, who finished with nine catches for 119 yards and two TDs. The 49ers’ trio became the first in NFL history to post two 100-yard rushers and one 100-yard receiver in a playoff game. San Francisco also set team records for total yards (579) and rushing yards (323) in the process.
“Our offensive line played great today. They did a lot of things well up front. Our running backs ran well and our receivers made plays,” said Kaepernick, who joined Jay Cutler and Otto Graham as the only players in history to record two passing TDs and two rush TDs in a playoff game.
Kaepernick’s humility did little to shift the credit, however. There was no denying the impact of No. 7.
“He is a playmaker,” said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. “He can run. He is athletic. He can throw. All the things you want in a quarterback, he has it.”
As for whether or not Kaepernick is a “running” quarterback, the former two-sport star who was drafted by MLB’s Chicago Cubs doesn’t bother worrying about labels.
“I don’t want to be categorized,” Kaepernick said after the game.
All Kaepernick seems to care about is being a big-time player — the type who rises to the occasion to make big plays in big games.
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The New England Patriots have taken over the top spot. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs remain locked into the No. 1 pick in this April's NFL Draft.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following the NFL Playoffs' Divisional Round:
1. Patriots (13-4) Aim for sixth Super Bowl of Belichick-Brady era.
2. 49ers (12-4-1) Alex Smith who? Colin Kaepernick owns spotlight.
3. Falcons (14-3) Unintended onside kick ends thrilling win vs. Hawks.
4. Ravens (12-6) Return to site of last year’s AFC title game defeat.
5. Broncos (13-4) John Fox taking heat for taking knee to settle for OT.
6. Packers (12-6) Unable to double-check Colin Kaepernick in defeat.
7. Texans (13-5) Gary Kubiak, teammates “believe” in Matt Schaub.
8. Seahawks (12-6) Russell Wilson sets rookie QB playoff passing mark.
9. Redskins (10-7) NFLPA executive says FedEx Field a “safety issue.”
10. Bengals (10-7) Vontaze Burfict not fined for hit on Texans’ Graham.
11. Colts (11-6) Andrew Luck acts on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
12. Vikings (10-7) Problems with Percy Harvin downplayed by GM.
13. Bears (10-6) Brandon Marshall an All-Pro in first year in Chicago.
14. Giants (9-7) Rookie David Wilson second-team All-Pro as KR.
15. Cowboys (8-8) Hire “Godfather of Tampa 2” Monte Kiffin as DC.
16. Steelers (8-8) Chris Rainey placed on waivers after being arrested.
17. Rams (7-8-1) Rob Ryan rumored to be near deal to be next DC.
18. Panthers (7-9) Cam Newton taking classes at Auburn in offseason.
19. Saints (7-9) New Orleans preps as host city of Super Bowl XLVII.
20. Dolphins (7-9) Promise to pay for half of redone Sun Life Stadium.
21. Chargers (7-9) Hire Broncos OC Mike McCoy as next head coach.
22. Buccaneers (7-9) Ronde Barber to take his time debating retirement.
23. Titans (6-10) Fire Alan Lowry, architect of “Music City Miracle.”
24. Bills (6-10) Hire Nathaniel Hackett as OC, Mike Pettine as DC.
25. Jets (6-10) Struggle to fill vacant GM position amid team turmoil.
26. Cardinals (5-11) Steve Keim named GM, turns attention to new coach.
27. Browns (5-11) Norv Turner to be OC under coach Rob Chudzinski.
28. Lions (4-12) Cliff Avril set for another offseason contract battle.
29. Eagles (4-12) Interview both Brian Billick and Ken Whisenhunt.
30. Raiders (4-12) Rolando McClain arrested, tells cops “F--- y’all.”
31. Jaguars (2-14) Not interested in Tim Tebow “even if he’s released.”
32. Chiefs (2-14) Will take “best player available” in draft, says GM.
The Big Ten had a year to forget in 2012. Two of the conference’s best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) were ineligible to compete for the postseason, while Michigan State underachieved and finished with a 7-6 mark.
While the 2012 season will go down as a year to mostly forget, the Big Ten should be in better shape for 2013. Ohio State will be a national title contender and has a chance to run the table to finish unbeaten once again next season. The Buckeyes rank as the No. 2 team in Athlon’s early top 25 for 2013.
The Legends Division will be a tight battle between Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern next season. The Cornhuskers are the early favorite to win the division crown, but don’t overlook Michigan. The Wolverines got a huge boost when tackle Taylor Lewan turned down the NFL, while quarterback Devin Gardner had a strong finish to the season.
Early Leaders Division Predictions for 2013
1. Ohio State
Key Returnees: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, RB Jordan Hall, WR Corey Brown, WR Devin Smith, LT Jack Mewhort, LG Andrew Norwell, C Corey Linsley, DE Noah Spence, DT Adolphus Washington, LB Ryan Shazier, CB Bradley Roby, S Christian Bryant, S C.J. Barnett
Key Departures: WR/TE Jake Stoneburner, RT Reid Fragel, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, NT Garrett Goebel, LB Etienne Sabino, LB Zach Boren, CB Travis Howard, S Orhian Johnson
After a 12-0 season with nothing to play for, the stakes are much higher for Ohio State in 2013. The Buckeyes are expected to be in the mix to play for the national championship and will be heavily favored to win the Big Ten. Quarterback Braxton Miller is one of the top Heisman contenders next season, but the junior needs more help from the supporting cast. Although Miller was able to start all 12 games in 2012, he took a pounding from recording 227 carries. Although the Buckeyes need their quarterback to be a factor on the ground, running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall have to shoulder more of the workload next season. While the offense should lead the Big Ten in scoring again in 2013, the defense has a few question marks to answer. The line loses four key contributors, including end John Simon and tackle Johnathan Hankins. Although Ohio State has a few holes to fill, expect Urban Meyer’s team to make another run at a perfect season.
Key Returnees: QB Curt Phillips, QB Joel Stave, RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, LG Ryan Groy, RG Kyle Costigan, RT Rob Havenstein, DE David Gilbert, DE Tyler Dippel, DT Beau Allen, DT Brendan Kelly, LB Chris Borland, LB Ethan Armstrong, FS Dezmen Southward
Key Departures: RB Montee Ball, LT Rick Wagner, C Travis Frederick, LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, SS Shelton Johnson
There’s a new coach in Madison but expect much of the same success from the Badgers. Gary Andersen comes to Wisconsin from Utah State, where he compiled a 26-24 record and helped to elevate the program to a conference title contender. Andersen will have plenty to work with in 2013, as Wisconsin returns most of its core from offense and nearly everyone on defense. Curt Phillips and Joel Stave will compete for the starting quarterback job, while James White and Melvin Gordon should be a capable combination to replace Montee Ball. The offensive line will miss tackle Rick Wagner and center Travis Frederick, but Ryan Groy, Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein is a good place to start reloading. Linebacker Mike Taylor is a tough loss, but Wisconsin could have one of the Big Ten’s best front sevens next year.
3. Penn State
Key Returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, LT Donovan Smith, RG John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Glenn Carson, LB Mike Hull, CB Adrian Amos, FS Malcolm Willis, S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong
Key Departures: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, RT Mike Farrell, DE Sean Stanley, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris
Despite interest from NFL teams, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien will be back in Happy Valley for 2013. And that's huge for a program in need of stability under the upcoming NCAA scholarship sanctions. O’Brien did wonders with the Nittany Lions’ offense in 2012, leading the unit to an average of 417.5 yards per game and transforming quarterback Matt McGloin into an All-Big Ten candidate. O’Brien will have his work cut out for him in 2013, as McGloin has expired his eligibility, leaving Steven Bench (eight career passes), junior college recruit Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg to compete for the starting nod. With uncertainty surrounding the quarterbacks, look for running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton to shoulder much of the early workload. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech, and O’Brien promoted assistant John Butler to call the plays. Butler will have his hands full too, as first-team All-Big Ten selections in linebacker Michael Mauti and defensive tackle Jordan Hill will be difficult to replace.
Key Returnees: QB Cameron Coffman, QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Cody Latimer, WR Shane Wynn, WR Kofi Hughes, TE Ted Bolser, LT Jason Spriggs, RG Dan Feeney, DE Ryan Phillis, DE Zack Shaw, LB David Cooper, LB Chase Hoobler, LB Flo Hardin, CB Brian Williams, S Greg Heban, S Mark Murphy
Key Departures: C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black
The Hoosiers showed marked improvement in Kevin Wilson’s second season. Indiana increased its win total by three games and suffered four losses by four points or less. With nearly everyone back for 2013, Indiana should be able to push for six wins and a bowl appearance. The Hoosiers averaged 311.2 passing yards per game and return three capable starting quarterbacks. Tre Roberson started the first two games of the year but suffered a season-ending leg injury against UMass. In his absence, Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld combined for 22 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have a solid supporting cast, which includes one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps and an offensive line that returns four starters. Fixing the defense was a top priority for Wilson when he arrived in Bloomington, but Indiana has ranked 100th or worse in total and scoring defense over the last two years. Although Adam Replogle and Larry Black are huge losses for the defensive line, there’s some hope for a turnaround since nearly everyone else on the two-deep is back for 2013.
Key Returnees: QB Rob Henry, RB Akeem Hunt, WR O.J. Ross, WR Gary Bush, WR Dolapo Macarthy, DE Ryan Russell, DT Bruce Gaston, LB Will Lucas, LB Joe Gilliam, CB Ricardo Allen, CB Frankie Williams, SS Landon Feichter, S Taylor Richards
Key Departures: QB Robert Marve, RB Ralph Bolden, RB Akeem Shavers, WR Antavian Edison, LG Peters Drey, C Rick Schmeig, DT Kawann Short, LB Robert Maci, CB Josh Johnson
Despite taking Purdue to back-to-back bowl games, coach Danny Hope was fired shortly after the regular season finale against Indiana. New coach Darrell Hazell is charged with elevating the program back to Big Ten contender status, but 2013 could be a difficult year for the Boilermakers. Hazell’s rebuilding project will start on offense, as Purdue loses quarterback Robert Marve and running backs Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers. Rob Henry will likely get the first shot at replacing Marve under center, but he has thrown only 38 passes since starting seven games in 2010. Despite losing All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short, Purdue’s defense should show some improvement after finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten in total and scoring defense last year. Hazell did a good job of rebuilding Kent State in a short amount of time. Can he find the same quick fixes in West Lafayette in 2013?
Key Returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Darius Millines, RG Ted Karras, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, LB Mike Sventina, S Earnest Thomas
Key Departures: LT Hugh Thornton, C Graham Pocic, DE Michael Buchanan, NT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, S/LB Ashante Williams, S Suppo Sanni
Tim Beckman’s first season in Champaign was a disaster. The Fighting Illini won just two games for the first time since 2006 and snapped a streak of back-to-back bowl games. While a few ups and downs can be expected in a coaching transition, considering the returning talent at Illinois in 2012, no one could have predicted a season full of blowout losses and zero wins in Big Ten play. Beckman fired co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty and demoted Billy Gonzales to receivers coach. Staff changes on offense were necessary after finishing 119th nationally in scoring, but personnel is also an issue. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a capable player but had very little help from the running game, offensive line and receiving corps in 2012. While Scheelhaase has to play better than he did last year, the coaching staff has to get better production from the surrounding cast. The defense allowed 387.6 yards per game last season and loses a chunk of its core, including nose tackle Akeem Spence, cornerback Terry Hawthorne and defensive end Michael Buchanan. The roster isn’t devoid of talent, but for now, the Fighting Illini will be the early favorite to finish in the cellar of the Leaders Division.
Early Legends Division Predictions for 2013
Key Returnees: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, RB Braylon Heard, WR Kenny Bell, WR Jamal Turner, WR Quincy Enunwa, LT Brent Qvale, RG Spencer Long, RT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, DT Thad Randle, DT Chase Rome, LB David Santos, CB Andrew Green, CB Josh Mitchell, DB Ciante Evans
Key Departures: RB Rex Burkhead, LG Seung Hoon Choi, C Justin Jackson, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, DT Baker Steinkuhler, LB Will Compton, LB Sean Fisher, LB Alonzo Whaley, S Daimion Stafford, S P.J. Smith, K/P Brett Maher
While the loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and the 45-31 defeat to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl put a damper on the end of the season, Nebraska did win 10 games for the third time in four seasons. The Cornhuskers will start 2013 as a slight favorite to win the Legends Division, but Michigan and Northwestern won’t be far behind. With heavy personnel losses on defense, the offense will have to carry the team early in the season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was one of the Big Ten’s most-improved players in 2012 and has one of the conference’s top receiving corps, as well as two rising stars at running back in Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard to use in 2013. Coach Bo Pelini will have his work cut out for him on defense, as 12 seniors are gone from the two-deep. The cupboard isn’t bare, as end Jason Ankah, linebacker David Santos and defensive backs Andrew Green and Ciante Evans are a good place to start rebuilding. Nebraska’s schedule isn’t particularly difficult in conference play, but a road trip to Michigan on Nov. 9 could decide the division title.
Key Returnees: QB Devin Gardner, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, WR Drew Dileo, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DE Frank Clark, DT Jibreel Black, NT Quinton Washington, NT Ondre Pipkins, LB Jake Ryan, LB Desmond Morgan, LB James Ross III, LB Joe Bolden, CB Raymon Taylor, CB Blake Countess, S Thomas Gordon
Key Departures: QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, LG Ricky Barnum, C Elliott Mealer, RG Patrick Omameh, DT Will Campbell, DE Craig Roh, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, SS Jordan Kovacs
As mentioned in the Nebraska writeup, there’s very little separating Nebraska and Michigan for the top two spots in Athlon’s early Big Ten predictions for 2013. Although an arm injury to quarterback Denard Robinson was a huge setback for the offense in the late October matchup against Nebraska, Devin Gardner was able to gain valuable experience. He finished with 11 touchdown tosses and 1,219 yards and clearly opens the year No. 1 on the depth chart for Michigan. While Gardner is set at quarterback, the Wolverines need a No. 1 back to emerge and must replace three starters on the interior of the line. Michigan held opponents to 320 yards per game but ranked 51st nationally against the run and loses nose tackle Will Campbell and end Craig Roh. Cornerback Blake Countess will return to the lineup after suffering a torn ACL against Alabama, while coordinator Greg Mattison is counting on a big season from sophomore nose tackle Ondre Pipkins.
Key Returnees: QB Kain Colter, QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones, WR Rashad Lawrence, C Brandon Vitabile, RT Jack Konopka, DE Tyler Scott, DT Sean McEvilly, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB Damien Proby, CB Nick VanHoose, CB Daniel Jones, S Ibrahiem Campbell, K Jeff Budzien
Key Departures: WR Demetrius Fields, LT Patrick Ward, LG Brian Mulroe, DE Quentin Williams, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, CB Quinn Evans, S Jared Carpenter
The Wildcats are coming off a 10-win season and their first bowl victory since 1949. So what does Pat Fitzgerald have planned for an encore? How about contending for the Legends Division title? Considering the returning personnel and the losses suffered by Michigan and Nebraska, it’s not out of the question Northwestern could win the division crown in 2013. The offense averaged 31.7 points a game in 2012 and brings back most of its key personnel, including quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, along with running back Venric Mark. The biggest concern for the offense will be replacing three starters on the line. The defense gave up some big plays in key moments but finished 47th nationally in total defense and fifth in the Big Ten in points allowed. The schedule isn’t easy – especially since Northwestern plays Ohio State and Wisconsin in crossover games with the Leaders Division – but the Wildcats should be a top-25 team in 2013.
4. Michigan State
Key Returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, QB Connor Cook, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Aaron Burbridge, LT Dan France, C Jack Allen, DE Marcus Rush, DT James Kittredge, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen, LB Taiwan Jones, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis, FS Kurtis Drummond
Key Departures: RB Le’Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, RG Chris McDonald, DE William Gholston, NT Anthony Rashad White, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams
After recording 11 wins and an Outback Bowl victory over Georgia in the 2011 season, all signs seemed to indicate Michigan State was a program on the rise for 2012. Not so fast. The Spartans backtracked, needing a bowl win over TCU just to get over .500. Quarterback play was partly to blame, as Andrew Maxwell was unable to replicate Kirk Cousins’ production. Maxwell and Connor Cook will compete for the job in the spring. Running back Le’Veon Bell left early for the NFL Draft, which leaves Nick Hill (48 yards) as the team’s leading returning rusher. Defensively, the Spartans lose a couple of key contributors but should be a strength once again in 2013.
Key Returnees: QB Philip Nelson, RB Donnell Kirkwood, RB Rodrick Williams, WR Isaac Fruechte, LT Ed Olson, LG Tommy Olson, C Zac Epping, RT Josh Campion, DE Michael Amaefula, NT Ra’Shede Hageman, DT Roland Johnson, DT Cameron Botticelli, LB Aaron Hill, LB James Manuel, S Derrick Wells, S Brock Vereen
Key Departures: QB MarQueis Gray, DE D.L. Wilhite, LB Keanon Cooper, LB Mike Rallis, CB Troy Stoudermire, CB Michael Carter
The Golden Gophers used a favorable non-conference schedule to open 2012 4-0 and scored two victories in Big Ten play to make a bowl game for the first time since 2009. While the program isn’t ready to contend for a conference championship, Minnesota is clearly on the right track under coach Jerry Kill. For the Golden Gophers to take another step forward in 2013, quarterback Philip Nelson needs to have a big season. He threw for 873 yards and eight scores, while adding 184 yards on the ground in 2012. Nelson should be better with another offseason to work with the Golden Gophers’ offensive staff, but he needs more help from the receiving corps, as well as more punch from the running game. The defense made strides from 2011, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in total defense and fourth against the pass. Coordinator Tracy Claeys has some work to do in the back seven for 2013, especially in the secondary where cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire are gone.
Key Returnees: RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, RG Austin Blythe, DE Dominic Alvis, DT Louis Trinca-Pasat, DT Darian Cooper, LB Anthony Hitchens, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, CB B.J. Lowery, S Tanner Miller
Key Departures: QB James Vandenberg, WR Keenan Davis, LT Matt Tobin, C James Ferentz, DE Joe Gaglione, DT Steve Bigach, CB Micah Hyde
Coming off their first losing season since 2006, the Hawkeyes will be looking to rebound in 2013. Although there’s not a bevy of personnel losses, getting back to a bowl game won’t be easy. The first year under offensive coordinator Greg Davis was a disaster, as the Hawkeyes ranked 114th nationally in total offense and averaged just 19.3 points a game. Davis is back in 2013, and Iowa must replace quarterback James Vandenberg and top receiver Keenan Davis. The defense returns nearly intact for next year but must find a replacement for cornerback Micah Hyde and two key players in the defensive line rotation. Iowa has outperformed preseason expectations in the past. But the pressure is building on Kirk Ferentz after a disappointing season, and there’s not enough in the returning personnel to suggest a significant turnaround.
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Where do starting quarterbacks come from? What makes them great? How are they constructed?
All important questions college coaches must ask themselves when trying to evaluate the most important position on the field. A truly great field general can make or break a head coach’s career, so accurately evaluating high school prospects become one of the most valuable skills any college coach can master. Finding the hidden gem is virtually impossible in the modern age of Internet recruiting web sites and third-party film companies, but that doesn’t mean some still don’t slip through the cracks. Just ask every other school in Texas if they offered Johnny Manziel a scholarship? Because they didn’t — only Texas A&M, Oregon and Tulsa offered Manziel a chance at quarterback.
To understand better where elite signal callers come from and how they become starters at the highest level, Athlon Sports has analyzed the 68 power conference starters as well as BYU and Notre Dame. Common sense discretion was used to determine which quarterback should be deemed the “starter.” For example, Kain Colter gets the nod over Trevor Siemian at Northwestern, Clint Chelf is the starter at Oklahoma State, Travis Wilson gets the nod at Utah and Brendon Kay counted as the guy at Cincinnati.
Here is what Athlon learned:
Begin Your Search Out of State
Interestingly enough, only 24 of the 70 major-conference quarterbacks played college football in the same state they played high school football. The Big Ten (six) leads the nation with half of its league signing in-state passers. However, these names were not elite recruits as Joel Stave (Wisconsin) and Matt McGloin (Pennsylvania) were walk-ons, Philip Nelson had one offer (Minnesota) and James Vanderberg (Iowa) was a two-star. The SEC and Big 12 were second with five in-state signal callers each, however, seven of those 10 hail from Texas or Florida — where there are more prospects than anywhere else.
The ACC and Big East feature three in-state quarterbacks each while the Pac-12 has just one (Matt Barkley) who played college football in the same state as his high school career. Yes, most of the Pac-12 uses California for talent, including six starting quarterbacks, but the best ones in the league — Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Kevin Hogan — come from Hawaii, Arizona, Idaho and Virginia respectively.
Finally, of next year's Heisman Trophy front-runners, almost all are out-of-state talents with the exception of Manziel and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Aaron Murray, Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater, Taylor Martinez, Mariota and Hundley all crossed state lines to play in college.
The Commonwealth of Virginia
Looking for a sneaky place to find an elite passer? Look no further than Virginia. Plenty of elite talent sign big-time football scholarships from Virginia each recruiting cycle, but in 2012, half of the ACC — the better half — had a starting quarterback from The Mother of States. Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel, Mike Glennon, Bryn Renner, Logan Thomas and Phillip Sims all played high school football in Virginia. Add Chris Coyer at Temple and Hogan at Stanford and the case could be made that The Commonwealth is the most underrated state for quarterback talent in the nation. This is likely why Bill O'Brien and Penn State wanted Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy signal caller Christian Hackenberg so badly.
South Beach, Baby
Four power conference quarterbacks hail from South Florida, and these are four of the best in the country. Bridgewater, Geno Smith, Denard Robinson and Stephen Morris all played prep ball in the talent-rich waters of Dade and Broward counties. Robinson and Smith are two of the most prolific players in their school’s history and Bridgewater is poised to make a Heisman run for Louisville. Morris led his team to the division championship and also returns with a conference crown in his sights. Strangely enough, however, the Hurricanes have actually been better off when it builds the rest of its roster around local talent but goes long distances to find a quarterback. Gino Torretta and Ken Dorsey were from California, Jim Kelly was from Pittsburgh and Vinny Testaverde was from Brooklyn. Jacory Harris, a Miami product, never lived up to the lofty expectations. Apparently, the locally bred Morris is facing an uphill battle as a senior.
S-E-C. S-E-C. S-E-C.
With 14 teams, the SEC is the biggest league in the nation. It also has seven straight national titles and is the best league in the nation. So it should come as no surprise that 31 of the 70 power conference quarterbacks hail from states in the SEC footprint, including both quarterbacks who played in the BCS National Championship game. Twelve of the 14 starting SEC signal callers are from the region — Tyler Bray and Jordan Rodgers are from California — and 19 other major conference programs feature a prospect from an SEC state. Certainly, Florida and Texas provide much of the talent, but so too does Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. It's not rocket science: The Southeast has more athletes than anywhere else in the country.
Quarterback Revolving Door
No other position is more transient than the quarterback. Once a big-time recruit realizes he isn’t going to get starting time, he will be the first to look elsewhere. There is only one football after all. Ten of the 70 quarterbacks began their careers at a different program. Phillip Sims was at Alabama before landing at Virginia. Robert Marve signed with Miami before heading north to Purdue. Zach Maynard (Buffalo to Cal), Chandler Whitmer (Illinois to UConn) and Jordan Webb (Kansas to Colorado) also transferred. Bo Wallace, Cameron Coffman, Riley Nelson and Jordan Rodgers were all junior college transfers before excelling at Ole Miss, Indiana, BYU and Vanderbilt respectively. The lesson? Don't be afraid to look at your direct competition to find a starter.
Don't Be Afraid of the Small School
There are elite high school programs all over the country that send dozens of prospects to the FBS ranks each year. The 70 different quarterbacks in this study played at 68 different high schools. Small programs in Idaho, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Minnesota all sent a staring quarterback to a major conference. However, two high school programs featured a pair of signal callers. Powerhouse West Coast program Corona (Calif.) Centennial sent Taylor Martinez to Nebraska and Matt Scott to Arizona while famed Tampa (Fla.) Plant delivered Murray to Georgia and Marve to Purdue (by way of Miami). Otherwise, it appears there are no limitations as to where a coach will look to find talent under center.
State-by-state ranking of the 70 power conference starting quarterbacks:
|1.||California||10||Chase Rettig, Taylor Martinez, Matt Barkley, Sean Mannion, Keith Price, Matt Scott, Jeff Tuel, Travis Wilson, Tyler Bray, Jordan Rodgers|
|2.||Florida||9||Stephen Morris, Sam Richardson, Geno Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, BJ Daniels, Robert Marve, Denard Robinson, Jeff Driskel, Aaron Murray|
|3.||Virginia||8||Tajh Boyd, Mike Glennon, EJ Manuel, Bryn Renner, Phillip Sims, Logan Thomas, Chris Coyer, Kevin Hogan|
|4.||Texas||8||Tanner Price, David Ash, Trevone Boykin, Michael Cummings, Seth Doege, Nick Florence, James Franklin, Johnny Manziel|
|5.||Pennsylvania||4||CJ Brown, Ryan Nassib, Tino Sunseri, Matt McGloin|
|6t.||Georgia||3||Chandler Whitmer, Zach Mettenberger, Connor Shaw|
|6t.||Alabama||3||Tevin Washington, AJ McCarron, Jalen Whitlow|
|6t.||Missouri||3||Cameron Coffman, Nathan Scheelhaase, Jordan Webb|
|9t.||Colorado||2||Collin Klein, Kain Colter|
|9t.||Arizona||2||Sean Renfree, Brett Hundley|
|9t.||Arkansas||2||Tyler Wilson, Kiehl Frazier|
|9t.||Michigan||2||Andrew Maxwell, Brendon Kay|
|13t.||New Jersey||1||Gary Nova|
|13t.||New Mexico||1||Landry Jones|
|13t.||N. Carolina||1||Zach Maynard|
|13t.||S. Carolina||1||Everett Golson|
The college basketball season is rolling along as we’ve reached the halfway point to the Final Four.
If this week’s debate for the No. 1 team is any indication, the competition for the national title will be hotly contested. The top two teams in the polls -- undefeated Duke and Michigan -- lost during the weekend, opening the door for Louisville and Rick Pitino to be the Associated Press No. 1 team Monday. Five teams total, including Indiana, Duke, Kansas and Michigan, received first-place votes in the AP poll.
The season has had its share of surprises, including the lack of a clear top team in mid-January. Contrast that with last season: For the second half of the season in 2011-12, Kentucky was a near-unanimous No. 1 all the way to the title game.
This season has already proven to be more volatile, which lends itself to a wide range of surprises and disappointments.
Here are our picks for midseason surprises and disappointments in the first half of the basketball season and five key questions for the stretch run.
Related: Key college basketball stats from Jan. 7-13
FIVE MIDSEASON SURPRISES
Big Ten depth
In the preseason, Athlon projected six teams to reach the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten, and that may be conservative. Four Big Ten teams are among Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 (Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State), two more are in the top 20 (Wisconsin and Michigan State) and two more contenders (Iowa and Illinois) are in the top 50. If the last week was any indication -- with Ohio State handing Michigan its first loss, Wisconsin upsettiting Illinois, Indiana holding off a Minnesota rally in the second half, the Gophers trouncing Illinois -- the league will be anything but predictable. And just think: If Penn State’s Tim Frazier and Northwestern’s Drew Crawford remained healthy, the league would have even fewer easy outs.
Athlon projected the Ducks to finish ninth in the Pac-12 and miss the postseason. Granted, that was prior to Arsalan Kazemi’s transfer (8.2 points, 9.4 rebounds) and the emergence of freshman Damyean Dotson (Dominic Artis was considered the jewel of the signing class). At 14-2 and 3-0 in the Pac-12, Oregon is on pace for an NCAA Tournament bid after handing Arizona its first loss of the season Thursday.
At one point, the dismissal of Chrishawn Hopkins appeared to be a major blow to Butler’s first season in the Atlantic 10. Without Hopkins, Butler is still in the thick of a crowded A-10 race. The Bulldogs have won 11 in a row, including the upset of then-No. 1 Indiana on Dec. 15. The most difficult test this season may be a upcoming stretch from Jan. 19-31: Gonzaga, at La Salle, Temple, at Saint Louis.
Wyoming and Boise State
Our projections had four Mountain West teams in the NCAA Tournament, and all four remain on that course -- UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico. But the rise of Wyoming and Boise State could give the MWC as many as six NCAA Tournament teams. Wyoming went 6-8 in the league last season but was undefeated until Wednesday. The 14-game win streak was broken by a shorthanded Boise State team, which also defeated Creighton. Boise State suspended four players for the Wyoming game, including tops scorer Derrick Marks. Three of the suspended players will return to face New Mexico on Wednesday. Wyoming has an issue of its own with Luke Martinez (14.5 ppg) injured and then suspended after a bar brawl.
Adding junior college transfers can be a tricky practice in college basketball. Not all of them go on to be Marquette’s Jae Crowder, who was the Big East player of the year after transferring from junior college two seasons earlier. Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson may do the same in the SEC. He’s leading the league in scoring at 18.2 points per game and has helped make the Rebels an NCAA Tournament contender.
FIVE MIDSEASON DISAPPOINTMENTS
Kentucky’s drop-off is the most obvious disappointment in the SEC, but the down year is league-wide. As a whole, the SEC ranks eighth in the conference RPI, right in between the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley. The bottom of the league is more dreadful than was projected, but that’s not the most worrisome aspect of the league. After Florida and Missouri, the SEC has few NCAA Tournament contenders. After Saturday’s 83-71 loss to Texas A&M at home, Kentucky has the look of a bubble team. And teams like Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas -- all of whom were projected as Tournament teams -- look like anything but through the first weeks of the conference season.
The Tar Heels’ season is proof not even powerhouse programs can simply restock after losing four first-round draft picks. Despite a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans returning, North Carolina is limping into ACC play -- a win over Florida State on Saturday prevented the Tar Heels from starting 0-3 in the league. Roy Williams has a handful of challenges on his hands: James Michael McAdoo has not become the gamebreaker he was expected to be, though he’s still averaging 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Williams’ team collapsed late in its first two ACC losses, and the lineup has been in flux. A Tournament bid is not certain.
Rick Barnes has coached in the NCAA Tournament every season since 1996, going back to his second year at Clemson. That streak is in danger of ending this season. Texas lost 82-62 to Iowa State on Saturday, giving the Longhorns their second 20-point loss of the season. Keep in mind: Texas hadn’t lost a game by 20 points since 2005-06. Off to an 0-3 start in the Big 12 and with Kansas on Saturday, Texas might not be able to save its season by the time Myck Kabongo is eligible on Feb. 13.
Colonial Athletic Association
With VCU off to the Atlantic 10, the Colonial was poised for a dip, but few saw this coming. No CAA team has a record better than 9-7 (Northeastern and George Mason). League contenders Old Dominion (2-14) and Drexel (5-11) are having their worst seasons in several years. The Colonial is ranked 25th in league RPI, only one spot ahead of the Atlantic Sun and two spots ahead of the MEAC.
Before the season started, we wondered what kind of season North Texas’ Tony Mitchell, a projected NBA lottery pick, could have in the Sun Belt. The answer: Not all that different from a year ago. Mitchell is averaging 14.6 points and nine rebounds -- he averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in 2011-12. His efficiency numbers have plummeted from shooting 56.7 percent last season to 46.1 percent this year, and North Texas is struggling to remain competitive. Under first-year coach Tony Benford, the Mean Green are 7-11 overall and 2-5 in the Sun Belt and Mitchell's draft stock is sliding.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE SECOND HALF
Will Kentucky put it together?
Without a signature win, Kentucky was already on shaky footing going into last week. Then the Wildcats gave up 40 points to Elston Turner in an 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M, a team that lost to Southern on Dec. 22. Kentucky is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament only a year removed from the national title. John Calipari’s young team will need to put together a win streak in the coming weeks against Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and LSU to stay on the right side of the bubble.
How will any team win on the road in the Big Ten?
Here are the teams that have lost Big Ten conference games at home: Illinois, Iowa (twice), Nebraska, Northwestern (twice), Nebraska, Penn State (twice) and Purdue. Not a lot of Tournament teams in that group other than Illinois and perhaps Iowa.
How will Duke win without Ryan Kelly?
Duke is 1-3 in the last two seasons without Ryan Kelly, who missed his first game of the season with a foot injury in Saturday’s loss to NC State. Duke will need to find some way to replace the 6-foot-11 senior who will be out “indefinitely.” Amile Jefferson may have been the best fill-in (10 points in 12 minutes) before he fouled out against NC State. Duke’s injury problems could be further magnified if Seth Curry is playing through pain as the guard did late against the Wolfpack.
How will Syracuse adjust to the absence of James Southerland?
Syracuse defeated Villanova 72-61 in its first game without James Southerland, but it was an uneven performance at home. More concerning is that Syracuse may be without Southerland for Louisville (Saturday) and Cincinnati (Monday). The Orange’s third-leading scorer has been declared ineligible, and his return in is in question. The forward is a matchup problem with his ability to shoot from outside and a key spark off the bench.
How many bids will the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference receive?
Someone has to fill the spots in the NCAA Tournament, but will the committee opt for more questionable teams in the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC or more teams in the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference, all of which are deeper than they’ve been in recent seasons. Ole Miss or Boise State? Miami or Charlotte? Wyoming or Arizona State? This is going to be a good year for those blind resumes.
You can enjoy the thrill of competing for major championships or the FedExCup without suffering the embarrassment of topping your opening drive or missing a two-foot putt. It's Fantasy Golf 2013, a great way to follow your favorite players and piggyback off their success.
Here's a quick guide to the players you need to watch, and draft. Take this list to your draft table, then sit back and ride your players' coattails — or, more accurately, their stylish slacks and white belt — to Fantasy Golf glory.
League rules may vary, but just like in the actual game of golf, our listing gives extra weight to the major championships, so depending on your league, draft accordingly, and watch those field announcements for the lesser tournaments. Nothing worse than counting on Tiger and then realizing too late that he's bailed on the John Deere for the 18th year in a row.
World Ranking: 1
2012 Earnings (Rank): $8,047,952 (1st)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 6
He's established himself as the best golfer on the planet, and now that he has a multimillion-dollar Nike deal in his pocket, he's one of the richest athletes in history. The only question: How hungry is he? We think he's still pretty famished, especially from a major championship perspective; with two career majors, he has plenty of work to do to catch the reigning king.
World Ranking: 2
2012 Earnings (Rank): $6,133,158 (2nd)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 74
Hunger is not a question mark for Tiger. For the first time in the Woods era, there's a clear No. 1, and it's not him. Plus, there's that nagging major drought that is approaching five full years. Now that Tiger's the hunter, look for him to dig deep and try to knock Rory from the perch that he believes to be his birthright.
World Ranking: 3
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,512,024 (14th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 5
Donald's not a guy you bank on with a major on the line, but he's a fantasy stud, good for a win or two and plenty of money. Shy away from him at the bomber's layouts; his lack of power and his inconsistent tee-to-green game are detriments on long, tight courses.
World Ranking: 19
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,203,821 (8th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 40
The clock is ticking for Lefty, who at 42 doesn't have much time left to add significantly to his Hall of Fame resume. But you can take a win or two to the bank; since 1993, Mickelson has won at least once every year but two, and his last winless campaign came in 2003. He's also finished in the top 8 in earnings in 13 of the last 17 years. For a guy who's inconsistent from hole to hole, that's some remarkable consistency.
World Ranking: 5
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,290,930 (7th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 4
For stretches of 2012, Rose was the best golfer on the planet. He led the PGA and European Tours in greens in regulation, won a WGC event (the Cadillac), was a Ryder Cup stud and beat Tiger and Lee Westwood in Turkey at the end of the year. He has a run at No. 1 well within his grasp.
World Ranking: 13
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,393,820 (19th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 7
With a superstar WAG in tow (Wayne Gretzky's daughter Paulina), Johnson has capitalized on his limitless potential and attained superstardom. With his win at the season-opening Mercedes, Johnson has an active six-year streak of at least one win. Next step: a major championship. He's come close; watch him at the PGA, where breakthroughs often happen.
World Ranking: 12
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,910,658 (10th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 3
His on-course quirks — his cockeyed putt-reading, his slow play, his spitting (since curtailed) — haven't endeared him to his fellow competitors, but the guy can play. He led the Tour's All Around category in 2012, indicating a complete game that can win anywhere. He has a PGA and a WGC win on his career ledger; he'll add to that burgeoning resume in 2013.
World Ranking: 15
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,436,758 (17th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 3
It's easy to forget that the low-key, unflappable Simpson is the reigning U.S. Open champion, but he's on the cusp of elite status, and his iron play will put him in contention multiple times in 2013. He might even mount a successful Open title defense at Merion, whose tight fairways reward accuracy.
World Ranking: 8
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,989,739 (3rd)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 4
Sneds is the world's best putter, and that skill is fantasy gold. The reigning FedExCup champ erases countless mistakes with his flatstick and his magical short game. And how's this for a career trajectory: Snedeker has improved his spot on the money list every year since 2008, with a high of third in 2012. It's tough to get much higher — but still possible.
World Ranking: 4
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,460,995 (15th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 1
Oostie has the skills to be a multiple major winner this year. He has the best swing in golf, with effortless power and the ability to dominate an elite field.
World Ranking: 7
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,016,569 (24th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 2
Poor Westwood. The guy is a Colin Montgomerie for a new generation, contending at major after major only to fall short, kissing Ryder Cups while other players hoist the important individual trophies. He turns 40 this year, and he's moved to the States to make one final push to get over the hump. His suspect short game has been his Achilles heel and bumps him down a fantasy flight.
World Ranking: 6
2012 Earnings (Rank): $2,899,557 (25th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 8
Scott was primed to shed the major monkey until his late meltdown at the 2012 British Open. His transition from inept to acceptable on the greens has keyed his recent resurgence, but one has to wonder how the anchored putter's fall from grace will impact Scott's season. His ballstriking is as good as anyone's, so expect him to amass plenty of money.
World Ranking: 11
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,869,304 (4th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 2
Try these statistical nuggets on for size: Dufner made the fewest bogeys per round on Tour in 2012, and he finished the season riding an active streak of 21 cuts made. That, my friends, is the recipe for fantasy superstardom. His game has no apparent weaknesses; if he gets hot, he could vault up a flight or two.
World Ranking: 22
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,903,065 (11th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 4
Kooch does everything but win — he has only four career wins to show for a career that is seemingly decades old. But in fantasy, slow and steady can be good enough, and Kuchar's 29 top 10s in the last three years are impossible to ignore. A key win or two could open the floodgates.
World Ranking: 9
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,644,997 (5th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 4
Watson won The Masters and then promptly disappeared from view, making one wonder if that signature win was the start of something or merely a one-shot. His length and shotmaking skills are sufficient to put him in contention in any given week; the key to his fantasy longevity lies between his ears.
World Ranking: 14
2012 Earnings (Rank): $1,715,271 (45th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 2
The flamboyant, uber-confident Poulter was the star of the Ryder Cup, but we're not ready to anoint him a week-to-week threat just yet. His newfound consistency is impressive — he didn't miss a cut on either Tour, and he finished in the top 10 in three of the four majors — but he's still in the show-me stage, especially at majors.
World Ranking: 25
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,504,244 (6th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 9
Johnson had the third multiple-win season of his career in 2012, and you can expect more of the same in 2013. Like Snedeker, he makes his money on the greens, which means he can contend just about anywhere — even on the bomber's tracks.
World Ranking: 10
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,420,021 (18th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 12
Stricker has announced his intentions to fade into retirement, so monitor his schedule before slotting him into your fantasy lineup. But when he plays, he's a threat, thanks largely to his unmatched wedge game and streaky-hot putter. He's made the cut in his last 12 major appearances. His horrendous Ryder Cup does give us pause and knocks him down a flight.
World Ranking: 24
2012 Earnings (Rank): $3,453,118 (16th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 19
Els made the Hall of Fame last year, and he won a fourth major, so you have to wonder what's left. Still, don't underestimate the Big Easy's desire for that fifth major, which would be the second-most majors of the Tiger Woods era. His putter betrays him far too often, but he still has the tee-to-green game to contend.
World Ranking: 26
2012 Earnings (Rank): $4,019,193 (9th)
Career PGA Tour Wins: 5
Mahan grabbed his fourth and fifth career wins in 2012, and when he gets on a roll, he can be scary-good. But he disappears for long stretches as well. Try to catch the Mahan wave at the right time and ride it for as far as it goes.
Bo Van Pelt
ESPN catches a lot of heat for a lot of things — forced apologies, inconsistent treatment of talent, controlling the sports broadcasting market and, of course, its coverage of Tim Tebow. But much like the SEC is the best football conference because it has won seven straight national titles, there’s a reason ESPN has become the goliath that it is today.
They were the first and best in the business to do what they do. And it all started on Sept. 6, 1979 with the original run of their signature nightly sportscast that kept fans informed about what was happening in sports. This well before the eruption of the Internet, blog-o-sphere, social media or niche television networks.
For kids born in the early '80s (like myself), SportsCenter was as big a part of childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Fans could follow teams, stories and personalities from all over the nation in one place. But what took SportsCenter from also-ran cable network newscast to broadcasting behemoth was the creative, funny and unique personalities that delivered the sports news. To quote one truly epic newscaster, “I don’t know how to put this, but, I’m kind of a big deal.”
With that in mind, from the viewer's perspective, here are the Top 20 SportsCenter anchors of all-time:
1. Dan Patrick (1989-2006)
Not many jobs in any broadcasting field last for nearly 20 years and Patrick was the one of the best. Signature phrases "en fuego"(which actually started as "el fuego") and "The Whiff" helped grow the idea that SportsCenter was as much entertainment as it was news. He is also credited with the advent of the phrase “This is SportsCenter” which has been used in cross-promotion and advertising for nearly two decades. Not many sportscasters have 16 motion pictures and two national radio shows on their resume. Patrick has set the bar in the sports broadcasting industry.
2. Bob Ley (1979-present)
The classy stalwart has been with the network since its inception in 1979, making him one of (if not the) longest tenured ESPN employees in the building. Over the course of his prestigious career, Ley has claimed eight sports Emmys (Sports Journalism) and three Cable ACE awards (Sports Information Series) and has been the long-time host of the acclaimed investigative program Outside the Lines. He is credited with breaking the story of Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
3. Kenny Mayne (1994-present)
Few television personalities have ever had a dryer sense of humor than Mayne. The Washington native and junior college quarterback debuted on SportSmash in 1994 before moving over to the big network and developing into one of the funnier broadcasters in sports. His extensive and creative home runs calls in particular have withstood the test of time. He then developed “The Mayne Event” for NFL Sunday mornings and is still currently involved with his own feature “Wider World of Sports” as well as horse racing.
4. Keith Olbermann (1992-1997)
After a decade with CNN, Olbermann joined ESPN’s SportsCenter in 1992 quickly becoming a marquee personality. By 1995, he had won the Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. After things had soured internally at ESPN, and with an eye always toward the political spectrum, Olbermann left SportsCenter for MSNBC in 1997. He also worked for Fox Sports Net and NBC Nightly News. The cult-hit sitcom Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, is based on Olbermann’s time spent with Patrick on the set of SportsCenter. Despite his bizarre and eccentric personality, ESPN likely isn’t what it is today without the impact of the combination of Patrick and Olbermann.
5. Greg Gumbel (1979-1988)
There is little Mr. Gumbel has yet to accomplish in his illustrious broadcasting career. He has done play-by-play for the NCAA Tournament, NBA, MLB, Winter Olympics, college baseball and NFL. He has hosted shows about every sport on NBC and CBS as well as ABC. But it all started back in 1979 when he started his career at ESPN. He was a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man at a time when many doubted the future of SportsCenter. Gumbel’s no-nonsense approach has made him a model and iconic broadcaster who influenced generations of rising journalists and TV personalities.
6. Scott Van Pelt (2001-present)
The signature bald head of Van Pelt has become a staple of the ESPN television and radio broadcasts. He began working at the Golf Channel and has continued his work as one of the top host/analysts at all the major tournaments each season. Much like Patrick, Mayne and Olbermann, SVP’s comedic talents on SportsCenter helped him land an ESPN Radio gig as well as a variety of video game jobs (EA Sports).
7. Linda Cohn (1992-present)
In 1987, Cohn made her first big mark in the business by becoming the first full-time national female sports anchor in U.S. radio history. She has withstood the test of time, hosting SportsCenter for over 20 years. Along the way, she was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and given the Women’s Sports Journalism Award. She also authored her own biography and has paved the way for women everywhere to break into the sports broadcasting business — or, as she puts it, “The Boys’ Club.”
8. Rece Davis (1995-present)
Laurece “Rece” Davis graduated from Alabama in 1968 and worked his way to ESPN2 by 1995. The consummate professional, Davis can play both host and analyst roles as well as anyone in the business. His work on College Football Live, Gameday Final and College Gameday make him one of the best in the business. He is always gracious with his time and is one of the few who genuinely loves the sports he covers.
9. Robin Roberts (1990-2004)
The smooth-talking Roberts has been a staple of national television for over two decades. With quality catch-phrases and her up-tempo personality, Roberts developed into one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all-time. She won three Emmys for her work at ESPN and was given the Mel Greenberg Media Award in 2001. It eventually landed her on ABC’s signature morning program Good Morning America. Her very public bout (and victory) with cancer is just one reason millions have grown to love the Mississippi native.
10. Chris Berman (1979-present)
When he was good, few have ever been as entertaining and likable as Berman. Signature catch phrases and nicknames made him one of the preeminent SportsCenter anchors during the time of biggest growth for ESPN. His work on NFL Primetime and the Home Run Derby makes him one of the most distinctive personalities in ESPN history. However, his longevity might be his biggest weakness as 30 years in the business has left his shtick a bit stale. At his best (the '90s), he was one of the greats. And at his worst (the '00s), he can be nails on a chalkboard.
11. Brian Kenny (1997-2011)
A baseball and boxing junkie, Kenny won an Emmy at ESPN and was named the network’s Volunteer of the Year in 2007. He also was named SI’s Media Personality of the Year in 2004 and Boxing Broadcaster of the Year in 2005.
12. John Anderson (1999-present)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious journalism departments in the nation at Missouri, Anderson has been one of the best new generation anchors at ESPN. He won the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year in 2012 and has crossed over into mainstream as the co-host of ABC's Wipeout.
13. Craig Kilborn (1993-1996)
Many give credit to Kilborn, Patrick and Olbermann for bringing comedy to the SportsCenter set. He went on to host The Daily Show on Comedy Central and The Late, Late Show on CBS. He also famously appeared in Old School.
14. John Buccigross (1996-present)
The hockey aficionado has won Emmys for his work on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight as well as NHL Tonight. He has written for the Web site (as well as a book) and hosted for ESPN for nearly 20 years.
15. Dave Revsine (1999-2007)
An even-keel broadcaster is as professional as they come. A Northwestern grad, Revsine hosted a variety of shows for ESPN and did play-by-play. In 2007, he left ESPN to become the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network when the channel launched.
16. Charley Steiner (1987-2001)
The jolly, bearded anchor always seemed to have a good time on the air and always seemed to be involved in the funnier SC moments (Carl Lewis?). He eventually worked his way onto ESPN’s national baseball radio broadcasts as well before moving on to the Yankees' radio team in 2002.
17. Steve Levy (1993-present)
A quality and likable broadcaster, Levy has been around the SportsCenter desk for two decades. His famous “bulging disk” slip-up is one of the all-time great moments in ESPN history. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Overtime” for his work as a hockey broadcaster.
18. Neil Everett (2000-present)
The West Coaster worked at Hawaii Pacific University for 15 years before getting back into broadcasting. His signature deep, gravelly voice and Island vocabulary makes him one of the better “new” anchors.
19. Rich Eisen (1996-2003)
The affable NFL Network lead host began his broadcasting career at KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. He landed at ESPN in 1996 and built a name for himself with baseball impersonations and quality reporting. His podcast (The Rich Eisen Podcast) is one of the most listened to on the Web (over 7 mill. downloads).
20. Kevin Frazier (2002-2004)
His time was brief at ESPN, but “K-Fray” has long been one of the business’ most respected personalities. He is now the host of The Insider as well as college football coverage on FX and Fox.
Best of the Rest:
Steve Berthiaume (2000-2006, 2007-2012)
Trey Wingo (1997-present)
Lindsay Czarniak (2011-present)
Mike Tirico (1991-1997)
Tim Brando (1986-1994)
Suzy Kolber (1993-1996, 1999-present)
Bill Pidto (1993-2008)
Hannah Storm (2008-present)
Chris Fowler (1989-1993)
Sage Steele (2007-present)
With college football’s 2012 season in the books, it’s never too early to start thinking about 2013.
The Big East has gone through a lot of changes since 2011 and more shuffling is expected in the next year.
With Syracuse and Pittsburgh joining the ACC, the Big East will welcome four teams from Conference USA – Memphis, Houston, SMU and UCF – into the fold for 2013. UCF will be the top contender out of the new Big East teams and could push for a spot among the top three in the final standings.
After finishing 2012 with a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida, Louisville is a clear favorite to win the Big East in 2013. The Cardinals return a Heisman contender at quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) and could make a run at the national championship with a favorable schedule.
Very Early Big East Predictions for 2013
Key Returnees: QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Senorise Perry, WR DeVante Parker, WR Eli Rogers, RG Jake Smith, DE Lorenzo Mauldin, DT Roy Philon, LB Preston Brown, LB Keith Brown, S Hakeem Smith, S Calvin Pryor
Key Departures: LT Alex Kupper, C Mario Benavides, CB Adrian Bushell
Coming off a Sugar Bowl victory against Florida, Louisville enters 2013 with momentum on its side. The Cardinals will be a heavy favorite to win the Big East and returns most of its core from 2012’s 11-2 team. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater should make a run at All-American and Heisman honors, while the return of Senorise Perry should boost the team’s rushing attack. Finding replacements for center Mario Benavides and tackle Alex Kupper will be the top priority for offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. The defense loses only one starter (cornerback Adrian Bushell), so improvement can be expected from a unit that allowed 23.8 points a game in 2012. With the Big East losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh and gaining SMU, UCF, Houston and Memphis, Louisville’s path to an unbeaten record is favorable.
Key Returnees: QB Brendon Kay, RB Ralph David Abernathy IV, WR Anthony McClung, LT Eric Lefeld, LG Austen Bujnoch, DT Jordan Stepp, DT Camaron Beard, LB Nick Temple, LB Greg Blair
Key Departures: RB George Winn, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, TE Travis Kelce, DE Dan Giordano, DE Brandon Mills, LB Maalik Bomar, CB Camerron Cheatham, S Drew Frey
There’s no question Louisville is the No. 1 team in the Big East for next season. As for second place? Well, that’s anyone’s guess at this point. For now, a slight edge goes to Cincinnati. There will be a coaching transition from Butch Jones to Tommy Tuberville, but the Bearcats bring back quarterback Brendon Kay and all five starters on the offensive line. Running back Ralph David Abernathy IV should have a bigger role in the offense next season, especially as Cincinnati looks to replace 1,000-yard rusher George Winn. The Bearcats finished second in the Big East in scoring defense in 2012 but must replace ends Brandon Mills and Dan Giordano, linebacker Maalik Bomar and couple of key contributors in the secondary. Tuberville is a proven winner and should keep Cincinnati among the best in the Big East in 2013.
Key Returnees: QB Gary Nova, RB Savon Huggins, WR Brandon Coleman, LT Kaleb Johnson, LG Antwan Lowery, DT Jamil Merrell, LB Jamal Merrell, SS Lorenzo Waters
Key Departures: RB Jawan Jamison, WR Mark Harrison, WR Tim Wright, RT R.J. Dill, DE Ka’Lial Glaud, DT Scott Vallone, LB Khaseem Greene, LB Steve Beauharnais, CB Logan Ryan, CB Marcus Cooper, S Duron Harmon
The Scarlet Knights started 2012 with a lot of promise but finished on a down note. After opening 9-1, Rutgers lost its final three games, including a de facto Big East title game against Louisville. The defense allowed just 14.2 points a game but must replace standouts in linebacker Khaseem Greene, cornerback Logan Ryan and defensive lineman Scott Vallone. With the defense reloading, coach Kyle Flood and his staff need to find a way to jumpstart the offense. Running back Jawan Jamison left early for the NFL, but Savon Huggins is capable of picking up the slack on the ground next year. Quarterback Gary Nova threw 13 interceptions in the final seven games and with the losses on defense, he will be counted on for a bigger role in 2013. Rutgers isn’t short on talent, but is Flood and his staff capable of finding the right answers for this team next year?
Key Returnees: QB Blake Bortles, RB Storm Johnson, WR Rannell Hall, WR J.J. Worton, WR Jeff Godfrey, LT Torrian Wilson, LG Jordan McCray, DE Victor Gray, DE Deion Green, DT Thomas Niles, DT E.J. Dunston, LB Terrance Plummer, CB Brandon Alexander, SS Clayton Geathers
Key Departures: RB Latavius Murray, WR Quincy McDuffie, C Jordan Rae, RT Phil Smith, DE Troy Davis, LB Jonathan Davis, LB Ray Shipman, CB A.J. Bouye, S Kemal Ishmael
The Knights are the first of the new Big East teams to factor in the preseason predictions for 2013. Making the move from Conference USA is a step up in competition, but UCF returns most of its core and its four losses from 2012 came against good competition – Ohio State, Missouri and Tulsa (twice). Quarterback Blake Bortles threw for 3,059 yards and 25 scores in his first full season as the starter and will be joined by Miami transfer Storm Johnson in the backfield. The Knights also return their top three receivers and second-team All-Conference USA left tackle Torrian Wilson on the offensive line. The defense loses a couple of key players but shouldn’t suffer a huge drop in performance. UCF has upside, so this team could easily surpass Rutgers and Cincinnati for the second spot in the Big East in 2013.
5. South Florida
Key Returnees: WR Andre Davis, WR Terrence Mitchell, C Austin Reiter, RT Quinterrius Eatmon, DE Ryne Giddins, DE Tevin Mims, DT Elkino Watson, LB DeDe Lattimore, LB Reshard Cliett, FS Mark Joyce, SS JaQuez Jenkins
Key Departures: QB B.J. Daniels, RB Demetris Murray, OL Mark Popek, DT Cory Grissom, LB Sam Barrington, LB Michael Lanaris, CB Kayvon Webster
Even though the Bulls are coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons, they could be the Big East’s surprise team in 2013. New coach Willie Taggart was one of the offseason’s best hires and should work a quick turnaround in Tampa. Taggart’s background on offense will help spark an attack that averaged just 20.6 points a game in 2012. However, the Bulls need to break in a new quarterback, as well as find a running back that can handle 20-25 carries a game. The defense ranked a disappointing seventh in the Big East in yards and points allowed but returns most of its starting core. With question marks on offense, expect South Florida to lean on its defense early in the year to win games.
Key Returnees: QB Chandler Whitmer, RB Lyle McCombs, WR Geremy Davis, WR Shakim Phillips, DE Angelo Pruitt, DT Shamar Stephen, LB Yawin Smallwood, S Byron Jones, S Ty-Meer Brown
Key Departures: WR Michael Smith, WR Nick Williams, TE Ryan Griffin, OG Adam Masters, DE Trevardo Williams, DT Ryan Wirth, LB Sio Moore, LB Jory Johnson, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Dwayne Gratz
After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni will be on the hot seat entering 2013. Pasqualoni probably needs to get to a bowl game to save his job, but that task won’t be easy with heavy personnel losses. The offense has ranked among the worst in college football over the last two years and fixing this unit largely rests with finding answers on the offensive line. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer showed some promise but has to cut down on the interceptions (16). The Huskies led the Big East in total defense but loses two first-team All-Big East selections and both starting cornerbacks. Unless the offense makes major strides, it’s hard to see Connecticut getting bowl eligible in 2013.
Key Returnees: QB David Piland, RB Charles Sims, RB Kenneth Farrow, WR Dewayne Peace, WR Deontay Greenberry, WR Larry McDuffey, LT Rowdy Harper, C Bryce Redman, DE Zeke Riser, DT Joey Mbu, LB Derrick Matthews, CB Zach McMillian, FS Trevon Stewart, SS Kent Brooks
Key Departures: RG Jacolby Ashworth, DE Lloyd Allen, LB Phillip Steward, LB Everett Daniels
The last few spots in the early Big East power rankings are really a tossup at this point. Here’s the good news for Houston: Nearly all of its starting lineup from 2012 returns for 2013. However, the Cougars went 5-7 last year and ranked near the bottom of college football in total defense. And there’s also plenty of doubt surrounding coach Tony Levine and whether or not he can pickup where Kevin Sumlin left off. Add all of those factors in and it’s easy to see why Houston will be picked near the bottom of the Big East in 2013. The offense averaged 479.6 yards a game but lost 35 turnovers and struggled to get consistency from quarterback David Piland. The defense will be the under the direction of a new coordinator, who will be tasked to find immediate improvement after the Cougars allowed 36 points a game in 2012.
Key Returnees: QB Chris Coyer, QB Juice Granger, WR Jalen Fitzpatrick, TE Cody Booth, LT Zach Hooks, LG Jeff Whittingham, NT Hershey Walton, NT Levi Brown, LB Tyler Matakevich, LB Nate D. Smith, CB Anthony Robey, CB Zamel Johnson
Key Departures: RB Montel Harris, RB Matt Brown, RT Martin Wallace, DE John Youboty, DE Marcus Green, FS Vaughn Carraway, SS Justin Gildea, K/P Brandon McManus
Steve Addazio left for Boston College, so Temple turned to a familiar face for its next head coach. Matt Rhule returns to Philadelphia after one year in the NFL, and the former Penn State linebacker will have his hands full in 2013. The Owls averaged only 322 yards a game in 2012 and must replace running backs Montel Harris and Matt Brown. Quarterback Chris Coyer was benched in favor of Juice Granger late in the year, and both will compete for the starting job in the spring. The Owls were young in some spots on defense last season and allowed 31.2 points a game. The linebacking corps is the strength, especially with Tyler Matakevich and Nate D. Smith returning after standout freshman campaigns.
Key Returnees: QB Garrett Gilbert, WR Jeremy Johnson, WR Der’rikk Thompson, LT Ben Gottschalk, LB Randall Joyner, LB Stephon Sanders, CB Kenneth Acker, CB Chris Parks, S Jay Scott
Key Departures: RB Zach Line, WR Darius Johnson, LG Jordan Free, RT Bryan Collins, DE Margus Hunt, NT Torian Pittman, LB Ja’Gared Davis, LB Taylor Reed
The Mustangs haven’t quite made the jump most expected when June Jones arrived in Dallas, yet have made four consecutive bowl appearances and have at least seven victories in each of their last four seasons. SMU could be a bowl team once again in 2012, but this team has some significant holes to address. Running back Zach Line (4,185 career yards) is gone, and quarterback Garrett Gilbert never got comfortable as a passer in Jones’ offense. Gilbert is back and will have plenty of help at receiver, but SMU loses three starters on the line. In addition to the question marks on offense, the Mustangs must replace impact defenders like end Margus Hunt and linebackers Ja’Gared Davis and Taylor Reed.
Key Returnees: QB Jacob Karam, RB Brandon Hayes, RB Jai Steib, WR Keiwone Malone, TE Alan Cross, RT Al Bond, DE Martin Ifedi, NT Johnnie Farms, NT Terry Redden, LB Anthony Brown, LB Charles Harris, LB Tank Jakes, SS Lonnie Ballentine, P Tom Hornsey
Key Departures: WR Marcus Rucker, LT Jordan Devey, LB Akeem Davis, CB Robert Steeples, S Cannon Smith
Behind second-year coach Justin Fuente, there’s no doubt Memphis is on the right track. The Tigers closed 2012 on a three-game winning streak and showcased a much-improved defense by finishing third in Conference USA in yards allowed. The offense still has a ways to go, but quarterback Jacob Karam and running backs Jai Steib and Brandon Hayes are back in 2013. The Tigers lose only five starters off the defensive two-deep and returns three of its top four tacklers from 2012. Expect more improvement from Memphis in 2013, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers escape the basement in the Big East.
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NFL football is the greatest reality TV program of all time. The Giants and Colts made sure of that back in 1958. Each NFL fall weekend is a completely new and original experience for every player, fan and coach alike. New stories, new personalities, new winners and new losers. And new statistics.
Here are the most important, most intriguing and most bizarre statistics from the NFL Divisonal Playoff games:
181: Rushing yards by Colin Kaepernick, the most ever by a quarterback in an NFL game
Playoff jitters? What playoff jitters? Kaepernick rose to the occasion and then some Saturday night against Green Bay in his first career playoff game, gashing the Packers for 181 yards on 16 carries (11.3 ypc) and two touchdowns in the 49ers’ 45-31 win. The second-year signal caller out of Nevada set a new rushing standard for NFL quarterbacks, breaking Michael Vick’s previous single-game record of 173 from 2002. And he did this in his first-ever playoff game! Kaepernick also did plenty of damage with his arm, as he passed for 263 yards and two scores. As a team, the 49ers piled up 579 yards of offense, the most they’ve ever gained in a playoff game, including 323 yards rushing.
17: Career postseason victories for Tom Brady, the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history
With New England’s 41-28 victory over Houston in the AFC Divisional round on Sunday, Brady passed Joe Montana for the most playoff victories by a starting quarterback. Brady upped his career postseason record to 17-6 (.739), with Montana now in second place at 16-7 (.696). Brady was his usual, solid self against the Texans, completing 25-of-40 passes for 344 yards, three touchdowns, and most importantly, zero turnovers. With a rematch against Baltimore in next Sunday’s AFC Championship game now lined up, Brady is on the verge of laying claim to every major quarterbacking postseason record. Already the record holder for career playoff completions (524 and counting), Brady is currently fourth in passing yards with 5,629, needing just 227 more to pass Peyton Manning (5,679), Montana (5,772) and Brett Favre (5,855) for the all-time lead. Brady also has 41 career postseason touchdowns, trailing only Favre (44) and Montana (45) in that category. Chances are, however, the only record Brady is concerning himself with is his 0-2 mark in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl appearances. No doubt Brady’s focus won’t be on his own statistics, but rather on beating the Ravens to get another shot at that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring, which would tie Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history.
254: Career regular-season games played by Tony Gonzalez before experiencing his first playoff win
Seattle certainly didn’t make things easy, but Gonzalez and his Atlanta teammates got the job done with the Hall of Fame tight end setting up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 49-yard field goal. When Russell Wilson’s Hail Mary attempt landed in Julio Jones’ (helping out on defense for the final play) hands with no time left on the clock, sealing the Falcons’ 30-28 win, the long wait for Gonzalez was finally over. It took 254 regular-season games and five previous playoff losses in his illustrious 16-year career, but he finally was able to enjoy and experience victory in the postseason. While Gonzalez’ postseason drought was the longest among active players, four other Falcon teammates had played in 100 or more career regular-season games without a playoff victory as well. Bryant (147 games, 0-5 in postseason prior), cornerback Dunta Robinson (131, 0-2), wide receiver Roddy White (128, 0-3), and offensive lineman Tyson Clabo (100, 0-3) all had gone more than six regular seasons’ worth of games before experiencing success in the postseason. And there’s also their field general, quarterback Matt Ryan, who got his own playoff monkey off of his back (as did head coach Mike Smith) by getting his first postseason win in his five-year career. Ryan, who had been 0-3 in the playoffs, led the Falcons to a 20-0 halftime lead, only to watch helplessly as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks clawed their way back, taking their first lead of the game on a Marshawn Lynch two-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds remaining. Ryan took over from there, moving the Falcons from their own 28 into field goal territory with two completions in 18 seconds and two timeouts. Fittingly, the last completion from Ryan was a 19-yard hook up with Gonzalez, who then stepped aside for Bryant, who sent Falcons’ fans and teammates all home extremely happy, if not relieved. For what it’s worth, the player who now holds the longest active streak for most career regular-season games played without a playoff victory is Denver strong safety Mike Adams. He has played in 130 career regular-season games and got his first taste of postseason action on Saturday, and left the field on the short end of a 38-35 double overtime thriller.
385: Yards passing for Russell Wilson, an NFL rookie and Seattle franchise record for a playoff game
One of the great careers of all-time will continue for at least one more weekend. Ray Lewis was lost for the remainder of the regular season in Week 6 to a serious left arm injury. The Ravens were 5-1 in the first six weeks before finishing the season 5-5 without their defensive leader. He returned to the field this weekend and played just as big a role on the field as he did in the locker room, finishing with 13 total tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass deflected. The Baltimore defense, which had been reeling the last month of the season, held the Colts' offense scoreless on three trips into the red zone, forced two key turnovers and didn't allow a touchdown all game long. Lewis and Company now head to the Rocky Mountains to battle long-time AFC rival Peyton Manning.
120.0: Joe Flacco’s passer rating in the playoffs
Flacco ran his career playoff record to 7-4 (.636) on the strength of his best postseason performance in leading Baltimore to a come-from-behind, heart-stopping 38-35 win in double overtime over Denver. Flacco, who threw for a career-high 3,817 yards in the regular season with an 87.7 passer rating, has taken his game to another level in the playoffs. In wins over Indianapolis and Denver, Flacco has completed 30-of-57 passes for 613 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Against the Broncos, Flacco didn’t hesitate to throw it deep, as he connected with Torrey Smith on scoring strikes of 59 and 32 yards to set up the most improbable score of the entire game. Trailing 35-28 with 31 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts, Flacco dropped back on third-and-3 from the Ravens’ 30-yard line and found Jacoby Jones down the sideline for a game-tying 70-yard touchdown that made what had been a raucous home crowd for most of the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High go into a stunned silence. The Ravens finished the job early in the second overtime period after picking off Peyton Manning, but wouldn’t have even been in that position had it not been for Flacco’s career performance. Next up for Flacco and the Ravens is a rematch in New England in the AFC Championship game. Last year, then-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left, as the Ravens lost 23-20 in gut-wrenching fashion.
12:12: Peyton Manning’s career touchdown-to-interception ratio in his 11 playoff losses
The future Hall of Fame quarterback suffered another crushing postseason loss on Saturday, as his interception late in the first overtime period set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning 47-yard field goal with 13:18 left in double overtime. Manning struggled with his accuracy and connecting with his receivers all game long, as he completed 28-of-43 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The loss dropped Manning’s career postseason record to 9-11 (.450). Overall, Manning has thrown 32 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in the postseason, and not surprisingly his numbers are much better in his wins (20:9 TD-to-INT ratio) than his losses (12:12). Given all that Manning overcame and accomplished in his return from missing all of last season, you certainly hope this will not be the final chapter of his postseason legacy.
248: NFL playoff record return yards by Trindon Holliday
Even though Denver lost a heartbreaker to Baltimore in double overtime, it was a game for the history books for Holliday, the Broncos’ kick returner. His first record came on Denver’s opening possession as he returned a Sam Koch punt 90 yards for the first score of the game. Then Holliday took the opening second-half kickoff 104 yards to the end zone, giving him the records for longest punt and kickoff return for touchdowns in playoff history, as well as becoming the first ever to have one of each in the same game. Holliday’s scores were also the first special teams touchdowns allowed by the Ravens all season. All told, Holliday’s 248 yards on six returns (three kickoffs, three punts) topped Desmond Howard’s 244 when he was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 for the most return yards in a postseason game. On another note, this also represented the first loss experienced by Holliday all season. After starting the season with Houston, who won its first five games, Holliday was released and picked up by Denver prior to the Broncos’ Week 6 contest. Denver won that game, went on bye next week and then reeled off 10 more wins, giving Holliday a 16-0 record headed into Saturday’s game against Baltimore.
With 347 Division I teams, following college basketball can be overwhelming. Let Athlon Sports start your college hoops week each Monday with a look at some of the most intriguing, most important and most interesting stats from around the sport:
4: Undefeated teams to fall since Wednesday
The fraternity of undefeated teams collapsed in a span of five days: Wyoming lost 63-61 to Boise State on Wednesday, Arizona lost 70-66 to Oregon on Thursday, Duke lost 84-76 to NC State on Saturday, and Michigan lost 56-53 to Ohio State on Sunday. With the exception of Wyoming, all suffered their first losses on the road.
7: Consecutive missed three-pointers from Michigan down the stretch
Michigan trailed by as many as 21 to Ohio State, but the Wolverines eroded the Buckeyes' lead throughout the second half until Glenn Robinson III hit a three-pointer in the final six minutes to tie the game at 46. That, however, was too good to last. Michigan missed its next seven three-pointers before, including a potential go-ahead shot from Trey Burke in the final 14 seconds that rimmed out. Michigan finished the game 6 of 20 from three-point range.
40: Points by Elston Turner against Kentucky in Rupp Arena
Johnny Manziel isn’t the only Aggie lighting up defending national champions in front of their own fans. Texas A&M guard Elston Turner scored 40 points on Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the Aggies’ 83-71 win. The outburst for Turner, whose previous career high was 26 points, handed John Calipari his first home SEC loss as Kentucky’s coach. Turner became the third opponent to score 40 points at Rupp Arena joining Navy’s David Robinson in 1987 and LSU’s Chris Jackson in 1990.
1-3: Duke’s record the last two seasons without Ryan Kelly
Other Duke players may receive more headlines, but Ryan Kelly has a case to be the Blue Devils most valuable player. Duke is 1-3 without its 6-foot-11 senior since the end of last season, the latest an 84-76 loss to NC State on Saturday with Kelly on the bench with a foot injury. The Wolfpack frontcourt flourished without Kelly in the lineup: C.J. Leslie finished with 25 points and six rebounds, Richard Howell had 16 points and 18 boards. Duke’s lineup was further depleted as forward Amile Jefferson and guards Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook fouled out. Seth Curry, who hit key shots to keep Duke within striking distance in the second half suffered an ankle injury late in the game. Kelly’s return is uncertain, but Duke needs him back quickly. Last season without Kelly, Duke lost to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals and to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament.
10: Starters scoring in double figures in Indiana’s 88-81 win over Minnesota
A strange sight for a game settled in regulation: Every starter in Indiana’s 88-81 win over Minnesota scored at least 11 points. The Hoosiers starting lineup alone went 27 of 45 from the field: Victor Oladipo (20 points, 8 of 10), Jordan Hulls (19 points, 4 of 8), Cody Zeller (18 points, 6 of 8), Christian Watford (15 points, 4 of 11) and Yogi Ferrell (13 points, 5 of 8). The Hoosiers’ bench, though, was a non-factor, going 0 of 8 from the floor with three points. The Gophers’ scorers, led by Andre Hollins’ 25 points, chipped away at a 23-point halftime deficit before coming up short.
41: Rebounds for North Carolina against Florida State
The Tar Heels avoided an 0-3 start in the ACC by dominating the glass in a 77-72 win over Florida State on Saturday. North Carolina grabbed 41 rebounds to Florida State’s 19, taking control on both sides of the court. The Tar Heels grabbed 19 offensive rebounds on their 31 missed field goals and 22 defensive rebounds on Florida State’s 26 missed field goals.
104: Big 12 games since Texas lost by 20 in a conference game
The Longhorns’ woes this season continued with an 82-62 loss at Iowa State on Saturday, Texas’ first 20-point loss in a Big 12 game since losing 81-60 to Oklahoma State on Feb. 10, 2006. Saturday’s loss to the Cyclones was Texas’ second 20-point loss of the season, joining a 64-41 defeat to Georgetown on Dec. 4. That 2005-06 Texas team also had two 20-point losses that season (a 31-point loss to Duke was the other), but that Longhorns team won 30 games and reached the Elite Eight. That seems unlikely for the 2012-13 squad, which is off to an 0-3 start in the Big 12.
5 of 38: Illinois from three-point range in two losses last week
Why have things gone sour for Illinois in the last week? The quick answer is three-point shooting. Illinois went 5 of 38 (13.2 percent) from long range in the 84-67 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday (3 of 24) and the 74-51 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday (2 of 14). Before the two losses, Illinois had been making 36.5 percent of its three-point shots.
The Houston Texans make their second trip to Foxboro, Mass., in a little more than a month to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS. Coming off of their Wild Card win over Cincinnati, Houston is hoping things go much better at Gillette Stadium this time than they did back on Dec. 10 when New England thoroughly dominated the Texans 42-14 on “Monday Night Football” to close out Week 14. Even though the Patriots would have their 20-game home winning streak in December come to an end the following week with a loss to the 49ers, the Texans are well aware that they have their work cut out for them. Tom Brady is 16-6 overall in the playoffs in his career, including a 10-2 mark at home.
When the Houston Texans have the ball:
Houston’s offense was one of the league’s top 10 units during the regular season and it primarily revolves around one player – running back Arian Foster. The NFL’s leading rusher in 2010, Foster led the league during the regular season in carries (351), rushing (15) and total touchdowns (17), and was sixth in rushing yards with 1,424. The Texans are 8-0 overall when Foster rushes for 100 or more yards, including last Saturday’s Wild Card win over the Bengals. In that game, Foster had 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, bringing his career postseason rushing total to 425 yards in three games. That’s the most rushing yards of any player in NFL history in his first three playoff games, and it’s just one more reason why Foster must produce against New England if the Texans have any hope of pulling the upset. In the disappointing regular-season loss to the Patriots in Week 14, Foster had just 46 yards rushing on 15 carries. Foster’s importance does not mean the Texans aren’t capable of passing the ball, it’s just that the running game helps set up play-action and other options downfield for quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub posted his third 4,000-yard campaign of his career this season and was voted in as a reserve on the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster, but he struggled somewhat to close things out. Over his last five games, including last week’s win against the Bengals, Schaub has thrown just one touchdown pass and four interceptions. One of those picks came in the loss to New England, a game in which he completed only 19-of-32 passes for 232 yards. This also is Schaub’s first career playoff road game and just second overall, as he missed the playoffs last season due to injury. New England’s defense has been susceptible to the pass, so if the Texans are to do much damage through the air they will need a big game from Schaub’s favorite target, fellow Pro Bowl representative Andre Johnson. The big wide receiver posted a career-high 1,598 yards, good for second in the league, while hauling in 112 receptions (fourth). The Texans’ offensive line, which features Pro Bowlers in tackle Duane Brown (starter), guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers (reserves), has done its job in both run-blocking and pass protection this season, as Schaub was not sacked even one time last week against the Bengals. Like the Patriots, the Texans also practice and preach ball security, as the team has turned it over just two more times than the Patriots (18 to 16), albeit in one more game, including just four fumbles.
New England’s defense may have finished the regular season ranked near the bottom of the league in both total and passing defense, but this unit ended the season on a high note. The Patriots shutout the Dolphins 28-0 to close things out and with the exception of a 41-34 loss to the 49ers in Week 15, the defense allowed 19 or fewer points in five of the past six games. This stretch includes New England’s Week 14 victory against Houston, a game in which they held the Texans to 323 yards and just 14 points. For all their troubles against the pass (271.4 ypg, 29th), the Patriots were pretty strong versus the run, ranking ninth (101.9 ypg) in that category. The run defense and the unit’s ability to create turnovers are two big reasons why the Patriots ended up tied with the Texans in scoring defense at 20.7 points per game (ninth in the NFL). The Patriots forced 41 turnovers during the regular season, a total that ranks them second only to the Bears (44), and includes an NFL-high 21 recovered fumbles. Besides using the turnovers to give the ball back to the Patriots’ high-powered offense, the defense and special teams combined to contribute seven touchdowns (five defensive, two special teams) in the scoring column during the regular season.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
New England’s offense finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in both yards gained (427.9) and points (34.8). This is not surprising considering quarterback Tom Brady finished fourth in passing yards (4,827) and touchdown passes (34) and sixth in passer rating (98.7). Brady had the fourth-most passing attempts (627) of any quarterback, but he threw just eight interceptions. Brady posted all of these numbers while having to deal with injuries to several of his weapons, most notably tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They are both back healthy and combine with wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd to form a dangerous quartet of pass-catchers that Houston’s defense must account for. And they aren’t even all of the weapons that New England has. For example, Gronkowski missed the first game against the Texans because of a forearm injury, but Brady and company still made things look pretty easy. The Patriots jumped out to a 28-0 lead on the strength of four Brady touchdown passes, two of those to Hernandez. New England’s passing success aside, what makes Brady even more dangerous is the production he’s gotten from the running game this season. The Patriots rushed for more yards during the regular season than the Texans, finishing one spot ahead of them at seventh in the league with 136.5 yards per game. Running back Stevan Ridley was one spot behind his Texans’ counterpart Arian Foster in the rushing rankings, as Ridley posted 1,263 yards and did so with 61 fewer carries (290 to 351) than Foster got. Ridley also contributed 12 rushing touchdowns to the Patriots’ league-leading point total. The offensive line surrendered only 27 sacks during the regular season, tied for the second-fewest in the AFC, and this type of pass protection will be key against the Texans once again. The Patriots also don’t beat themselves very often, turning it over just 16 times, the fewest self-inflicted miscues in the AFC.
Houston’s defense struggled somewhat to finish out the regular season, but the unit righted the ship with an impressive performance last week against Cincinnati. The Texans held the Bengals to 198 yards of offense, including just 80 on the ground, and the defense gave up only two field goals (Cincinnati’s only TD came on a Leon Hall INT return) in the 19-13 win. The Texans held Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to just 14-of-30 passing for 127 yards and an interception and also sacked him twice. The defense will need a similar, if not better, performance against Tom Brady if it wants to try and slow down New England’s high-powered offense. The first time these two teams met in Week 15, Brady lit up the Texans for four touchdown passes and 296 yards passing in the easy 42-14 win. Houston finished the regular season with 44 sacks, but only managed one against Brady back in December. The Texans’ pressure and ability to deflect passes will be key in the rematch. Consider this: Defensive end J.J. Watt led the league in sacks (20.5), batted passes (16) and tackles for loss (24.5) in the regular season, and he also picked up one of each in the Texans’ Wild Card win. The only game so far in which he has not recorded at least one of these three disruptive plays? Houston’s Week 14 loss in New England, of course.
No matter how you look at it, Houston laid an absolute egg back on Dec. 10 when the Texans were thoroughly out-played by New England. That 42-14 loss to the Patriots on “Monday Night Football” started the Texans’ late-season slide that saw them lose three out of their final four games and drop from the top seed in the AFC playoffs to having to play Cincinnati in the Wild Card round. The Texans took care of business at home, beating the Bengals 19-13, and now have a chance to exact some revenge against the Patriots. The problem is Houston is still looking for its first-ever road playoff victory and is faced with the task of accomplishing this in New England. The Patriots have been near unbeatable at home in December and January during Tom Brady’s tenure. Brady will pass Joe Montana for most career postseason wins with his next one, while Matt Schaub is making just his second career playoff start period. I fully expect the Texans to put up much more of a fight in this one compared to the first meeting, but this is a team that is still learning how to win in the postseason, while the Patriots have pretty much written the book over the past decade (their last two Super Bowl appearances notwithstanding).
Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 24
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
The Seattle Seahawks bring their road show to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Divisional Playoff showdown that kicks off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. In beating Washington 24-14 in last Sunday’s Wild Card matchup, the Seahawks have already accomplished something the Falcons haven’t since 2004 – win a postseason game. The Falcons, champions of the NFC South and who tied the Broncos with 13 wins in the regular season are no stranger to having success in the months of September through December. In five seasons under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 56-24 overall. The problem has been when the calendar turns to January, as they are 0-3 in the playoffs. In its last two playoff losses alone, Atlanta has been out-scored 72-23, including a 48-21 home loss to Green Bay in the Divisional round two seasons ago.
When the Seattle Seahawks have the ball:
After struggling out of the game somewhat last week against Washington, Seattle’s offense stuck to the script it has followed all season long in its Wild Card win over the Redskins – run the ball early and often and take shots down the field when they become available. The Seahawks finished with the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense in the regular season, a ground game that averaged more than 161 yards per game. The offense took it to another level last Sunday, gashing the Redskins for 224 yards on the ground, led by running back Marshawn Lynch’s 132. Lynch was third in the NFL in rushing yards during the regular season with 1,590, and for his career is averaging more than six yards per carry in postseason play. Lynch hasn’t done it alone, however, as rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson’s steady, productive play has thrust him to the forefront of the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion. Even though Wilson averaged fewer than 200 yards passing per game in the regular season, he tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes and threw just three interceptions over the final nine games. His stretch of solid play continued last week, as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another 67 in winning his first career playoff game and doing so on the road. The Seahawks’ pass-catchers don’t match up to the talent and production of the Falcons’, but they get the job done, as wide receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate each recorded seven touchdown catches during the regular season. Wilson’s mobility in the pocket takes some of the pressure off of the offensive line in pass protection, and as a team the Seahawks have committed only 19 turnovers in 17 games. One possible area of concern for the Seahawks’ offense is at kicker. Steven Hauschka, who made all 23 of his field goal attempts from inside 50 yards this season, suffered a calf injury in last week’s game and was placed on injured reserve. The team signed Ryan Longwell to take Hauschka’s place. Longwell is a 15-year veteran who has plenty of postseason experience (17 of 23 on FGs in the playoffs), but his last kick in an NFL game came in 2011.
Atlanta’s defense struggled at times stopping opponents from gaining yards, but managed more often than not to keep them from scoring too many points. The Falcons were 24th in total defense in the regular season, allowing 365.6 yards per game, but were fifth in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. They were 21st against the run (123.2 ypg), and will need to be at their run-stuffing best if they want to try and slow down Lynch and the rest of the Seahawks. The Falcons fared worse against the pass (242.4 ypg, 23rd), but Seattle isn’t a team that tries to beat you through the air that much and the first-round bye provided several members of the Falcons’ banged up secondary the time needed to rest and recuperate. The Falcons have relied much more on turnovers this season rather than sacks, as the defense has struggled to generate consistent pressure. The unit has produced just 29 sacks so far, the second-fewest among NFC teams, compared to 31 turnovers. Twenty of their takeaways have been interceptions, as Thomas DeCoud, Asante Samuel and William Moore have combined for 15 picks. Atlanta’s pass rush could be even less fearsome against Seattle if veteran John Abraham is sidelined by an ankle injury. Abraham leads the team with 10 sacks, but is listed as questionable for Sunday, although he did practice on a limited basis.
When the Atlanta Falcons have the ball:
Atlanta’s offense finished eighth in the NFL in total offense with 369.1 yards per game and seventh in scoring at 26.2 points per contest. Quarterback Matt Ryan posted career highs across the board, tying Peyton Manning for the league lead in completion rate (68.6), while finishing fifth in both yards passing (4,719) and touchdowns (32). The next step Ryan needs to take in his development is show that he can get the job done in the postseason. In three career playoff games, Ryan has averaged less than 195 yards passing per game and has thrown more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3), which are all reasons why he’s still looking for his first postseason victory. A fair amount of credit for Ryan’s success this season needs to be given to the weapons he has to work with. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones both earned Pro Bowl invites along with Ryan, while wideout Roddy White posted his sixth straight 1,100-yard campaign. Together the trio combined for 264 receptions, 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns during the regular season. Watching them work against Seattle’s secondary and linebackers will not only be entertaining, but also one of the keys to this game. Atlanta has become more of a pass-oriented offense, as the Falcons finished 29th in rushing offense with less than 88 yards rushing per game. The Falcons will need to run the ball some to keep the Seahawks honest, and this task will fall to running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. The duo has combined to average less than four yards per carry, although Turner does have 10 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers also can be dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver, as he’s tied for fourth on the team with 59 catches. Considering Ryan attempted the sixth-most passes of any quarterback, the Falcons’ offensive line did a nice job protecting him, giving up just 28 sacks. And while Ryan did throw 14 interceptions, the Falcons only lost four fumbles for a total of 18 turnovers in their first 16 games.
After staking Washington to an early 14-0 first quarter lead in last Sunday’s Wild Card game, the Seattle defense rose to the occasion, shutting the Redskins’ offense completely down the rest of the way. Washington finished with only 203 yards, which was more than 100 yards below the Seahawks’ regular-season average (306.2 ypg). During the regular season, the Seahawks were the stingiest defense in the NFL, giving up 15.3 points per game and ended up in the top 10 in total defense (fourth), passing defense (sixth) and rushing defense (10th). This unit has allowed a total of 25 offensive touchdowns in 17 games and is capable of getting pressure on the quarterback as well as creating turnovers. The Seahawks sacked Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III twice and picked him off once in last week’s win, but the victory didn’t come without a cost. Defensive end Chris Clemons, who leads the team with 11.5 sacks, tore his ACL and is done for the season. The Seahawks’ depth along the defensive line will be tested with more inexperienced players, such as rookie Bruce Irvin, being called upon to fill bigger roles than they were asked to during the regular season. The Seahawks do have one of the NFL’s biggest, most physical secondaries, one that will face its own tall order in trying to slow down the Falcons’ talented pass-catchers. The Seahawks have given up a total of 16 touchdown passes this season, including their Wild Card win, so this should be a fun matchup to watch.
Seattle has won six games in a row and eight out of its last nine and the Seahawks have already shown they can win on the road in the playoffs. In fact, all of the pressure for this game is squarely on Atlanta, who is trying to get its own playoff monkey off its back and silence critics in the process by winning its first playoff game since 2004. Michael Vick was the quarterback then, and his successor, Matt Ryan, is 0-3 in the postseason and has yet to put together a decent playoff performance. Questions and doubts aside, Ryan is clearly a different quarterback when he’s in the Georgia Dome. He is 33-6 in his career at home, including a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay two seasons ago. The Falcons have been preparing for this game ever since Week 1 and I expect this veteran team to not let this opportunity pass them by. All that stands between them and a trip to the Super Bowl is two more home victories, and that road starts by taking care of business and some history against the Seahawks. As much attention as Ryan’s lack of success in the playoffs has garnered, his teammate Tony Gonzalez has been waiting for a postseason victory considerably longer. In his 16-year career, the future Hall of Fame tight end has played in 254 games and has gone 0-5 in the playoffs. Gonzalez' personal postseason drought, if you will, is the longest of any active player. That changes on Sunday, as the Falcons produce enough offense and get a helping hand from the defense in the fourth quarter to put an end to both Gonzalez’ and Ryan’s playoff losing streaks.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Seahawks 20
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.
Lock of the Week
These two teams played in prime time six Sundays ago in Week 14 of the regular season, with New England beating Houston, 42–14. Expect another blowout this weekend.
Patriots (-10) vs. Texans
Tom Brady has a 16–6 career playoff record — one win shy of taking sole possession of first place (Joe Montana has a 16–7 postseason mark) on the all-time playoff wins list. At home, Brady carries a 10–2 playoff record at home, winning six of those contests by double-digits.
Straight Up Upset
The West Coast bias ended last week, when Seattle flew to D.C. to knock out RG3. The Dirty Birds are up next for the soaring Hawks, who are in Beast Mode at the moment.
Seahawks (+3) at Falcons
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown just 11 TDs and nine INTs at home this year. Matty Ice has been ice cold in the playoffs, failing to throw for over 200 yards, while tossing a combined three TDs and four INTs, while losing two fumbles and taking 10 sacks en route to an 0–3 record.
This may be Ray Lewis’ last game — a fitting end with a matchup against all-time great and generational peer Peyton Manning. But don’t expect it to be a double-digit blowout.
Ravens (+10) at Broncos
Manning is 2–0 against Baltimore in the playoffs, with both wins coming as a member of the Colts. But he has struggled against the ball-hawking Ravens, throwing three picks to center field safety Ed Reed. With a healthy defense containing Manning, it will be up to Joe Flacco to survive Von Miller and the Mile High D.
Steer clear of this matchup unless you’re a degenerate or don’t feel right unless you’re wearing a Cheesehead or gold body paint — and have to have hometown playoff action.
49ers (-3) vs. Packers
San Francisco took down Green Bay, 30–22, at Lambeau Field in the Week 1 season opener. Alex Smith has since been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his first career playoff start. Double-checking the other side, Aaron Rodgers has a 4–2 mark in the playoffs and is tough to bet against.
The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will get together for the second time this season when Saturday’s NFC Divisional playoff game kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on FOX. The champions of the NFC North and West divisions opened the season against each other, but the stakes aren’t the only things that have changed for this matchup. Besides a change of venues, from Lambeau Field to Candlestick Park, injuries during the season mean there will be some different faces in key positions for the rematch, most notably who will be at quarterback for the home team. While Alex Smith led the 49ers to a 30-22 season-opening victory in Green Bay, he sustained a concussion midway through the season and has since been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his first career playoff start. Nothing’s changed under center for the Packers, as reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers aims for his fourth straight postseason road victory.
When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
Green Bay’s 24-10 win over Minnesota in the Wild Card round serves as a perfect illustration of how the Packers' offense has gone this season. In that game, the Packers had 326 yards of total offense, with more than 75 percent of it coming via the pass (250 yards). During the regular season, more than 70 percent of the yards gained by the Packer offense was courtesy of Aaron Rodgers’ right arm, as he finished eighth in the NFL in passing yards (4,295) and second in touchdowns (39). As a team, the Packers ended up 13th in total offense with 359.4 yards per game and fifth in scoring offense at 27.1 points per contest. This would not have been possible without another MVP-worthy season from Rodgers, who was the league’s top-rated passer (108.0) and threw just eight interceptions, despite being sacked an NFL-high 51 times. Rodgers doesn’t do it alone of course and he has a host of weapons to throw to, namely wide receivers Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson and tight end Jermichael Finley, and one or more of these will need to be at the top of their game against an able San Francisco secondary and its hard-hitting linebacking corps. In the first meeting against the 49ers back in Week 1, these five were responsible for catching all 30 of the completions Rodgers had, with Jones and Cobb each hauling in a touchdown. Following that game everyone but Jones dealt with some sort of injury issue that caused each to miss at least one game, if not more. Entering this contest, the quintet is still not at 100 percent health, with Nelson and Cobb still nursing their injuries, but all five should be out there, which will allow Rodgers more targets to throw to in hopes of finding holes in the 49ers’ coverage schemes. The real problem for the Packers' offense in the opening loss to the 49ers, as well as throughout the season, was the lack of consistent production from the running game. Rodgers’ was the team’s leading rusher in that game, with only 27 yards, as starting running back Cedric Benson was held to just 18 on nine carries. Benson suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5, resulting in a bit of revolving door in the backfield after that, with Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and James Starks all getting their shots. For this game, it looks like Harris, who was promoted from the practice squad in December after Starks got hurt, will get the call, although Starks could be back in there as well. After averaging 4.6 yards per carry over the last four regular-season games, Harris put up 100 total yards, including 47 and a touchdown on the ground, in the win over the Vikings. Harris’ pass-catching skills (5 rec., 53 yds. vs, Minnesota) also gives Rodgers yet another option when he drops back to throw it. Against Minnesota, Rodgers completed 23 passes to 10 different receivers, so he’s not afraid to spread the wealth around. With Rodgers leading the charge, the Packers’ offense has done a good job of protecting the football, just 16 turnovers in the 17 games they have played, which will be key to sustaining drives in an attempt to wear down the 49ers’ defense.
San Francisco’s defense was the NFC’s best during the regular season, as evidenced by its six representatives on the conference's Pro Bowl roster. The 49ers, who finished third in the entire NFL in total defense (294.4 ypg) and second only to Seattle in scoring (17.1 ppg) had five players — free safety Dashon Goldson, linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith, strong safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Patrick Willis — get voted in as Pro Bowl starters for the NFC side with linebacker NaVorro Bowman joining them as a reserve. That’s what happens when you hold teams to 94.2 yards rushing and 200.2 yards passing per game. Both marks were good for the top spot among NFC teams and fourth in the league overall. In the season-opening win in Green Bay, the 49ers held the Packers to just 45 yards rushing and limited Aaron Rodgers to 303 through the air, picking him off once and sacking him three times. San Francisco didn’t rack up a ton of sacks during the regular season, collecting 38, but Aldon Smith is definitely someone the Packers will need to keep their eye on. Even on a team with All-Pro talents like Willis, Bowman and Justin Smith, Aldon Smith is the team’s leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he has racked up 19.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. The 49ers also don’t force a bunch of turnovers, coming in with 25, but this unit relies more on its discipline, cohesiveness, athleticism and competitive fire to shut down opposing offenses.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
Even with the support of one of the league’s top defenses, San Francisco’s offense has shown to be more than capable of holding its own this season. Led by the league’s fourth-best rushing attack, the 49ers finished the regular season ranked 11th in total offense, two spots ahead of Green Bay. The offense averaged 155.7 yards rushing per game, as running back Frank Gore posted his sixth 1,000-yard campaign with the 49ers and became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in December, earning him another Pro Bowl invite. Gore had 112 yards rushing against the Packers back in Week 1 on just 16 carries, and he should factor heavily once again into the 49ers’ game plan. The Packers did a much better job of containing Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson the third time they faced the NFL's leading rusher, but can’t afford to relax against the 49ers’ ground game. Besides Gore, the 49ers also have a legitimate rusher in quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It was Alex Smith, and not Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to victory in Green Bay back on Sept. 9, but this is Kaepernick’s team now. The second-year pro out of Nevada is 5-2 as the starter, posting a 62.5 completion rate for 1,608 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Kaepernick also has rushed for 415 yards (6.6 ypc) and five touchdowns. Green Bay got a taste of what to expect with Kaepernick when the Packers faced Joe Webb last Sunday, but Kaepernick is more seasoned than Webb, who was making his first start of the season, and is a more polished passer. The 49ers don’t rely on the pass nearly as much as the Packers do, but they have capable weapons of their own in wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss and tight end Vernon Davis. Davis has been pretty much invisible since late November, but he’s come up big in the playoffs before. Last season the athletic tight end caught a combined 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the 49ers’ two postseason games. Besides Gore, the 49ers’ offense is represented on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster by offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Joe Staley, as San Francisco has one of the better offensive lines in the entire league. Besides playing tough, physical defense and employing a run-heavy offense, this team is typical of a Jim Harbaugh-coached squad in that it protects the football. The 49ers turned it over just 16 times during the regular season, with Kaepernick responsible for only five of them (3 INTs, 2 fumbles).
After Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson gashed the Green Bay defense for 409 yards rushing the first two times they played, the Packers’ defense rose to the occasion in last Saturday’s Wild Card affair. The Pack held the seventh player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards to 99 on 22 carries in the 24-10 victory. This type of performance will need to be repeated against San Francisco’s ground game, which was the league’s fourth-ranked attack, if the Packers want to leave the West Coast with a win. During the regular season, Green Bay’s defense held opponents to less than 120 yards rushing per game, but it did surrender 186 to the 49ers back in Week 1. The Packers also will have to deal with a different starting quarterback in this one with Colin Kaepernick under center instead of Alex Smith under center, but should be better prepared to defend against a more mobile quarterback having faced the Vikings’ Joe Webb last week. Like Webb did last Saturday, Kaepernick also will be making his first career playoff start, so look for Clay Matthews and company to do their best to try and rattle the second-year signal caller. One of the ways they will go about this is with pressure, as the 49ers yielded a high number of sacks (41) for a team that doesn’t throw the ball that often. The Packers were fourth in the league in sacks with Matthews’ 13 leading the way. Matthews had 2.5 of the team’s four sacks the first time around against the 49ers, and will look to replicate that success Saturday night. The Packers’ defense also received a boost in the return of secondary leader Charles Woodson last week. With Woodson back in the lineup, the Packers held the Vikings to just 10 points, including a touchdown late in the fourth quarter after the outcome was decided, and forced three turnovers. Similar production in the takeaway department against the 49ers would bode well for the Packers’ chances on the road.
Green Bay is 4-1 in its history in the playoffs against San Francisco, with the most recent meeting occuring on Jan. 13, 2002. The Packers won 25-15 with Brett Favre out-dueling Jeff Garcia in Lambeau Field. This time around it’s Aaron Rodgers against Colin Kaepernick, the former coming back to his native California to face the team he grew up rooting for, while the latter is making his first career playoff start. Postseason experience under center aside, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers teams are built around strong, physical defenses and punishing running games, two facets typically needed to have success in the playoffs. This year’s edition of the 49ers is no different in that respect, while these two elements, especially the running game, appear to be the Packers’ most apparent question marks. As long as Kaepernick executes the plays that are called and doesn’t try and do too much on his own, the 49ers’ defense and ground game should be able to outlast the Packers’ aerial assault. Another interesting subplot for this one has to do with the kickers. David Akers and Mason Crosby have both struggled miserably at times this season, finishing the campaign as the league’s least-accurate field goal kickers. In fact, the 49ers recently signed Billy Cundiff as an insurance policy, although Harbaugh has already said he is sticking with Akers for this game. Whomever ends up kicking for the 49ers, he will be the one that puts the finishing touches on a hard-earned victory that puts the home team in the NFC Championship Game for the second season in a row.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Packers 20
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
Arguably the NFL’s best offensive and defensive players of the past decade will go head-to-head one last time when the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos meet in Saturday’s AFC Divisional playoff game at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The Ravens defeated Indianapolis 24-9 in last Sunday’s Wild Card game, allowing linebacker Ray Lewis the chance to celebrate a win in his final home game. All that stands between Lewis and extending his Hall of Fame career by at least one more game are the top-seeded Broncos, who are led by quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is 9-2 in his career against Lewis’ Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in the playoffs, and No. 18 has not lost to them since 2001. The Broncos have won 11 games in a row, including a 34-17 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 16, a game that Lewis missed due to a triceps injury.
When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
Baltimore’s offense finished the regular season ranked in the middle of the league in yards gained (352.5 ypg, 16th), but struggled down the stretch. The Ravens lost four of their final five games and averaged less than 320 yards of offense per game in those defeats. However, they turned it around in Sunday’s 24-9 Wild Card win over Indianapolis, piling up 441 yards. The Ravens are at their best when they are able to run the ball effectively, as evidenced by the 172 yards rushing they had against the Colts. Running back Ray Rice is the lead back, but the emergence of rookie Bernard Pierce has made the ground game that much more dangerous. Pierce, the Ravens’ third-round pick out of Temple, has averaged 105 yards rushing over his past three games, including a team-high 123 on just 13 carries (7.9 ypc) against the Colts. As a team, the Ravens averaged around 120 yards rushing per game during the regular season, and not surprisingly, they are 7-2 this season (including last week’s win) when the ground game reaches that mark. With the win over the Colts, quarterback Joe Flacco upped his career postseason record to 6-4, as he is the only starting quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. Flacco threw for a career-high 3,817 yards during the regular season and had 282 yards passing against the Colts. He also had two touchdown passes and no interceptions, but for his career he is just a 54 percent passer in the playoffs with a 10:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an average of less than 182 yards passing per game. Just as he did during the regular season, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin was Flacco’s favorite target against the Colts, posting a Baltimore playoff-record 145 yards and the game-sealing touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Tight end Dennis Pitta had the other touchdown reception in last Sunday’s win, and the Ravens need more production from vertical threat Torrey Smith (2 rec., 31 yds. vs. Colts) if they want to maximize production from the passing game. The Ravens’ offense could get a boost from return specialist Jacoby Jones, who averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff return during the regular season and had three (two kickoffs, one punt) special teams touchdowns. Two other areas of concerns for the Ravens’ offense have to be turnovers and pass protection. During the regular season, the Ravens finished tied with New England for the fewest turnovers in the AFC with 16, although Rice did lose two fumbles in the win over the Colts. After surrendering 38 sacks in the first 16 games, the Ravens’ offensive line only gave up one to the Colts. A similar, if not better, effort will be needed against Denver, as the Broncos tied for the league lead with 52 quarterback takedowns, including three of Flacco in their win in Baltimore back in December.
If not for Manning’s MVP-worthy performance, Denver’s defense would be this season’s story in the Mile High city. The Broncos finished the regular season second only to Pittsburgh in total defense (290.8 ypg) and third in both rushing (91.1 ypg) and passing (199.6 ypg) defense. The Broncos also were fourth in scoring defense at 18.1 points per game and allowed more than 24 points only three times all season. Those games were the only three the Broncos have lost thus far, as the defense is holding opponents to less than 16 points per game during their current 11-game winning streak. This unit has given up more than 100 yards rushing once during this streak and has yet to allow more than 284 yards passing all season. The latter is even more impressive when you consider this defense has faced three quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — who finished among the top five in passing yards and touchdown passes. The secondary is led by All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, who earned his 12th Pro Bowl invite this season and had two of the Broncos’ 16 interceptions. However, the front seven certainly can’t be ignored, as fellow Pro Bowlers linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 of the Broncos’ league-leading (tied with Rams) 52 sacks. In addition to the sacks, Miller, who is a contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors, forced six fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown. Collectively, the Broncos’ defense scored six touchdowns of its own during the regular season, a pretty good return on the 24 total turnovers the unit produced.
When the Denver Broncos have the ball:
When Peyton Manning made the decision to sign with Denver after severing his ties with Indianapolis, everyone expected the Broncos’ offense to be better. However, I think it’s safe to say no one predicted Manning would pass for the second-most yards and touchdowns in his illustrious career, especially after missing all of 2011 and undergoing four separate surgeries on his neck. That’s just what happened, however, as Manning finished the regular season second only to reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers in passer rating (105.8) with 4,659 yards (sixth in NFL), 37 touchdowns (third) and just 11 interceptions. Whether or not Manning adds to his record four MVP trophies remains to be seen, but No. 18 is without a doubt the biggest reason why the Broncos’ offense ranked second in yards (397.9 per game) and points (30.1). Two other primary beneficiaries of Manning’s presence have been wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who have combined for 179 receptions, 2,498 yards and 23 touchdowns. Veteran Brandon Stokley and tight end Joel Dreessen each have five touchdown catches of their own, as seven different Broncos posted 21 or more receptions during the regular season. Although the statistical production may not show it, the running game also benefited from having No. 18 calling the plays. The Broncos averaged 114.5 yards rushing per game, which placed them only 16th in the league in that category, but the ground attack did produce 12 rushing touchdowns. Running back Willis McGahee was on pace for another 1,100-yard campaign when he tore his MCL and broke his leg in Week 11. McGahee is still the team's leading rusher with 731 yards and it’s possible he could return should the Broncos beat the Ravens and advance to the AFC Championship Game. In the meantime, Knowshon Moreno took over the starting job and has rushed for 510 yards and three scores in his last six games. Manning’s value under center can also be seen in the 21 sacks the Broncos have allowed, the second-fewest in the league. Turnovers have been a bit of an issue, as the Broncos have fumbled the ball away 14 times, although four of those lost fumbles belong to McGahee while Manning has none. Denver also added another weapon during the season in kick returner Trindon Holliday, who has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown for the Broncos even though he started the season with Houston. Besides his production on special teams, Holliday holds a unique distinction in that he has yet to lose a game this season. He went 5-0 to open the season with the Texans before being released and picked up by Denver prior to the Broncos’ Week 6 game. Coming off a disappointing 31-21 loss in New England the week before, the Broncos came from behind to beat San Diego 35-24 on “Monday Night Football,” went on bye the next week and haven’t lost since, giving Holliday a perfect 16-0 mark on the season to this point.
A top-10 unit in each of the past four seasons, the Baltimore defense took a step backwards this season, finishing the regular season ranked 17th in total defense at 350.9 yards per game. Even though the team stumbled to a 1-4 finish to close out the season, the defense posted its best performances in the final two games. The Giants and the Bengals were each held to less than 190 yards of offense, including a total of 114 yards rushing, when they played the Ravens in Weeks 16 and 17 respectively. The defense was unable to sustain this type of effort one more week, however, as the Colts piled up 419 yards on offense against them last Sunday, including 152 alone on the ground. Of course, Baltimore did hold the visitors to just nine points (on three field goals) on the scoreboard, which is the most important statistic of all. Even though the Ravens gave up a fair amount of yards during the regular season, the defense did do a respectable job of limiting the damage. They finished tied for 12th in the NFL in scoring defense at 21.5 points per game and only gave up 30 or more points four times. Unfortunately, they lost three of those games, including a 34-17 home defeat to the Broncos on Dec. 16. The Ravens’ pass defense, which allowed 228.1 yards per game in the regular season, finished higher in the rankings (17th) compared to their run defense (122.8 ypg, 20th). The defense also surrendered only 15 touchdown passes, which tied for the second-fewest allowed in the NFL, but this unit is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead in facing Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, especially on their home turf. Injuries have had a significant impact on the defense, as both Lewis and defensive end Terrell Suggs missed at least half the regular season and cornerback Lardarius Webb was lost for the year back in Week 6. Lewis and Suggs are both back on the field, which can only help the Ravens, who will need to find a way to get pressure on Manning and force some turnovers in an effort to disrupt the Broncos’ offensive rhythm. The Ravens ended up in the middle of the pack in the regular season in sacks (37) and takeaways (25), but managed to bring down Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck three times and force him into two turnovers (INT, fumble) in last Sunday’s win.
Baltimore is a playoff-tested team, having won at least one game in each of the past five postseasons, including last Sunday’s Wild Card win over Indianapolis. That said, this is a tough test for the Ravens, who have to go into Denver to play the Broncos, the AFC’s top seed, a team that tied Atlanta for the most wins in the regular season (13) and hasn’t lost since Oct. 7. Then there’s the Peyton Manning factor, as No. 18 has won nine games in a row over the Ravens, including two postseason matchups. As good as Manning has been in his first season in a Broncos’ uniform, this team is anything but one-dimensional, as the defense has also been playing at a high level throughout. This Baltimore team will run through a brick wall for Ray Lewis, their defensive and emotional leader, but the only way I see the Ravens pulling this one out is if they can find a way to turn back the clock a few years and field that vintage defense from their 2006 championship season. And even then, I’m not sure that would be enough because of the strength of Denver’s defense. It has been a remarkable and legendary career for No. 52, but Lewis’ “last ride” comes in Denver. And as one future Hall of Famer says good-bye, the focus will then shift to see if a fellow Canton-bound legend can lead his new team to the Super Bowl just a year after not taking a single snap.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Ravens 17
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for January 11.
• The national obsession with AJ McCarron's girlfriend continues. Looks like Katherine Webb will be appearing in the upcoming Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Judging from the photo, she'll fit right in.
• Last night was not a good night for the refs at the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, nor was it a good night for Bobby Knight.
• Athlon ranks and grades all 28 of college football's 2012 coaching hires. Urban Meyer gets an A. Ellis Johnson, not so much.
• Short people got no reason to play quarterback. Unless they're Russell Wilson, or Doug Flutie.
• They've announced the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2013 induction class. Some no-brainers in there, like Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden, but some tougher calls, like Jerome Bettis and Warren Sapp.
• An amusing round-up from the day that was in sports, including new Jags GM David Caldwell's puzzling announcement that there's no place for Tim Tebow in Jacksonville.
• I'm not a soccer fan, but even I know that this is impressive. Too bad there were only about 42 people there to see it.
• We interrupt the ongoing Ray Lewis love-fest to bring you a chat with some folks who don't find him so charming and lovable.
• The Wall Street Journal poses an interesting question: What if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was like the Baseball Hall of Fame and excluded known drug users?
• In today's video, the chubbiest kid on the court has an athletic highlight most of us can only dream of.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• Can Johnny Football do it again? Athlon counts down the 2013 Heisman contenders. Of course, this item is really just an excuse to run a photo of Manziel's model girlfriend, Sarah Savage.
• San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin went all Harlem Globetrotters against Fresno State. The result was college basketball's Dunk of the Year.
• The world's best recruiting mixtape comes courtesy of a little-used special teamer. This kid may be a scrub, but he's the kind of guy I want on my team.
• The New York Times published a blank front page to protest the Hall of Fame shutout this year. Not sure how to feel about this. Seems like a waste of space. Of course, some would argue that the Hall is becoming a waste of space when it excludes the home run leader, hits leader and seven-time Cy Young winner.
• Speaking of said seven-time Cy Young winner, Roger Clemens tweeted his reaction to his Hall snub. It's all good, until his sign-off. "Muchie peachie"?
• One last Hall of Fame item: Whoever voted for Aaron Sele needs to be outed and publicly shamed.
• I don't think Tim Tebow is a liar, but I simply don't believe this headline.
• According to TMZ, AJ McCarron isn't happy about his girlfriend's sudden fame.
• Will it be two losses in one week for the suddenly luckless Fighting Irish?
• In honor of today's Academy Awards nominations, Sports Illustrated has assembled a gallery of sports movies at the Oscars.
• Don't try this at home, kids. Mandatory.com counts down the 10 fads that proved fatal in some cases.
• Turns out that the Seahawks' Richard Sherman was mic'd up after Seattle's wild card win over Washington, so we get to hear what it was that led Trent Williams to punch him in the face.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• You probably didn't notice, but Dustin Johnson won a golf tournament yesterday in Hawaii. Could portend a big year for the big hitter. Of course, we present this item merely as an excuse to run a photo of DJ's reported girlfriend, Paulina Gretzky, seen here following her beau amid the winds of Hawaii.
• The Musburger fallout continues. Looks like Brent's comments will be remembered far longer than the game itself. Meanwhile, Katherine Webb herself says to give the old guy a break, while the New York Post weighs in in its own inimitable way.
• Yes, it's early, but it's never too early. Athlon's first top 25 for 2013.
• Thanks to the NFL vacancies, the coaching carousel is still spinning. Could be many more dominoes to fall.
• Tom Verducci says sorry Barry, Roger, Mark and the other juicers. No Hall for you.
• This may be a little inside-baseball for us media types, but with Turner's acquisition of Bleacher Report, CNN's sports content will now be provided by Bleacher instead of Sports Illustrated.
• Now that conference play has begun, here's a handy guide to college basketball realignment. And here's a look at the changes for this season and upcoming seasons in chart form.
• The Razzie nominations are in, and unsurprisingly, Adam Sandler and Nic Cage made the cut. They'll say it's an honor just to be nominated, but you know they want to win.
• Drive-thru window plus invisible driver equals comedy gold.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
•A star was born last night, and it wasn't Eddie Lacy. AJ McCarron's girlfriend Katherine Webb threatened to melt Twitter, after Brent Musberger creeped out the nation last night by drooling all over his mic after he spotted the former Miss Teen Alabama. In Musberger's defense, she is very attractive, as you can see in the photo at right.
• Musberger wasn't the only one taken with McCarron's lady. Cards defensive end Darnell Dockett tweeted her his phone number.
• On the field, the most exciting moment of the night came when McCarron showed up center Barrett Jones, and Jones responded with a shove. The guys are roommates and buddies, so it's all good.
• No truth to the rumor that Notre Dame is replacing the sign in their tunnel.
• Well played, Tuscaloosa News.
• Hate to pile on, but this is pretty good. Maybe next time, Rudy.
• 2013 will bring us an early candidate for Game of the Century: Sept. 14, Kyle Field, College Station, Texas. ESPN GameDay will no doubt be there.
• In other news, Dr. James Andrews bailed out Mike Shanahan a little bit in the RG3 affair.
• For all those who made fitness-related New Year's resolutions: the 10 weirdest workout gadgets.
• Kate Upton is more than just a pretty face. She's also a clever Tweeter. She managed to nail Notre Dame and the Jets in fewer than 140 characters.
• Today's video promoting Shane Battier's charity karaoke event is dedicated to those Boomers who remember the Love Boat.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• In honor of Notre Dame's appearance in tonight's national title game, here's a slideshow of fetching Irish fan Leslie. If you believe many of the pundits, Notre Dame's highlights will begin and end here.
• In the interest of equal time, we present Bama fan Angela. Judging from the respective hotties, the game's a toss-up.
• So what does Athlon say? Of their eight participating pundits, six pick Alabama. Sounds about right.
• To the chagrin of some and the delight of others, Brent Musberger, 73 years young, will be on the mic tonight. Here's a Q&A with the broadcasting legend.
• This Tide tribute tattoo has to be seen to be believed.
• Ray Lewis returned to treat Ravens fans to his Last Dance. Of course, his routine killed. (See what I did there?)
• Yesterday was not a good day for Robert Griffin III or Mike Shanahan. The day's winners: the Seattle Seahawks and Dr. James Andrews.
• The Seahawks' Richard Sherman is seemingly happy to play the villain role for these playoffs. The Redskins' Trent Williams wasn't so happy with Sherman's post-game antics.
• Chip Kelly's annual flirtation with the NFL ended with Kelly back at Oregon, and the Browns back to the drawing board.
• Some creative USC fan used a public safety notice to make his feelings known about Lane Kiffin. Well played.
• One last college football palate cleanser in GIF form: a ref goes tumbling at the Cotton Bowl.
• Today's video is a look back at an all-time college football classic: Alabama-Notre Dame, the Sugar Bowl, Dec. 31, 1973.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The 2012 college football season ended with another SEC Championship. And the SEC’s run of dominance probably won’t end in 2013, as Alabama returns most of its core and is a heavy favorite to win the national title.
While the Crimson Tide isn’t likely to see a drop in its win total, there are a few teams poised to see a decrease in victories in 2013.
While Florida State should be one of college football’s top 20 teams next year, the Seminoles will struggle to win the conference title (and record 12 victories) with Tajh Boyd returning to Clemson for his senior year.
Bill Snyder will reload at Kansas State but asking the Wildcats to repeat as Big 12 champions in 2013 is simply unrealistic.
LSU is losing 11 players early to the NFL Draft and still needs more production from quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
These five teams aren’t on the decline for the long haul, but they will have trouble matching their win totals from 2012.
Five College Football Teams on the Decline for 2013
While the Seminoles met most preseason expectations with a 12-win season and an ACC Championship, matching those totals in 2013 will be difficult. EJ Manuel wasn’t an All-American quarterback, but he did throw for 41 touchdowns over the last two seasons. While Clint Trickett or Jameis Winston will need some time to learn the ropes as a full-time starter, the rest of the offense should be solid, especially with the return of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. at running back. The defense finished 2012 ranked second nationally in yards allowed but will struggle to reach that mark in 2013. The line loses talented ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins and must replace standout cornerback Xavier Rhodes. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is regarded as an excellent recruiter but has not called the plays on the collegiate level. Florida State isn’t going to fall out of the top 25, but the Seminoles will have trouble matching 12 wins and an ACC title next season.
There’s a very simple rule to follow when making predictions for the upcoming Big 12 season: Never count out the Wildcats as long as Bill Snyder is on the sidelines in Manhattan. Although Snyder is one of college football’s top coaches, Kansas State has a lot of personnel losses to overcome if it wants to repeat as Big 12 champions. Heisman finalist Collin Klein will be missed at quarterback, while receiver Chris Harper also departs after leading the team with 58 catches in 2012. While the offense shouldn't suffer much of a drop in production with one of the Big 12's top offensive lines and running back John Hubert returning, the defense is another story. The Wildcats are losing a handful of key players, including end Meshak Williams, linebacker Arthur Brown and cornerback Nigel Malone. Expect another bowl berth for Kansas State in 2013 but another conference title is out of reach.
No team has been impacted by the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline quite like LSU. The Tigers lost 11 players, including defensive linemen Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery, along with cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Eric Reid. Although LSU always recruits top talent, it will be difficult to replace the departing talent in just one offseason. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger showed some progress at the end of the year but needs to shoulder more of the offensive workload in 2013. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is regarded as one of the best in the nation but will have his hands full with a rebuilt line, the departure of linebacker Kevin Minter and two starters leaving from the secondary. LSU will be a top-15 team in 2012 but contending for a BCS bowl or SEC West title is unlikely.
The Sooners have been one of college football’s most consistent winners since Bob Stoops arrived in Norman. Since 2000, Oklahoma has only two seasons of less than 10 wins and has won 32 games over the last three years. After losing 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl to Texas A&M, Stoops and his staff have been heavily criticized, especially for a defense that allowed 192.2 rushing yards per game and finished 64th nationally in yards allowed. There’s no shortage of talent in Norman, but Oklahoma will have trouble recording a double-digit win total in 2013. Quarterback Landry Jones is gone, and there’s plenty of uncertainty about who emerges as the new No. 1 passer. Blake Bell has shown promise in a limited role, but can he be the full-time quarterback? Considering the defense loses at least seven starters, it may take half of the season for Oklahoma to find the right pieces on that side of the ball. The Sooners aren’t going to fall out of the top 25, but it’s hard to envision this team winning a Big 12 title next year or matching the 10 victories from 2012.
The Scarlet Knights were on the doorstep of winning the Big East title in 2012 but lost in what was a de facto Big East title game to Louisville in the regular season finale. First-year coach Kyle Flood did a good job of keeping continuity from Greg Schiano’s tenure, but Rutgers lost its last three games and struggled to establish its offense. Flood will be tested even more in 2013, as the Scarlet Knights lose seven starters on defense, including standout linebacker Khaseem Greene and cornerback Logan Ryan. The offense must replace running back Jawan Jamison and needs to get quarterback Gary Nova back on track after a disappointing finish. The Big East isn’t a deep league in 2013, so the Scarlet Knights could be picked by most to finish as one of the conference’s top four teams. However, Rutgers may not reach nine victories in his final season of Big East play next year.
Related College Football Content
The major question the ACC keeps coming up: Will anyone challenge Duke this season? At least on Saturday, the discussion is back to where we started.
NC State was the league’s preseason favorite (Athlon picked the Wolfpack second in the ACC), but two losses by Nov. 27 caused the conversation to move to North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State and even Miami without any of them looking the part.
So all eyes move back to NC State, which has won nine games since its loss at undefeated Michigan 79-72 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Even that loss was an encouraging sign for a team that looked out for sorts in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where NC State lost by 20 to Oklahoma State.
Since then, the Wolfpack have solidified their lineup, balancing the veterans and freshmen, and lead the nation in shooting percentage (53 percent from the floor).
Behind national player of the year contender Mason Plumlee, Duke, though, keeps rolling. The Blue Devils are 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the polls.
Before it claims ACC supremacy, Duke has its own set of challenges, including the absence of forward Ryan Kelly and its first true road game. Duke has defeated Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Temple and Davidson at neutral sites and Ohio State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the resume lacks a win in an opponent’s gym.
That can change Saturday in Raleigh.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Duke at NC State
When: Saturday, noon Eastern
Where: Raleigh, N.C., PNC Arena (cap. 19,700)
Duke probable starters
G Quinn Cook (6-1/175, So.)
G Seth Curry (6-2/285, Sr.)
G Rasheed Sulaimon (6-4/185, Fr.)
F Josh Hairston (6-7.240, Jr.)
F Mason Plumlee (6-10/235, Sr.)
NC State probable starters
G Lorenzo Brown (6-3/195, Jr.)
G Scott Wood (6-6/169, Sr.)
G Rodney Purvis (6-3/195, Fr.)
F C.J. Leslie (6-9/200, Sr.)
F Richard Howell (6-8/257, Sr.)
Game-defining matchup: Mason Plumlee vs. Richard Howell
This is a matchup of Duke’s best player and player of the year candidate against NC State’s top rebounder and tone-setter. The matchup down low could go a long way to determining the outcome. Howell’s effort is unquestioned, but he needs to stay on the floor to keep Plumlee in check. He needs to avoid the foul trouble that shows up from time to time.
Player we’re watching: Quinn Cook
Cook’s development has been one the keys to Duke’s success this season, but he’s had quite the swing in the last week. Against Wake Forest, he missed all of 11 of his shots from the floor while added 14 assists to one turnover. Against Clemson on Tuesday, Duke gave him the green light to shoot despite his futility from the field against Wake. He responded with a career-high 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting.
Stat that matters: Scott Wood’s 3-point shooting
NC State is 14-0 in the last two seasons when guard Scott Wood converts four 3-point shots. That’s going to be tough to do against Duke. The Blue Devils have allowed only three players all season -- Florida Gulf Coast’s Bernard Thompson, Elon’s Sebastian Koch and Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster -- to convert four or more shots beyond the arc. Duke has limited four teams to fewer than four 3-pointers in a game (Louisville, Delaware, Cornell and Clemson).
How Duke can win: Overcome Ryan Kelly’s absence
In three games Ryan Kelly missed at the end of last season, Duke squeaked by Virginia Tech and then lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament and 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils will have to overcome his absence again as Kelly is out with a right foot injury. Duke will miss his scoring (13.4 points per game), his versatility, his defense and some of the little things he did, such as inbounding against the press. Duke will turn to Josh Hairston (11.3 minutes per game), Amile Jefferson (8.8) and Alex Murphy (5.6) to fill Kelly’s shoes.
How NC State can win: Manage a complete effort
Even with Kelly hurt, NC State can’t play as if Duke is considerably shorthanded (though the Blue Devils may be). The Wolfpack can ill-afford foul trouble from Howell, a scoreless night from T.J. Warren (as he had against Georgia Tech on Wednesday) or some of the poor chemistry and rhythm that plagued NC State early this season.
NC State 68, Duke 65
WEEKEND ON TAP
All times Eastern.
Minnesota at Indiana
(Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
Minnesota has won 11 in a row, including a nice 84-67 win at Illinois on Wednesday. This is an intriguing stretch for the Gophers, who visit Bloomington on Saturday and face Michigan on Jan. 17. Trevor Mbakwe is heating up at the right time before facing the Hoosiers’ Cody Zeller.
Marquette at Pittsburgh
(Saturday, noon, ESPNU)
Pittsburgh recovered from its 0-2 Big East start with a 73-45 drubbing of Georgetown on the road. The Panthers forced more Georgetown turnovers (16) than it allowed field goals (13). Marquette hits the road for its first league away game after two close calls in Milwaukee: Marquette defeated UConn in overtime and the Hoyas by one point in Milwaukee.
Villanova at Syracuse
(Saturday, noon, Big East syndication)
Villanova started 4-4, including losses to Alabama, Columbia and La Salle, but the Wildcats have reeled off seven consecutive wins. Upsetting Syracuse at the Carrier Dome may be too much to ask of Jay Wright’s team, but it’s a storyline worth watching.
Connecticut at Notre Dame (Saturday, 2 p.m., Big East syndication)
The Huskies are showing fight under new coach Kevin Ollie, but they lack the firepower on the front line to challenge Notre Dame, especially in South Bend. Jack Cooley is averaging 15.2 points and 11.2 rebounds. The Irish have only one loss, in overtime to Saint Joseph’s.
UCLA at Colorado (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
This is far from a storied Pac-12 rivalry, but the Bruins’ trip to Boulder could be one of the better games in the league this season. Freshman Shabazz Muhammad has topped 20 points in five of his last seven games as the Bruins have recovered from a slow start. It’s gut check time for Colorado, which allowed a collapse against Arizona turn into a second loss to Arizona State.
North Carolina at Florida State (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Here’s something you don’t see often from a Leonard Hamilton team: Florida State has been better — at least statistically — offensively than defensively this season. The Seminoles are heating up as conference play begins, defeating Maryland 65-62 on the road behind Okaro White’s 15 consecutive points. North Carolina, meanwhile, is in disarray. Roy Williams doesn't have the high-squad he usually has as the Tar Heels have lost their first two ACC games, scoring 52 on Virginia and
Illinois at Wisconsin (Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Big Ten Network)
This will be a difficult road test for John Groce’s club. The Fighting Illini depend heavily on the 3-point shot, but that went cold against Minnesota on Wednesday (3 of 24). Wisconsin gives up fewer 3s than any team in the Big Ten.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2)
This is the type of game Oklahoma State will need to win finish near the top of the Big 12. The Cowboys lost back-to-back games to Gonzaga and Kansas State before rebounding Wednesday against TCU. Oklahoma looks like a bubble team, so this kind of game can go a long way for Lon Kruger’s Sooners. OU is improved, but the Cowboys feature the more talented roster.
BYU at Santa Clara (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ROOT Sports)
Santa Clara is one of the most improved teams in the nation. The Broncos, ravaged by injuries, won only eight games last season. They should finish near the top of the West Coast Conference this season. BYU guard Tyler Haws is averaging 27 points over his last four games, inclduing a 42-point outburst against Virginia Tech.
Saint Louis at Temple (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU)
After starting 3-3, Saint Louis has won eight in a row, including a 60-46 victory over New Mexico. The return of Kwamain Mitchell could make the Billikens a contender in the Atlantic 10. Temple handed Syracuse its only loss last season and gave Kansas fits by slowing the tempo, but the Owls have lost to Canisius from the MAAC and an 8-6 Xavier team.
Missouri at Ole Miss (Saturday, 8 p.m., SEC syndication)
Mizzou’s first-ever SEC road game is at the cozy Tad Pad in Oxford. Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, the league’s leading scorer (18.2 ppg), will be the focus of the Tigers’ defense, but Murphy Holloway is also a talented scorer for the Rebs. Ole Miss was last seen scoring 92 points on defensive-minded Tennessee in Knoxville.
Colorado State at San Diego State (Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
This is a sneaky-good game in the very tough Mountain West. Colorado State, under first-year coach Larry Eustachy, has the talent to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. San Diego State is clearly a league contender. As he showed earlier this week, Aztecs guard Jamaal Franklin can dunk a little.
Michigan at Ohio State (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS)
Michigan has been one of the most impressive teams in the nation to date, but the Wolverines have yet to be tested in a true road game. Ohio State will provide that test, but the Buckeyes might not have enough scoring to keep up with John Beilein’s balanced attack.
Maryland at Miami (Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPNU)
Two teams that have endured setbacks of late: Miami with a thumb injury to Reggie Johnson and Maryland with its loss to Florida State on Wednesday. The Hurricanes have proven they can win even without their big man, but Terrapins 7-foot-1 center Alex Len will be a new challenge.
Arizona State at Oregon (Sunday, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Both teams are led in scoring by freshmen — Oregon’s Damyean Dotson and Arizona State’s Jahii Carson. Carson’s numbers are better, but Dotson has the supporting cast that handed Arizona its first loss of the season Thursday.
Athlon managing editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.
With college football’s 2012 season completed, it’s time to take a look back at the season that was and review the performance of all 124 teams before 2013 kicks off.
Twenty-eight coaches made their debut at a new program in 2012 and produced a mix bag of results.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien get a slight nod as the top three new coaches, but Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, UCLA’s Jim Mora, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and Memphis’ Justin Fuente also had a strong debut year.
While those coaches are at the top, it’s a different story for Southern Miss’ Ellis Johnson, Arkansas’ John L. Smith and Illinois’ Tim Beckman. Smith wasn’t retained, Johnson was fired, and Beckman is already making staff changes after a disappointing 2012 season.
Ranking the Performance of College Football's New Coaches from 2012
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
2012 Record: 12-0
What Went Right: Despite NCAA sanctions and a postseason ban, motivation wasn’t an issue for the Buckeyes. Behind Meyer’s leadership and the play of quarterback Braxton Miller, Ohio State completed its first unbeaten season since 2002 and served notice to the rest of college football that the Buckeyes will be back and better than ever in 2013. Ohio State also claimed its eighth victory in nine games over rival Michigan.
What Went Wrong: It’s hard to find much that went wrong with Meyer’s first season. The Buckeyes struggled to find playmakers at receiver, and the defense had its share of struggles through the first part of the season. Obviously, both issues are just being nitpicky but will be worth watching in 2013.
2. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
2012 Record: 11-2
What Went Right: New coach. New quarterback. New conference. Three factors that should have made 2012 a difficult year for Sumlin and Texas A&M. Instead, the Aggies finished as one of college football’s top 10 teams, and quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy after recording over 5,000 yards of total offense. Texas A&M knocked off No. 1 Alabama in mid-November and its only losses came by five points or less. Sumlin is on fire on the recruiting trail, and Texas A&M should be a national title contender in 2013.
What Went Wrong: Just as we mentioned with Urban Meyer, it’s hard to find many faults in Sumlin’s debut season. The Aggies lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and it’s imperative for Sumlin to pick the right replacement this offseason. Texas A&M’s only defeats came to Florida and LSU – a combined 21-5 – so there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the loss column.
3. Bill O’Brien, Penn State
2012 Record: 8-4
What Went Right: After starting 0-2, Penn State rallied to finish 8-4 and beat Big Ten champ Wisconsin 24-21 in Happy Valley. Considering the personnel losses and NCAA sanctions on the program, O’Brien did an outstanding job of keeping the team together, as well as rallying the team after a tough start. Under O’Brien’s direction, the offense showed significant improvement, averaging 417.5 yards and 29.1 points a game.
What Went Wrong: With the NCAA sanctions and scholarship limitations, it’s hard to criticize O’Brien for anything that happened in Happy Valley this year. He navigated the team through a difficult season, improved the offense and so far, hasn’t lost any key players to a transfer for 2013. O’Brien has a tough task ahead of him but appears to be the right person for the job.
4. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
2012 Record: 7-6
What Went Right: After finishing 2-10 and 0-8 in SEC play in 2011, Ole Miss was one of college football’s most improved teams. The Rebels won seven contests, including the in-state rivalry against Mississippi State and the BBVA Compass Bowl over Pittsburgh. Ole Miss hung tough against Alabama and lost by only six points to LSU. The Rebels are recruiting well, so more help is on the way for a roster that showed marked improvement in 2012.
What Went Wrong: Nothing.
5. Jim Mora, UCLA
2012 Record: 9-5
What Went Right: Mora wasn’t the first choice for UCLA, but his debut season was very successful. The Bruins improved their win total by three games, claimed another Pac-12 South crown and defeated rival USC 38-28. Overall, not a bad season. UCLA returns most of its core next season, and the Bruins should be the early favorite to win the Pac-12 South for the third consecutive year.
What Went Wrong: The Bruins closed with three consecutive losses, including a disappointing 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Mora’s strong suit is defense, but UCLA finished eighth in the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense. The Bruins are on the right track, but Mora and his staff still have plenty of work to do.
6. Justin Fuente, Memphis
2012 Record: 4-8
What Went Right: While it may seem strange to have a coach with a losing record ranked inside of the top 10, Memphis was one of college football’s worst teams in the previous two years. Fuente guided the Tigers to a three-game winning streak to close out the season and nearly defeated Arkansas State (Sun Belt champion).
What Went Wrong: Although Fuente got Memphis on track late in the year, the Tigers lost to FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin in the season opener. Statistically, this team still has a long ways to go to be competitive in the Big East. Memphis averaged only 318.3 yards per game and struggled to find a passing attack. Fuente wasn’t handed much to work with, so it’s no surprise there will be growing pains in 2013 and beyond.
7. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
2012 Record: 8-4
What Went Right: Similar to Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Fedora deserves credit for keeping North Carolina motivated with nothing to play for. The Tar Heels were banned from postseason play but tied for first place in the Coastal Division and snapped a five-game losing streak to rival NC State.
What Went Wrong: Finishing 8-4 in a year with no postseason possibility doesn’t leave much room for criticism. However, North Carolina lost three games by four points or less, so there’s some room to improve in close contests. Obviously, that’s being very nitpicky for a team that could win the Coastal Division in 2013. However, the division will be a tight race next year, so there’s little margin for error.
8. Todd Graham, Arizona State
2012 Record: 8-5
What Went Right: The Sun Devils were on the doorstep of playing for the Pac-12 Championship. A 45-43 loss to UCLA in late October was the tiebreaker for the South Division title, but Arizona State still finished with eight wins and a huge victory over rival Arizona. The Sun Devils also crushed Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. One of Graham’s biggest accomplishments was bringing discipline to the roster, as Arizona State finished 10th nationally in fewest penalties per game – a big improvement after ranking last in college football in 2011.
What Went Wrong: Just like many of the coaches in the top 10 of this ranking, it’s hard to criticize Graham for anything at Arizona State in 2012. Statistically, the Sun Devils have room to improve against the run and need to cut down on the sacks allowed next year. Barring any unexpected injuries, Graham has Arizona State positioned to start in the top 25 next season.
9. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
2012 Record: 8-5
What Went Right: Rodriguez was one of the best hires of last offseason and didn’t disappoint in his first year in Tucson. After winning four games in 2011, the Wildcats rebounded to post eight victories, including a New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada. Arizona nearly knocked off Stanford, defeated USC and beat Oklahoma State for a solid non-conference win in Week 2.
What Went Wrong: With the Wildcats having to adjust to Rodriguez’s scheme on offense and the personnel issues on defense, an 8-5 record was Arizona’s best-case scenario. Failing to score in a loss to Oregon was a disappointment, but the only real negative mark this year was a defeat to rival Arizona State.
10. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
2012 Record: 9-4
What Went Right: DeRuyter’s first season was a success. The Bulldogs claimed a share of the Mountain West title, averaged 477.5 yards per game on offense and ranked 22nd nationally in total defense. Although Fresno State lost four games, there’s no shame in losing to Tulsa, Oregon and Boise State.
What Went Wrong: While the Bulldogs were one of the Mountain West’s best teams during the regular season, the bowl loss to SMU was one of the postseason’s biggest surprises. Fresno State was thoroughly dominated in the Hawaii Bowl, which prevented the program from having its first double-digit win season since 2001.
11. Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State
2012 Record: 10-3
What Went Right: The Red Wolves needed a few games to adapt to Malzahn, but once this team got acclimated to their new coach, they emerged as the top team in the Sun Belt. Arkansas State finished 7-1 in conference play and reeled off eight consecutive victories to finish the year.
What Went Wrong: As expected, the Red Wolves took their lumps early on, losing 57-34 at Oregon and 42-13 at Nebraska. Arkansas State’s offense wasn’t as prolific as most expected but still averaged 34.9 points a game.
12. Matt Campbell, Toledo
2012 Record: 9-4
What Went Right: Campbell was college football’s youngest head coach in 2012 but nearly guided Toledo to the MAC West title. The Rockets lost two conference games by a touchdown, dropped the season opener to Arizona in overtime, beat Cincinnati in mid-October and fell to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Despite a few key injuries late in the year, Campbell kept Toledo on track and has the Rockets poised to push for the conference crown once again in 2013.
What Went Wrong: The Rockets were just a couple of plays away from finishing with an unbeaten regular season record, so Campbell doesn’t deserve much criticism. One area Campbell and his staff will look to improve in the offseason is the defense, which allowed 473.2 yards per game in 2012.
13. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
2012 Record: 9-4
What Went Right: After Greg Schiano bolted just before Signing Day to the NFL, hiring Flood was all about continuity. So far, so good. Rutgers just missed out on winning the Big East title but finished with nine victories and scored a road win over Arkansas in late September. The defense allowed just 14.2 points a game and ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed.
What Went Wrong: Although Rutgers won nine games, there’s a sense of disappointment. The Scarlet Knights had an excellent opportunity to win the Big East crown and fell just short. After starting 7-0, Rutgers finished 2-4 and lost its final three games. Flood has to rebuild the defense next season, as well as get quarterback Gary Nova back on track after a rough finish to 2012.
14. Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh
2012 Record: 6-7
What Went Right: After starting 0-2, most thought the Panthers would have trouble getting bowl eligible. However, Pittsburgh rallied to get to six victories, which included an upset over Rutgers and a 35-17 blowout victory over Virginia Tech. The Panthers also held their own against Notre Dame, losing 29-26 in three overtimes. Also, under Chryst’s direction, quarterback Tino Sunseri showed marked improvement. Considering the coaching turmoil that has surrounded Pittsburgh over the last few years, Chryst’s decision to not pursue the Wisconsin opening brought some much-needed stability to the program.
What Went Wrong: The season opener. The Chryst era at Pittsburgh got off to an awful start with a 31-17 loss to FCS opponent Youngstown State. And the season didn’t get much better in Week 2, as the Panthers lost 34-10 at Cincinnati.
15. Bob Davie, New Mexico
2012 Record: 4-9
What Went Right: After winning just three games in the three previous seasons, the Lobos recorded four victories in 2012. Considering Davie was in the television booth and away from the sidelines since 2001, New Mexico’s quick improvement was a surprise. Davie’s decision to switch to an option offense paid dividends, as the Lobos ranked near the top of the nation in time of possession and averaged 301.3 rushing yards per game. Although New Mexico finished with nine losses, five of the defeats came by a touchdown or less.
What Went Wrong: Although the Lobos were more competitive in Davie’s first season, they finished with a six-game losing streak and was throttled 35-7 by a bad UNLV team.
16. Jim McElwain, Colorado State
2012 Record: 4-8
What Went Right: New Mexico, UNLV and Hawaii isn’t exactly the toughest gauntlet of late-season scheduling but credit the Rams for finishing with three wins over their final five games. Colorado State also knocked off rival Colorado in the season opener. McElwain may have found a potential breakout player at running back, as Donnell Alexander rushed for at least 100 yards in three out of his final four games.
What Went Wrong: Outside of the victories, Colorado State struggled to be competitive in Mountain West games. The Rams lost by over 20 points to Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State and Boise State. McElwain had bad luck with injuries at quarterback, but Colorado State’s passing game needs to get better in 2013.
17. Garrick McGee, UAB
2012 Record: 3-9
What Went Right: It’s hard to find a lot of good news in a 3-9 season, but the Blazers won two out of their last four games. UAB also lost to Ohio State by only 12 points and was defeated by Conference USA champion Tulsa by just a touchdown. Even though UAB didn’t make significant gains in the win column, this team was competitive and found a quarterback (Austin Brown) and running back (Darrin Reaves) to build on in 2013.
What Went Wrong: While UAB showed promise on offense, the defense needs a lot of work. The Blazers allowed 37.5 points a game and registered only 1.7 sacks a game. If UAB can improve on defense and cut down on the turnovers, the Blazers could surprise in Conference USA next year.
18. Mike Leach, Washington State
2012 Record: 3-9
What Went Right: The season got off to a rough start for Washington State, but it rebounded to win its next two games to start 2-1 before Pac-12 play. The Cougars recorded only one victory within the conference, defeating rival Washington 31-28 in overtime.
What Went Wrong: There’s no doubt Leach was the biggest disappointment of college football’s new coaches for 2012. Washington State was predicted by some to reach a bowl game, and Leach’s high-powered offense never really got on track. The Cougars also had a horrible loss to Colorado and suffered blowout defeats to Arizona State, Utah, Oregon and BYU.
19. Curtis Johnson, Tulane
2012 Record: 2-10
What Went Right: Johnson didn’t have much to work with in 2012, so finishing with a 2-10 mark wasn’t much of a surprise. Despite winning only two games, Tulane showed some signs of progress. The Green Wave knocked off SMU and UAB, lost three conference games by five points or less and held their own against Rutgers in the season opener.
What Went Wrong: Tulane ranked 109th nationally in total offense and was largely hindered by injuries to starting quarterback Ryan Griffin and running back Orleans Darkwa. The defense was one of the worst in the nation, and the Green Wave ranked 101st in turnover margin. Both sides of the ball need a lot of work before next season, so there’s plenty for Johnson and his staff to work on during spring practice.
20. Charlie Weis, Kansas
2012 Record: 1-11
What Went Right: Weis was able to upgrade Kansas’ talent by adding a few transfers, but the new personnel didn’t change the success on the gridiron. The Jayhawks had only one win in 2012 but was more competitive in Big 12 play than they were in 2011.
What Went Wrong: Expectations were low for Kansas in 2012, so finishing with a 1-11 mark wasn’t a surprise. The biggest shock of the season was the lack of improvement from the passing attack, especially since Weis pulled in Dayne Crist from Notre Dame to start at quarterback.
21. Carl Pelini, FAU
2012 Record: 3-9
What Went Right: Pelini’s tenure at FAU got off to a rough start, as the Owls barely beat FCS opponent Wagner in the season opener and was 1-6 before a win over Troy. FAU showed some improvement over the second half of the year, picking up a win over Western Kentucky and losing its last three games by 10 points or less.
What Went Wrong: Pelini didn’t inherit a full cupboard, so there’s no doubt 2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Also contributing to the early struggles was a difficult schedule, which featured games against Georgia and Alabama. FAU simply doesn’t have the talent right now to push for a winning record, but the Owls will soon step into a tougher conference. Pelini needs to get both sides of the ball playing better, while finding a way to quickly close the gap in talent.
22. Tony Levine, Houston
2012 Record: 5-7
What Went Right: After starting his career with a bowl win over Penn State, Levine’s first full season as Houston’s head coach was a disappointment. There weren’t many positives, but the Cougars defeated Rice 35-14 to keep the Bayou Bucket. Levine’s team lost by only a touchdown against Louisiana Tech and finished the season on a high note by beating Tulane 40-17.
What Went Wrong: There were already plenty of doubts about Levine due to his lack of head coaching experience and so far, he’s done nothing to suggest he’s the long-term answer for Houston. The Cougars lost some key personnel, so it was inevitable this team would take a step back in the win column. However, 2012 was a weak year for Conference USA, and Houston had enough talent to get to a bowl game. With a move to a tougher conference next season, Levine will be under pressure to show this program is headed back in the right direction.
23. Norm Chow, Hawaii
2012 Record: 3-9
What Went Right: The Warriors finished 2012 with some momentum, winning their last two games against UNLV and South Alabama. First-year coach Norm Chow struggled to find the right pieces on offense, but the defense ranked 41st nationally in yards allowed and generated 2.3 sacks a game.
What Went Wrong: Chow came home to Honolulu to lead the Warriors to championships. But it’s clear Hawaii is far from contending for a Mountain West title. Chow’s specialty is on offense, so it was surprising to see Hawaii finish with just 297.4 yards per game in 2012. The Warriors were largely uncompetitive throughout Mountain West play and their only victories came against two FBS teams with a combined four wins and a FCS squad with a losing record.
24. Charley Molnar, UMass
2012 Record: 1-11
What Went Right: Considering UMass was in its first season of FBS play, the expectations were low for 2012. The Minutemen were more competitive late in the season, beating Akron 22-14 and losing to Buffalo by 10 points.
What Went Wrong: As expected, UMass struggled to be competitive and was blown out in a handful of games. The offense managed only three first downs in a loss to Connecticut and scored less than 10 points five times. Molnar seems to be a good fit at UMass, but he will need at least three seasons to get the program competitive within the MAC.
25. Terry Bowden, Akron
2012 Record: 1-11
What Went Right: Bowden inherited a disaster, so this ranking is really more reflective of the state of the program, rather than his coaching job this year. The Zips’ only victory came against FCS opponent Morgan State 66-6, but they lost four games by 10 points or less. Akron showed marked improvement on offense, averaging 427.2 yards per game in 2012.
What Went Wrong: Bowden was a good hire at Akron, but it’s clear he needs more time to get the program competitive within the conference. The Zips didn’t record a win in MAC play and gave up at least 30 points in five out of the last six games.
26. Tim Beckman, Illinois
2012 Record: 2-10
What Went Right: The only piece of good news for Illinois is that year one of the Beckman era could have been worse. The Fighting Illini earned two victories but failed to win a game in conference play. The lackluster season is resulting in staff changes, as co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty was fired, and his replacement is expected to be former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit.
What Went Wrong: Before Illinois played a game this year, Beckman earned plenty of bad publicity by trying to attract transfers from Penn State. Whether or not all of the reports were true about sending the staff to Happy Valley to recruit, it was a bad moment for Beckman. Illinois also had to report Beckman for a NCAA secondary violation after he chewed tobacco during the 35-7 loss to Wisconsin. Overall, it was a horrible beginning for Beckman in Champaign, but he will at least get 2013 to show the program is making some progress in the right direction.
27. John L. Smith, Arkansas
2012 Record: 4-8
What Went Right: For a team that began the year in most preseason top 25 polls and ended with a 4-8 record, it’s hard to find much that went right. Arkansas did win two SEC games, nearly knocked off LSU and defeated a good Tulsa team 19-15 in early November.
What Went Wrong: Considering the timing of the coaching change, it’s hard to blame everything on Smith. The Razorbacks never seemed to recover from losing head coach Bobby Petrino, especially on offense where they averaged just 23.5 points a game. Although it’s unfair to blame Smith for all of Arkansas’ woes, the Razorbacks only won two games in SEC play and struggled to be competitive against the bowl teams in the conference.
28. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss
2012 Record: 0-12
What Went Right: Nothing.
What Went Wrong: Everything. Johnson is a good defensive coordinator but is obviously not head coaching material. Southern Miss had some key personnel losses and a tough schedule, but the Golden Eagles should not have finished 0-12. Johnson was fired after the regular season finale against Memphis.
Related College Football Content
It is never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Especially now that Alabama is college football’s 2012 National Champion. This season featured huge showdowns between the ACC and SEC at the end of the year, Notre Dame battling with the Big Ten or Pac-12 all season long and a host of other important non-conference showdowns. Each and every year, a variety of intersectional matchups mold the national championship landscape or add a chapter to long and storied rivalries.
Athlon Sports starts marking up the 2013 calendar with key non-conference games to watch:
1. Georgia at Clemson (Aug. 31)
The Dawgs are a preseason Top 10 team now that Aaron Murray returns, but the defense will be replacing upwards of 10 starters. They will have to face a Tajh Boyd-Chad Morris offense that is one of the best in the nation. The Tigers will likely be the pick in the ACC and could also be a top 10 team, making the home game against the SEC power essentially a national title elimination game.
2. Oklahoma at Notre Dame (Sept. 28)
The Sooners could be the pick in the Big 12 but will need to break in a bunch of new pieces on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame will once again be a national title contender with an elite defensive line and improved offense. With revenge, historic brands and elite talent all involved in this showdown, it could easily be another national title elimination game.
3. UCLA at Nebraska (Sept. 14)
This was an epic showdown early in 2012 when the Bruins defeated the Huskers 36-30 in Week 2 of the season. It was Brett Hundley’s coming out party as the savior at quarterback for UCLA. The pressure might now be on Jim Mora’s team as the potential preseason favorite in the Pac-12 South. Nebraska could be the pick in the Big Ten's Legends Division as this early season game will feature both losers in their respective conference championship games from this fall.
4. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 30)
The big three SEC-ACC showdowns each year carry in-state bragging rights and historic implications. But in 2012, Florida-Florida State was the only one carrying national title importance. The best of the bunch next fall, however, could be the Palmetto State battle. Both could be picked to win their respective divisions and both could be unbeaten heading into one of the most intense rivalries in the nation.
5. Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 30)
Stanford has big holes to fill along its defensive front and on the offense, but has to still be considered one of the frontrunners in the Pac-12. The Irish will once again be a top 10 team, and this time, must travel to Palo Alto to deal with a team that will likely never forget how the 2012 version ended.
6. Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (Aug. 31, Atlanta)
With Logan Thomas coming back and some tweaks on the coaching staff, the Hokies almost have be better on offense in 2012. Defensively, Bud Foster’s team will always be good, but to compete with the Tide in the Kickoff Classic, Thomas will have to be the difference maker. Otherwise, Bama will make yet another statement in its season opener en route to yet another title run.
7. Notre Dame at Michigan (Sept. 7)
Brady Hoke and Brian Kelly have completely overhauled their historic programs in short order. Both are still improving and both have title hopes (National and Big Ten, respectively). This is one of the most historic battles each season and generally is one of the best games of the year.
8. TCU vs. LSU (Aug. 31, Arlington)
Gary Patterson did one of his better coaching jobs with some impressive wins without his starting quarterback in year one in a new league. The defensive line will be nasty for the Horned Frogs and they will be playing very close to home. This is what should give them a chance against the mighty Bayou Bengals. LSU is losing nearly a dozen elite players early to the NFL Draft and will be very young along the offensive line and on defense.
9. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 19)
The Trojans have some holes to fill at quarterback and defensive coordinator, but they also have loads of young talent and yet another elite recruiting class stepping onto campus. The Irish are a preseason top 10 team and anytime these two college football bluebloods get together, fireworks tend to fly.
10. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 30)
Much like South Carolina-Clemson, this one could carry national import at season’s end once again. Both programs have big holes to fill on defense while the Noles must replace EJ Manuel at quarterback. If the Gators' offense can develop in the offseason, they will be right in the heart of the SEC East race.
11. Florida at Miami (Sept. 7)
This will be a big prove-it game for the rising Hurricanes. Al Golden has done an excellent job with a roster that started 10 freshmen and technically won the division in 2012. Miami could validate its growth and put itself on the national scene with an early home win of the mighty in-state rivals.
12. Mississippi State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 31, Houston)
The Bulldogs and Cowboys are both achieving at unprecedented levels and both could be sneaky good once again in 2013. The Pokes could actually be the preseason pick to win the Big 12 and will have a chance to prove it against an always solid Dan Mullen-coached team — in a fertile recruiting territory for both.
13. Boise State at Washington (Aug. 31)
This was a great bowl game in Las Vegas to end the season. Now, these two West Coast powers will do battle right out of the gate in 2013. The Huskies' defense should continue to improve while the offense has the pieces to excel. And Chris Peterson will always have the Broncos ready to go early in the year.
14. Wisconsin at Arizona State (Sept. 14)
This was a great game in Madison a few years ago and should again be a stellar non-conference tilt next year. Todd Graham has loads of weapons returning on offense and should be the favorite to win this intriguing intersectional game.
15. Notre Dame vs. Arizona State (Oct. 5, Arlington)
This should be a great test for the Irish defensive line and the Taylor Kelly-led Sun Devils offense. The strengths of both teams will go head-to-head and a win for ASU would validate them as a serious South Division contender.
16. North Carolina at South Carolina (Aug. 31)
Yet another SEC-ACC battle — but this one will have interstate bragging rights on the line. The two programs are the State-U’s in their respective Carolina, but the North version will have to play over their heads to compete with the potential SEC East frontrunner.
17. Texas at BYU (Sept. 7)
Both defenses have a chance to be the strength of their respective teams — if Texas’ athletes can finally play up to their potential. And anytime a team has to visit Provo, it must be worried about escaping with a victory.
18. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 21)
The Spartans will once again be excellent on defense and one has to believe the offense will be more two-dimensional in 2013. The Irish are what they are and have been crushing the Spartans of late.
19. Rutgers at Fresno State (Aug. 29)
The Knights will feature yet another solid defensive unit and they will have their work cut out for them in a long, cross-country trip to face an elite offense. Derek Carr has only a few national spotlight moments and this will be one of them.
20. Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 30)
Tech finally got Paul Johnson a bowl win and, ideally, that will catapult the team into the offseason. The Dawgs are a big-time national title contender. Finally, it is still arguably the best named rivalry in the nation: “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.”
21. BYU at Wisconsin (Nov. 9)
Defense will rule the day in a rare late-season non-conference game for a Big Ten power.
22. Oregon at Nevada (Sept. 7)
Sans legend Chris Ault, Nevada will host one of its most high-profile opponents in Reno history.
23. Penn State at Syracuse (Aug. 31, East Rutherford)
Cuse has a new coach but has been much better of late. PSU needs to start things right.
24. Tennessee at Oregon (Sept. 14)
This won’t be a close game, but two major powers get together in Eugene early in the year.
25. Arkansas at Rutgers (Sept. 21)
Revenge factor is heavy for the Hogs, but the Knights have a national spotlight game here.
26. West Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 21, Baltimore)
The Terps are improving and WVU is replacing a ton of offensive weapons.
27. Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky (Aug. 31, Nashville)
Bobby Petrino vs. the SEC. Need I say more?
28. Western Kentucky at Tennessee (Sept. 7)
Bobby Petrino vs. an SEC team that should have hired him. Need I say more?
29. Ole Miss at Texas (Sept. 7)
Was a high-scoring showdown in Oxford in 2012, could be even better in 2013.
30. Ohio State at Cal (Sept. 14)
Tricky road game for national title contender against new coaching staff in Berkeley.
Best of the Rest:
Utah at BYU (Sept. 21)
Washington State at Auburn (Aug. 31)
Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 14)
Northwestern at Cal (Aug. 31)
Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 14)
Washington vs. Illinois (Sept. 14, Chicago)
Notre Dame at Purdue (Sept. 14)
Louisville at Kentucky (Sept. 14)
Northwestern at Cal (Aug. 31)
Nevada at UCLA (Aug. 31)
Syracuse at Northwestern (Sept. 7)
Nevada at Florida State (Sept. 21)
Miami at USF (Sept. 28)
Georgia Tech at BYU (Oct. 12)
Notre Dame at Pitt (Nov. 9)
Purdue at Cincinnati (Aug. 31)
The 2012 college football season ended the same way the last one did with Alabama and the SEC on top.
Teams who rose up and exceeded expectations, though, were among one of the major hallmarks of the year.
Texas A&M, a team few though would compete immediately in the SEC, knocked off the eventual national champion on the road, produced a freshman Heisman winner and won the Cotton Bowl.
On the other side of the country, Stanford lost Andrew Luck but gained a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl win.
Even Notre Dame found a way to surprise us with an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the BCS title game.
While Alabama will be tough to knock from the No. 1 spot, there are plenty of teams poised to climb even higher in the polls next season.
It’s early, but here’s a look at five teams poised to improve their win total in 2013. Could Clemson's Tajh Boyd be among the teams on the rise next season?
5 Teams on the Rise for 2013 Season
Arizona State - No. 24 in early top 25 for 2013
The Sun Devils finished the 2012 season by winning their final three games, including a huge 41-34 road victory over in-state rival Arizona and a 62-28 blowout win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. There’s no question Todd Graham’s first season in Tempe was a success, especially when you consider the program had eight victories in 2012 – the most since winning 10 in 2007 – and lost by two points to Pac-12 South champion UCLA. The offense averaged 38.4 points a game in 2012 and returns two capable quarterbacks in Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank, while D.J. Foster and Marion Grice will pickup the slack for the departed Cameron Marshall at running back. Arizona State’s defense received good news when defensive tackle Will Sutton decided to return for his senior year. Although Sutton is back, the Sun Devils need to find replacements for linebacker Brandon Magee and safety Keelan Johnson. However, this unit held opponents to 24.3 points a game last season and could improve on that number in 2013.
Clemson - No. 9 in early top 25 for 2013
Since winning the Chick-fil-A Bowl, not much has gone wrong for Clemson. Quarterback Tajh Boyd turned down the NFL Draft for one more season on campus, and with all of the head coaching vacancies filled, offensive coordinator Chad Morris will also return to Death Valley for 2013. The combination of Boyd and Morris is a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, and Clemson should once again threaten to average over 500 yards and 40 points a game next season. The Tigers weren’t among the nation’s elite on defense but held LSU to just 99 rushing yards in the bowl game. Although Clemson has a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball, it should be a heavy favorite to win the ACC and has a chance at a marquee win in the season opener against Georgia.
Louisville - No. 10 in early top 25 for 2013
The Cardinals were one of the biggest surprises of the bowl season, upsetting a Florida team that was favored by nearly 15 points. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater surgically carved the Gators’ secondary for 266 yards on 20 completions, while Louisville’s defense held Florida to 286 yards and registered three sacks. With coach Charlie Strong turning down Tennessee, and Bridgewater back on campus for at least one more season, the Cardinals are poised to make a run at an unbeaten record. There’s no clear challenger to Louisville in the Big East next year, and the non-conference slate is very manageable. As long as the Cardinals stay healthy, finishing in the top five next year is a very realistic possibility.
Oklahoma State - No. 14 in early top 25 for 2013
Despite losing two of the nation’s top offensive players (quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon), the Cowboys still finished third nationally in scoring offense and fourth in yards per game. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Oklahoma State started three different quarterbacks and had only one returning starter on the offensive line from 2011. The Cowboys are in good shape on both sides of the ball for next season and should be the early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2013. Although coach Mike Gundy needs to find an offensive coordinator, Oklahoma State’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat next year. The Cowboys also have a huge schedule advantage in 2013, as they play arguably their biggest challengers in the Big 12 – Oklahoma and TCU – in Stillwater.
TCU - No. 15 in early top 25 for 2013
Making the jump from the Mountain West to the Big 12 was a step up in competition, but as 2012 showed, the Horned Frogs are more than ready to challenge for a conference title. Although Trevone Boykin filled in admirably for quarterback Casey Pachall after he was forced to leave the team in early October, the offense lacked a consistent passing attack. Assuming Pachall regains his starting spot, the Horned Frogs should see a jump across the board in offensive production next year. The rushing attack will get a boost from the return of Waymon James from a knee injury, along with the arrival of Nebraska transfer Aaron Green. TCU led the Big 12 in total defense last season and returns 10 starters from that group. A schedule that features road dates at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, along with a neutral site matchup against LSU will be challenging. However, the Horned Frogs have the returning personnel to challenge for the Big 12 title or a BCS bowl.
Related College Football Content
Johnny Manziel set the college football world on fire this year and it led to the first redshirt freshman winning the award. Johnny Heisman confirmed his amazing season by putting on a record-setting show in the Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma. But is the redshirt sophomore-to-be the front-runner to win Heisman considering only once in 77 years has someone won the stiff-armed trophy a second time. And that was in 1975 (Archie Griffin).
That said, two second-year players (Manziel, Tim Tebow) and a third-year sophomore (Mark Ingram) have won the award in the last six years. Additionally, three defensive players have found themselves in New York as finalists since 2009 and linebacker Manti Te’o nearly won the award this fall. It appears the antiquated tendencies of the Heisman voting populous are beginning to fade.
And it means a defensive end could be crowned as the best player in the game next fall:
The Heisman Finalists:
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Few players posted numbers comparable to Johnny Heisman, but Boyd was one of them. He led the ACC in passing efficiency (165.59) and total offense (339.2 ypg) and was fifth and seventh in each category nationally. He scored 46 total touchdowns (36 pass, 10 rush) and has a host of elite weapons returning. More importantly, this team should be the preseason favorite in the ACC with Boyd under center and Chad Morris calling the plays.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carey was the most underrated player in the nation this fall. He led the nation in rushing (148.4 ypg, 1,929 yards), set the Arizona single-season rushing record and the Pac-12 single-game rushing record (366 yards). He scored 24 times and helped turn the Wildcats from a four-win team in 2011 to an eight-win zone read monster this fall. And he did all of this as a sophomore. With spread guru Rich Rodriguez calling the shots, the tough-nosed workhorse has a chance to post huge numbers once again in 2013. Although Carey's on-field performance merits inclusion, the running back is facing domestic violence accusations.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
There is little doubt that Clowney is the most physically gifted player in the nation. He is a near lock as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. And because he plays a stat-heavy position on defense, he has a great chance at landing in New York. The monster defensive end finished third in the nation in sacks (1.08 pg) and second nationally in tackles for loss (1.96 pg). He enters his third year with 21.0 sacks, eight forced fumbles and 35.5 tackles for loss. Winning the SEC East might be a must if Clowney wants to become just the second true defensive player to ever win the award.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
What else is there to say about Manziel? His numbers speak for themselves and his Cotton Bowl performance will go down in Aggie lore as one of the greatest postseason performances by a Heisman winner of all time. But Tim Tebow couldn’t repeat. Neither could Mark Ingram, Matt Leinart or Sam Bradford. All were elite talents like Manziel, but the odds of repeating are 1-in-77.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Manziel gets most of the love as a redshirt freshman, but Mariota wasn’t far behind. He rarely played in any second halves and led the nation in road passing efficiency. Overall, he led the Pac-12 in passer rating and scored 37 total touchdowns. As the leader of arguably the nation’s top offense, the supremely gifted 6-foot-4, 200-pounder should be destined for at least one trip to NYC in his career.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes' quarterback was easily the biggest finalist snub this season, finishing fifth in the voting. As the leader of an unbeaten Ohio State squad, Miller single-handedly carried the Bucknuts to victory week after week. He was fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (105.9 ypg), second in passing efficiency and second in total offense. His electric play-making ability, raw toughness and perfect fit in Urban Meyer’s spread scheme make him a virtual lock as a Heisman contender next season.
The Top Challengers:
De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
An elite big-play machine, Thomas’ biggest weakness is actually one of his biggest strengths. The Oregon scheme lends itself to huge numbers but it also distributes the football. Simply put, he needs more than 137 touches on offense to get to New York.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
With a proven commodity at quarterback coming back, Lee would be in the “Finalists” category. But with Matt Barkley — and counterpart Robert Woods who drew plenty of defensive attention — leaving for the NFL, Lee’s numbers will almost assuredly go down.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
The Dawgs' signal caller will make a push to rewrite the Georgia and SEC record books with another big year in Athens. He led the nation in passing efficiency and has 77 total touchdowns in the last two seasons. He needs to finish a season in Atlanta with a win, however.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The hot name du jour is the Cards' signal caller after his electric performance against Florida’s nasty defense in the Sugar Bowl. The numbers have to get bigger and better and Louisville likely needs to run the table for the junior-to-be to land in NYC.
Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Few players make the eye-popping plays in the backfield like Martinez. He showed marked improvement in efficiency and decision making this fall, leading the Big Ten in total offense and passer rating. A pair of potential showdowns with Braxton Miller will likely determine T-Magic’s Heisman fate.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
The Bruins finally found a quarterback. The redshirt sophomore-to-be threw for three 300-yard efforts in his first four career games. He led his team to the Pac-12 title game and scored 38 total touchdowns. The show will be all his in Westwood now that Johnathan Franklin is gone.
TJ Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Looking for another true sophomore to win the award? Look no further than the extremely gifted Yeldon. He rushed for 1,000 yards and 10 scores as a backup this year and Nick Saban’s offense is a proven Heisman commodity for running backs.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
A big part of why Yeldon will be successful will be the return of McCarron. The O-Line will be rebuilt (to some extent), but the talent at the skill positions could be better than Saban has ever had at the Capstone. The biggest issue is his system will never allow for big numbers from the quarterback.
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The De’Anthony Thomas of the East Coast, Johnson led the ACC in kickoff returns and was third in all-purpose running as just a freshman. As the season went on, Al Golden trusted Johnson more on offense and he topped 100 yards three times in his last four games. Look for big things from the sophomore speedster.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
The offensive system will allow Carr to air it out all season long. He has 7,648 yards and 63 touchdowns against only 16 interceptions over his last two seasons. An unbeaten record and BCS bowl bid would be key for the Bulldogs' starter.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
When it comes to raw upside and physical talent, Watkins is second to none nationally. But staying healthy and focused has been an issue for the electric play-maker, causing him to miss four games in his first two years. Consistency will be the name of the game for the junior-to-be.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
It will be tough for Gurley to top his freshman numbers in the brutal SEC. He led the league in rushing by a running back and scored 17 times. Only Trent Richardson has ever scored 20 rushing TDs in SEC history as a running back and Murray will be throwing plenty of touchdowns. The UGA vote will likely be split between two (maybe three) elite players.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Many people, myself included, were massively disappointed by the 260-pound quarterback. He rallied the Hokies late and the offense should be improved in 2013, but Thomas needs to show growth as a passer (18 TD, 16 INT) to get to New York.
Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois
For Lynch to get to Manhattan next December, he would have to improve on what could be considered the best single-season in MAC history. A BCS bowl bid, nearly 2,000 yards rushing, over 3,000 yards passing, 44 total touchdowns and just six interceptions will be tough to reproduce.
The Long Shots:
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
Huskers love to run it and the explosive back will be top complementary piece to Martinez.
Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma
He will score plenty of touchdowns, but can he complete passes consistently?
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
Percy Harvin-esque player will be used all over the field on improved Terps team.
Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
Must improve consistency and needs help on offense, but is only a junior and has loads of upside.
Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame
Showed marked growth over the season and Irish could once again be a top 5 team.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
James White will factor in as well, but Gordon is best bet to be Badgers' new workhorse.
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
Sneaky-good athlete in an excellent offense with host of electric supporting athletes.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Big-play star as a runner, receiver and return man for what could be best offense in school history.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Third-year starter at tailback could be leading candidate from Big 12 in elite offense.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Coach Sark has proven he loves tailbacks, but Keith Price has to improve to help the offense.
The Best of the Rest:
Antonio Andrews, RB, WKU
Michael Brewer, QB, Texas Tech
Kolton Browning, QB, UL Monroe
Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
Kenneth Dixon, RB, La Tech
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Keith Price, QB, Washington
Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
Austin Seferian-Jenkin, TE, Washington
Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt
Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss
The Defensive Names to Watch:
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Is a terror off of the edge and will push for nation's lead in sacks.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Big-play machine has All-American type talent and upside on a national title contender.
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Elite recruit produced All-Big 12 season as just a freshman. The sky is the limit.
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Legacy talent needs to stay healthy all year to prove how dominant he can be.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Elite leader is one of few major defensive stars who elected to return to college.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Redshirt junior to be is already a star and could be nation's top returning coverman.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Will lose a lot of talent around him, but no one hits harder and bigger than Shazier.
Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State
Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year back on a team that could push for a division title.
Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
Elite playmaker who should blossom into an All-American as just a sophomore.
Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
Supremely gifted athlete could pass Louis Nix as top Irish defender next fall.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Sturdy, dependable star returns for final season in Provo.
For the second straight year and the third time in the past four years, the Alabama Crimson Tide has been voted No. 1 in the season's final Legends Poll.
Others Receiving Votes: Wisconsin 25, UCLA 18, San Jose State 16, Northern Illinois 14, Cincinnati 7, Arkansas State 4, Rutgers 4, Kent State 3, Arizona State 2, Arizona 1