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Texas enters a critical offseason as the first BCS team to open spring practice in 2013. After recording nine consecutive double-digit win seasons, the Longhorns have failed to reach that mark in each of the last three years. Texas hit rock bottom by going 5-7 in 2010 but has rebounded by going 8-5 in 2011 and 9-4 in 2012. Although Mack Brown’s team is making progress, the Longhorns are still a ways off from contending for a national championship. And at Texas – a place with all of the resources necessary to compete for a title every year – going 22-16 in the last three years is unacceptable.
Texas Longhorns 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
Spring practice dates: Feb. 21-March 30
Returning Starters: Offense – 9 Defense – 9
Passing: David Ash, 214 of 318, 2,699 yds., 19 TDs, 8 INTs
Rushing: Johnathan Gray, 149 car., 701 yds., 3 TDs
Receiving: Jaxon Shipley, 59 rec., 737 yds., 6 TDs
Tackles: Steve Edmond, 103
Sacks: Jackson Jeffcoat, 4
Interceptions: Quandre Diggs, 4
Redshirts to Watch: OL Curtis Riser, DB Bryson Echols, DT Alex Norman, QB Connor Brewer, OL Camrhon Hughes, DT Paul Boyette, DL Hassan Ridgeway, QB Jalen Overstreet, LB Tim Cole
Early Enrollees to Watch: LB Deoundrei Davis, OL/DE Jake Raulerson, TE Geoff Swaim, QB Tyrone Swoopes
JUCO Transfers to watch: TE Geoff Swaim, OL Desmond Harrison
Aug. 31 New Mexico State
Sept. 7 at BYU
Sept. 14 Ole Miss
Sept. 21 Kansas State
Oct. 5 at Iowa State
Oct. 12 Oklahoma (Dallas)
Oct. 26 at TCU
Nov. 2 Kansas
Nov. 9 at West Virginia
Nov. 16 Oklahoma State
Nov. 28 Texas Tech
Dec. 7 at Baylor
Offensive Strength: Skill players. The Longhorns have amassed an array of skill players, including one of the nation’s deepest backfields in Johnathan Gray, Malclom Brown and Joe Bergeron. The receiving corps is in good shape with the return of Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, while Daje Johnson, Cayleb Jones and Kendall Sanders are promising options.
Offensive Weakness: The biggest weakness for Texas undoubtedly rests under center. Although David Ash has shown some flashes of promise, he struggled against Oklahoma and Kansas and nearly lost his starting job to Case McCoy. Ash holds the keys to Texas’ season. If he’s continues to improve, Texas can win the Big 12 title in 2013.
Defensive Strength: It’s hard to find a ton of superlatives for a defense that allowed 29.2 points a game last year. However, Texas returns standouts in defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and cornerback Quandre Diggs, while linebacker Jordan Hicks is back after missing most of last season with an injury. The secondary ranked 36th against the pass last season and should be a strength with Diggs, Adrian Phillips and Carrington Byndom returning.
Defensive Weakness: If Texas wants to win the Big 12 title, it has to find a way to stop the run. The Longhorns ranked 88th against the run last year and was steamrolled for 29 rushing scores. An injury to linebacker Jordan Hicks hindered the front seven last year, but questions remain about the front seven even with his return.
Spring Storylines Facing the Longhorns
1. With Bryan Harsin leaving to become the head coach at Arkansas State, Major Applewhite has been handed the reins to coordinate the offense in 2013. The former Longhorn quarterback had a so-so debut in the Alamo Bowl, as Texas scored only 10 points in the first half and never managed to get its rushing game on track against Oregon State. However, the Longhorns came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns to pickup a 31-27 Alamo Bowl victory. Applewhite will make a few changes from Harsin’s offense, as Texas wants to increase the pace on offense. Increasing the tempo and spreading the ball around through the air is an opportunity for Texas to spark an offense that ranked seventh in the Big 12 in scoring last year. How much of the new offense can Applewhite implement this spring? That’s the big question, just behind this one…
2. Is David Ash the answer at quarterback? Through his first two seasons on campus, Ash has shown flashes of promise but needs to be more consistent. Thanks to his performance in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl, the junior finished 2012 on a high note. With some building confidence, the Texas coaching staff now wants to see Ash take the next step in his development. If Ash struggles early, redshirt freshmen Connor Brewer and Jalen Overstreet, along with senior Case McCoy will have an opportunity to replace him. Ash is a good fit for Applewhite’s desire to speed up the tempo, but can he elevate Texas offense into a position where it can contend for the Big 12 title?
3. In addition to seeking more consistency and production from Ash, the Longhorns need a big spring from receivers Daje Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Cayleb Jones, along with the offensive line. While Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley are entrenched as the top two receivers, the Longhorns lack proven options as the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. Johnson, Sanders and Jones have the talent and will be counted upon to fill the void left by Marquise Goodwin. The front five showed improvement last season and should have more depth in 2013. Is that enough to help the Longhorns contend for the Big 12 title?
4. There’s no doubt Texas was one of the most disappointing defenses in the nation last season. The good news for coordinator Manny Diaz is nine starters are back, including end Jackson Jeffcoat who missed seven games due to an injury. Jeffcoat’s return is crucial for this defense, especially since Alex Okafor has exhausted his eligibility. The Longhorns also unexpectedly lost defensive tackle Brandon Moore to the NFL Draft, which should provide an opportunity for sophomore Malcom Brown to have a huge season, along with a chance for redshirt freshmen Paul Boyette, Alex Norman and Hassan Ridgeway to work their way into the mix. Fixing the rush defense starts with interior play, so the spotlight is on Desmond Jackson, Brown and Ashton Dorsey this spring.
5. Not far behind the concerns on the defensive line are question marks at linebacker and in the secondary. Getting Jordan Hicks back in the lineup will immediately improve Texas’ linebacking trio, but the rest of the unit has to play better. Steve Edmond and Kendall Thompson could be pushed for snaps from Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens. The linebacking corps has question marks, but considering the talent in place, this unit could end up among the best in the Big 12 by the end of the year. The secondary is in a similar position, as Quandre Diggs could be moved to safety, which would ease the loss of first-team All-Big 12 selection Kenny Vaccaro. If Diggs is moved to safety, sophomore Duke Thomas is the likely his replacement at cornerback and will be someone the coaching staff has to monitor closely in spring practice. Finding the right mix of talent and players in both units will be crucial for Texas this spring.
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2013 Spring Training camps are open and many players will compete against teammates for jobs before taking on other baseball teams in April. Here are some position battles to keep an eye on this spring.
National League East
The trade of Randall Delgado to Arizona in the Justin Upton deal eliminates most of the questions surrounding the rotation. This team is pretty much set as far as regulars go. Waiver claim Jordan Schafer will be competing with Jose Constanza for a backup outfield spot and a chance to return to the major leagues with the team that drafted him in the third round in 2005.
Journeyman outfielder Justin Ruggiano enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, when he hit .313 with 13 homers in 91 games, and he will get the first crack at the starting job in center field. If he falters this spring, Gorkys Hernandez or former National League Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will be there to pick up the pieces. Wade LeBlanc, who got a late-season look in the rotation, will fight it out with the likes of fellow lefty Brad Hand, righty Alex Sanabia and retread John Maine for the fifth starter’s spot. Former Cubs lefthander Scott Maine will compete with Rule 5 pick Braulio Lara and Sam Dyson among others, for a spot in the setup crew.
New York Mets
Amazingly for a team projected to finish so low in the standings, the Mets have few questions in the lineup and rotation, such as they are. With closer Frank Francisco ailing, there is an opening for closer, at least to start the season. Brandon Lyon with 79 career saves is the front runner. Bobby Parnell will be in the mix as well.
Roy Halladay will be highly scrutinized as he tries to rediscover the electricity on his pitches after an offseason spent reconditioning his high-mileage shoulder. While that drama plays out on the mound, rookie Darin Ruf will try to build on a remarkable year in which he hit 52 homers in three leagues on two continents. Blocked at first base by Ryan Howard, the less-than-fleet-footed Ruf is trying to become a left fielder at 26. If he can play the position and keep driving balls, he will earn some playing time. With the equally inept defensively Delmon Young coming off also in the mix, perennial prospect Dom Brown and John Mayberry Jr. will be necessary as defensive replacements.
With the rotation, starting lineup and bench basically set in stone, precious few battles remain in spring training for roster spots, but there could be opportunities in the Nationals’ bullpen. The Nationals have a decided preference for hard throwers, which means that righthander Christian Garcia, who impressed with his 100-mph heat last September, has an inside track for one of those spots, provided the Nationals don’t convert him to a starter. The Nats might look to add a situational lefty before Opening Day.
National League Central
There is a logjam for the final two positions in the rotation. Carlos Villanueva started 29 games for the Blue Jays the last two seasons. Travis Wood was second on the team with 156 innings pitched last year but now has to fight for a spot. Free-agent signees Scott Baker (who missed 2012 after elbow surgery) and Scott Feldman are other candidates. Feldman, a 17-game winner with Texas in 2009, was told he had a spot in the rotation before Jackson and Villanueva signed. In the outfield, David DeJesus will likely hold off prospect Brett Jackson for now, although Jackson is an intriguing combination of power and speed.
Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake are vying for that No. 5 rotation spot, and it’s very possible the Reds use Leake at the start of the season and bring Chapman along slowly or some other creative strategy to utilize both pitchers. It will affect the bullpen makeup, as will the health of Nick Masset. Logan Ondrusek has had 60-plus appearances in three straight seasons and could easily wind up on the final 25-man roster. How catcher Devin Mesoraco develops also deserves attention. He won’t beat out Ryan Hanigan but needs to show improvement from last season.
With the league’s most potent starting lineup returning intact, there will be no spring training battles among position players, but if shortstop Jean Segura doesn’t convice manager Ron Roenicke he is ready for prime time, veteran Alex Gonzalez will pick up the slack. The Brewers hope Gonzalez will merely serve as a mentor this season. However, the starting pitching rotation is an entirely different matter. Only No. 1 starter Yovani Gallardo is a proven commodity. Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson have pitched well in stretches, but both battled injuries a year ago. Young arms Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers, Mike Fiers and Tyler Thornburg will also compete for starting roles, and even Hiram Burgos has a shot to crack the rotation. Kelvim Escobar signed a major league contract in January. He will get a look as a starter, as well.
Both corner outfield spots are open, and it will likely come down to two competitions — Starling Marte vs. Alex Presley for left field and Jerry Sands vs. Travis Snider vs. Jose Tabata for right field. Presley and Tabata began last season as the starters but lost their jobs to Marte, a highly touted prospect, and Snider, who was acquired from Toronto in a late-July trade. Sands is a wild card after being acquired from Boston in the offseason. Six young pitchers will compete for one spot in the starting rotation. Lefthander Jeff Locke and righties Kyle McPherson and Jeff Karstens are the favorites, but lefties Andrew Oliver and Justin Wilson will get a look as well.
St. Louis Cardinals
Despite winning 18 games and being an All-Star in 2012, righthander Lance Lynn will enter spring training with no guarantee of leaving it as a starter. The Cardinals are throwing open two spots in the rotation for auditions, inviting Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller to make their claim. Lynn has the edge, but the three young righties have starter’s stuff. The World Baseball Classic will allow playing time for prospect Kolten Wong, who will get a long look at second base, where Pete Kozma, Ryan Jackson, Matt Carpenter and incumbent Daniel Descalso will compete. That contest will carry into the season before Cards have an answer.
National League West
Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs, who have been paired most of their careers since coming to the D-backs from the Angels in the 2010 Dan Haren deal, will battle for the final spot in the starting rotation along with Randal Delgado, acquired from the Braves in the Justin Upton trade. Cliff Pennington could face a spring challenge from rookie Didi Gregorius, but the D-backs appear inclined to have Gregorius open the season at Class AAA Reno. Cody Ross enters spring as the starting center fielder, but it will be interesting to see how rookie Adam Eaton fits in the mix. The speedy 24-year old made a strong impression with his defense and energy in a September call-up after hitting .381 with 46 doubles and 38 steals in 488 at-bats at Triple-A last summer.
With the return of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Rutledge will slide back to second base, where he will challenge DJ LeMahieu for the starting job. LeMahieu played well last season and improved as a hitter. The Rockies have to choose a third baseman from among Jordan Pacheco, Chris Nelson and newcomer Ryan Wheeler. The latter is a left-handed hitter, creating the possibility of some platooning at the position. Lefties Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich and righthander Tyler Chatwood, all of whom struggled with the Rockies last year, will compete for the fifth starter’s spot in the rotation.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The most important battles will take place in the trainer’s room. The Dodgers’ fortunes in 2013 will be affected heavily by the health of a handful of key players — outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford and righthander Chad Billingsley chief among them. Kemp (shoulder) and Crawford (wrist and elbow) are recovering from serious surgeries during or following the 2012 season. Billingsley spent the offseason rehabbing and working out in hopes of avoiding surgery to repair a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow.
San Diego Padres
The only position battles will be for the middle infield spots. Everth Cabrera, Alexi Amarista, Logan Forsythe and prospect Jedd Gyorko are in the mix. Heading into camp, Forsythe is penciled in as the starting second baseman and Cabrera at shortstop, with Amarista on the bench. Gyorko is one of the organization’s top prospects. His development is one of the reasons the Padres haven’t given third baseman Chase Headley a long-term extension. There will also be the usual battles at the back end of the rotation and bullpen. Casey Kelly, who made his big-league debut on Aug. 27, and Robbie Erlin will be considered for rotation spots.
San Francisco Giants
Gregor Blanco might have been the most impressive player in the Cactus League a year ago while winning a spot on the Giants’ Opening Day roster. He’ll need another big spring performance to hold off Andres Torres as the starting left fielder. Although the Giants system has plenty of young pitching, not much of it is big-league-ready. So prospects like Chris Heston and Michael Kickham will get a long look in exhibition games. With the lineup and rotation set, this spring will be about staying healthy and deciding on a final spot or two on the bench and in the bullpen.
Want more baseball? Check out Athlon Sports' 2013 Baseball Annual for the most complete preview available. Order your copy now!
We have ranked every college football program in the country, based on the attractiveness of the position from a coaching perspective. We considered many factors — tradition, facilities, location, money — but in the end, we simply asked ourselves the following question: Where would we want to coach? Today we focus on the Pac-12.
(Note: Current or impending NCAA sanctions were not a factor in these rankings.)
Ranking the Coaching Jobs in the Pac-12 for 2013
Pros: The USC coaching staff has the ability to stock its roster with elite talent without ever having to jump on a plane. The program has a rich tradition, but it doesn’t live in the past; the Trojans were dominant in the 2000s, winning seven straight Pac-10 titles (2002-08) and two national championships.
Cons: USC is the top job in L.A., but the city does have another program with tremendous potential. It doesn’t take much of a dip to lose your status as the No. 1 program in your own town.
Final Verdict: If you’re a West Coast guy, coaching the Trojans is as good as it gets. It’s the best job in the Pac-12 and you are in the most fertile recruiting area in the country.
Pros: As long as Phil Knight and the University of Oregon remain in good graces, this program will be blessed with tremendous financial resources. The Nike founder and former Oregon track athlete has donated over $100 million to the school’s athletic department. In addition, the Ducks have a tremendous home field advantage at 54,00-seat Autzen Stadium, regarded as the most raucous atmosphere in the Pac-12.
Cons: Right now, it’s difficult to find many good reasons why the head coaching position at Oregon would not be attractive. The school does lack tradition, but the Ducks have averaged nine wins per season since 1994.
Final Verdict: Ten or 15 years ago, Oregon wouldn’t be nearly as high on this list, but Knight’s money, Mike Bellotti’s recruiting and Chip Kelly’s offensive wizardry transformed this program. It is now clearly one of the most-desirable positions in the country.
Pros: UCLA shares the same built-in recruiting advantages as its cross-town rival USC. The 2000s were relatively lean, but UCLA won or shared three Pac-10 titles in the 1990s and four in the ‘80s.
Cons: Life can be tough when you are forced to share a city with one of the elite programs in the nation. And while the Rose Bowl is a beautiful place to play, the facility is 30 miles from campus.
Final Verdict: The Pac-12 is a very good league, but USC and Oregon are the only programs that have enjoyed sustained success in the past 15 years. The right coach can have this program in contention for conference titles on a consistent basis.
Pros: This is a proud program with great tradition. The Huskies won a national title in 1991 and claimed at least a share of five Pac-10 titles from 1990-2000. UW is in a great city (Seattle) and has an SEC-like following when things are going well.
Cons: The school has addressed the program’s only significant weakness — facilities — with the $250 million renovation to Husky Stadium. Washington’s in-state recruiting base is solid but lags signficantly behind the four California teams in the Pac-12.
Final Verdict: The past decade has proven that it can be difficult to win at Washington. But this is still a very good job. Is it a great job? Not anymore. But it is still a prestigious program that can attract elite talent. You can win at UW.
Pros: Cal is one of the premier public institutions in the nation located in a great area, giving the Bears a recruiting edge against most of the other schools in the Pac-12. The school is also located in the fertile recruiting area of Northern California. And the facilities, long time an issue at the school, have recently received a major upgrade.
Cons: Bears have had trouble winning consistently; they have two Pac-12 titles (none outright) since 1958.
Final Verdict: Cal is an intriguing job. There is a lot to like, but there are certain drawbacks. You can win in Berkeley, but the culture of the university will likely prevent the football program from ever reaching elite status.
6. Arizona State
Pros: The Sun Devils have made a significant investment in their facilities in recent years, with an indoor practice bubble and new weight and locker rooms. And recently, plans were announced to upgrade Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State has won three Pac-12 titles in its 30-plus years in the league (1986, ’96 and ’07). Oh, we can’t forget about the weather.
Cons: While the school has experienced pockets of success (three league titles), the Devils have strung together back-to-back winning Pac-10 seasons only once since John Cooper bolted in 1987.
Final Verdict: Arizona State offers a pretty good situation for a school without a strong local recruiting base. The weather is great and the tradition is good enough. USC, Oregon and UCLA will always the top jobs in the league, but with the right coach in place, ASU can be a consistent force in the Pac-12.
Pros: Arizona has never been a Pac-10 power, but the school has more than held its own for much of its 32 years in the league. The Wildcats had 11 winning Pac-10 seasons in a 13-year stretch from 1982-94. Good coaches have shown the ability to attract talent to Tucson.
Cons: Since 1994, Arizona has only had a winning Pac-12 record twice — 1998 and 2009.
Final Verdict: Being a good recruiter is obviously important at every school, but it is of paramount importance at Arizona. The school is without many of the built-in advantages (tradition, top facilities, etc.) that exist at some of the Pac-12 programs, so you have to convince players to come to Arizona for reasons other than the weather.
Pros: Stanford offers the best combination of elite academics (top 5 in U.S. News & World Report) and big-time college football. The school’s outstanding reputation allows the staff to recruit nationally.
Cons: Until recently, sustained success had been tough to achieve on The Farm. From the late 1970s through the late 2000s, Stanford was unable to string together more than two straight wining seasons. The school’s strict academic standards — even for athletes — shrinks the recruiting pool considerably.
Final Verdict: Stanford is not for everybody, but it is a great job for a coach who embraces the school’s mission. The Cardinal struggled for much of the 2000s, but this is a program that has emerged as a national power in recent years.
Pros: Colorado lacks the tradition of some of the Pac-12 powers, but this program has enjoyed strong pockets of success over the past 25 years. The Buffs won three Big Eight championships in a row from 1989-91 (along with a national title in ’90), and they won four Big 12 North titles in the 2000s. With the right coach in place, this is a school that will attract quality players.
Cons: The facilities at Colorado lag behind most BCS conference schools, and the school’s commitment to athletics has been questioned in recent years. The Buffaloes recently announced a $170 million facility upgrade proposal, which is a step in the right direction. Also, the CU fans can be fickle; Folsom Field (53,750) has rarely been filled to capacity over the past few seasons.
Final Analysis: Three different coaches have won 10 games in a season since 1990, so it’s possible to win big at Colorado. But until the school makes a significant commitment to the program — which it claims to be doing now — CU cannot be considered an elite job.
10. Oregon State
Pros: This is not longer the Oregon State of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The program has proven it can be relevant in the Pac-12 for an extended period of time.
Cons: Oregon State is No. 2 program in a state that does not produce a high volume of Pac-12-quality players. The school has improved its facilities, but they pale in comparison to what the University of Oregon — funded by Nike — has to offer.
Final Verdict: This job is far more attractive now than it was in 1997, when Mike Riley began his first stint as the boss in Corvallis. But it’s a difficult job. Almost every school in the league has more going for it — from tradition to fan base to recruiting base — than Oregon State.
Pros: Prior to its move to the Pac-12, Utah had emerged as one of the few non-BCS conference teams that was able to compete on the national scene. The Utes have averaged 9.2 wins over the past 10 years, highlighted by two perfect seasons punctuated by BCS bowl wins. As a member of the Pac-12 South — along with USC and UCLA — the Utes should enjoy success recruiting in Southern California.
Cons: Utah is a decent state for high school talent, but there aren’t nearly enough high-level players to stock the rosters both at Utah and BYU.
Final Verdict: Utah had carved out a niche as one of the top non-BCS programs in the nation. The move to the Pac-12, however, changed the profile of the program. It’s uncertain if Utah can be a significant player in the Pac-12 on a consistent basis. It’s tough to envision this program being a more desirable destination than USC, UCLA and both of the Arizona schools.
12. Washington State
Pros: Only four schools have played in the Rose Bowl in the past 11 seasons. USC, Oregon, Stanford and … Washington State. That, along with the fact the Cougars won 10 games in three straight seasons (2001-03) proves that you can win games in Pullman.
Cons: Pullman is the most remote outpost in the Pac-12. It can be difficult to attract prospects from California to play collegiately in Eastern Washington. The school has upgraded facilities in recent years, but it still lags behind most schools in the league on this front.
Final Verdict: Washington State’s biggest hurdle is its location. In a league that includes four teams in California, one in Phoenix, one in Seattle and one just outside Denver, it’s tough to remain relevant when your school is 280 miles from the nearest big city (Seattle).
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How long can it take to complete a journey from rags to riches? For Brad Keselowski, it took six years. The driver spent the 2006 offseason mourning the pending bankruptcy of his family operation, and was forced to drive for a minor-league, suspect organization that was running junkyard equipment simply to make ends meet. How bad was it? The driver who this season added hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers mid-Daytona 500 didn’t even make the field for the February 2007 then-Busch Series event at the same track.
Setting the starting lineup for the Daytona 500 can be a trial of confusion for those that choose not to read the syllabus. And let’s be honest, that’s why you’re reading this, right? You want the CliffsNotes.
Fair enough. So allow me to explain this as painlessly as possible.
In the beginning — in this case, Sunday — a battery of 45 cars took to the track in qualifying, yet only two machines locked in their spots on the grid. In case you hadn’t heard, Danica Patrick qualified her No. 10 Chevy on the pole with a lap of 196.434 mph. She, along with Jeff Gordon (who posted the second quickest time) will, by history’s standards, comprise the front row. Note that if either has to go to a back-up car after Thursday’s Duel races, they’ll be forced to start at the rear of the field in the 500.
“Duel races?” you’re asking. “What are they and how do they factor?”
OK, qualifying for the Daytona 500 is a bit different from any ol’ weekend on the NASCAR circuit. For the 500, two Duel races will determine positions 3-32. Yes, they actually split the 45 cars that have shown up into two groups (based on even and odd positions in Sunday’s qualifying times) and cut ’em loose for 150 miles.
In those two races, the highest finishing 15 cars from each race (excluding our buddies Danica and Jeff) earn their spots for the big show. The top 15 finishers in the first Duel will line up in the inside lane for the 500; the top 15 in Duel No. 2 occupy the outside lane.
“Now wait,” you’re saying, “Danica and Gordon … do they have to race in those events? After all, you told us just a minute ago that they’re locked in up front.”
True enough. And yes, they do. However, they don’t have to play it fast and loose. In fact, with front row spots all but locked in, each may be wise to drop to the rear of the field and let the chaos happen well in front of them. However, that’s another column for another day.
“OK, so we’ve got a field of 32. Isn’t this a 43-car race?”
Yep. And it gets even more fun here. Positions 33-36 are awarded to the four fastest cars from qualifying that have not yet earned a spot. A hypothetical: Ryan Newman, who had the fourth fastest time on pole day has a tire go flat in his Duel and drops a lap down, eventually finishing 19th. Since he did not qualify via the Duel, yet had a fast qualifying time, he’s in.
“Gotcha. So there’s 36 cars … can it get any more complicated?”
Not too much, but positions 37-42 are called “provisionals” and go to the highest six cars in 2012 owner points not already in. And as for the 43rd? That can go one of two ways: Either a past series champion who made a start in 2012 (and not already qualified) gets it, or — if there’s no past champ — it is assigned to the next highest car in owner points from 2012.
“I suppose. So how do they go about setting the field next week at Phoenix, and the week after in Las Vegas?”
Oh that. Yeah, it’s this astonishingly simplistic method of just taking the fastest 36 and assigning the rest via provisionals. How arcane, right?
Want to learn more about getting heathly and staying active? Visit PHIT America, a year-round educational and advocacy campaign dedicated to creating A Movement for a Fit & Healthy America.
Steroids are now just as synonymous with baseball as hot dogs or cold beer. It is an unfortunate era of the game that fans of all ages must accept. Are the use of performance-enhancing drugs terrible for the body and a form of cheating? Yes, and this country should work diligently to combat their growth. But steroids are a part of why the game of baseball returned to the nation’s heart after a work stoppage and no World Series in 1994.
The 1998 home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, for example, revived a lifeless sport and, like it or not, everyone from the owners and the players to the managers and the fans benefited.
Should steroid users be in the Hall of Fame — alongside plenty of other great players who bent the rules? Who benefited more from PEDs: Hitters or pitchers? Will there ever be confirmation of who used what when? Since there will likely never be a definitive answer to these questions maybe baseball should build a “Steroid Wing” in Cooperstown and just lump everyone from 1990 to 2006 — when Bud Selig finally created the Joint Drug Prevention and Blunt Treatment Program.
How would that roster look? Here is the all-time steroid team made up of names who have been connected in one way or another to some sort of PED at some point. The starting lineup is a murderer’s row and the rotation has one of the all-time greats fronting it.
C: Pudge Rodriguez (1991-2011)
Key Stats: .296/.798, 2,844 H, 311 HR, 1,332 RBI
Awards: All-Star (14), Gold Glove (13), Silver Slugger (7), MVP
He is one of baseball’s all-time greatest catchers. He has more putouts (14,864) than any other catcher in history by a wide margin as his 21-season career would indicate. He hit over 20 home runs, however, just five times. They all came in consecutive seasons with the Rangers after playing three years with Jose Canseco. His 35-homer, 113-RBI MVP season is a clear outlier as Canseco claimed to have personally educated Rodriguez about steroid use. He never topped 30 home runs or 100 RBIs in any other season. Following the release of Canseco's inflammatory book, Juiced, the 215-pound catcher showed up at Tigers camp at 187 pounds and never hit more than 14 homers the rest of his career. Honorable Mention: Mike Piazza, Javy Lopez
1B: Mark McGwire (1986-2001)
Key Stats: .263/.982, 583 HR, 1,414 RBI
Awards: All-Star (12), Silver Slugger (3), Gold Glove (1), Rookie of the Year
McGwire is one of the few who has openly admitted that he used PEDs during his playing career. In fact, he dates his use of steroids back to as early as 1989 when he and Canseco won the World Series in Oakland — the modern birthplace for steroids. The Big Mac would have been a big bopper no matter what drugs he took, but breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record two years in a row seems highly unlikely. Especially considering he did it at age 34 (70 HR) and 35 (65). Honorable Mention: Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell
2B: Bret Boone (1992-2005)
Key Stats: .266/.767, 252 HR, 1,021 RBI
Awards: All-Star (3), Gold Glove (4), Silver Slugger (2)
Boone’s career stat sheet is one that steroid haters point to on a regular basis. How could a 5-foot-10, 180-pound second baseman who hit a total of 62 home runs in his first six seasons somehow blast 37 dingers and lead the league in RBIs (141) with a .331 average at age 32? His .950 OPS that year dwarfed his career .767 mark. In eight of 14 seasons, Boone hit 15 round trippers or less. But from 2001 to 2003, he hit 96 of his career 252 homers. Once again, it was Canseco’s book that fingered Boone as a potential steroid user. Honorable Mention: Brian Roberts, Chuck Knoblauch
3B: Alex Rodriguez (1994-present)
Key Stats: .300/.945, 647 HR, 1,950 RBI, 318 SB
Awards: All-Star (14), Silver Slugger (10), MVP (3), Gold Glove (2)
Playing in Seattle and Texas, two steroid hotbeds, A-ROD tested positive for PEDs in 2003 and eventually confessed to his use of banned substances from 2001-03. He has also seen his name mentioned prominently with more recent accusations hailing from Biogenesis in South Florida. He was an elite player with elite skills but his 40-40 season, multiple MVPs and historic numbers have all been called into question by his decision to cheat. His legacy will be an interesting one to track over the next, say, five seasons? Honorable Mention: Ken Caminiti, Mike Lowell, Gary Sheffield
SS: Miguel Tejada (1997-2011)
Key Stats: .285/.793, 304 HR, 1,282 RBI
Awards: All-Star (6), Silver Slugger (2), MVP (1)
Tejada was arguably the top shortstop in the game during a five-year stretch from 2000-04. He hit over 30 home runs in four out of five seasons, led the majors with 150 RBIs in 2004 and won the 2002 MVP as a key cog in the emergence of the "Moneyball" era in Oakland. But like many Bay Area players, the Latin star was fingered for steroid use by a variety of people. Rafael Palmeiro accused him of giving him tainted B-12 shots. Canseco accused him in his book. And then his name was featured prominently in the Mitchell Report. It all eventually led to a somber confession in 2009, as he was facing federal perjury charges, leaving little doubt that his career is tainted.
OF: Barry Bonds (1986-2007)
Key Stats: .298/1.051, 762 HR, 1,996 RBI, 514 SB
Awards: All-Star (14), Silver Slugger (12), Gold Glove (8), MVP (7)
The most high-profile steroid user in the history of baseball also just happens to be its all-time home run champ. Everyone knows the number 755 but few know Bonds’ 762. This is all, of course, due to his miraculous late-career power surge. He never hit over 50 home runs in a season until he blasted 73 in 2002 at age 36. He hit over 40 dingers only three times in his career before topping 45 in five straight seasons from 2000 to 2004 — his 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th seasons. He was at the center of the BALCO scandal playing in a roided-up city during the peak of the steroid era. This one is a no brainer and it’s a shame, because he might have been one of the greatest hitters of all-time if he hadn't cheated. Honorable Mention: Ryan Braun, Gary Sheffield
OF: Sammy Sosa (1989-2007)
Key Stats: .273/.878, 609 HR, 1,667 RBI, 234 SB
Awards: All-Star (7), Silver Slugger (6), MVP (1)
This should be the only stat you need to know about Sosa and the steroid era: The Cubs' slugger broke Maris’ single-season home run record three times (1998, 1999, 2001) and never once led his league in homers. Think about that? He was a power hitter despite his 6-foot, 165-pound frame before 1998, but his numbers spiked dramatically during his historic home run chase with McGwire. He hit 207 HR in his first nine seasons and 292 long balls from 1998 to 2002. His 2005 Congressional hearing performance was one for the ages and he was fingered by The New York Times in an article stating Sosa tested positive for PEDs in 2003. Seriously, Baseball-Reference has him listed at 6-foot and 165 pounds… and he has 609 home runs? Honorable Mention: Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez
OF: Manny Ramirez (1993-2011)
Key Stats: .312/.996, 555 HR, 1,831 RBI
Awards: All-Star (12), Silver Slugger (9)
There weren’t many better right-handed hitters in all of baseball than Man-Ram in his prime. But that all came crashing down when he tested positive in 2009 for testosterone levels and was suspended 50 games. He then tested positive again in 2011 for a banned substance. All of this after he was fingered as a user back in the infamous 2003 drug test that reportedly also implicated Sosa, A-Rod and others. He was an elite hitter who delivered in the clutch and led his team to four different World Series. But he also quit on his team and earned the "Manny Being Manny" moniker after bizarre and often inexplicable on-field behavior. Honorable Mention: Brady Anderson, Melky Cabrera
DH: David Ortiz (1997-present)
Key Stats: .285/.928, 401 HR, 1,326 RBI
Awards: All-Star (8), Silver Slugger (5)
Big Papi has a strange career boxscore. In six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz slugged just 58 home runs — or less than 10 per season. But paired up with Man-Ram in Beantown for an organization that is willing to do anything to win and he became the greatest hitting DH of all-time. He has averaged 34 home runs per season in his 10-year Red Sox career and topped out at a league-leading 54 in 2006. Ortiz, like so many others on this team, reportedly tested positive for steroids in 2003, information that finally came to light in 2009, and his power numbers have dropped ever since that disclosure. Honorable Mention: Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui
SP: Roger Clemens (1984-2007)
Key Stats: 354 W, 4,916.2 IP, 4,672 K, 3.12 ERA
Awards: All-Star (11), Cy Young (7), MVP (1)
The Bonds of the mound, Clemens used PEDs to match the slugger's MVPs with seven Cy Young awards. He led the league in ERA seven different times, including a sterling 1.87 mark — his career best — at age 42 while pitching in a notorious steroid town (Houston) in 2005. The change in his career dates back to his move north of the border. After four middling years in Boston from 1993-96, he signed with Toronto and went 41-13 in 498.2 innings with a 2.33 ERA and 563 strikeouts — at age 34 and 35. He was then traded to New York and made more than $97.8 million from age 37 to 44. His name came up 82 times in the Mitchell Report and he has been fingered by former trainers and even teammates as a possible rule-breaker. Honorable Mention: Andy Pettitte, Kevin Brown, Jason Schmidt,
RP: Eric Gagne (1997-2008)
Key Stats: 187 SV, 643.2 IP, 718 K, 3.47 ERA
Awards: All-Star (3), Cy Young (1)
Gagne was magical when he was at his best. He converted an MLB-record 84 straight saves and closed 152 games with 365 strikeouts and a 1.79 ERA in just 247.0 innings from 2002 to 2004. In his other seven seasons combined, he closed 35 games total. However, pitching on the West Coast during those years will raise major question marks and he was named prominently in the Mitchell Report complete with extremely incriminating evidence. He was never the same pitcher following his Tommy John surgery in 2005. Honorable Mention: John Rocker, Guillermo Mota
Note: This is simply for fun and not intended to cast official judgment of anyone named above nor is it investigative journalism.
Daytona. For the casual fan, it’s the one time a year in which tuning in is a must, not an option. For the hardcore fans and industry veterans, it’s a spiritual revival. It suffices as the start of a new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season when teams have spotless records and sky-high optimism.
For some drivers, there’s red still left over from the previous season’s ledger that they’re eager to erase. For a few, there are trends they’d like to keep on keepin’ on. This week’s batch of numbers shows those trends. Some of the metrics used are from my home site, MotorsportsAnalytics.com, but you’re encouraged to read a quick glossary of the terms.
3 and 2.3 Matt Kenseth has scored three victories and earned a 2.3 average finish across his last six restrictor plate races.
Kenseth, long lauded as an intuitive racer, has transformed himself into something of a restrictor plate racing stalwart. The 2.3-place average finish in that timeframe — and that includes a fifth-place run in last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, his first outing for Joe Gibbs Racing — is easily the best among drivers in the Cup Series and his minuscule 1.6-position deviation for those six finishes indicates incredible consistency for races often dubbed “crapshoots.” His 7.853 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) on plate tracks is not only the highest among 50 drivers from the 2012 season, but also pure statistical absurdity. Kenseth is ridiculously good at this style of racing.
-1.050 Danica Patrick’s replacement-level PEER ranked last in the Cup Series in 2012. PEER measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. For perspective, Ken Schrader, in a 13-race S&P effort, registered at 49th, with a -.250 PEER. That’s a large gap.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole in the history of the Cup Series last weekend and the fourth rookie to win the pole for the Daytona 500 (following Loy Allen, Mike Skinner and Jimmie Johnson). Cue pandemonium.
But let’s be real for a sec; we’re discussing a rookie driver who amassed a negative replacement-level PEER across 10 races last season (translation: beyond bad). At Daytona specifically, she competed in two races — her qualifying Duel race and the 500 — and crashed out of both. If you’re a Danica fan, enjoy the moment. Eat, drink and be merry, but also, be realistic. It’s feasible she’ll lead laps on Sunday, but pump the brakes on the delusion of Chase-making grandeur.
3 Jimmie Johnson has crashed out in each of the last three races at Daytona; last year’s Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 and this year’s Sprint Unlimited.
Johnson Tweeted about his frustration following Saturday night’s race. Come on, Five-Time. Every chance you’ve had to get some drafting practice in (i.e. January testing, practice last Friday), you didn’t even attempt to take advantage. You need it; that 47th-best -0.167 plate track PEER you earned last year won’t get better without putting in the work.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicks off Feb. 24 with the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. The Great American Race also marks the beginning of the fantasy NASCAR season for fans who are again met with the tough decision of choosing the best drivers to fill their fantasy line-up. To help guide you through the 2013 season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll be breaking down our picks according to their NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, we give you our fantasy predictions for the 2013 Daytona 500, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Matt Kenseth — Kenseth finished in the top 3 in all four plate races last year and was strong in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited.
2. Tony Stewart — Has second-highest driver rating (96.5) for points-paying races at Daytona in the last eight years.
3. Kevin Harvick — Started week strong, winning Sprint Unlimited but that race winner hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since 2000. With four top-10s in his last six Daytona starts, could Harvick end that drought for Sprint Unlimited winners?
4. Jeff Gordon — Has the most top-fives (12) among active drivers in the Daytona 500.
5. Denny Hamlin — Has never had a DNF in 14 career starts at Daytona but has had only 2 top-10s in those races.
6. Clint Bowyer — Does not have a top-10 finish in his last five Daytona starts, including two DNFs during that stretch.
7. Kasey Kahne — Has schizophrenic track record. Has not finished better than 25th in the last four Daytona 500s but in the July Daytona race he has three consecutive top-10s.
8. Brad Keselowski — Last July’s Daytona race was his first top-10 finish at the track in seven Cup starts.
9. Jimmie Johnson — Has one top-15 finish in his last nine Daytona starts and has failed to finish the last two races there.
1. Kyle Busch — He has the highest driver rating for points races in the last eight years at Daytona at 97.6, and has the highest percentage of laps run in the top 15 (72.4) during that time)
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Among active drivers, he has the best average finish in Cup races at Daytona at 14.5 and has placed second in two of the last three Daytona 500s.
3. Jeff Burton — Only driver, other than Matt Kenseth, to score top-five finishes in both Daytona races last season.
4. Kurt Busch — Ranks third in laps led in points-paying races in the last eight years at Daytona behind only Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch.
5. Carl Edwards — Has six top-10s in his last seven Daytona starts.
6. Greg Biffle — Led 79 laps in the two Daytona races last year, second only to Matt Kenseth, who led 139 laps in those races.
7. Joey Logano — In his last three Cup races at Daytona, he’s finished third, ninth and fourth.
8. Mark Martin — Has an average finish of 12.0 in last four Daytona 500s.
9. Paul Menard — In his last four Cup races at Daytona, he’s finished ninth, eighth, sixth and 14th.
10. Martin Truex Jr. — He’s the only driver to have led at least one lap in each of the last four Cup races at Daytona. His reply via Twitter: “time to lead the last one.’’
11. Bobby Labonte — Has three top-15 finishes in his last four Daytona starts, including a fourth in the 2011 Daytona 500.
12. Aric Almirola — Has scored four top-20 finishes in his last five starts in restrictor-plate races.
13. Ryan Newman — Since winning the 2008 Daytona 500, he has one top-15 finish at Daytona, a fifth-place finish last July.
14. Juan Pablo Montoya — Did not finish better than 28th in any of the four restrictor-plate races last season.
15. Marcos Ambrose — Has an average finish of 24.1 in eight career Cup races at Daytona and has yet to lead a lap.
16. Jamie McMurray — Since winning 2010 Daytona 500, he’s not had a top-10 finish at the track in a Cup race.
1. Michael Waltrip — Was challenging for the lead at Talladega in most recent restrictor-plate race last fall before the big last-lap crash. Has three top-20 finishes in last five Daytona starts.
2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 20th in last year’s Daytona 500, his first start in the race. Place second in July Nationwide race at Daytona last year.
3. Austin Dillon — Making his first Cup start at Daytona. Finished in the top five last year in both Nationwide races there.
4. Trevor Bayne — 2011 Daytona 500 winner has had one top-10 finish in seven restrictor-plate races since that momentous day.
5. Danica Patrick — Daytona 500 pole-sitter has an average finish of 16.4 in the previous five 500s. Last pole-sitter to win Daytona 500 was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
6. Terry Labonte — Has three top-20 finishes in last four Daytona starts.
7. David Ragan — Won the July Daytona race in 2011 but failed to finish either Daytona race last year, placing 26th and 43rd.
8. Joe Nemechek — Has finished inside the top 30 three times in his last 10 Daytona starts.
9. Casey Mears — Has finished in the top 25 in each of his past two Daytona starts.
10. Dave Blaney — Has never finished better than 14th in 24 races at Daytona.
11. Travis Kvapil — 16th-place finish at Daytona in July was his best finish at track in 12 career starts.
12. David Gilliland — Placed third in the 2011 Daytona 500. Has finished 16th, 23rd and 31st in the three Daytona races since.
13. Regan Smith — Since placing seventh in the 2011 Daytona 500, he’s finished 24th, 24th and 34th in his last three Daytona starts.
14. David Reutimann — Has not led a lap in 12 Daytona starts.
15. Mike Bliss — Last ran at Daytona in Cup in 2010. Did finish ninth that day in the July race.
16. Scott Speed — Last Daytona start was in 2010 in the July race where he finished 10th.
17. Michael McDowell — Has an average finish of 34.6 in five previous races at Daytona.
18. JJ Yeley — Has finished 40th and 43rd in his last two starts at Daytona.
19. Josh Wise — Did not run in last year’s Daytona 500 but in the other three restrictor-plate races last season, he finished 43rd, 38th and 42nd, completing a total of 57 laps.
—By Dustin Long
Like just about everything else this college basketball season, the National Freshman of the Year race is a bit of a mess.
A week ago, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel could have been considered a frontrunner, not only for the top freshman, but also the National Defensive Player of the Year. His season-ending injury likely takes him out of the running.
The race for Freshman of the Year has fewer contenders now, but the debate is no less settled. For now, three appear to be the frontrunners -- UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Kansas’ Ben McLemore and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
With McLemore and Smart facing each other tonight in Stillwater, a rematch from a game Oklahoma State won on Feb. 2, Athlon Sports decided to take a look at all three.
NATIONAL FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR - WHO IS THE LEADER?
ANTHONY BENNETT, UNLV
The case for Bennett: Bennett is second in the Mountain West in scoring at 18 points per game and fifth and rebounding at 8.7 per game. In key wins over New Mexico and San Diego State in the last two weeks, Bennett had a double-double in each, his ninth and 10th double-doubles of the season. His 12 20-point games leads the conference.
The case against Bennett: UNLV has underachieved in Mountain West play, going 6-5 in the league. Bennett hasn’t been the only reason for those struggles, but he scored fewer than 10 points in losses to Air Force and Colorado State and shot 5 of 16 in a loss to an 8-16 Fresno State team. Of Bennett’s 10 double-doubles this season, only three have come in Mountain West play.
BEN McLEMORE, KANSAS
The case for McLemore: Before the season started, few talked about Kansas as a national title contender. McLemore’s emergence as a redshirt freshman powered a 19-1 start. The 6-foot-5 guard has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, both of which Kansas won easily. He’s capable of flash like a 360-degree dunk on Texas, but he’s also an 87.1 percent free throw shooter. He’s been the fastest riser on NBA Draft boards this season and may end up being the No. 1 overall pick.
The case against McLemore: Kansas slipped in a three-game losing streak to start February. McLemore wasn’t awful during that stretch, but he was 6 of 16 from the field and 0 of 6 from three-point range in an embarrassing loss to TCU. He lost in a head-to-head meeting with Marcus Smart on Feb. 2, but he finished with 23 points and five rebounds that day.
MARCUS SMART, OKLAHOMA STATE
The case for Smart: Smart has transformed the Oklahoma State season. The all-effort point guard is among the Big 12 leaders in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals. During Oklahoma State’s seven-game winning streak, he’s averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists. In the head-to-head matchup against McLemore and Kansas, Smart had 25 points and nine rebounds
The case against Smart: Oklahoma State wasn’t the same team early in the season as it is now, starting 12-5. In losses, Smart scored 23 points against Gonzaga and 25 against Kansas State. His worst game of the season was a 10-point, 3-of-10 effort in a loss to Oklahoma. Unlike Bennett and McLemore, Smart is not the leading scorer on his own team, but he is the best facilitator -- by far -- of anyone in the group.
Stats from Statsheet.com, including a side-by-side comparison of all three.
COMPARISON: BASIC STATS
|Points per game||17.9||16.7||15.0|
|Rebounds per game||8.7||5.5||5.8|
|Assists per game||1.1||1.9||4.5|
|Field goal percentage||53.9||51.1||41.6|
|Free throw percentage||70.7||87.1||77.6|
|Steals per game||0.8||1.2||2.9|
|Blocks per game||1.2||0.9||0.8|
Notes: It's not a surprise to see Bennett, the power forward, with the biggest edge in rebounding over the two guards. Neither is it a surprise to see Smart, the point guard, with the edge in assists. What sticks out here is McLemore’s overall efficiency -- 51.1 percent from the field is outstanding for a guard, and 87.1 percent from the line is outstanding for anybody.
COMPARISON: ADVANCED STATS
|Points per 40 minutes||25.8||21.1||18.2|
|Points per FG attempt||1.52||1.52||1.37|
|Effective FG %||58.6||60.0||50.8|
|True shooting %||61.5||64.7||54.5|
|Plus/minus per game||+8.2||+12.2||+10.8|
Notes: Bennett gets a major bump in points per 40 minutes since he averages the fewest minutes per game. Bennett averages fewer than 28 per game while Smart averages nearly 33 and McLemore averages 31.5. McLemore’s advantage in the efficiency numbers shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, either. Effective field goal percentage is designed to give added weight to better three-point shooters, and McLemore is the best in that area. The same goes for true shooting percentage, which takes into account efficiency from both the three-point line and free throw line. Although Smart is often referred to as the most valuable freshman, McLemore leads the trio in plus/minus per game (the difference between points scored and points allowed while a given player is on the court). Kansas has the best record of the three teams and has an edge over Oklahoma State in points allowed and points scored as a team.
COMPARISON: “TOP” CONFERENCE COMPETITION
Is anyone padding numbers? For McLemore and Smart, we removed TCU, Texas Tech, Texas and West Virginia from their Big 12 averages. For sake of comparison, we removed Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming from Bennett’s numbers in Mountain West play:
|Points per game||15.4||21.0||19.3|
|Rebounds per game||8.5||5.4||6.7|
|Assists per game||0.9||1.3||4.7|
Notes: This is a sort of-arbitrary and sort of-sensible way to look at the three candidates by measuring their impact in the toughest conference games. These numbers disregard UNLV’s loss to Fresno State and Kansas’ loss to TCU, two major losses that are part of the picture. It also doesn’t count McLemore’s games against NCAA contenders Michigan State, Saint Louis, Colorado, Belmont, Ohio State and Temple. Kansas scheduled the toughest early in the season, so McLemore deserves credit for his role in the 12-1 nonconference record in addition to scoring 21 points per game against Big 12 Tourney contenders. These numbers, though, underscore how valuable Smart has been in the Big 12 race. His scoring average against the Big 12’s best teams is four points per game better than his overall scoring average, and that doesn’t get to his stat-sheet stuffing prowess in rebounds and assists. Bennett’s numbers, however, declined against the top teams in the Mountain West.
2013 Spring Training camps are open and many players will compete against teammates for jobs before taking on other baseball teams in April. Here are some position battles to keep an eye on this spring.
American League East
The fifth starter spot is wide open. Candidates include Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow last May, is ahead of schedule in his recovery and could join the fray. Nolan Reimold isn’t ready to concede left field to Nate McLouth. The last bench spot won’t be handed to Danny Valencia. Infielders Yamaico Navarro and Ryan Flaherty and outfielder Steve Pearce, among others, will try to avoid the minors. Executive VP Dan Duquette speaks highly of first basemen Conor Jackson and Travis Ishikawa and has indicated that they could contribute to the big-league club.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox aren’t opening too many starting spots to competition. The main area to watch will be catcher. With David Ross already announced as a backup who’ll play more than average, that leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway battling for the starting spot. If the former wins, the latter will return to Triple-A. If Lavarnway wins, Saltalamacchia immediately becomes trade bait. The fifth starter’s spot should be a dogfight, too, with Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales battling newcomers like Rubby De La Rosa. The bullpen will be a free-for-all as well, with former dominant setup man Daniel Bard on the outside looking in at the moment.
New York Yankees
It was notable that the Yankees chose David Phelps for a postseason roster spot over Ivan Nova. True, Phelps worked 22 games as a reliever and Nova worked none, but there was no mistaking that the Yankees had more confidence in Phelps to get big outs. Nova was 12–8 in the regular season, but he had a 6.38 ERA after July 1. Phelps flopped in October, losing twice, but he had a solid rookie season and at the very least should challenge Nova for a rotation spot. Michael Pineda, a 2011 All-Star for Seattle, is recovering from shoulder surgery and could be a factor by May or June. Travis Hafner and Eduardo Nunez will compete for at-bats at the DH spot.
Tampa Bay Rays
If super-prospect Wil Myers makes the roster, it’s to play every day. If he doesn’t, four (instead of three) utility spots will be available to contestants Sean Rodriguez, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Mike Fontenot and Tim Beckham. Rookies Brandon Guyer and Stephen Vogt will battle Luke Scott for DH duties. An all-out scrum for two of the six bullpen jobs is anticipated, with Cesar Ramos standing the best chance of survival because he’s left-handed and out of options. Most intriguing of all is who, out of at least four serious suitors, will be the fifth starter. Jeff Niemann is the pre-injury incumbent; Jake Odorizzi is the most polished rookie; Chris Archer has the highest ceiling; and the brass thinks it can resuscitate Roberto Hernandez’s star-crossed career.
Toronto Blue Jays
It seemed a little redundant for the Blue Jays to trade for Emilio Bonifacio shortly after signing Maicer Izturis. Both are switch-hitters with little power, and both could start at second base. Izturis has more experience there and is considered a better fielder. But Bonifacio profiles as a better bat and is more of a threat to steal bases. Bonifacio plays more positions, having started at least 17 career games at all three outfield positions and at least 65 at third, short and second. There’s room on the team for both, so expect John Gibbons to use their versatility to mix and match, with a slight edge to Bonifacio as the starting second baseman if he shows enough skill in the field.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox
Carlos Sanchez is ticketed to open the season alongside Brent Morel, Tyler Saladino and Andy Wilkins in the Triple-A infield but could make life uncomfortable for Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez in his first big-league spring. As a switch hitter with speed and strong base-running skills, he could add some balance to a lineup that will lean to the right side without A.J. Pierzynski. John Danks’ health will determine if there are one or two openings for a group of starting pitchers including Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago, Dylan Axelrod, Andre Rienzo, Charlie Shirek, Simon Castro and Nestor Molina.
Backup catcher Lou Marson could be pushed by newcomer Yan Gomes, who hit .328 with the Blue Jays’ Class AAA affiliate last year. If lefthander Scott Kazmir, once one of the most promising young pitchers in the game, has anything left, he’ll get a chance to crack the rotation. Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber should have a hotly contested competition for the last two spots in the rotation.
As might be expected from a team with championship aspirations, there are few job battles in the truest sense of the term. There is still some uncertainty at the front end of the bullpen and the far end of the bench. But the biggest question could be the fifth starter’s job, where Rick Porcello is the incumbent and Drew Smyly the challenger. However, knowing what we know about the attrition rate with pitchers, it is almost certain the Tigers will need both of them at some point.
Kansas City Royals
Two to watch: second base, where Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella continue competition for the third straight year; and the fifth spot in the rotation between Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, who spent last season as the club’s top two starters. Getz was having a career-best season in 2012 until injuries intervened, but Giavotella is generally viewed as having the higher upside. There are other possibilities — Miguel Tejada and Christian Colón — but it’s likely to be Getz or Gio. Either Chen or Hochevar could be traded to fill another need. Otherwise, their battle shapes up as a choice between back-of-the-rotation consistency (Chen) against unfulfilled upside (Hochevar).
Brian Dozier should be a man on a mission this spring. After being named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in 2011, he had a disappointing 2012 both offensively and defensively. The Twins gave him an 84-game audition at shortstop, and he made 15 errors and posted a .271 on-base percentage. He’ll get another chance to win a starting spot this spring, either at shortstop or second base. Pedro Florimon is the favorite to land the shortstop job, and veteran Jamey Carroll can play either position if the others aren’t ready, so it should lead to some healthy competition.
American League West
The Astros have no shortage of candidates for the final two spots in the pitching rotation, with lefty Dallas Keuchel and righthanders Philip Humber, Alex White, Edgar Gonzalez, John Ely and elite prospects Brad Peacock and Jarred Cosart among those battling for innings. The outfield also figures to be a battle in the spring. Justin Maxwell is likely to start at one of the three outfield spots, but the other two starters will come from a group that includes Brandon Barnes, Trevor Crowe, J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez and Jimmy Paredes or even Rick Ankiel. As expected with a team predicted to lose 100-plus games, there should be plenty of interesting battles from among the youngsters in the bullpen, as well.
Los Angeles Angels
Young righthander Garrett Richards nearly pitched his way into the rotation last spring and seemed poised to step into a spot in 2013. The Angels’ offseason moves, adding veteran starters Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton, have pushed Richards out of the picture. He might be in the position of battling a handful of other pitchers for the final spot in the bullpen rather than make a return trip to Triple-A. Offensively, the Angels will have some decisions to make about their batting order this spring, most prominently who gets the enviable task of batting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols at the top of the lineup.
If you trust OPS as the definitive measure of offensive value, then Jemile Weeks was the worst hitter in the majors last season, with a .609 mark that ranked last among qualifiers. Weeks has talent; he was a first-round pick with a brother in the big leagues, and hit .303 as a rookie in 2011. But he also has competition at second base in Scott Sizemore, who tore his ACL last spring but should be healed now. It’s tough to say who has the edge — a player like Sizemore who missed all of last season, or a player like Weeks who performed so poorly. Spring training will decide it, but the early bet is on Sizemore, who has shown more power. Jed Lowrie and Hiroyuki Nakajima will compete for time at shortstop. The odd man out could see some time at second as well.
If Justin Smoak isn’t dealt, he’ll battle Kendrys Morales for first base time and Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse for DH duty. Left fielder Jason Bay needs to show something to make the team. He’s guaranteed only $500,000, and Casper Wells can fill his role. Lucas Luetge shined as a rookie situational lefty, but fellow southpaws Oliver Perez and Charlie Furbush might force him to Class AAA. Luetge might stay if the team keeps only one of the two fireballing righties — Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps. Non-roster invitee Jeremy Bonderman hasn’t pitched since 2010 and will compete for a fifth starter job with Hector Noesi and top minor leaguers.
The most interesting question will be what the team does with super prospect Jurickson Profar. He just turned 20 and showed signs last September that may be ready for the bigs, middle infielders Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are well-established. It wouldn’t make sense to keep the youngster, who has never played at the Triple-A level, as a bench player in lieu of getting him regular playing time at Round Rock. Martin Perez enters camp as the fifth starter. The lefthander has been one of the Rangers’ top prospects almost since the day he was signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. He’ll be 22 on April 4, and the Rangers are expecting him to deliver on all the promise they have seen. The Rangers want Perez to be in the rotation, but he could pitch himself out of the job if he struggles with his command. It’s not just throwing strikes, but quality strikes. Righthander Justin Grimm, another top prospect who also debuted in 2012, could land the job if Perez slips.
RELATED: 75 Funny Fantasy Baseball Team Names
Want more baseball? Check out Athlon Sports' 2013 Baseball Annual for the most complete preview available. Order your copy now!
As the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series revs up, we look at the preseason favorites.
1. Ty Dillon (above left)
Without back-to-back tire failures late last the year, Dillon might have become the first rookie to win the series title, driving grandfather Richard Childress’ No. 3. Expect to see more of the same, following in brother Austin’s footsteps to a title in his sophomore season before moving on to the Nationwide Series in 2014.
2. Timothy Peters (above right)
Last season was the best Peters had posted in his career in the Truck Series, with career highs in wins (two), top 5s (10) and points finish (second). He’s paired with powerhouse Red Horse Racing and an intact crew, so there’s no doubt he’ll stay competitive. The organization will experience change, though, as Todd Bodine was released in the offseason in favor of John Wes Townley and his family’s Zaxby’s money. This move may not be as bad as one would think, as the wrecked equipment will cancel out while the money is a boon.
3. James Buescher
Winning back-to-back championships has proven impossible in the Truck Series thus far. However, with the amount of resources and the marked improvement Turner Motorsports showed throughout 2012, it’s hard to believe Buescher won’t be a factor — unless he jumps to the Nationwide Series instead.
4. Nelson Piquet Jr.
It’s hard to bet against anyone from Turner Motorsports after the numbers the organization put up in 2012 — seven victories spread among three different drivers. Piquet earned two, then ended the season with four straight top-10 finishes, a clear sign he’s developing championship consistency. Expect the third full-time season to be the charm here, especially if the Brazilian becomes Turner’s No. 1.
5. Joey Coulter
After grabbing his first career victory with Richard Childress Racing last year, Coulter looks to continue that success with Kyle Busch Motorsports. He hasn’t been the king of consistency, but the 22-year-old posted back-to-back third-place results to close 2012 and will bring that momentum along with him.
6. Matt Crafton
Back with ThorSport Racing for a 12th year in the Truck Series, this veteran mainstay hopes to make a championship push after his No. 88 team struggled in the transition from Chevrolet to Toyota. After a rough start to 2012 (one top 10 in five races), he quietly recovered while setting a career high in laps led (125).
7. Miguel Paludo
The Brazilian is returning to Turner Motorsports behind the wheel of the No. 32 Duroline Chevrolet, but perhaps what’s more important is that Jeff Hensley remains atop the pit box. Late in 2012, the duo began taking detailed notes of every practice and qualifying session in an effort to make the most of their setups. Improvement was slow but steady, as they closed with a fifth at Homestead in the season finale, leaving them optimistic about 2013.
8. Jeb Burton
Though he made only five 2012 starts, Burton (right) impressed with three top-13 finishes, including an eighth at Charlotte. That was enough to open eyes at Turner Motorsports, which now gives him resources to contend. With father Ward lending a guiding hand, this 20-year-old is poised to become another one of NASCAR’s next-generation stars.
9. Johnny Sauter
Coming off of his worst season, when he posted only nine top-10 finishes, Sauter looks to shake off the bad luck that plagued his ThorSport Racing No. 13 Toyota throughout 2012. While he’s been a championship threat in the past, winning four races the past two seasons, it’ll take more consistency for him to get solidly back in the hunt.
10. Ron Hornaday Jr.
After struggling in his first season away from Kevin Harvick, Inc., the organization that helped him win 25 races and two championships, Hornaday looks to utilize a merger with Joe Denette and NTS Motorsports to find his way back to Victory Lane. After career lows in top-5 results (two) and a 13th-place points showing, there’s nowhere to go but up.
—By Beth Lunkenheimer
A wild college basketball season has an eventful week ahead of it.
Entering Tuesday, 11 conferences had ties atop their leagues -- either outright ties or teams tied in the wins or losses column. And these aren’t obscure conferences either: The Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Mountain West are all crowded at the top.
Indiana taking the top spot in the Big Ten with Tuesday's win over Michigan State was just the start. Determining conference frontrunners will be the theme of the week.
In the Big 12, Kansas State took sole ownership of first place Monday, but the Wildcats will be in a tie for first by the end of the day Wednesday when Kansas, led by Jeff Withey, and Oklahoma State meet in Stillwater.
Three teams are tied for the Big East lead, with two of those teams -- Georgetown and Syracuse -- facing each other on Saturday. And the wild Mountain West could have a new bell cow -- or Ram -- by the end of the week, as well.
All times Eastern.
COLLEGE BASKETBALL BRACKET UPDATE - FEB. 20
MOST IMPORTANT GAME:
Kansas at Oklahoma State (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
With Kansas’ three-game swoon two weeks ago and Oklahoma State’s seven-game win streak, this game will be for a share of the Big 12 lead -- Kansas State was alone in first place after defeating West Virginia on Monday. The Jayhawks rebounded from their losing streak to beat Kansas State thanks to 30 points from Ben McLemore and then stifling a hapless Texas team. Kansas will revisit Oklahoma State, who won in Lawrence on Feb. 2. Marcus Smart scored 25 points in that game and has shown no signs of slowing down. Kansas may have played itself out of No. 1 seed contention, but a road win against a conference title contender should help the Jayhawks curry favor. For Oklahoma State, a regular season sweep of Kansas could give the Cowboys an edge in seeding and playing closer to home in the NCAA Tournament.
ALL EYES ON: Colorado State
at UNLV (Wednesday, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
New Mexico (Saturday, 4 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
The Rams are moving up from lovable mid-major to a legitimate contender for a Mountain West title and team likely to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams, who lead the nation in rebound rate despite a small lineup, will face the most talented team in the league (UNLV) and the team with a half game lead in the standings (New Mexico). Colorado State will either pick up or shed some believers this week.
UNDER PRESSURE: Ohio State
Minnesota (Wednesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Michigan State (Sunday, 4 p.m., CBS)
With three losses in the last four games, Ohio State slid into fifth in the Big Ten, a position that's not bad considering the strength of the conference. But since taking Michigan to overtime on the road, the Buckeyes have lost to Indiana by 13 and Wisconsin by 22. The Buckeyes will be tough to beat at home, but they must shoot better than 26.1 percent from three-point range, as they’ve done the last three games.
DePaul (Wednesday, 7 p.m.)
at Syracuse (Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS)
Lampooned for its low scoring games early in the season, Georgetown is averaging 67.2 points per game its last five. That’s not overly impressive, but it's not the sub-50-point games the Hoyas had earlier this season, either. The Hoyas’ style has led to efficiency -- Georgetown leads the Big East in both field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense in conference games. And now that efficiency might lead to a regular season Big East title. The Hoyas are one of three teams tied for the Big East lead at 9-3. One of those is Saturday’s opponent Syracuse, which has a 37-game winning streak at home.
at Connecticut (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
at Notre Dame (Sunday, 2 p.m., CBS)
Cincinnati has been in a team-wide scoring slump. The Bearcats have failed to score 60 points in each of its last four losses, including three since Feb. 6. In the last four games, Louisville is shooting 34.8 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from three-point range. After falling to 7-6 in the Big East, the Bearcats will need to reclaim some credibility on the road, not an easy proposition.
MID-MAJOR TO WATCH:
Creighton at Saint Mary’s (Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN)
BracketBuster games largely don’t impact NCAA Tournament selection, but this one might. Saint Mary’s has a lackluster at-large resume despite its 22-5 record and 11-2 mark in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels lack a top-50 win this year. A win over Creighton would be a key resume-builder. Creighton’s profile is a little stronger, but the Bluejays have struggled recently. They needed a late surge to defeat Evansville 71-68 to end a three-game losing streak in the Missouri Valley.
La Salle at Temple (Thursday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This is the rare Big 5 matchup withe Temple where La Salle may hold the upper hand. Temple has played three consecutive games decided by one point, winning two of them.
Cal at Oregon (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPNU)
Cal is putting together a nice NCAA Tournament resume. The Bears hope to add a season sweep of Pac-12 leader Oregon to wins over Arizona and UCLA.
NC State at North Carolina (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN)
The ACC is out of reach, but NC State can go for its first regular season sweep of North Carolina since 2003.
Marquette at Villanova (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2)
With a win at Connecticut on Saturday, Villanova is back in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Can the Wildcats handle prosperity this time around?
Arkansas at Florida (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
Arkansas can’t defeat anyone (but Auburn) on the road, but the Razorbacks have defeated three sure NCAA teams at home (Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida). Florida’s closest home game was a 14-point win over Ole Miss.
Missouri at Kentucky (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Missouri has Laurence Bowers back. Kentucky doesn’t have Nerlens Noel. The Wildcats’ hopes to prove they’re still a Tournament team continue with a tough home test.
Illinois at Michigan (Sunday, 1 p.m., ESPN)
What’s that? Illinois has won four in a row? The Illini have their longest win streak since early December, and two of those wins (Indiana, at Minnesota) didn’t come cheap.
Dr. Jerry Buss (Jan. 27, 1933 - Feb. 18, 2013) was the greatest owner in NBA history. In fact, the chemist and card player was arguably the best owner in sports history. The day after this year's All-Star Game in Houston, the NBA's brightest star faded away. With Buss's passing, David Stern's Association lost its most accomplished boss, savviest visionary and coolest 80-year-old.
Buss was a brand builder who purchased the Los Angeles Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 and transformed the franchise into the "Showtime" staple of Staples Center they are today. He did so by hiring the best and brightest as well as cultivating an environment that attracted the top talent to Hollywood. It starts from the top, but there were plenty of Hall of Famers and all-time greats wearing purple and gold during Buss's reign of 10 NBA Championships:
1. Jerry Buss
The good Doctor knew how to throw a party, making Lakers courtside seats the place to be and be seen while flipping his franchise's price tag from just one piece of a nearly $70 million purchase (which also included the NHL's Kings, The Forum and a ranch) into a $900 million asset, according to a recent Forbes estimate.
2. Magic Johnson
Guard (1979-91, ’96)
Of all the stars in Hollywood, Magic had the brightest smile and the most style, at least while leading a five-time NBA title-winning fast break that changed the way the game is played.
3. Kobe Bryant
Straight out of high school it was clear that Kobe was the next Laker great. Five rings and two Olympic gold medals later, Black Mamba has slithered his way as far up this list as possible.
4. Jerry West
The Logo's playing days were pre-Buss. But his foresight in the front office made West more valuable than even a franchise 7-footer.
5. Shaquille O’Neal
Say what you will about Diesel, he was Superman and Kobe was his sidekick during the three-peat days. It shouldn't take the Big Aristotle to figure that out.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Lew Alcindor was better and Roger Murdock was funnier, but Kareem deserves a statue, if only to immortalize the Sky Hook. Right?
7. Pat Riley
A champ as a pre-Buss player on the 1972 title team and an assistant to Paul Westhead on the 1980 title team, Riles was Magic's main man for the next four rings (1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988). The epitome of "Showtime."
8. Phil Jackson
Coach (1999-2004, 2005-11)
The Zen Master won five rings (2000-02, '09-10) with Kobe's Lakers after winning six rings with Michael Jordan's Bulls. Plus, he's engaged to Jerry's daughter Jeanie, so that's like winning a sixth ring for the Lake Show.
9. Chick Hearn
The voice of the Lakers for 3,338 consecutive games, Hearn's last game was a three-peat clinching win over the Nets in the 2002 NBA Finals. No harm, no foul. Never an air ball. Chick was a slam dunk for this list.
10. Jack Nicholson
Heeeeeerrrre's Jackie! No one's cooler. And no, you can't wear sunglasses indoors just cause Jack does. He's Jack, that's why. Jack's been around since before Buss was boss.
11. James Worthy
Big Game James was a No. 1 overall pick and Finals MVP and he can't beat out a play-by-play guy and a courtside season-ticket holder!? You've got to be kidding me!?
12. Pau Gasol
Mike D'Antoni clearly doesn't agree. But D'Antoni has also proven he doesn't know much about the Lakers. Ask Phil, he knows better. If only Jim Buss would ask Phil - or Jeanie, she knows better.
13. Jamaal Wilkes
UCLA legacy carried over to L.A. Lakers, with five championships between the two stops along with a pair of No. 52 retired jerseys.
14. Jeanie Buss
Brilliant and beautiful, daddy's girl has been the brains of the business side since Jerry took a step back several years ago. Thankfully, Jeanie is taking Jerry's seat on the NBA Board of Governors.
15. Mitch Kupchak
When John Malkovich had hair, he looked like Jerry West's protege. Or vice versa?
16. Byron Scott
"Showtime" shooter. Who knew that he really was a "coach on the floor?"
17. Michael Cooper
Lockdown defender was on all five of Magic's championship teams, playing his role to perfection.
18. Derek Fisher
Guard (1996-2004, '07-12)
Another five-ring bearer, Fish came in with Kobe but hoped to go out with anyone but Billy Hunter.
19. Robert Horry
Big Shot Bob has seven total rings, that's more than anyone who didn't play with Bill Russell. Don't forget about Bob playing with Hakeem, Shaq and Duncan, though. Plus, he looked a little like Will Smith when he was in L.A. winning three rings.
20. A.C. Green
Forward (1985-93, '99-00)
Ask anyone what A.C. is known for. It's not for being a basketball player. It's for being a ...
21. Vlade Divac
Center (1989-96, 2004-05)
Well, Vlade's known for being a flopper. Maybe he even introduced the flop to the NBA. But he was also the trade chip that acquired an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets. Remember that far back? Not the Charlotte Bobcats, or the New Orleans Hornets, or even the New Orleans Pelicans...
22. Lamar Odom
Love the rumor that Khloe Kardashian is O.J.'s daughter. Lefty Lamar is a point forward with Clippers pedigree, but his best days were as a Laker, that's a reality.
23. Nick Van Exel
Nick the Quick was a second-round steal who turned into a bridge between Magic and Kobe. Someone had to represent the dark, dark championship void.
24. Kurt Rambis
The glasses are timeless.
25. Paula Abdul
Abdul parlayed Laker Girl status into American Idol stardom. Surely she thanks Jerry Buss. Without him, it likely wouldn't have been possible. We all thank you, Jerry. You will be missed. R.I.P.
This summer, those words will be chanted from NASCAR Nation far and wide as the Camping World Truck Series becomes the guinea pig for one of the sport’s most noble modern experiments: a return to dirt racing. On July 24, Tony Stewart’s short track bullring in Rossburg, Ohio, will be the site of the first major sanctioned NASCAR event on dirt since 1970. With a starting field of just 30 trucks, an entry list expected to be double that, and the added bonus of a Wednesday night showdown, it’s not hard to find this division’s biggest storyline entering 2013.
It also shouldn’t come as a surprise. Always known for a perfect mix of veterans and young drivers, this series has become the “chemistry test” as the sport looks to mold its long-term future. Last fall, NASCAR VP Steve O’Donnell suggested heat races could be introduced, along with additional short tracks by 2014, as the series looks to recapture the fan base by getting creative with the series that offers arguably NASCAR’s closest competition. Between the “old school” connection to Rockingham, whose 2012 Truck Series event was its first on the NASCAR schedule since 2004, to the “new school” of Mosport, Ontario, bringing trucks past the Canadian border for the first time in history this September (and on a road course, no less), full-time competitors will be faced with the most diverse set of challenges in the sport.
No statement of parity describes the Truck Series better than this little-known fact: In 18 years, there’s never been a repeat champ. Current titleholder James Buescher may not even get the chance, as it’s believed he’ll move up to the Nationwide Series. Even without Buescher, there’s plenty of talent on hand in a diverse set of title challengers (from rookie Jeb Burton to sophomore Ty Dillon to 12-year veteran Matt Crafton) in what’s bound to be a wide-open title chase. Younger drivers could find themselves a part of the fray, too — at least part-time — as new rules, announced late last season, allow drivers as young as 16 to compete on shorter tracks (1.1 miles or less) along with road courses.
Even the most competitive series comes with its share of concerns, though. Most events on the schedule haven’t changed, with only five races in the first three months. That means teams and fans alike will once again struggle to find momentum. As with the Nationwide Series, purse money is so low at some tracks ($6,000-plus for a finish in the 30s) that sponsorship becomes a necessity to survive.
Still, with a healthy TV contract (FOX/SPEED has re-signed through 2022) and after another set of nailbiting finishes in 2012, this series should be thought of as healthier than its Nationwide counterpart. While the title race is undecided, one thing that can be counted on is that Trucks will once again put on the best show. Perhaps it’s race length; maybe it’s drivers looking to make an impression, trying to work their way up the ladder. It could be that truck chassis, less aerodynamic than their “car” counterparts, produce closer competition. Regardless of the cause, know that the Truck Series remains the sport’s hidden gem entering 2013.
Eldora’s about to find out.
—By Beth Lunkenheimer
2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Schedule
Athlon Sports has dissected the 2013 racing calendar and picked the top 10 must-see events of the year. Races from the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, Truck Series, IndyCar Series and Formula-1 were considered and events must take place within the lower 48 states. So gas up the RV and stock the coolers, because Athlon’s motorsports road trip is getting started this weekend:
1. Indianapolis 500 (97th)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Where: Indianapolis, Ind.
When: May 26
Defending Champ: Dario Franchitti
Beginning in 1911, the Indy 500 is called the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for a reason. The releasing of the balloons, the singing of "Back Home Again In Indiana" by Jim Nabors, the drinking of the championship milk and the most famous words in motor sports will send chills down the spine of any racing fan. Drivers, crew chiefs and owners come from all over the world to compete at the world’s greatest track — a 2.5-mile oval complete with its own gold course — many of which will only compete in one race all season long. When an open-wheel rocket ship flies past Gasoline Alley or Tower Terrace down the front stretch and into the nastiest turn in racing at 230 miles per hour, the 300,000 spectators can’t help but smile. Many racing purists believe that the turns at IMS are the ultimate test for a driver. For many drivers, nothing in life will equal the Borg-Warner Trophy. And the Mardi Gras-esque party the night before is worth checking out (at your own risk, of course) too.
2. Daytona 500 (55th)
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Where: Daytona Beach, Fla.
When: Feb. 24
Defending Champ: Matt Kenseth
The Daytona 500 is to stock car racing as the Indy 500 is to open-wheel competition. The 500-mile Sprint Cup race stands alone as NASCAR’s most prestigious and most important race of the season each year. And as the sport’s “kickoff classic,” the build-up is nearly as entertaining as the event itself. Speedweek provides fans with ample opportunity to enjoy the Rolex 24, ARCA Series, Nationwide Series, Bud Shootout and qualifying throughout the weeklong festivities. The Great American Race, due in large part to restrictor plates, puts roughly 40 cars at full throttle inches from each other at over 200 miles per hour. It is the ultimate test of wills with the payoff being as high as there is in any sport.
Get Athlon Sports' complete Daytona 500 coverage
3. Mudsummer Classic (1st)
Track: Eldora Speedway
Where: Rossburg, Ohio
When: July 24
Defending Champ: N/A
While the Indy and Daytona 500s are steeped in unmatchable history, tradition and lore, the inaugural Mudsummer Classic offers something totally different to fans this year. For the first time, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will race on dirt at famed Eldora Speedway in Ohio. The legendary half-mile oval track was built in 1954 and has been owned by Tony Stewart since 2004. The prospects of running a major series truck race on dirt smack-dab in the middle of the season has everyone excited about the late July trip to Rossburg. It will be the first NASCAR-sanctioned National Tour event held on dirt since September 1970. You don’t want to miss this one.
4. Irwin Tools Night Race (52nd)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway
Where: Bristol, Tenn.
When: Aug. 24
Defending Champ: Denny Hamlin
The first time Bristol Motor Speedway hosted a night race under the lights was the Volunteer 500 in 1978. It has been one of the hottest and most entertaining NASCAR tickets ever since. The half-mile track is the fourth largest sports venue in America (165,000) and is nestled in “Thunder Valley” deep in the hills of East Tennessee. The track has long hosted two weekends, and both are excellent experiences, but the August race is clearly the one to go to if you can only pick one. Not only is racing under the lights more entertaining (and more comfortable for fans) but the late August date has become a key cog in NASCAR’s playoff structure. The driving is intense and physical and every seat in the house is perfect. There is a reason the Bristol night race is one of the hottest tickets in sports every year.
5. Formula-1 United States Grand Prix (2nd)
Track: Circuit of the Americas
Where: Austin, Texas
When: Nov. 17
Defending Champ: Lewis Hamilton
Technically, the F-1’s U.S. Grand Prix has been running on and off since 1908. Watkins Glen, Indianapolis and Phoenix have all hosted the event, but Austin’s brand new Circuit of the Americas appears to be its new home. The late November trip to Texas will be the series’ only visit to the United States in 2013, and for F-1 fans, will be a circled date on the calendar. The 3.4-mile track features 20 turns and will once again be the penultimate race of the F-1 season. Lewis Hamilton won the inaugural event a year ago over eventual points champion Sebastian Vettell by a mere six tenths of a second.
6. Camping World RV Sales 500 (45th)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway
Where: Talladega, Ala.
When: Oct. 20
Defending Champ: Matt Kenseth
Since its inception in 1969, the race has been held in either September, August or July, and now resides in October, where it has been following a schedule change in 1997. It has become the wild-card event in the NASCAR Chase for the Championship with massive wrecks, bizarre racing strategies and unpredictable finishes. Many fans believe that restrictor-plate racing is the most entertaining in the sport and, much like the Daytona 500, wide-open engines inches from each other for 188 laps around the 2.66-mile tri-oval is one of the marquee dates on the racing calendar each season.
7. Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200
Track: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
Where: Lexington, Ohio
When: Aug. 17
Defending Champ: N/A
While the truck series debuts on dirt in The Buckeye State, the Nationwide series will make its debut at a new track in Ohio as well. The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was opened in 1962 and has hosted GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, IndyCar, AMA Pro Racing, Le Mans and motorcycle events throughout the years. However, the Nationwide Series will bring a new audience to the 15-turn, 2.4-mile road course. And with the recent success and entertainment value of road races in all NASCAR circuits, this one should be filled with fireworks.
8. NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (29th)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Where: Concord, N.C.
When: May 18
Defending Champ: Jimmie Johnson
Four 20-lap segments followed by a no-holds barred, every-man-for-themselves, rubbing is racing, 10-lap showdown for $1 million makes the NASCAR All-Star event one of the most intriguing and entertaining all-star events in all of American professional sports. Team orders and points championships mean nothing when roughly 20 drivers are thrown into a blender in NASCAR’s home town of Charlotte. The only drivers allowed to compete are winners from the previous and current seasons, the last ten All-Star winners and former points champions. It is a straight cash grab — except it’s done by the world’s best drivers using 900-horsepower performance machines.
9. Federated Auto Parts 400 (55th)
Track: Richmond International Raceway
Where: Richmond, Va.
When: Sept. 7
Defending Champ: Clint Bowyer
Famed Richmond International has hosted a late-season NASCAR event since 1958 when Speedy Thompson won the 100-mile event. It has gone by dozens of names over the years, but in 2004 the race at the asphalt 0.75-mile oval took on new meaning. It is the final race of NASCAR’s regular season and, with the newly implemented wild card points system, every lap at Richmond provides edge-of-your-seat action. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch battled feverishly on every lap at RIR last season in an attempt to secure a spot in the Chase for the Championship.
10. Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (64th)
Track: Martinsville Speedway
Where: Ridgeway, Va.
When: Oct. 27
Defending Champ: Jimmie Johnson
Few races combine the importance of the moment, the tradition of the location and the excitement of elite racing like Martinsville. Additionally, positioned with just four races to go in the NASCAR season, few races will play as big a role in the Sprint Cup Championship like The Paperclip as well. Martinsville Speedway also is the longest active location in the series as at least one race has been run here every year since 1949 and the fall race has been running every year since 1950. Its unique slender shape and sharp turns help the 0.526-mile half-asphalt, half-concrete course produce some of the best on-track action of any venue on the circuit.
Best of the Rest:
“The Brickyard” (Sprint Cup)
July 28, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Southern 500 (Sprint Cup)
May 11, Darlington Raceway
DuPont Pioneer 250, U.S. Cellular 250 (Nationwide)
June 8 and Aug. 3, Iowa Speedway
Coke Zero 400 (Sprint Cup)
July 6, Daytona International Speedway
Aaron’s 499 (Sprint Cup)
May 5, Talladega Superspeedway
Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 (IndyCar)
May 5, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Road America 200 (Nationwide)
June 22, Road America
Food City 500 (Sprint Cup)
Mar 17, Bristol Motor Speedway
Cheez-It 355 at The Glen (Sprint Cup)
Aug. 11, Watkins Glen International
Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (IndyCar)
Mar. 24, St. Petersburg, Fla.
We have ranked every college football program in the country, based on the attractiveness of the position from a coaching perspective. We considered many factors — tradition, facilities, location, money — but in the end, we simply asked ourselves the following question: Where would we want to coach? Today we focus on the Big East.
(Note: Current or impending NCAA sanctions were not a factor in these rankings.)
Ranking the Coaching Jobs in the Big East for 2013
Pros: Louisville has solid facilities and is in a good spot geographically to consistently attract top recruits. Kentucky is not a great talent producer, but Louisville can recruit Ohio and Illinois due to its proximity to those states and has always done a good job recruiting Florida. Also, the school “survived” the realignment wars, finding a home in the ACC beginning in 2014.
Cons: The school lacks football tradition and doesn’t have the fan base that most of the other schools have ranked in the top 50 of this list. When the Cards are good, they draw well. But in 2009, in the final season of the Steve Kragthrope era, they ranked 71st in the nation in attendance, averaging 32,540 per game.
Final Verdict: Like many of the schools in the Big East, Louisville is only as good as its coach. Bobby Petrino won big in his four years. Kragthorpe flopped in his three seasons. Charlie Strong has done well in his three seasons. With the right fit, Louisville competes for league titles.
Pros: Rutgers’ location affords the coaching staff the opportunity to stock its entire roster with local talent. The facilities have been upgraded in recent years, most notably the $102 million expansion to Rutgers Stadium. Also, being just over 30 miles from New York City — the media capital of the world — can’t hurt.
Cons: The school has almost no tradition; prior to the mid-2000s, the program was irrelevant. And while support for Rutgers football has grown in recent years, pro sports will always be No. 1 in the metropolitan area.
Final Verdict: Long considered the sleeping giant on the East Coast, Rutgers has emerged as a consistent winner in the Big East. Whether or not this is a true destination job is up for debate, but it’s clear that you can win a bunch of games and go to bowl games at Rutgers.
3. South Florida
Pros: South Florida has a tremendous local recruiting base and is a member of the conference with the least resistance to a BCS bowl (for now). The Bulls proved they can be a consistent winner in the FBS ranks, averaging 8.4 wins from 2006-10.
Cons: South Florida lacks tradition and does not have an on-campus stadium. The Bulls play their home games 15 miles from campus. And while the recruiting base is strong, South Florida will always have a tough time beating out the Big Three — Florida, Florida State and Miami — for top prospects.
Final Verdict: Many view South Florida as an emerging national power. The school does have a ton of potential, but it is difficult to get overly excited about a program that is the fourth-most relevant program in its own state — even if that state is Florida.
Pros: Cincinnati is in a fertile recruiting area. Ohio produces a ton of talent, and the school is also relatively close to Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
Cons: Support isn’t great. The school won a share of its fourth Big East title in five years yet averaged only 29,138 fans per game to Nippert Stadium. Being stuck in the Big East for the foreseeable future.
Final Verdict: Cincinnati isn't perceived to be a top-flight program, but the school has been consistently strong in the BCS era. Since 2000, four different coaches have won at least seven games twice. That’s impressive.
Pros: Location. Location. Location. Houston is an elite area for high school talent. And the school has decent tradition, having spent 20 years (1976-95) in the Southwest Conference. Starting in 2014, the Cougars will be playing in a new, on-campus stadium.
Cons: With Texas and Texas A&M relatively nearby — not to mention the NFL’s Houston Texans — University of Houston football will never be the No. 1 show in town.
Final Verdict: With a new stadium and great recruiting base, Houston has an opportunity to rise to the top of the reconfigured Big East. The school’s small fan base will always be an issue, but you can win a lot of games at this school.
Pros: UCF is located in the heart of talent-rich Florida. Bright House Networks Stadium (capacity 45,323) opened in 2007 and is one of the nicest on-campus facilities in the nation.
Cons: UCF is still relatively new to the FBS ranks (1996) and has little brand recognition in the college football word. Attendance hasn’t been great, either. Last year, UCF ranked 68th in the nation with 34,608 fans per game.
Final Verdict: UCF will always have access to a ton of players, but it’s tough to envision this program taking too big of a leap forward in the next decade, even with the move to the Big East.
Pros: The school has top-notch facilities and has proven that it can be relevant on the national landscape. The Huskies won eight games or more six times in an eight-year span, culminating with the trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010.
Cons: Recruiting at UConn has never been easy. Now, it’s become more difficult. The school’s chief rivals for prospects in the Northeast — Boston College, Syracuse and Rutgers — each found a home in a power conference. UConn did not.
Final Verdict: This can be a good job — there is solid support in state for the program — but the school is in a tough spot right now. The Big East is simply not where you want to be in college football heading into the mid 2010s.
Pros: SMU’s greatest strength is its location, in the fertile Metroplex in North Texas. Yes, there is a ton of competition for the players, but there is more than enough talent to keep the Mustangs’ roster well-stocked.
Cons: Interest in SMU football is not high. The school averaged only 21,292 per game last year, which ranked 92nd in the nation. It’s tough to attract top-flight recruits to play in front of so many empty seats.
Final Verdict: SMU is similar to several schools making the move from Conference USA to the Big East. It’s in a great location but lacks the tradition and fan base to make too much of a dent on the national landscape.
Pros: Temple plays its home games at an NFL stadium and its on-campus facilities are top-notch. Being competitive in football is important to the school.
Cons: Temple lacks tradition and fan support. Philadelphia loves the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Flyers and college basketball. College football? Not so much.
Final Verdict: Al Golden did a tremendous job transforming Temple from arguably the worst program in the nation into a reputable team that won a total of 26 games from 2009-11. The school should be able to compete in the new-look Big East, but this is not a destination job.
Pros: The school has made a significant financial commitment to the football program in recent years — something that previously was not the case. (Just ask Tommy West). The city of Memphis is known more for basketball, but does a solid job producing FBS-level prospects.
Cons: Basketball is the No. 1 sport at Memphis — by a wide margin. The school has struggled to compete for years, with only four winning seasons since 1994.
Final Verdict: Memphis has an SEC recruiting base with Conference-USA support. Will that change as the school makes the move to the Big East? Not likely. You can win games at Memphis, but the football program will never reach the stature of Tiger basketball.
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College Football's Top 5 QBs on the Rise for 2013
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College football's 2013 National Signing Day is in the books and Athlon Sports kicks off its 2013 team recruiting rankings countdown with an in-depth look at the best classes in the nation. Gus Malzahn took over for Gene Chizik on The Plains and instantly brought a renewed energy to the Auburn program. His Tigers were one of the big winners on National Signing Day and it resulted in a top 10 class that should build the foundation for a return to success on the field.
No. 10: Auburn Tigers
Athlon Consensus 100 Signees: 3
National Signees: 7
Total Signees: 23
Where They Got 'Em:
Malzahn has the unenviable task of recruiting at an elite level in the same state as Nick Saban. And while Alabama landed the top five players in the state, Auburn did an excellent job inside the Yellowhammer State. Six new faces that hail from Alabama signed with Auburn, including two nationally rated quarterbacks who will vie for playing time in the new offense.
Florida (4), Georgia (3) and Mississippi (1) will always be a focus for the Auburn coaching staff and this season was no exception. Oklahoma, Indiana and Colorado are non-traditional recruiting territories for Auburn, but Malzahn went into each state and landed one player, while community colleges in Kansas (5) and California (1) also added to the Tigers' haul.
Areas of Focus:
Auburn had many issues a year ago, and not all of them will be addressed in one recruiting class, but Malzahn is looking to check the quarterback position off his "to do" list. Jeremy Johnson is the highest-rated prospect at the position and has elite upside. He is generously listed at 6-5 and 215 pounds and earned Mr. Football honors in Alabama after throwing for 3,193 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2012. He will battle with another nationally rated signal caller in Jason Smith. The 6-1, 180-pounder is a dual-threat talent who will bring a different dimension than Johnson to the new Auburn offense. Should either freshman not prove to be ready, Malzahn has another option in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. The dynamic athlete threw for 3,142 yards and rushed for 1,095 a year ago at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
Joining the talented trio of quarterbacks in the backfield are three new running backs. Under previous regimes the power rushing attack was a signature of Auburn football, however, under Chizik this offense lacked the physical presence many fans were accustomed to (minus Cam Newton, of course). While none of the three are nationally ranked by Athlon, speedster Johnathan Ford, early enrollee junior college prospect Cameron Artis-Payne and Peach State workhorse Peyton Barber should more than take care of the backfield woes on The Plains.
On the outside of the offense, four wide receivers provide new playmaking ability. Tony Stevens (6-3, 175) and Earnest Robinson (6-2, 200) bring big frames and plenty of vertical talent to an offense that needs some big-play talent. Marcus Davis (5-10, 165) will play in the slot and two-way star Dominic Walker (6-2, 195) can play all over the offense.
Malzahn signed only two offensive linemen in this class and neither were nationally rated.
After struggling so mightily to control the line of scrimmage against elite SEC offensive lines, Auburn had to address the defensive line. And it did so in a big way as all three AC100 signings will play along the D-line. The best three players in this class — Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel — make this one of the more intriguing defensive line groups in the nation. Adams, who is one of the top tackle prospects in the nation if not the top player at his position, will run with JUCO Ben Bradley on the interior while Daniel and Lawson provide serious talent on the edge. Replacing Corey Lemonier won't be easy but this class has the talent to come close.
A fairly non-descript four-man secondary class and two-man linebacking class provide some interesting depth to the back end of the defense. While none of the defensive backs are nationally ranked, the group has some excellent upside. Khari Harding and Brandon King bring elite size to the safety spot while Mackenro Alexander and Kamryn Melton will man the cornerback position.
It's a long and uphill battle to catch up with Alabama within the state lines, but Auburn's new coaching staff took a big first step with a top ten class in 2013.
Offense: QB: 3, RB: 3, WR: 4, TE: 0, OL: 2
Defense: DL: 4, LB: 2, DB: 4, ATH: 0, K: 1
|10.||Montravius Adams||DT||No. 4 (DL)||Vienna, Ga.||6-3||310|
|21.||Carl Lawson||DE||No. 6 (DL)||Alpharetta, Ga.||6-2||250|
|50.||Elijah Daniel||DE||No. 12 (DL)||Avon, Ind.||6-4||250|
|155.||Jeremy Johnson||QB||No. 14||Montgomery, Ala.||6-5||215|
|167.||Tony Stevens||WR||No. 17||Orlando, Fla.||6-3||175|
|180.||Jason Smith||QB||No. 19||Mobile, Ala.||6-1||180|
|190.||Earnest Robinson||WR||No. 23||Pinson, Ala.||6-2||205|
|Cameron Artis-Payne||RB||Harrisburg, Pa.||5-11||210||--|
|Ben Bradley||DT||Hutchinson, Kan.||6-1||305||JUCO|
|Devonte Danzey||OL||Hutchinson, Kan.||6-4||295||JUCO|
Athlon Sports 2013 Recruiting Classes:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
4. Florida Gators
5. Michigan Wolverines
6. Ole Miss Rebels
7. LSU Tigers
8. Texas A&M Aggies
9. UCLA Bruins
10. Auburn Tigers
As the 2013 NASCAR season prepares to get underway, Athlon Sports ranks the top teams to hit the track.
The NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 20-26) is just one step in the job interview process leading up to the NFL Draft (April 25-27). But the “Underwear Olympics” is a big deal. Millions of dollars are on the line during the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic and BOD Pod tests.
Here’s a look at 10 workout warriors who aced their tests at the Combine.
1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1986
The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.
2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989
In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006
Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.
4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995
After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012
The fastest quarterback in Combine history, RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL and commercial superstardom — with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.
6. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008
Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride. CJ has not, however, been able to set up a race against Usain Bolt.
7. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989
The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.
8. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech – 2007
With his draft stock holding strong near the top of the class, Johnson planned on kicking back and watching the festivities. But once the fireworks started, Megatron’s competitive juices started flowing and he decided he wanted to run after all. The only problem? He didn’t bring any track shoes. So Johnson borrowed a pair of spikes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney — then proceeded to run a blistering 4.32 in the 40.
9. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011
In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6’5”, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
10. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008
One of the main reasons teams remain skeptical of off-the-charts Combine stats, Gholston was the classic “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.” In shorts and a muscle shirt, Gholston ran a 4.67 in the 40, had 37 reps on the bench and lifted off for a 35.5” vertical and 10.5” broad jump.
College football's 2013 National Signing Day is in the books and Athlon Sports kicks off its 2013 team recruiting rankings countdown with an in-depth look at the best classes in the nation. Jim Mora got his tenure at UCLA kick-started with a great season on the field, nearly winning a conference championship. He parlayed it into the Pac-12's No. 1-rated recruiting class, dethroning the USC Trojans from their typical perch.
No. 9: UCLA Bruins
Athlon Consensus 100 Signees: 3
National Signees: 10
Total Signees: 24
Where They Got 'Em:
Jim Mora didn't over-think his first full recruiting class at UCLA. He targeted the best states for talent in the nation, by landing 13 players from California, three from Texas and two from Florida. Otherwise, he picked and chose his way through a handful of other states for elite players. He landed a nationally rated player from Arizona, Washington, Hawaii and Tennessee as well. In all, the Bruins used seven states to sign 24 new players.
Areas of Focus:
The back seven of the defense got the most attention in the Bruins' 2013 haul. Nine new faces will play defensive back or linebacker for Mora and seven of them are nationally rated in the AC100 rankings. Star top 100 safeties Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman, as well as Tyler Foreman, form one of the most impressive safety classes anywhere in the nation. Johnny Johnson is the lone cornerback of the group as all four defensive backs are four-star recruits.
Three of the five linebackers are highly touted as well with Isaac Savaiinaea, Myles Jack and Deon Hollins Jr. the highest-rated of the bunch. All three bring great height (6-3, 6-3, 6-2) and excellent size (230, 230, 222) to campus with them. Interestingly enough, all three hail from outside of California. Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge are smaller, quicker players who likely fit perfectly on the outside. This is a balanced and talented linebacking class.
A pair of defensive lineman, including top-rated Kylie Fitts, gives Mora a couple more bodies to help the deep group that is already returning to Westwood.
On offense, the line of scrimmage was clearly the area of focus. UCLA didn't sign a running back, picked up just one tight end and only one quarterback signed with the Bruins. Yet, seven offensive lineman inked scholarships with UCLA. Only Christian Morris is rated nationally and he comes to the West Coast all the way from Memphis, Tenn., but overall this group is extremely deep and helps rebuild an area of the team that has been a major concern under previous regimes. Morris will battle with Poasi Moala and Kenny Lacy at the tackle position. Caleb Benenoch, John Lopez and Alex Redmond will compete at guard while Scott Quessenberry appears to be the next starting center. This is an excellent group that has tremendous balance.
Quarterback Asiantii Woulard could be the star of this class, however, once this group begins to contribute on the field. Coming to UCLA all the way from Florida, the talented dual-threat player wanted to play in the UCLA scheme Brett Hundley made successful last fall. He can do everything this offense asks of its quarterbacks and he could be the heir apparent to Mr. Hundley.
A trio of unranked wide receivers signed in this class as well. Early enrollee Eldridge Massington (6-3, 205) brings a big frame and outside, vertical ability while the smaller Darren Andrews and Jalen Ortiz will fill the slot roles in the near future.
Offense: QB: 1, RB: 0, WR: 3, TE: 1, OL: 7
Defense: DL: 2, LB: 5, DB: 4, P: 1
|39.||Priest Willis||DB||No.||Tempe, Ariz.||6-2||200|
|65.||Tahaan Goodman||DB||No.||Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.||6-2||190|
|93.||Isaac Savaiinaea||LB||No.||Honolulu, Hawaii||6-3||230|
|103.||Kylie Fitts||DL||No.||Redlands, Calif.||5-11||180|
|137.||Myles Jack||LB||No.||Bellevue, Wash.||6-3||230|
|147.||Johnny Johnson||DB||No.||Fresno, Calif.||5-10||180|
|152.||Asiantii Woulard||QB||No.||Winter Park, Fla.||6-3||205|
|169.||Tyler Foreman||DB||No.||Encino, Calif.||6-2||190|
|178.||Deon Hollins Jr||LB||No.||Missouri City, Texas||6-2||222|
|207.||Christian Morris||OL||No.||Memphis, Tenn.||6-6||285|
|Eldridge Massington||WR||Mesquite, Texas||6-3||205||--|
Athlon Sports 2013 Recruiting Classes:
Newly crowned Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski admits that he’s caught himself admiring NASCAR’s next generation of racers.
“They’re almost as good as I am, if not better right now,” he says.
It’s not just one or two drivers catching his eye but several, ranging from teenagers to those in their early 20s. They’re winning races, capturing championships and setting records — taking advantage of opportunities previous classes did not receive.
When the economy tanked a few years ago, many teams ditched driver development programs or altered them drastically. It left young racers with few avenues to reach the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The result was a string of forgettable Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year — Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway — who combined for two top-20 finishes the past three years.
Today’s young drivers race toward the front in their divisions and show they deserve good rides. As Cup drivers age — one-third of this year’s 12-man Chase featured drivers 40 and older — these younger drivers are positioning themselves to be the sport’s future.
“I’ve been in this sport long enough to see Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, that whole group of guys, Joe Weatherly, hand the torch over to Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson,” car owner Richard Childress says. “Now you’ve got Jeff Gordon, (Kevin) Harvick, Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. This group is getting up (in age and) some day they’ll hand it over to the Stenhouses and hopefully the Dillons and Blaneys. We’ve got a great group of young talent coming up.”
This could be the dawn of a new era. With so many to choose from, here are seven young drivers to watch in the coming years along with evaluations from David Smith, editor-in-chief of Motorsports Analytics, a site that offers analysis and commentary on drivers in numerous series.
KYLE LARSON, 20, ELK GROVE, CALIF.
Jeff Gordon is among many watching the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion — who won the title in his first full year racing stock cars.
“He’s very talented,” says Gordon, who has texted Larson after races. “To be able to win the K&N East Series against the talent that is out there with as limited amount of experience as he has in a full-bodied stock car says a lot about his talents and skill.”
The 20-year-old Larson, whose background is in sprints and midget cars, scored a 10th-place finish at Kentucky in late June in his Camping World Truck Series debut. He followed it with two more top-10 finishes and was running in the top 5 at Homestead when an aggressive move late in the race led to a crash.
Larson, a development driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, has run more than 200 races in various series the past two years. That experience helped him transition to stock cars.
“I’ve been racing open-wheelers, so many different types of open-wheel cars, I think it really helped me become versatile because I jump in different cars each and every night it seems like, so I can adapt pretty quickly,” Larson says.
He notes that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is working on plans for his 2013 schedule. Expect to see him in more Truck races and also Nationwide events.
David Smith says: “Kyle has talent in spades. This year in K&N East he ranked second in Pro Series East PEER (4.500). Usually it’s a really big hurdle going from open wheel to stock car, but he made it look easy. He’s going to start a legacy of crossover kids (from open wheel) that are going to try what he did but just won’t be able to make that transition as quick. He’s got to learn to pace himself and be patient. He has what, theoretically, you can’t teach. He’s got the aggression, natural sense of any kind of race car. He just needs to learn the strategic part of how to go about winning these races in NASCAR.”
RYAN BLANEY, 19, HIGH POINT, N.C.
The son of Cup driver Dave Blaney grabbed attention by finishing seventh in his Nationwide debut at Richmond in April. The focus continued throughout the summer as he scored top-10 finishes in limited series appearances. His performance earned him a ride with Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series team beginning in August.
Blaney rewarded Keselowski by winning at Iowa in September in his third career series start. Blaney also became the youngest driver to win a Truck Series race at age 18 years, eight months and 15 days — eclipsing Kyle Busch’s record (20 years, 18 days) set in 2005 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Dave Blaney admits he wasn’t surprised his son won so quickly.
“I haven’t been surprised at anything that kid has done since he was about 14,” Dave Blaney says. “It seems like, naturally, he can pick things up and just make good decisions. And that eventually helps him be in the hunt for race wins in every series he’s been in.”
Ryan Blaney will run select Nationwide races for Penske Racing in 2013 while also running in the Truck Series for Keselowski’s team.
David Smith says: “Blaney and (Kyle) Larson are the top two prospects. They haven’t fulfilled their destiny in the Nationwide and Truck levels yet, but they could. I would place Blaney ahead of Larson just for the fact that Larson is trying to learn what Blaney already knows. Blaney has the intuition to check out the landscape of the race, understand what his equipment offers him and makes the conscious decision to say, ‘OK, maybe I don’t have the car tonight, but here’s how I’m going to win this race.’ His affinity for patience has translated to the Nationwide Series — he had a Top 15 Efficiency of plus-6.9 percent which allowed him to average finishes better than his average running positions. Based on his PEER he was a fringe contender in both Nationwide (2.038, ranked 16th and higher than Penske Racing counterpart Sam Hornish) and Trucks (2.611, ranked ninth).”
JAMES BUESCHER, 22, PLANO, TEXAS
Few could say they had a better year in 2012 than this 22-year-old. He married in January, won the Daytona Nationwide race in February and won four Camping World Truck Series races en route to winning the championship for Turner Motorsports.
He is the second-youngest series champion in the series’ 18-year history, behind only Austin Dillon.
“This year has been incredible for me,” Buescher said in the offseason. “Being the champion of the Truck Series definitely trumps winning a race at Daytona, but the race at Daytona is still pretty high up there. But it’s been a phenomenal year for my racing career and for my personal life. I just feel really blessed.”
All four of his Truck wins came at 1.5-mile speedways (Kansas, Kentucky, Chicago and Kentucky), and nearly three-quarters of the laps he led (505) were on 1.5-mile speedways.
Buescher also ran 20 Nationwide races, with one win and eight top-10 finishes. He’ll return to Turner Motorsports in 2013.
David Smith says: “The reigning Truck Series titlist was a bit of a one-trick pony in 2012, scoring all four of his wins on 1.5-mile soft intermediate tracks. While worse drivers have made careers out of being adept at one specific track, Buescher, who ranked sixth in the series in PEER (2.886), still has time to improve on short tracks and the 1.5-mile quad-oval facilities that are visited more frequently in the Cup Series.”
DYLAN KWASNIEWSKI, 17, LAS VEGAS, NEV.
He was the youngest winner in the K&N Pro Series West in 2011 and became its youngest champion last season at age 17.
This high school senior is articulate and engaging, traits that entice sponsors along with his success on the track.
He earned the West title by winning three races and scoring 12 top-5 finishes in 15 races, never finishing outside the top 10 in a series race. In fact, he’s registered only four finishes outside of the top 10 in the West Series in 28 starts.
His success goes back to the time he was introduced to racing before he was five years old.
“I just had a true passion for the sport,” Kwasniewski says. “I think my parents saw that there was something. We just furthered my career and then it grew into this.”
His next step is to compete in the K&N Pro Series East division in 2013 for Turner Motorsports.
David Smith says: “Kwasniewski’s rise to the top of NASCAR’s Pro Series West division was meteoric. In 2011, his rookie campaign, he earned a serviceable 1.667 PEER through the first half of the season. In the second half he registered a 3.929 PEER, foreshadowing even more improvement in 2012. Against fields littered with veteran drivers and owners, he won last year’s title with three wins, a 3.8 average finish and a series-best 5.233 PEER. The question you ask is whether he can he come East and do the same thing against a series that is a high competitive jump. I think he can do well, but I think that question does exist. It’s time to see what he can do in a series against kids that are just as good as he is. Can he outthink them? Can he outdrive them?”
AUSTIN DILLON, 22, LEWISVILLE, N.C.
The 22-year-old grandson of car owner Richard Childress will attempt to make this year’s Daytona 500. He has climbed NASCAR’s ranks quickly. Dillon was Rookie of the Year in the Truck Series in 2010 and won the series title the following year. He finished third in the points last season in the Nationwide Series, earning Rookie of the Year honors.
At Phoenix in November, he led the rookie meeting for Truck Series drivers.
“It’s pretty cool to go run a rookie meeting and only be 22 years old,” he says. “It’s kind of hard thinking you’re gaining respect from them because they’re the same age. It’s cool that they listened.”
He’ll run a full season of Nationwide again this year along with as many as seven Cup races, including the Daytona 500, for Childress. Dillon is expected to move full-time to Cup in 2014 and very well could bring the No. 3 with him, marking that number’s first return to Cup since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
David Smith says: “I was not a fan of him in the Truck Series just because that No. 3 team was very strong, very consistent, didn’t have many miscues or incorrect setups. This year in the Nationwide Series, now we’re starting to see what Austin has the potential to do. He’s a driver that doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes. He earned a 2.879 PEER and two wins (both at Kentucky) in a season of staggering consistency that saw no accident-related exits from races. A second go-round of a full Nationwide slate should conjure visible improvement.”
TY DILLON, 20, LEWISVILLE, N.C.
Austin’s younger brother, Ty has shown he is as good as his big bro. Ty, 20, won Rookie of the Year honors in the Camping World Truck Series, finishing fourth in the points with one win and 17 top-10 finishes in 22 starts in 2012. He also ran in three Nationwide races, finishing in the top 10 in each of them, including a third-place result at Indianapolis.
“I couldn’t really ask for much more besides a championship in our rookie year,” he said after the season finale at Homestead.
Just like his brother, he’s followed a path set by grandfather Richard Childress that has put him in a position to succeed. He’ll run again in the Truck Series in 2013 with plans to participate in select Nationwide races and one Cup race before a planned move full-time to the Nationwide Series in 2014.
David Smith says: “I like Ty. He didn’t come away the champion, but Dillon had an impressive rookie season in the Truck Series. A strong showing in his maiden voyage at Martinsville and beating Kyle Busch to the finish line in a spectacular mano-a-mano battle at Atlanta were two of his more brilliant flashes. There’s room for improvement in 2013 — he ranked just 15th in Trucks PEER (2.023) and was an above-average crasher (seven times in 22 races).”
COREY LaJOIE, 21, CONCORD, N.C.
The son of two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie finished second in the 2012 K&N Pro Series East Series despite not having the budget of some other teams. LaJoie won a series-high five races and had 10 top-five finishes in 14 events with his smooth driving style. His results improved greatly compared to 2011 — when he went winless and collected only four top-5 finishes — as he steered clear of trouble.
The question with LaJoie is whether the 21-year-old can find the funding for a full-time ride in a division above the East Series. If so, keep an eye on him.
David Smith says: “There’s nothing to dislike about LaJoie. Outside of the car, he’s an endearingly outspoken, Chuck Taylor-wearing blue-collar kid. In the car, he demonstrates a savant-like ability to conserve tires, methodically stage passing opportunities and close races. He scored five Pro Series East victories in 2012 and his 4.607 PEER mark bettered Joey Logano’s vaunted East division production rating of 4.462 from 2007. He’s the only full-time guy that did it on a microscopic budget (in 2012), compared to what (Joe Gibbs Racing) had and like what Darrell Wallace Jr. had and what Hendrick (Motorsports) had with Chase Elliott. So what he did was incredible. All that he’s taught himself to do is going to translate to another level.”
—By Dustin Long and David Smith
David Smith is the founder and editor-in-chief of Motorsports Analytics. Smith looks past racing stats like “Wins,” “Tops 5s,” and “Top 10s” to evaluate drivers by taking advanced statistical concepts that he created. His PEER stats (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) are weighted statistics that measure the on-track production of a driver in an “all-equipment-even” scenario (i.e., the best equipment receives the highest handicap). It is constructed using data from past performances.
4.000 and Above = Historic Performance — This driver is attempting to re-write the record books in this particular series. The higher the level of racing, the more rare a 4.000 PEER becomes.
3.999 to 3.000 = Serious Title Contender — This driver is exhibiting the ability to compete for a series championship while producing higher finishes than those with a Fringe Title Contender-level PEER.
2.999 to 2.000 = Fringe Title Contender — This driver is exhibiting the ability to compete for a series championship.
1.999 to 1.000 = Serviceable — This driver can be counted on for an occasional race win in this series.
0.999 and Below = Replacement Level — This driver’s production level in this series can be easily found elsewhere.
Another week, another Big Ten showdown with national implications.
With a five-game win streak including last week’s 75-52 rout of Michigan, Michigan State has gone from sneaky Final Four contender to potential No. 1 seed. The Spartans, who moved from No. 9 to No. 3 in our rankings this week, will have their chance to test that in their second meeting with Indiana this season.
On Tuesday, Michigan State will face Indiana for the conference lead in yet another Big Ten game of national significance. The Spartans lost to Indiana 75-70 on Jan. 27 in Bloomington.
Beyond Michigan State and Indiana tied for Big Ten supremacy, other conference races were shook up by last week's action: Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are tied for the Big 12 lead. Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette are in their own three-way tie in the Big East.
Elsewhere in this week’s power rankings, two Atlantic 10 teams entered the top 25 with VCU at No. 23 and Saint Louis in No. 24. Both have a chance to strengthen their cases when they meet Tuesday. Saint Louis also visits Butler this week.
Related: Key stats from Feb. 11-17
COLLEGE BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS: FEB. 19
1. Indiana (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten)
Last week’s rank: 1
Last week’s results: Defeated Nebraska 76-47, defeated Purdue 83-55
This week: at Michigan State
Buzz: The Hoosiers swept rival Purdue by a combined 65 points this season.
2. Miami (21-3, 12-0 ACC)
Last week’s rank: 3
Last week’s results: Defeated Florida State 74-68, defeated Clemson 45-43
This week: Virginia, at Wake Forest
Buzz: The Hurricanes eked past Clemson on Sunday night to extend winning streak to 13 games.
3. Michigan State (22-4, 11-2 Big Ten)
Last week’s rank: 9
Last week’s results: Defeated Michigan 75-52, defeated Nebraska 73-64
This week: Indiana, at Ohio State
Buzz: The surging Spartans can start thinking about a No. 1 seed.
4. Michigan (22-4, 9-4 Big Ten)
Last week’s rank: 2
Last week’s results: Lost to Michigan State 72-52, defeated Penn State 79-71
This week: Illinois
Buzz: Trey Burke is averaging 7.0 assists and only 1.9 turnovers per game.
5. Florida (21-3, 11-1 SEC)
Last week’s rank: 8
Last week’s results: Defeated Kentucky 69-52, defeated Auburn 83-52
This week: at Missouri, Arkansas
Buzz: The Gators’ closest SEC win? By 14 points over Ole Miss.
6. Gonzaga (25-2, 12-0 West Coast Conference)
Last week’s rank: 7
Last week’s results: Defeated Saint Mary’s 77-60, defeated San Francisco 71-61
This week: Santa Clara, San Diego
Buzz: Gonzaga emerges from week on the road with nation-leading 25 wins.
7. Syracuse (21-4, 9-3 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 5
Last week’s results: Lost to Connecticut 66-58, defeated Seton Hall 76-65
This week: Providence, Georgetown
Buzz: The Orange rank 239th in nation in 3-point shooting (32.3 percent).
8. Duke (22-3, 9-3 ACC)
Last week’s rank: 4
Last week’s results: Defeated North Carolina 73-68, lost to Maryland 83-81
This week: at Virginia Tech, Boston College
Buzz: Maryland shot 60 percent from the floor in win over Duke.
9. Kansas (21-4, 9-3 Big 12)
Last week’s rank: 10
Last week’s results: Defeated Texas 73-47
This week: at Oklahoma State, TCU
Buzz: Redemption week upcoming for Kansas, but the Big 12 lead is also on the line.
10. Louisville (21-5, 9-4 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 11
Last week’s results: Defeated St. John’s 72-58, defeated USF 59-41
This week: Seton Hall
Buzz: The Cardinals gave up a total of 79 points in two games against USF.
11. Arizona (21-4, 9-4 Pac-12)
Last week’s rank: 6
Last week’s results: Lost to Colorado 71-58, defeated Utah 68-64
This week: Washington, Washington State
Buzz: Wildcats needed win at Utah to snap a two-game losing streak.
12. Kansas State (21-5, 10-3 Big 12)
Last week’s rank: 12
Last week’s results: Defeated Baylor 81-61, defeated West Virginia 71-61
This week: at Texas
Buzz: Only two Wildcats average more than 8.3 points per game.
13. Oklahoma State (19-5, 9-3 Big 12)
Last week’s rank: 16
Last week’s results: Defeated Texas Tech 91-67, defeated Oklahoma 84-79 (OT)
This week: Kansas, at West Virginia
Buzz: Marcus Smart is thriving in a leading role as a freshman.
14. Georgetown (19-4, 9-3 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 17
Last week’s results: Defeated Cincinnati 62-55
This week: DePaul, at Syracuse
Buzz: The surprising Hoyas move into a three-way tie for first in the Big East.
15. Marquette (18-6, 9-3 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 20
Last week’s results: Defeated Pittsburgh 79-69
This week: at Seton Hall, at Villanova
Buzz: The Eagles improved to 14–0 at home with win over Pitt.
16. Wisconsin (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten)
Last week’s rank: 18
Last week’s results: Lost to Minnesota 58-53 (OT), defeated Ohio State 71-49
This week: at Northwestern
Buzz: Closing Big Ten schedule favors Wisconsin.
17. Ohio State (18-7, 8-5 Big Ten)
Last week’s rank: 13
Last week’s results: Defeated Northwestern 69-69, lost to Wisconsin 71-49
This week: Minnesota, Michigan State
Buzz: The Buckeyes’ 49 points against Wisconsin was a season low.
18. Butler (21-5, 8-3 Atlantic 10)
Last week’s rank: 15
Last week’s results: Lost to Charlotte 71-67, defeated Fordham 68-63
This week: Duquesne, Saint Louis
Buzz: Bulldogs are one game back in the chase for the A-10 title.
19. Colorado State (21-4, 8-2 Mountain West)
Last week’s rank: 22
Last week’s results: Defeated San Diego State 66-60, defeated Air Force 89-86
This week: at UNLV, New Mexico
Buzz: This could be a make-or-break week for Colorado State’s goals of winning the Mountain West
20. Pittsburgh (20-7, 8-6 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 14
Last week’s results: Lost to Marquette 79-69, lost to Notre Dame 51-42
This week: at St. John’s
Buzz: The Panthers' hot streak has come to a halt, but the remaining schedule isn't daunting.
21. Memphis (22-3, 11-0 Conference USA)
Last week’s rank: 24
Last week’s results: Defeated UCF 93- 71, defeated Marshall 71-59
This week: Houston, Southern Miss
Buzz: The Tigers’ C-USA’s foes are shooting only 40.8 percent on two-pointers.
22. New Mexico (21-4, 9-2 Mountain West)
Last week’s rank: 21
Last week’s results: Defeated Fresno State 54-48, defeated Boise State 60-50
This week: at Colorado State
Buzz: The Lobos are getting it done on the defensive end.
23. VCU (21-5, 9-2 Atlantic 10)
Last week’s rank: NR
Last week’s results: Defeated UMass 86-88, defeated George Washington 84-57
This week: at Saint Louis, at Xavier
Buzz: The Rams steal the ball on 17.7 percent of opponents’ possessions.
24. Saint Louis (19-5, 8-2 Atlantic 10)
Last week’s rank: NR
Last week’s results: Defeated Charlotte 75-58
This week: VCU, Butler
Buzz: Billikens are riding a seven-game winning streak ahead of huge week against VCU and Butler.
25. Notre Dame (21-6, 9-5 Big East)
Last week’s rank: 19
Last week’s results: Defeated DePaul 82-78 (OT), lost to Providence 71-54, defeated Pittsburgh 51-42
This week: Cincinnati
Buzz: Notre Dame started 1 of 19 from the field but still managed to beat Pitt on Monday night.
Out: No. 23 Cincinnati, No. 25 San Diego State
Brian Cashman called it a “perfect storm.” CC Sabathia said it was “embarrassing.” The New York tabloids weren’t as kind: "Dear Yankees, We don’t date losers! Signed New Yorkers" read the back of the New York Post.
Detroit’s sweep of the Yankees in the 2012 ALCS was a complete domination. The Tigers never trailed during the series, and their combined 19–6 run differential was an indication of New York’s incompetence. The Yankees batted a mere .157 in the series, and they struck out a whopping 36 times, or on one-third of their outs. At times, it appeared as if the New York hitters had never faced big-league pitching before.
“When you get into a short series, you say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” says Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. “If you execute it, you win. If you don’t, and you make poor pitches, you won’t win.”
While many love to deliver swift boots to the collective posterior of the Yankees when they are laid low, their fan-tastic performance against the Tigers wasn’t so unusual in the context of the 2012 season. First off, Detroit pitchers ranked fifth among all MLB clubs in strikeouts. But more importantly, the ’12 season was historic throughout baseball for whiffing.
Six major league clubs fanned at least 1,300 times last season. That’s three more clubs than the previous high for aggregate plate futility and one more than the total number from baseball’s beginning through the 2006 season. Another 12 teams struck out at least 1,200 times, four more than the previous record. In other words, a full 60 percent of teams whiffed 1,200 or more times last year, establishing a new high (or, if you prefer, low) for swing-and-miss futility. The Yankees’ fruitless pursuit of Tiger pitching was merely a high-profile example of the culture that has taken over major league baseball.
“There are definitely more ‘guess’ hitters in the game than there used to be,” Jones says. “You have guys looking for a certain pitch. If they don’t get it, they can look bad swinging.”
To give an idea of how profound this increase in useless at bats has become, consider that before 2001, no team had ever struck out 1,300 times in a single season. Before 1996, only one squad ever fanned 1,200 times. That distinction belongs to the 1968 Mets, who struck out 1,203 times. But they played 163 games that year, and after the season, Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound six inches. Back in 1978, the leader in strikeouts, Cincinnati, had only 899. Many of today’s teams have that many well before August is over. Contrast that with 1928, when the Yankees whiffed only 553 times in 154 games.
There are plenty of reasons why K is becoming baseball’s favorite letter. Jones’ theory on hitters’ guessing makes perfect sense. So does the fact that pitchers’ velocities are increasing, as is the menagerie of “out” pitches they are learning at earlier levels of baseball. The growing specialization of staffs allows managers to create matchups that are to their teams’ advantages. And the amount of information available to teams about hitters’ tendencies allows them to create scouting reports and battle plans that are more effective. Just ask the Yankees about that.
There’s one other, more philosophical cause at work, at least according to Padres’ hitting coach Phil Plantier. He cites what he refers to as “the live ball era” as having an impact on hitters as they grow into big-league players. That’s his euphemism for the steroid era, when homers rained down upon bleacher bums all over the game. As youngsters watched their pumped-up heroes cranking out 50 homers — and more — each season, they developed habits that might produce long balls but could also lead to high strikeout totals. For instance, in 1996, just two years after the MLB strike and the first season during which Mark McGwire hit more than 50 home runs (52), eight teams whiffed 1,100 times or more — an all-time high. From there, the strikeout totals have climbed steadily to 2012’s peak.
“The past generation of players just went through an unrealistic baseline expectation of hitters,” Plantier says. “If you look at trends of hitters prior to the ‘live ball’ era, it’s probably more indicative of where the game will go back. But it’s taking some time.”
Back in 1987, when Plantier reported to Elmira, N.Y., for his first minor league stint, he didn’t find an army of coaches ready to mold him on his first step to the majors. The club didn’t even have a weight room.
“We had a manager, and he did everything,” Plantier says.
Today, teams have too much money invested in players to leave it all to one person. There are hitting coaches, strength coaches and pitching coaches at every stop along the developmental chain. Not everyone is going to make it to the big time, but teams aren’t taking any chances on missing a potential major leaguer.
They also aren’t going about accumulating prospects the same way, especially on the mound. The process by which teams scout and ultimately select young pitchers has been altered since the days when Plantier was making his baseball journey.
“It all starts at the beginning,” he says. “Scouts are identifying athletes now as pitchers and have been for the last generation. Before, the majority of pitchers were non-athletes with good arms. Now, they’re getting better quality athletes on the mound.”
According to Plantier, the more athletic a pitcher is, the higher his ceiling might be. Now, no one can be certain whether Walter Johnson or Sandy Koufax would have fared well in the decathlon, but many of today’s pitchers are more accomplished athletically. They are also bigger and stronger. It’s become rare when a team spends a high draft choice — or in some cases any draft choices — on pitchers who aren’t at least 6'0". It’s hard to imagine someone like 5'11" Ron Guidry or 5'6" Bobby Shantz, who was once blown off the mound during a game, getting a second look today. When exposed to the intense training and instruction teams provide from rookie ball on up, they can develop into better pitchers — even if they don’t have the liveliest arms.
“At the lower levels, organizations are developing pitchers better, and they are teaching them how to become strikeout pitchers,” Plantier says.
A lot of those strikeout pitchers are succeeding with fastballs that get into the 90s consistently. Brewers’ hitting coach Jerry Narron was once a special assignment scout for Texas, and he was with Josh Hamilton in 2009 when Hamilton did a rehab stint in the minors after surgery to repair an abdominal tear. He noticed right away the vast differences between the caliber of pitching at the Triple-A level and the majors, a big reason why many younger players struggle to make contact.
“It’s not only the starters but the relievers who throw hard,” Narron says. “Everybody out of the pen seems to throw in the mid-90s, and at the back end of the pen, they’re throwing in the upper 90s. The velocity across the board jumps off the page.”
Jones agrees. “It seems like every guy is throwing 95 now,” he says.
Narron says teams’ obsessions with pitch counts have contributed to rising strikeout totals as well — and not just because those hard-throwing relievers are ready to throw smoke and overpower pitchers in favorable lefty-lefty or righty-righty matchups.
“Starters can afford to be more assertive,” Narron says. “They’re only going to pitch five, six or seven innings.”
The amount of information available gives pitchers advantages, too. Most MLB clubs, including the Tigers, look at what hitters’ tendencies are in every possible count. They feed pitchers information that allows them to know who is looking for fastballs early, who is less likely to be more careful with two strikes, and of course, who struggles with breaking balls.
“When guys are aggressive early in the count, they are people you can exploit by going out of the strike zone,” Jones says. “We know how aggressive guys are late in the count and how aggressive they are with men on base.”
It’s not guaranteed that a pitcher armed with that information is going to be successful, but if he makes pitches according to the plan, it’s more likely he will have an advantage. Detroit pitcher Doug Fister is known for throwing strikes early and often — he walked only 37 batters in 161.2 innings last year. So, hitters will often go up in the first few innings of a game hoping to get something to hit right away. If they are aggressive and making outs, Fister stays with his original program. But if they are hitting him, he has to change.
“They’ve made their adjustments, so we have to adjust,” Jones says.
It’s just not fair, really. Those mean pitchers are bigger and throw faster than ever. They have all sorts of fancy information and knowledge about tendencies and hitters’ weaknesses. Lower the mound! Make it four strikes per out.
The pitchers are better, but the hitters have a huge responsibility for the rising numbers. One All-Star starter who requested anonymity explains why it’s sometimes easy to pile up the strikeouts. “A lot of guys go up there looking for a certain pitch, and if they don’t get it, they pretty much give up the at-bat,” he says.
According to Narron, some hitters consider a strikeout “just another out.” Of course, nobody scores from third with fewer than two outs on a K — barring a wild pitch, of course. You can’t move the runner from first to second when you fan. And hitting the ball, even if it’s right at a defender, forces him to make a play and could lead to an error. Narron sure doesn’t think that all outs are the same.
“I don’t believe that,” he says. “There’s a lot you can accomplish with two strikes on you. You want to get something out of an at-bat that’s more than just a zero. The only thing you might get out of a strikeout is pushing the pitcher to eight pitches. That’s okay.”
Hitting coaches speak constantly of having a “plan” or “approach” at the plate. That can apply to a team’s macro philosophy of being aggressive against certain pitchers and careful versus others, and it has micro applications based on various hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to swing at strikes early in the count, provided that’s the way to get after a pitcher. Hitters who just rip away at anything may get on base, but their ultimate success depends on being more opportunistic, especially when the count isn’t in their favor.
“The one thing I stress to hitters is that every at-bat is important,” Narron says. “You just can’t give anything away.”
That philosophy doesn’t appeal to all hitters, especially power hitters. They believe the home run is the preferred outcome, even if dinger numbers are dropping all over baseball. Slapping a ball to the opposite field with two strikes isn’t as appealing as jacking one into the fourth deck, even if the risk associated with that approach is high.
Plantier’s Padres were members of the 1,200-strikeout club last year, but he was much happier with his players’ performance at the plate during the season’s second half, once they approached at-bats differently and tried to be more productive each time up.
“We were as big a culprit as there was in the league,” he says of the Padres’ propensity to strike out. “But we started to have better at-bats and improved our contact rate. We made mechanical adjustments and also had better plans at the plate, according to what we needed at that moment in time.”
As 2013 dawns, pitchers have the advantage. They are throwing high-octane fuel at hitters who don’t necessarily care whether they strike out or not, so long as the possibility exists of the magic long ball that made their baseball ancestors stars.
“You’ve got a lot of power guys who aren’t going to change their swings with two strikes,” Jones says. “They’re still trying to drive the ball to the gaps and over the fence.”
If they strike out, they strike out. For many, it’s not a problem.
Until the League Championship Series. Then, it’s a problem.
—By Michael Bradley
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