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The 2012 NFL season is still more than four months away from kicking off, but the path to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans is set. The NFL released its 2012 regular-season schedule on Tuesday. Here are some highlights of the upcoming slate.

Heavy is the Schedule For the Team That Wears the Crown
Seven teams have won consecutive Super Bowls in NFL history, the last being the New England Patriots in 2004-05. The New York Giants will aim to accomplish this feat this season, but the road back to the Super Bowl will be anything but easy. The Giants open the 2012 season by hosting the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 5. Besides their NFC East division games against the ‘Boys, Eagles and Redskins, the G-Men’s schedule includes games against seven teams that made the playoffs last year.

The Giants’ other games against NFC opponents include trips to both Atlanta and San Francisco, and a home game against Green Bay, the three teams they defeated to get to the Super Bowl last year. The Giants also host New Orleans, who won its division last season, and all four AFC North teams – Baltimore (road), Cincinnati (road), Cleveland (home) and Pittsburgh (home).

Rough Ride Ahead for Manning, Broncos
Welcome to Denver Peyton. I hope you are taking full advantage of the uninterrupted offseason to get acclimated with your new surroundings and team because the league sure didn’t do you or the Broncos any favors schedule-wise. Year 1 for Manning in Denver opens in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would like nothing more than to exact a little revenge for last season’s stunning overtime playoff loss in Denver. That’s followed by a trip to Atlanta and a visit from Houston, Manning’s former AFC South divisional foe who are coached by former Bronco assistant Gary Kubiak.

It just wouldn’t be right if Manning and Tom Brady didn’t face one another at some point during the season, and this year’s match up comes Oct. 7 in New England, where the Broncos’ 2011 campaign ended unceremoniously in a 45-10 playoff beat down provided by the Patriots. The Broncos then fly back west to meet Phillip Rivers and the Chargers in San Diego on Monday Night Football in their last game before their Week 7 bye.

After the bye, the Broncos host the Saints on Sunday night, and go to Cincinnati and Carolina the next two Sundays. The final seven games include four divisional contests, including trips to Kansas City and Oakland, along with a Week 15 visit to Baltimore to play the Ravens.

Welcome to the League Rookies
Barring something unforeseen happening, quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are fully expected to be the first two picks in next week’s NFL Draft, where they will be taken by the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, respectively. It's also possible that both will be under center starting in Week 1. So what lies ahead for the two first-year signal callers?

The Colts took Peyton Manning No. 1 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft and inserted him as the starter in Week 1. If history repeats itself in 2012 the former Stanford star will need every bit of Luck he can muster as he will make his NFL debut in Chicago against Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and the rest of the Bears defense. Luck also will have the opportunity to observe some of the league’s premier quarterbacks in action as the Colts’ schedule includes a home game against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and his Packers on Oct. 7 and a Nov. 18 visit to Gillette Stadium, home to Tom Brady and the defending AFC champion Patriots.

Luck’s other inaugural NFL road tests include games against the Jets in the Big Apple, the Lions in Detroit and the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Colts and Steelers also have the earliest bye week, coming in Week 4, meaning Luck’s first season will have him dealing with a stretch of 13 straight games. Luck and Stanford played 13 games in 2011, but not in a row, and nearly 40 days separated the Cardinal’s regular-season finale from their appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.

If Redskins coach Mike Shanahan inserts RGIII as his starting quarterback right away, the Heisman Trophy winner will start his NFL career on the road in New Orleans against the defending NFC South champion Saints. His home debut would come in Week 3 against Cincinnati and the Skins’ three games leading up to their bye in Week 10 have them on the road in back-to-back weeks facing the Giants and Steelers followed by a home date with the Carolina Panthers in a match up featuring the last two Heisman winners – Griffin and Cam Newton.

Following the bye, Griffin will familiarize himself with his NFC East rivals as the Redskins will play five of their six divisional games in the final seven weeks of the season. Their post-bye slate opens up with the Eagles on Nov. 18 with a trip to Dallas just four days later. The Giants come calling the first Monday in December followed by the Ravens that next Sunday. Washington concludes the regular season with a trip to Philadelphia and a Dec. 30 home date versus the Cowboys.

Turkey Day Trifecta
Thanksgiving and football go hand in hand. This season the NFL has done its part, serving up three mouth-watering match ups for fans to feast on. The appetizer will be Houston at Detroit. Not only will this game feature two of the league’s up-and-coming teams, but it also will have two All-Pro wide receivers named Johnson – Calvin and Andre – in action.

The main course, if you will, is a NFC East showdown between Washington and Dallas in the house that Jerry Jones built. This is always a tasty match up, regardless of the records, but the presumed presence of the aforementioned Griffin in a Redskin uniform only adds to the intrigue. Griffin won the Heisman last year playing for Baylor and went to high school in Copperas Cove, which is about three hours away from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington making this somewhat of a homecoming for him.

And to finish things off, the NFL Network will serve up New England at the Jets on Thursday night to round out this football feast. This won’t be the first time these AFC East divisional rivals will have met during the regular season, but still it’s the Patriots vs. Jets, Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan, Tom Brady vs. Tim Tebow, oops, I mean Mark Sanchez. What better way to end a day that’s all about family, friendship and food than to watch two teams that absolutely, positively can’t stand one another leave it all on the football field?

Monsters of Monday Night
The Chicago Bears have already reunited wide receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler through an offseason trade and the duo will get plenty of chances to showcase their chemistry in a coveted time slot. The Bears are the only team scheduled to make three appearances on Monday night. Contrast that to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the New England Patriots, who the Giants defeated in Super Bowl XLVI, who each have just one Monday night game on tap.

Chicago will travel to Dallas on Oct. 1 to play the Cowboys, host Detroit in a key NFC North match up on Oct. 22, and face off against former Bear and current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh and his 49ers on their home turf on Nov. 19.

Coach, I Don’t Think You’re in Piscataway Anymore
Tampa Bay reached into the collegiate ranks to fill its head coaching vacancy, luring Greg Schiano away from Rutgers. The Bucs then presented free agent acquisitions Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright as housewarming gifts to their new coach.

Once the season starts, however, the Bucs’ early season opponents will be more than willing to pull the welcome mat out from under Schiano’s feet. He will make his NFL head coaching debut at home against NFC South foe Carolina and then instead of the Big East, he will get a full helping of the NFC East, as Tampa Bay’s next three games are on the road against the Giants and Cowboys, followed by a home date with the Redskins.

Schiano and the Bucs will get to catch their breaths in Week 5 with a bye, which also will allow them the chance to prepare for the rest of their slate which includes home games against the Chargers and Eagles, along with a trip to Denver and two games against both Atlanta and New Orleans. There isn’t a Tulane or Howard, Rutgers’ first two opponents this season, anywhere to be found on this slate.

What We Won’t See
Those who were hoping for a New York Giants vs. New England Patriots rematch this year are out of luck. Next January? We’ll have to wait and see. Speaking of Luck, while Andrew and RGIII will most likely go Nos. 1 and 2 in the upcoming NFL Draft, they won’t get the chance to size each other up on the field as the Colts do not play the Panthers in 2012.

The Jets and Broncos don’t meet up in the regular season either, meaning any Tebow reunion with his former teammates will have to wait until the playoffs, if it even happens at all. We also won’t see Sean Payton on the sidelines this entire season as he serves his one-year suspension handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the Saints’ defense’s bounty system.

What you will see is a full 17 weeks of NFL action that will carry you from September to the end of the year and set the stage for another exciting postseason starting in January. Now we just have to wait a mere 140 days for the games to begin. Sept. 5 can’t come soon enough.

— by Mark Ross, published on April 18, 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports offers its observations and impressions of the 2012 NFL regular-season schedule</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 09:38
Path: /college-football/tennessee-or-vanderbilt-more-sec-wins-2012
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The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Tennessee or Vanderbilt: More SEC Wins in 2012

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The reaction to the 2011 season for Tennessee and Vanderbilt says everything about the two programs. In Nashville, coach James Franklin is a rock star after going to a bowl in his first season at Vanderbilt. In Knoxville, coach Derek Dooley is sweating even though his team finished only one game behind Vanderbilt in the standings. That’s with good reason. It’s probably tougher to take Vanderbilt to a bowl game than to go 1-7 in the SEC at Tennessee. I think the Volunteers will overtake Vanderbilt again, despite all the momentum and mojo at Vandy. If Tennessee gets full seasons from a healthy quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, the Volunteers are probably a bowl team. Bray started the season with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in the first four games, three of those with Hunter. Vanderbilt should continue to improve under Franklin, but I wonder if this might be a year when the Commodores take a dip. They’ll be better with Jordan Rodgers as the primary quarterback teaming with running back Zac Stacy all year, but they won’t catch anyone off guard either. My biggest concern about Vanderbilt is the loss of some key defensive players – Tim Fugger, Chris Marve and Casey Hayward. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are going to compete for a lower-tier SEC bowl, so there’s not much separation here. I’m still picking Tennessee to be marginally better.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The Dores get the big leg up in the crossover scheduling department. Vanderbilt will not face Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in 2012 and instead visits Ole Miss and hosts Auburn. Tennessee, on back-to-back weekends, must visit Mississippi State before hosting the defending champions on the Third Saturday in October.

Unfortunately for the Commodores, however, they have a brutal early conference slate. South Carolina comes to town to open the season on Thursday night before the Dores have to visit Missouri and Georgia all in the first five games of the season. It doesn’t get any easier with Florida and Auburn then visiting West End by October 20. How good — and healthy — will Vanderbilt be in the final four weeks of the season could be crucial to returning to the postseason. They have winnable games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee to start November.

Tennessee does have to travel to Nashville to face the Commodores and fans on both sides can bet James Franklin hasn’t let his team forget how the Vols celebrated the overtime win in Knoxville last season. Tennessee’s schedule is tougher in the middle but has winnable games at the backend as well. The two swings games in this debate are the head-to-head at Vanderbilt Stadium and each’s contest with SEC newbie Missouri. Tennessee gets the Tigers late in the year at home, while Vandy has to visit Mizzou.

I will pick the Vols to beat Mizzou at home and Vandy on the road. This will give Tennessee a one-game edge in the standings over the Dores.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
No matter which way you want to rank the teams, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina seem to be the clear top three in the SEC East for 2012. Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt can each make a case to be ranked fourth and there’s not really much separation between the three teams.

This is really going to be an interesting season for Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Coach Derek Dooley has his back against the wall with the Volunteers, especially after losing to Kentucky and missing out on a postseason berth last year. The Commodores are on the rise under second-year coach James Franklin, but they were hit hard by key losses on defense.

If quarterback Tyler Bray can stay healthy and become a better leader for Tennessee, I like the Volunteers to barely edge Vanderbilt for the better record in SEC play. The crossover schedule with the West slightly favors the Commodores, playing Ole Miss on the road and hosting Auburn. And Vanderbilt hosts South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, so there is the potential for a few upsets. Tennessee hosts Florida and Missouri, which is a good opportunity to pickup two key conference wins. I wouldn’t be shocked to see both teams tie in SEC wins at the end of the season, but a desperate Tennessee team will edge Vanderbilt in the final East standings. 

Chris Lee, VandySports.com (@ChrisLee70)
Tennessee is primed for improvement, returning 20 starters, and perhaps most importantly, gets quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter back healthy. Combine that with receivers Da’Rick Rogers, and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson, and UT’s passing attack is lethal. The defense isn’t dominant, but it did finish 27th a year ago, and has one of America’s more experienced secondaries.

While Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers and receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews can’t match UT in talent, but the trio makes tons of big plays. The ‘Dores are loaded at running back with Zac Stacy and Warren Norman, and perhaps the fastest freshman in America in Brian Kimbrow. Defensively, VU returns most players from America’s 18th-best defense, coached defensive genius Bob Shoop.

Vandy finished a game ahead of UT last year, but lost to the Vols head-to-head. The Commodores have two small scheduling advantages, too: they play Auburn and Ole Miss where Tennessee plays Alabama and Mississippi State, and they get the Vols in Nashville. Still, I think UT’s explosive offensive talent puts the Vols just a notch ahead – but given the off-field problems with players and the revolving door of assistants under coach Derek Dooley, I wouldn’t bet money on it.

Barrett Sallee, Lead SEC Blogger for Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
Tennessee will have a better record than Vanderbilt, but it'll be close. The pressure is on in Knoxville, and head coach Derek Dooley knows that. Injuries really hampered the Vols last season, but with quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter back, that offense is set to be explosive yet again. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is finally getting a break and getting his shot at being a coordinator at the FBS level, and the addition of junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore on the defensive line should help the Vols as they transition to the 3-4.

Color me skeptical on Vanderbilt. I know James Franklin is a rock star in Nashville, and the Commodores were a couple of bad breaks away from being an eight-win team, but I think that six or seven wins may be the ceiling there.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Both teams will probably be in the 4-4/3-5 range in league play, so this answer comes down to the head-to-head matchup I think Tennessee wins at Vanderbilt Stadium (or Neyland West to Vols fans), so Derek Dooley’s club gets the nod. Everything went wrong for Tennessee in 2011, but a healthy Tyler Bray at quarterback and Justin Hunter at receiver could mean big offensive numbers in 2012. Receiver Da’Rick Rogers can be a star, and the running game will be better with an improved offensive line under Sam Pittman’s leadership. There is talent on the Vols defense, but the adjustment to new coordinator Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 scheme may take time. Vanderbilt should have a solid offense led by running back Zac Stacy and quarterback Jordan Rodgers, but the defense lost some high-end talent and experience with the departures of Tim Fugger, Chris Marve Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson. The Commodores have a schedule advantage by drawing Auburn and Ole Miss from the West, but I’ll still take the Vols to be much-improved and finish better than the Dores.

Other SEC Spring Preview Content:

Ranking the SEC's Quarterbacks for 2012
Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012

Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012

College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Will Vanderbilt or Tennessee have more wins in SEC play in 2012?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 08:08
Path: /college-football/big-ten-football-running-back-rankings-2012
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The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the quarterbacks in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel. 

Here's how Athlon ranks the Big Ten running backs for 2012:

1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin (SR)
Rushing Stats: 307 att., 1,923 yards, 33 TD
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 306 yards, 6 TD

There is little room left on Ball’s resume for another stellar season but that is exactly what Big Ten fans should expect in 2012. No player in the nation rushed for more yards that the Heisman Trophy finalist last fall and no player in history has scored more touchdowns than his Barry Sanders-tying 39 total touchdowns (well, officially). Big Red fans would be fooling themselves, however, if they think Ball will come close to repeating his unprecedented performance. Three first-team All-Big Ten lineman are gone. The greatest quarterback in program history is gone. And the greatest playcaller in school history in Paul Chryst is gone. New coordinator Matt Canada has been playing with two-back sets, so James White expects to get plenty of touches as well. Certainly, the offense will still run directly through No. 28, but something closer to 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns should be expected — which would be excellent numbers normally but are dwarfed by his 2011 Hall of Fame-type production.

2. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (SR)
Rushing Stats: 284 att., 1,357 yards, 15 TD
Receiving Stats: 21 rec., 177 yards, 2 TD

There may not be a more complete football player in the nation than Rex Burkhead. He is a tremendous leader who delivers toughness and effort on every play. He can hit the edge, move the pile, pick up the blitz and catch passes with ease. In the win over new divisional rival Iowa, he set a school record for rushing attempts in a single game with 38. He is a true workhorse who can be counted on all three downs in all four quarters all season long. In his first full season as the starter, he delivered over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns — numbers which pale in comparison to Montee Ball’s a year ago but are elite nationally. Three starters are gone from the offensive line, but the receiving corps is possibly the best in the league and Taylor Martinez should be in for his best season. All of which is built upon a foundation laid by Burkhead.

3. Silas Redd, Penn State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 244 att., 1,241 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 9 rec., 40 yards

In his first full season as the starter, Redd got started quickly with 104 yards and two scores in the 2011 debut. He then got Big Ten play started by topping the 100-yard mark in five straight conference games to help the Nittany Lions start 5-0. Yet, without any semblance of production from the quarterback position and the breaking Jerry Sandusky scandal, Redd and the Lions limped down the stretch. Redd returns to an offense that still lacks a proven signal caller and has major rebuilding issues along the offensive line. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior has NFL ability and could find sledding tough under new head coach Bill O’Brien in what could be his final season in Happy Valley. Make no mistake, however, there is one name that needs to be healthy and productive over all others on this offense and it’s Redd.

4. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan (JR)
Rushing Stats: 187 att., 1,041 yards, 9 TD
Receiving Stats: 6 rec., 28 yards, TD1

Toussaint entered his junior year having played in only six career games. He began the season in nice fashion with a pair of touchdowns in the season opener, but it wasn’t until late October that Brady Hoke finally realized what he had in No. 28. He had never topped the 14-carry mark until October 29 against Purdue when got 20 carries and produced in a big way. He rushed for 170 yards and two scores in the 36-14 win. He went on to top the century mark in four of the final five games of the regular season. Toussaint finished as Michigan’s first 1,000-yard running back since Mike Hart in 2007, and he did it by averaging 5.5 yards per carry. There is no doubt that Hoke wants a secondary rushing option to Denard Robinson and Toussaint gives him just that.

5. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 182 att., 948 yards, 13 TD
Receiving Stats: 35 rec., 267 yards

Bell has the potential to be a first-team All-Big Ten player if he can provide consistent production week in and week out. He has scored 21 touchdowns in two seasons as an underclassman and has the frame — 6-foot-2, 238 pounds — to be a future star on the next level. However, Bell has only one game of at least 20 carries in his career and failed to score in 14 of his 27 career games — meaning he scored 21 times in 13 games. This is likely why Mark Dantonio has felt the need to motivate the rising junior this spring. The head coach knows that much of the team’s offensive success in 2012 will run through Bell. The Ohio native has a chance at a special season behind a solid offensive line if he can play with consistency and dedication.

6. James White, Wisconsin (JR)
Rushing Stats: 141 att., 713 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 150 yards

White has totaled nearly 2,000 yards rushing and exactly 20 touchdowns in two seasons as a backup in the run-heavy Wisconsin offense. New coordinator Matt Canada appears to be more dedicated to getting White the ball in 2012. The Badgers will line-up in more two-backs sets with both he and Montee Ball on the field at the same time. Using the talented junior-to-be more in the slot as a receiver, and as the ball carrier, will allow Canada to get his best players on the field while also resting his star tailback a bit more. White is as good a complimentary piece as there is in the nation.

7. Stephen Houston, Indiana (JR)
Rushing Stats: 151 att., 802 yards, 8 TD
Receiving Stats: 17 rec., 164 yards

There wasn’t much to like about the Hoosiers offensive attack in 2011, but over the course of the second half of the season, Indiana fans could take pride in the rushing attack. This was due in part to the emergence of talented dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson, but Kevin Wilson also decided to give Houston the football more. The junior college transfer got only 22 carries in the first four games of his Indiana career last fall. Over the last eight games of the year, however, Houston averaged nearly 18 touches per game and over 100 yards from scrimmage. He topped the century mark in rushing three times in the final seven games and scored seven of his eight touchdowns over that span. The 6-foot, 220-pounder earned IU Offensive Player of the Week four times last fall and returns to Bloomington as the focal point of the offense.

8. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 106 att., 588 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 73 yards

Not much is really known about the Ohio State rushing attack other than there are loads of talented options vying for touches. Quarterback Braxton Miller could lead the team in rushing once again, but in Urban Meyer’s spread, Hyde has the skills to be the power back the new head coach craves. Hyde, at 235 pounds could fill the Tim Tebow role in the legendary spread attack. He has the best chance to be the workhorse if there is such a thing in this scheme and will likely have the most rushing attempts at season’s end. Settling the offensive line, something that isn’t making Meyer happy at the moment, will be key this summer for anyone running the football in Columbus.

9. Akeem Shavers, Purdue (SR)
Rushing Stats: 111 att., 519 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 5 rec., 58 yards, TD

Shavers played well in a supporting role of starter Ralph Bolden a year ago and provided solid production. In his first season in West Lafayette after attending junior college, Shavers never saw more than 13 carries in any one game. That is, until the Boilermakers first bowl since 2007 when Bolden went down with another knee injury in the regular season finale. In the Little Caesars Bowl win over Western Michigan, Shavers posted a career high in carries (22) and yards (149) and earned bowl MVP honors. While Bolden recovers from his third torn ACL injury, Shavers appears poised for a breakout season for Danny Hope.

10. Donovonn Young, Illinois (SO)
Rushing Stats: 87 att., 451 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 15 yards

On an offense that struggled mightily last fall, Young appears to be the feature back. He will certainly have some competition from fellow sophomore Josh Ferguson (150 yards in the spring game), but Young is the leading returning running back in yards, attempts and touchdowns. He missed most of spring football with a foot injury but displayed plenty of big play ability in his first season on the team. He posted his first and only 100-yard game against Western Michigan and posted a career-high in attempts in the bowl win over UCLA. If this offense is going to improve under Tim Beckman in year one, it will have to feature an improved running game.

11. Larry Caper, Michigan State (SR)
Rushing Stats: 30 att., 116 yards, TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 86 yards, TD

After a promising freshman season, and very high profile game-winner against Notre Dame, Caper has seen his production drop two years in a row. He has also missed some time over the last two seasons for a variety of injuries. Yet, Caper enters his final season at Michigan State with lofty expectations. Mark Dantonio is counting on Caper to help lead what will be a very inexperienced offense, and productive or not, the senior tailback has played in 34 career games. Fans should see plenty of Caper.

12. Treyvon Green, Northwestern (SO)
Rushing Stats: 97 att., 362 yards, 4 TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 39 yards

Quarterback/wide receiver/running back Kain Colter led the Wildcats in rushing a year ago, but Green is technically the leading returning running back. After a solid freshman season, the 215-pound tailback from Mesquite, Texas has a chance to explode onto the scene. He got loads of experience against some of the Big Ten’s best defensive units with 46 of his carries came against Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska. His 362 yards are the most by a Northwestern true freshman since Tyrell Sutton in 2005.

Others Names to Watch:

13. Josh Ferguson, Illinois (SO)
Ferguson was low on the touches totem pole last season but won’t have that issue in 2012. After 150 yards in the spring game filling in for injured Donovonn Young, Ferguson appears poised to be the clear No. 2 for the Illini. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound in-state native has a chance to be a great change of pace to the the 215-pound Donovonn Young.

14. Greg Garmon, Iowa (FR)
There aren’t too many true freshman as battle tested as Greg Garmon. His home burnt down when he was in the sixth grade and he has already overcome a rare form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (roughly 10 in one million before age of 15) at age 13. Maneuvering Big Ten defenses should be a breeze for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Erie, Pa., native.

15. Bri’onte Dunn, Ohio State (FR)
Competing with Garmon for Freshman of the Year honors in the Big Ten could be Top-100 recruit Brio’onte Dunn. All signs are that the early enrollee has earned some touches in the backfield rotation after a productive spring practice. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder could finish as high as No. 2 on the Ohio State depth chart if he continues his solid play.

16. Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)
The smaller, more nimble Hall will be used plenty this fall by Urban Meyer — it just may not be in the traditional backfield sets.

17. Mike Trumpy, Northwestern (JR)
Tore his ACL last fall against Illinois. What Trumpy lacks in pure, physical talent he makes up for with toughness, heart and effort when healthy.

18. Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota (JR)
With Duane Bennett gone from campus, Kirkwood is the leading returning tailback for an offense that could be better than it has been in years.

19. James Gillum, Minnesota (JR)
After two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, the 5-foot-11, 204-pound tailback will compete for carries with Kirkwood right away.

20. Akeem Hunt, Purdue (SO)
Clearly the No. 2 Akeem Boilermaker runner, Hunt offers speedy change of pace to Shavers.  

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

Related Content Links:

Big Ten Football: Ranking the Big Ten Quarterbacks

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Big Ten Football: Running Back Rankings for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 08:02
Path: /college-football/pittsburgh-football-are-panthers-contender-big-east
Body:

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Is Pittsburgh a Surprise Contender in the Big East for the 2012 season?

Mark Ennis, Manager of Big East Coast Bias (@Mengus22)
While I think it is certainly possible that Pittsburgh could be a surprise contender for the Big East title in its final year in the league, I think it is very unlikely. Still, Louisville was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Big East last year and finished the season in a three-way tie for the conference title. With the distance from the top to the bottom being so small, I would be surprised but not shocked to see Pittsburgh in contention come November. With Paul Chryst bringing his run-heavy, play-action passing offense to Pittsburgh, the Panthers should benefit from an offense more suited to the personnel on hand instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole like Todd Graham did for virtually all of 2011.

Pittsburgh has several experienced offensive linemen back (injuries forced them to play several young linemen last year) that will block for what ought to be one of the better running back trios in the conference in Ray Graham, Isaac Bennett, and blue-chip freshman running back Rushel Shell. They also return virtually all of their receiving targets in tight end Hubie Graham and wide receivers Devin Street, Mike Shanahan, and Cameron Saddler.

Much like South Florida, Pittsburgh's fortunes depend on quarterback play and defense. Tino Sunseri was abysmal last year, throwing 11 interceptions and 10 touchdowns, while being sacked a nation-leading 6 times per game. In a system that runs the ball first and puts him back under center, he should be more comfortable and any improvement from him will make Pitt a formidable opponent. Defensively, the Panthers lose two their leading tacklers (Max Gruder, Tristan Roberts) and their best pass rushers (Brandon Lindsey, Chas Alecxih). For the first time in several years, there are no feared defensive ends on the Pitt defense and that means teams will try to run it on them just as much as they try to run the ball themselves. If no replacements develop, it could be a long year for the defense.

The schedule isn't too terrible, as they get Rutgers and Louisville at home and the toughest road conference game is at South Florida. 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The Big East seems impossible to pick each season. West Virginia was the runaway favorite last year, and although the Mountaineers eventually ended in the BCS, they sure made the season interesting after a shocking loss to Syracuse. Louisville probably will be the prohibitive favorite again, but the Cardinals couldn’t handle success at all last season. Pittsburgh is in that next group of teams that could challenge Louisville if the Cardinals stumble. USF may be the only other team in the Big East’s second tier. Ray Graham, the Big East’s best offensive player at the time of his injury, should be healthy. Tino Sunseri has to be better than he was last season when he never took to the spread offense. As long as he doesn’t get sacked upwards of 60 times again, Pitt’s offense should give the Panthers a chance. And we know Paul Chryst knows what to do with an elite running back and capable starting quarterback. The biggest question will be on the offensive and defensive lines. Part of Sunseri’s problem taking sacks was the offensive line, some was on him. The offensive line, with Chris Jacobson healthy, needs to be better. On defense, the tandem of Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein at defensive tackle was underrated. They’ll be tough to replace. For Pitt, the good news is the Big East is winnable for just about any team. The Panthers should be in the mix even into November.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
There is one clear-cut team that will be picked by nearly everyone to win the Big East in 2012. Since the Pitt Panthers are one of the top challengers to the afore-not-mentioned predicted winner, it is hard to call them a sleeper. So my answer to the question is yes and no. Pitt will be a contender for the Big East title in 2012 but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if they do. Pitt gets two of the other top three teams in the league, Louisville and Rutgers, at home this fall. An early road trip to Cincinnati and season finale visit to South Florida will be the toughest road trips of the conference slate this fall. Offensive genius Paul Chryst takes over as head coach after producing the most prolific offenses in Wisconsin history. He has a returning quarterback in Tino Suneri, and running game that should be dramatically better with the return of injured Ray Graham and Chris Jacobson, as well as the addition of talented freshman Rushel Shell.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think it’s safe to say Louisville is the preseason favorite in the Big East, but I’m definitely on board with the idea that Pittsburgh is going to be a surprise contender this year. Sure, the Panthers were 6-7 and were smacked 28-6 by SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl. However, one of the biggest reasons for Pittsburgh’s lackluster record in 2011 was a bad job by the coaching staff of adapting to the personnel in place. Although Todd Graham wanted to run an up-tempo attack on offense, the Panthers didn’t have the roster to make it work. Graham left for Arizona State, and Pittsburgh made one of the top coaching hires of the offseason by luring Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to the Steel City. Chryst does not have any head coaching experience, but was one of college football’s top offensive coordinators during his stint in Madison. Quarterback Tino Sunseri and the offensive line weren’t without blame from last season’s struggles, but the coaching change is a much-needed fresh start and the change in systems should bring immediate improvement. The defense does have some key personnel losses, but returns likely All-Big East selections in defensive lineman Aaron Donald and safety Jarred Holley.

If Sunseri can play better, and running back Ray Graham returns 100 percent from an ACL tear, Pittsburgh can contend for the Big East title. The Panthers went 4-3 in conference play last year and two of those losses came by three points or less. With Louisville and South Florida visiting Heinz Field, I wouldn’t be shocked if Pittsburgh finishes in the top three of the Big East in 2012.  

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I see Pittsburgh finishing third or fourth in the conference, but it would not be a total surprise to see the Panthers win the crown in Paul Chryst’s first season.  Pitt hit a home run with the hire of the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Chryst will have plenty of talent on that side of the ball. Star running back Ray Graham should be healthy, and we’ll have to wait and see how the new staff develops an inconsistent offensive line and quarterback Tino Sunseri. My concern with the Panthers is on defense, especially in the front seven. I see that inexperienced group taking a year to develop, and keeping Pitt from winning the league this season. USF and Rutgers should be the main challengers to Louisville for the Big East title, but the unexpected does happen in this conference quite often. Pitt will make it interesting with Graham and the new offense in 2012, and the best news for Panthers fans is that they have a great coach who will do very well in the Steel City in the near future.

How will Athlon predict the Big East standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

Related Big East Content

Ranking the Big East Running Backs for 2012
Ranking the Big East's Quarterbacks for 2012
Who Is Louisville's Biggest Challenger in the Big East for 2012?

Ranking the Big East Head Coaches for 2012

College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Pittsburgh Football: Are the Panthers a Contender in the Big East?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 08:01
All taxonomy terms: Philadelphia Eagles, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/philadelphia-eagles-2012-schedule
Body:

The 2012 NFL schedule for the Philadelphia Eagles has been released. Here's a weekly look that includes dates, times and television information for football fans.
 

Week 1—9/9: @Cleveland Browns 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 2—9/16: Baltimore Ravens 1 p.m. ET, CBS
 

Week 3—9/23: @ Arizona Cardinals 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 4—9/30: New York Giants 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
 

Week 5—10/7: @ Pittsburgh Steelers 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 6—10/14: Detroit Lions 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 7—BYE
 

Week 8—10/28: Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 9—11/5: @ New Orleans Saints 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
 

Week 10—11/11: Dallas Cowboys 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 11—11/18: @ Washington Redskins 1  p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 12—11/26: Carolina Panthers. 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
 

Week 13—12/2: @ Dallas Cowboys 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
 

Week 14—12/9: @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 15—12/13: Cincinnati Bengals 8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network
 

Week 16—12/23: Washington Redskins 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 17—12/30: @ New York Giants 1 p.m. ET, FOX

Teaser:
<p> The 2012 NFL schedule for the Philadelphia Eagles has been released.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 07:48
Path: /nascar/mark-martin-back-advice-danica-and-purse-payouts
Body:

This is what retirement is supposed to be like.

“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.

Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.

Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.

To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).

Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.

“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’

It just makes him anxious for the next race.

“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’

Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.

SHOW ME THE MONEY  With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.

While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.

The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.

Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).

Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.

Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.

If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.

The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.

Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.

Teaser:
<p> Following Greg Biffle's win at Texas Motor Speedway, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 21:32
All taxonomy terms: Washington Redskins, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/washington-redskins-2012-schedule
Body:

The 2012 NFL schedule for the Washington Redskins has been released. Here's a weekly look that includes dates, times and television information.
 

Week 1—9/9: @ New Orleans Saints, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 29/16: @ St. Louis Rams, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 39/23: Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
 

Week 49/30: @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 510/7: Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 610/14: Minnesota Vikings, 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 710/21: @ New York Giants, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 810/28: @ Pittsburgh Steelers, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 911/4: Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 10: BYE WEEK
 

Week 1111/18: Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 1211/22: @ Dallas Cowboys, 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 1312/3: New York Giants, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
 

Week 1412/9: Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
 

Week 1512/16: @ Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 1612/23: @ Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 1712/30: Dallas Cowboys, 1 ET, FOX

Teaser:
<p> The 2012 NFL schedule for the <strong>Washington Redskins</strong></p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 21:03
All taxonomy terms: New York Giants, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/new-york-giants-2012-schedule
Body:

The 2012 NFL schedule for the New York Giants has been released. Here's a weekly look that includes dates, times and television information.


Week 1—9/5: Dallas Cowboys 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC
 

Week 2—9/16: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 3—9/20: @ Carolina Panthers, 8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network
 

Week 4—9/30: @ Philadelphia Eagles, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
 

Week 5—10/7: Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
 

Week 6—10/14: @ San Francisco 49ers, 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 7—10/21: Washington Redskins, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 8—10/28: @ Dallas Cowboys, 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 9—11/4: Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:15 p.m. ET CBS
 

Week 10—11/11: @ Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 11Bye Week
 

Week 12—11/25: Green Bay Packers, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
 

Week 13—12/3: @Washington Redskins, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
 

Week 14—12/9: New Orleans Saints, 4:15 p.m. ET FOX
 

Week 15—12/16: @Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 16—12/23: @ Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
 

Week 17—12/30: Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. EST, FOX

Teaser:
<p> The 2012 NFL schedule for the&nbsp;<strong>New York Giants</strong>&nbsp;has been released.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 20:34
Path: /mlb/baseball-numbers-pujols-bautista-and-tough-pitchers
Body:

3
Active pitchers who have held opponents to a sub-.200 batting average over a full season: Justin Verlander 2011 (.192); Johan Santana 2004 (.192); Kerry Wood 1998 (.196) [min. 162 innings].

9
Times players have hit 40-plus home runs in a season over the past three years. Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols are the only players to accomplish it twice.

2
Teams that ended last weekend with a team batting average below .200. The Padres ended Sunday with a .191 average and the Pirates finished up at .188.

2
Pitching staffs that ended last weekend holding opponents to a sub-.200 batting average. Toronto’s pitchers are holding opponents to a .199 average, and the Nationals’ pitchers are even stingier at .186.

41
Players with enough plate appearances to qualify hitting below the Mendoza Line (.200).

3
Players with enough plate appearances to qualify not even on the interstate yet, hitting below .100. Marlon Byrd of the Cubs ranks at the bottom of the 193 players with a .065 average and .212 OPS.

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 12:13
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-0
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Greg Biffle  Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.

2. Jimmie Johnson  Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.

3. Tony Stewart  How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?

4. Matt Kenseth  As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.

6. Martin Truex Jr.  Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.

7. Kevin Harvick  Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.

Teaser:
<p> Greg Biffle scored his first win of the 2012 and retained the points lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. That's enough to place him atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 10:22
Path: /college-football/big-12-football-running-back-rankings-2012
Body:

The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel. 

Here's how Athlon ranks the running backs in the Big 12 for 2012:

1. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State (JR)
Rushing Stats:
208 att., 1,216 yards, 24 TDs
Receiving Stats: 43 rec., 266 yards, 2 TDs

While quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon gathered most of the headlines, Randle was quietly one of the most productive running backs in college football. In his first season as the starter, he rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns, while catching 43 passes for 266 yards and two scores. Randle posted three 100-yard efforts to begin the season and posted 138 yards in the win over Missouri and gashed rival Oklahoma for 151 yards and two touchdowns. With Weeden and Blackmon playing on Sundays in 2012, it’s up to Randle to become the offensive workhorse. Jeremy Smith will see some time in the backfield, but Randle figures to approach 250 carries and will contend for All-American honors in 2012.  

2. Malcolm Brown, Texas (SO)
Rushing Stats:
172 att., 742 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 17 yards

The No. 1 recruit in the nation at running back posted a solid debut season in Austin in 2011. He led the team in rushing by a wide margin and did so despite missing three games due to injury — including two of the team’s five losses. The Big 12 Newcomer of the Year was the first true freshman to lead Texas in rushing since Cedric Benson did in 2001. He should return for his sophomore season stronger and more prepared to handle the workload. Brown posted back-to-back 100-yard games and had scored two touchdowns in each game prior to getting hurt and missing the Texas Tech and Missouri games. While he won’t be asked to carry the load due to tremendous depth in Austin, Brown has the talent to lead the league in rushing.

3. Ed Wesley, TCU (SR)
Rushing Stats:
120 att., 726 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 6 rec., 82 yards

Wesley was clearly the top rusher in 2010 on a team that possesses one of the deepest and most used running back corps in the nation. He led TCU in attempts (166), yards (1,078) and touchdowns (11) as a sophomore. The carries were more evenly spread in 2011 but Wesley got the majority of the starts last fall (9) and finished second on the TCU team in rushing. His 2011 got off to slow start after he missed three of the first four games with an injury, but he bounced back and registered three of the team’s six 100-yard games. He capped his junior season by scoring in the final three games of the season and powered the TCU rushing attack in the bowl win over Louisiana Tech (16 att., 77 yds). Gary Patterson is unlikely to change his overall “by committee” approach to his running game, but odds are Wesley gets the first touches each weekend.

4. Trey Millard, Oklahoma (JR)
Rushing Stats:
24 att., 169 yards, 2 TD
Receiving Stats: 13 rec., 127 yards, TD

The stats will never indicate that Millard might be one of the most valuable backs in the Big 12. He is successful and dependable in all phases of the game and is counted on by Bob Stoops as a lead blocker, runner, pass catcher, quarterback protector and special teams dynamo. He led the team in special teams tackles with 14 stops and scored three times on 37 total offensive touches. And his value was not lost on Big 12 coaches as he earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last fall. In fact, Millard has never played a season at Oklahoma in which he was not at least a second-team All-Big 12 selection. The fullback/H-back/tight end/running back/special teamer might actually be the best player on the Oklahoma roster. It’s a shame the numbers will never prove that out. In fact, Tim Kish and Mike Stoops have echoed that exact sentiment since arriving from Arizona. Maybe the Sooners should get No. 33 the ball more often.

5. Joe Bergeron, Texas (SO)
Rushing Stats:
72 att., 463 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: None

The less-heralded of the 2011 Texas’ running back class, Bergeron proved in limited duty that he belongs in the Big 12. During Malcolm Brown’s two-game absence in the heart of the schedule, Bergeron posted the best game of his young career against Texas Tech. He carried 29 times for 191 yards and three touchdowns in the lopsided win. At 6.4 yards per carry for the season, the sophomore showed the ability to rip-off large chunks of yardage. Yet at 230 pounds, he also has the size to move the pile when needed. He only topped the 10-carry mark twice last fall, but Mack Brown knows he has a phenomenal second option to his starter. In fact, expect both players to get plenty of touches.

6. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech (SR)
Rushing Stats:
108 att., 565 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 16 rec., 133 yards, 0 TD

Stephens was easily one of the Big 12’s best running backs through the first five weeks of the season in 2011. He rushed for 100 yards in four out of Texas Tech’s first five games, including 134 yards and two rushing scores against Nevada. However, Stephens suffered a major knee injury in the 45-40 loss to Texas A&M and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. All signs are positive on Stephens’ recovery, but Texas Tech could bring him along slowly to start the 2012 season. If healthy, Stephens should finish the year much higher on this list. However, with a redshirt year available, Stephens could choose to sit out 2012 and return at full strength in 2013.

7. Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma (SR)
Rushing Stats:
113 att., 627 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 153 yards, 0 TD

Whaley was one of college football’s best stories through the first six games of 2011. A former walk-on and transfer from Langston, Whaley got off to a hot start by rushing for 627 yards and nine touchdowns in the first six contests. He rushed for 83 yards and one score in the win over Texas and 165 yards and one touchdown in a 47-17 rout over Kansas. However, Whaley’s season was cut short by an ankle injury and he has yet to return to full strength. The senior is expected to return by fall practice, but it is uncertain if Oklahoma can depend on him as a 20-25 carry option early in 2012. If we knew Whaley would be able to start in the opener, he would rank higher on this list. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his availability, which knocks him down a few spots going into 2012. 

8. Waymon James, TCU (JR)
Rushing Stats:
121 att., 875 yards, 6 TD
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 113 yards

Trying to decipher the TCU running backs is nearly impossible and James, the youngest of the bunch as a junior, is just as talented as starter Ed Wesley. James was the least used player in 2010 (87 att., 513 yards), but took his turn atop the yardage standings by leading the Frogs in rushing last fall. He had three of the team’s 100-yard rushing efforts, including huge performances against Wyoming (12 att., 181 yards), Colorado State (15 att., 108 yards) and UNLV (nine att., two touchdowns) in the final five games of the season. The 5-foot-8, 203 pounder may be the smallest of the group, but has all-conference potential as well.

9. Matthew Tucker, TCU (SR)
Rushing Stats:
123 att., 702 yards, 12 TD
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 77 yards

Tucker, the biggest of the trio of TCU backs at 227 pounds, was a touchdown machine for Gary Patterson last fall. He led the team with 12 rushing scores and actually led the team in rushing attempts at 123. He reached paydirt as many times as his running mates Wesley and James did combined, scoring in nine of 13 possible games. He started three games last fall and was honorable mention All-Mountain West just like his other two backfield mates. He was the No. 2 option in 2010 after finishing just short of Wesley in attempts (148), yards (709) and touchdowns (7). His 27 career rushing scores paces one of the deepest backfields in the nation.

10. Jeremy Smith, Oklahoma State (JR)
Rushing Stats:
91 att., 646 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 81 yards, 0 TD

Smith didn’t see a ton of playing time in 2011, but he certainly made the most of his opportunities. Joseph Randle was clearly the No. 1 rusher, but Smith was a perfect complement, adding 646 yards and nine touchdowns on 91 attempts. He posted two 100-yard efforts, rushing for 140 yards against Texas and 119 yards in the win over Oklahoma. With the Cowboys losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, the rushing attack could be a bigger focus for the offense in 2012. Smith won’t outgain Randle, but his 7.1 yards per carry average suggests more big plays could be in store this year.

11. James Sims, Kansas (JR)
Rushing Stats:
182 att., 727 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving Stats: 14 rec., 119 yards, 0 TD

Sims was one of the few bright spots for Kansas last season, rushing for 727 yards and nine touchdowns. He ranked ninth among running backs in the Big 12 with an average of 60.6 yards per game, but failed to record a 100-yard effort in conference play. Although Sims’ numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming, the lack of a consistent passing attack didn’t allow the Jayhawks to find much running room. Kansas is expected to be more competitive in 2012, but Sims is suspended for the first three games of 2012 due to an off-the-field incident. Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon are expected to carry the backfield in Sims’ absence, but anytime a new coaching staff takes over, it’s uncertain what long-term effect the incident could have on the junior’s playing time after he returns to the lineup. 

12. Jarred Salubi, Baylor (SR)
Rushing Stats:
58 att., 331 yards, 3 TD
Receiving Stats: 4 rec., 46 yards

Art Briles didn’t go to his backup running back much in 2011, but when he did, Salubi was productive. He posted a 100-yard game in his first career game with a rushing attempt (131 yards in 2009) and hadn’t topped the century mark since. That is, until the 67-56 win over Washington last fall. In his best career game, the senior to posted 114 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on only six total touches. Salubi looks like the front-runner to be the starter and has shown the big play ability (in practice at least) but will have to work hard all summer long to hold off Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin.

13. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (SO)
Rushing Stats:
Transfer Year
Receiving Stats: Transfer Year

Seastrunk orginially signed with the Oregon Ducks as one of the most heralded running back recruits in the nation back in 2010. The speed demon redshirted during his season at Oregon, and then amidst a recruiting scandal that involved himself and Texas handler Willie Lyles, decided to transfer closer to home. After sitting out last fall at Baylor, Seastrunk enters 2011 with a chance to make a huge impact. Seastrunk was the star of the Baylor spring game with 138 yards on only seven carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run. However, spring stats mean very little and Seastrunk has a long way to go to prove he deserved his lofty 2010 recruiting ranking. He may still be behind a few names on Art Briles’ depth chart, but his home-run ability is something his counterparts simply do not possess

14. John Hubert, Kansas State (JR)
Rushing Stats:
200 att., 970 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 188 yards, 1 TD

With quarterback Collin Klein shouldering much of the rushing attack, Hubert was relegated to only 200 carries in 2011. The highlight of last year was a 166-yard effort against Miami, but he also rushed for 126 yards against Missouri. Hubert wasn’t much of a big-play threat and scored only three touchdowns last season. In order for Kansas State to repeat last season’s win total, it needs to find more help for Klein, while leaning on Hubert to grind out a few more yards. Hubert isn’t flashy, but could have a chance to top 1,000 yards in 2012. 

15. Jonathan Gray, Texas (FR)
For the second straight season Mack Brown will add the nation’s No. 1 running back prospect in the nation to his roster. Malcolm Brown was solid in his rookie year last fall and many think Gray could be even better. The durable, workhorse has every tool a running back needs to succeed at the next level. He comes to the 40 Acres with a remarkable prep resume that includes over 10,000 yards rushing and the national high school record with 205 touchdowns. Gray might be the best running back in the conference the second he steps onto a field, but don’t expect him to get more than 100 touches as a freshman.

16. James White, Iowa State (JR)
Rushing Stats:
159 att., 743 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 21 rec., 165 yards, 1 TD

Despite losing starter Shontrelle Jackson to a neck injury early in the year, the Iowa State rushing attack never missed a beat. White finished with 743 yards and eight touchdowns, while catching 21 passes for 165 yards and one score. He recorded two 100-yard games, posting 148 yards against Baylor and 138 against Texas Tech. White was a key factor in the win over Oklahoma State, recording 97 total yards and two scores. The Cyclones should be in good shape at running back with White, Johnson and Jeff Woody returning in 2012. White should lead the team in yards, but with good depth at this position, seems unlikely to top 1,000 yards.

17. Dustin Garrison, West Virginia (SO)
Rushing Stats:
136 att., 742 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 201 yards, 0 TD

Garrison had a solid debut season, leading the Mountaineers with 742 rushing yards, while chipping in 24 receptions for 201 yards. He recorded only one effort over 100 yards (291, Bowling Green), but notched 87 in a key win over South Florida and 80 in a 43-16 blowout victory over Connecticut. Although Garrison had a successful freshman campaign, he suffered a significant knee injury in a practice before the Orange Bowl and likely won’t return to full strength until early 2012. If healthy, Garrison should rank higher on this list. However, with his status uncertain, the sophomore may struggle to match last season’s rushing totals.

18. Roy Finch, Oklahoma (JR)
Rushing Stats:
111 att., 605 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 34 rec., 296 yards, 0 TD

With Dominique Whaley’s status for the season opener uncertain, Finch could be Oklahoma’s No. 1 back. The junior has been a solid performer through his first two seasons, recording 1,003 career yards and five rushing scores. Finch also has 44 receptions for 345 yards over the last two years. Finch does not have a 100-yard effort in his career and really isn’t built to handle 200-250 carries. However, he could carry Oklahoma’s backfield early, while forming a nice one-two combination with Whaley whenever the senior returns to full strength.

19. Shawne Alston, West Virginia (SR)
Rushing Stats:
97 att., 416 yards, 12 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 6 yards, 0 TD

Alston hasn’t been a major contributor in his West Virginia career, but he could be poised to shoulder a majority of the carries early in 2012. With Dustin Garrison nursing a knee injury, Alston will likely be the Mountaineers’ starting running back. The senior has 682 career yards and 12 rushing scores and closed out the 2011 season on a high note, rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson.

20. Kenny Williams, Texas Tech (SO)
Rushing Stats:
43 att., 135 yards, 2 TDs
Receiving Stats: 6 rec., 52 yards, 0 TD

With Eric Stephens and DeAndre Washington battling significant knee injuries, Williams could see a significant role in the backfield this season. He rushed for 135 yards in limited time last year and caught 6 passes for 52 yards. Williams posted only one game of double-digit carries (Texas, 10), but scored two touchdowns in the regular season finale against Baylor. Until Stephens proves he is 100 percent, the Texas Tech coaches will have to lean on Williams and SaDale Foster at running back.

Others to Watch

Andrew Buie, West Virginia
Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State
Glasco Martin, Baylor
Tony Pierson, Kansas
Alex Ross, Oklahoma
Herschel Sims, Oklahoma State
DeAndre Williams, Texas Tech

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Related Big 12 Content

Big 12 Quarterback Rankings for 2012
Can Kansas State Repeat Last Season's Success?

Ranking the Big 12 Head Coaches for 2012
College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Athlon ranks the running backs in the Big 12 for the 2012 season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 07:02
Path: /college-football/washington-or-stanford
Body:

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Assuming Oregon is the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 North, who would you pick second - Washington or Stanford?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I am sticking with Stanford here, though the gap is closing. My quick reaction at first was to pick Washington ahead of the Cardinal, but I’m not so sure anymore. Stanford is going to fall a bit without Andrew Luck and two elite offensive linemen, and Washington is not going to be a mess on defense like it was a year ago. That said, Washington still has to make up a three-game difference in the Pac-12 standings just to catch up to Stanford. It could happen. That said, for all its talent on offense with Keith Price, Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse, Washington was still seventh in the Pac-12 in total offense in league games. Not to mention the Huskies defense, which couldn’t stop anyone. On the other hand, Stanford’s going to have a solid defense, especially if Shayne Skov is on the field in his 2010 form. The Cardinal is not going to move the ball like it did under Luck, but I think David Shaw is going to be able to re-tool his offense around Stepfan Taylor in the running game. Stanford’s spot among the national elite may end this season, but Washington’s journey to the top of the Pac-12 is still a long one.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Give me the Huskies or give me death. Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies poised for their best season in over a decade this fall. He took a first-year starter and underclassman at quarterback and delivered the first winning season for Washington since 2002. Keith Price now enters his junior season having already dramatically outperformed the legend he replaced in Jake Locker. The roster as a whole has been dramatically upgraded, as is evident by how easily Coach Sark can replace star skill players like Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse with Jesse Callier, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams. And the program has clearly decided to dedicate more resources to producing a winner as the Huskies spent big money to lure talented coaches from all across the country this off-season.

Stanford, meanwhile, is heading in a much different direction. Two years removed from coaching savant Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw now faces his biggest challenge: Replacing all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck. The best amateur football player in the world left Palo Alto with every major school record a quarterback can hold, including winning 23 of 26 games over the last two seasons. Brett Nottingham might be a solid player, but fans will find out very quickly just how good Luck was under center. Additionally, gone are two two-time first-team All-Pac-12 offensive lineman and stud tight end Coby Fleener. Defensively, this team should be better than Washington, and I realize that the Cardinal recruited at a record level in 2012, but many of those player won't make a significant impact this fall. The in-conference schedules are similar, so this argument could be decided on the field in Week 5 when Stanford comes to Seattle to face Washington.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is one of the toughest calls to make in the Pac-12 predictions for 2012. Stanford has won 23 games over the last two years and has brought in top 25 recruiting classes in each of the last four seasons. However, former coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck were a key reason for much of that success. David Shaw did a good job in his first season as Stanford’s head coach last year, but the Cardinal now have to replace Luck and two first-team All-Pac-12 linemen in 2012. There’s no question Stanford is due for a fall, but just how far is the debate.

Washington has just 14 wins over the last two years and its defense was a disaster last season. The Huskies also suffered some key personnel losses going into 2012, including running back Chris Polk, defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu and linebacker Cort Dennison. However, Washington is a program headed in the right direction. Coach Steve Sarkisian is bringing in solid recruiting classes and hired an excellent defensive staff, pulling in coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tennessee and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi from California. The acquisition of Wilcox should bring immediate improvement to Washington’s defense, which will help an offense that should be one of the best in the conference.

The schedules are essentially even, but Washington hosts Stanford this year. Although the Cardinal has been the better team over the last few years, I think the Huskies will surprise and claim second in the North standings and finish among the top 25 teams in the nation.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I’ll go with Stanford to finish second in the Pac-12’s North Division. Most pundits around college football will probably take Washington because of the Cardinal personnel losses and a tough schedule, but I think Stanford has built a strong program that will not fall very far this season. Obviously Andrew Luck leaves a huge void at quarterback, and the Cardinal will also miss top performers like left tackle Jonathan Martin, guard David DeCastro, and safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. While the offense may not be as potent in 2012, the defense could be better than last year’s quality group. Stanford has one of the top linebacking units in the country, led by All-America candidate Chase Thomas and leading tackler Jarek Lancaster. Shayne Skov should return to the group in late September, and AJ Tarpley was solid as well last season.

David Shaw will have a talented quarterback whether it’s Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes, and offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and David Yankey should lead a physical crew that will pave the way for outstanding running back Stepfan Taylor. Stanford plays hit-you-in-the-mouth football, like when the Cardinal steamrolled Washington for 446 rushing yards a year ago. While the Huskies do have an exciting signal caller in Keith Price, the defense is still a year away in Seattle. Both teams should be in the 6-3 range in league play, and I’ll go with Stanford to win the head-to-head matchup and finish as the runner-up to Oregon in the North.

How will Athlon predict the Pac-12 North standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

Related Pac-12 Content

Pac-12 Quarterback Rankings for 2012
Can California Beat Stanford and Washington in the 2012 North Standings?

College Football's Top 25 Coaches for 2012

Ranking the Pac-12's Head Coaches for 2012

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Washington or Stanford: Which is the second best team in the 2012 Pac-12 North?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 07:01
Path: /mlb/weve-got-next-baseballs-2012-rookie-class
Body:

Remember those cool little trophies that Topps has put on baseball cards of the previous year’s best rookies? The card company began the practice in 1960 honoring the best rookies from 1959 — a group that included the likes of Pumpsie Green and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.


Since that time, Topps has forsaken the trophies in a few years, but has continued to select an All-Rookie Team. Topps usually honors eight position players and two pitchers, one right-handed, one lefty. We prefer four starters and a closer.

Here’s our lineup of the top 2012 rookies we believe will be honored by Topps at the end of the season. Some are still in the minors, but you will know their names by the end of the summer.

Catcher
Hector Sanchez, San Francisco
Sanchez won’t get as many plate appearances as other catchers because of some guy named Buster Posey. But as the Giants get Posey more time at first base, Sanchez will continue to impress with his bat and arm.
Others: Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati; Wilin Rosario, Colorado

First Base
Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
Rizzo is likely to make the scene by the end of May, and will immediately take his place in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup. The Cubbies need his bat, for sure.
Other: Chris Parmelee, Minnesota

Second Base
Freddy Galvis, Philadelphia
Given the full-time gig in Philadelphia until Chase Utley returns, Galvis’ bat has been slow starting this season, but he knows how to play the position — and there is little competition at the position.
Other: Kolten Wong, St. Louis

Third Base
Nolan Arenado, Colorado
The third baseman has hit well at every stop, including spring training this season. The hot corner in Denver will be his later this summer. He is among the best long-term prospects on this list as well.

Shortstop
Tyler Pastornicky, Atlanta
Clearly, the deepest position for rookies this season, there are shortstops galore. Pastornicky isn’t the best defender of this group, but he is expected to hit close to .300 and steal 20-plus bases.
Others: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati; Nick Franklin, Seattle; Marwin Gonzalez, Houston; Jose Iglesias, Boston

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports projects the best rookies for 2012.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 17:11
Path: /mlb/baseballs-players-week-kemp-westbrook
Body:

Each week Athlon Sports looks back at the previous week's best baseball players in the American and National leagues, and recaps the most outstanding pitching performances. Here are last week's—April 9-15—standouts.

National League Player of the Week 

Matt Kemp, Los Angeles

For the second week in a row, the most feared hitter in the NL is honored here. Kemp hit .455 for the week with an NL-leading four home runs and nine RBIs. He scored seven times.

 

National League Pitcher of the Week

Jake Westbrook, St. Louis

The Cardinals are getting strong starting pitching from unexpected sources, and Westbrook tossed two gems this week. He won at Cincinnati, then defeated the Cubs at home. In 14 innings he was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 0.86 WHIP.

 

American League Player of the Week

Josh Willingham, Minnesota

The Twins are struggling to score runs, but Willingham showed why Minnesota signed the free agent over the winter. He hit an even .500 and slugged north of 1.000 with three home runs.

 

American League Pitcher of the Week

C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles

It hasn’t been the kind of start to the 2012 season that the Angels expected, but Wilson was a lone bright spot last week. He won both his starts with a 1.38 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

Teaser:
<p> A look at the NL's and AL's standouts&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 14:41
Path: /nascar/greg-biffle-wins-texas
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

The NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings have always been more consistency-based than win-centric. This season alone, two-time race winner Tony Stewart found himself third in the standings behind winless drivers Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Biffle and Earnhardt — both saddled with winless skids of 49 or more races — had employed the tried and true “top-10 ’em to death” method in 2012, each with four in six races.

However, Biffle separated himself at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday evening, scoring his first Cup Series victory since October 2010 in the Samsung Mobile 500.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Biffle said of whether a win validated his position atop the point standings. “To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys — all the cars behind us — that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”

Biffle assumed the points lead following the third race of the season, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish.

On Saturday, Biffle had to hold off a determined Jimmie Johnson, who now has only two wins in the last 50 races — a relative stat, yet one that opens eyes when it’s the five-time champion. Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but was beat by Biffle’s slide job exiting Turn 4 with 31 laps to go. Johnson eventually skated up and into the wall while trying to catch Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, and limped to a second-place finish, 3.25-seconds behind the race winner.

“The last two or three runs the 16 and I were pretty equal, run(ning) pretty similar lap times,” Johnson said. “I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and (Biffle) made a great move and got by me. And then I was pacing him from there and didn’t have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into Turn 3 and drilled the fence.”

Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.

The strong early-season performance of Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars continued. Martin, who is splitting driving duties in the No. 55 Toyota with Brian Vickers, notched the team’s second top 5 and fourth top 10 this year. Martin Truex Jr. turned heads once again with a sixth-place showing, his fifth top 10 in the No. 56 NAPA machine. Truex sits fourth in the point standings.

“The teamwork I’m feeling right now at MWR is second to none I’ve ever been at,” Martin said. “Martin Truex Jr., is really, really engaged, and he’s working hard to help the whole program.

“We’re racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That’s a tall order for right now. I’m very proud of the results we’re getting. It’s coming from a lot of good attitudes and hard-working people.”

The other storylines of the evening were a lack of cautions throughout the 500-mile race. Only two yellow flags — both for debris on the track — marred an otherwise spotless event that lasted just over three hours. The strength of the Texas wind also grabbed drivers’ attentions.

“The wind was a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The wind was blowing you all over the place. I was swatting flies all night long. The wind was blowing the car back and forth and over ... that could be a factor in why there was no accidents. You would think that would cause one. Well, it made it so you couldn’t really race side by side with a guy.

“I wouldn’t run up on a guy coming off the corner like I normally would. I’d leave more room because I wasn’t sure when the wind was going to blow my car one way or another. I was cautious when I was around (other) cars, and I think probably everybody else was tonight.”

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
<p> Greg Biffle broke a 49-race winless skid with a victory in the Samsung Mobile 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 14:07
All taxonomy terms: MLB, MLB Power Rankings, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/athlons-major-league-baseball-power-ranking-april-16-2012
Body:

Each week during the season Athlon Sports looks at the best and worst baseball teams in the league. Here's our MLB Power Rankings for April 16, 2012.

1. Rangers—Joe Nathan gets first save, bullpen only potential problem.

 2. Dodgers—Matt Kemp determined to have monster season.

 3. Tigers—Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder latest version of Bash Bros.

 4. Yankees—Derek Jeter off to hottest start of his career.

 5. Cardinals—Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook are all 2-0.

 6. Diamondbacks—Bullpen becoming strength of the team.

 7. Nationals—Stephen Strasburg is officially dominant.

 8. Blue Jays—Kyle Drabek finally pitching like an ace.

 9. Phillies—Phils’ leader: 5 RBIs; Ryan Howard: 11 after 9 games in 2011.

10. Red Sox—Big Papi crushing the ball early.

11. Braves—Atlanta needs Jason Heyward and he’s producing.

12. Rays—Rays out of the gate slowly once again.

13. Brewers—Cleanup hitters are batting just .103 with no homers.

14. Angels—Offense is struggling and bullpen is terrible.

15. Reds—Aroldis Chapman dominant in relief role.

16. Indians—Derek Lowe settling in as Cleveland’s ace.

17. Giants—Tough blow losing Brian Wilson for the season.

18. Rockies—Rockies and opponents have identical .777 OPS.

19. Mariners—Outhomered 15-7, but outscored by only two, 42-40.

20. Marlins—Giancarlo Santon yet to go deep, Omar Infante has four.

21. Orioles—Four regulars hitting better than .285; four below .220.

22. Mets—Relievers Francisco, Byrdak, Rauch and Parnell 1 ER in 16.2 IP.

23. White Sox—Opponents batting .196 with runners in scoring position.

24. A’s—May have found another ace in lefty Tom Milone.

25. Pirates—Bucs have 2.57 ERA and .188 batting average.

26. Royals—Hitting .313 at home, .227 on the road.

27. Astros—J.D. Martinez becoming a big hit in Houston.

28. Cubs—Cubs have no home runs from their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters.

29. Padres—Hitting .219 on the road, .179 at Petco Park.

30. Twins—Josh Willingham brings big bat to Minneapolis.

Teaser:
<p> A weekly look of the best teams in baseball</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 13:51
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-bests-busts-and-waiver-wire-apr-16-1
Body:

Stay tuned each week to Athlon Sports for a 2012 Fantasy Baseball Weekend Waiver Wire every Monday and a Weekend Rundown every Thursday.

Please raise your hand if you had the Los Angeles Dodgers as the best team in baseball after two weekends of play? It's not like they have the psuedo-reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner, right?

While the rankings, both in the fantasy world and in the real standings, are still extremely volatile, there are some trends to keep an eye on. For example, if the Dodgers stay healthy — Andre Ethier, Ted Lilly, etc — there is no reason to believe that the boys in blue won't be in contention all season. Which means great things for fantasy owners of speedster Dee Gordon (leds the MLB in stolen bases with 7), Ethier (second to only Kemp in RBI) and Chad Billingsly (No. 1-rated pitcher with 15 K in 14.1 IP).

If the Washington Nationals can get pitching like they have early from Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, they too should be in contention all season. 

On the flip side, however, don't buy into the Mariners (as if I should need to tell you) as five of their six wins have come at the expense of the offensively challenged Athletics.

Here are your current Top 25 fantasy baseball hitters:

  Name Pos. Team R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Matt Kemp OF LAD 13 6 16 1 .487 1.549
2. Chris Young OF ARI 6 4 11 2 .364 1.293
3. Yadier Molina C STL 9 3 10 1 .353 1.156
4. Josh Hamilton OF TEX 10 4 6 0 .390 1.137
5. Josh Willingham OF MIN 7 4 7 1 .419 1.385
6. Starlin Castro SS CHC 6 0 7 6 .359 .831
7. Ian Kinsler 2B TEX 11 4 7 1 .268 1.031
8. David Freese 3B STL 6 3 11 0 .406 1.111
9. Carlos Pena 1B TB 7 3 11 0 .353 1.185
10. Edwin Encarnacion 1B/3B TOR 7 3 9 2 .289 .957
11. Omar Infante* 2B MIA 9 4 6 0 .343 1.190
12. Carlos Beltran OF STL 9 3 4 2 .324 1.013
13. Adam Jones OF BAL 6 3 4 3 .343 1.052
14. Andre Ethier OF LAD 5 3 15 0 .289 1.030
15. Corey Hart OF MIL 7 4 8 0 .321 1.314
16. David Ortiz UTL BOS 6 1 10 0 .444 1.169
17. J.D. Martinez* OF HOU 5 3 10 0 .371 1.150
18. Austin Jackson OF DET 10 1 3 1 .412 1.159
19. Jason Heyward OF ATL 7 2 5 2 .345 1.079
20. Jordan Schafer* OF HOU 8 1 2 5 .242 .738
21. Pablo Sandoval 1B/3B SF 7 2 8 0 .333 1.026
22. Kelly Johnson* 2B TOR 9 3 6 0 .270 .927
23. Adam LaRoche* 1B WAS 3 2 12 0 .341 .963
24. Emilio Bonifacio 3B/2B/SS MIA 7 0 1 5 .316 .725
25. Miguel Cabrera 1B DET 7 3 9 0 .242 .895

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

On the flip side, owners of first-round strugglers shouldn't be panicking too much. Albert Pujols currently ranks 734th while Jose Bautista sits at No. 728. Needless to say, these trends won't continue. These are the names you attack on the trading block. Others who have scuffled out of the gate like Mark Teixeira, Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Upton and Jose Reyes could be at their lowest value. 

If you jumped early on names like Josh Willingham, Jordan Schafer, JD Martinez, Omar Infante and Adam LaRoche, now would be the time to start shopping their services to vulnerable GMs. Chris Young, the No. 2 player in the game right now, is a career .241 hitter. Put him on the block now. 

Replacing Jacoby

Red Sox star outfielers Jacoby Ellsbury has landed on the DL (again) and will miss at least a month. His partially dislocated shoulder not only puts a crick in the Red Sox' AL-leading offense (53 runs) but crushes fantasy owners. He is scheduled for an exam on Monday to determine the extent of the injury. However, GM Ben Cherington is already investigating the trade martket where names like Marlon Byrd and Coco Crisp have come into play. If Crisp lands atop the Sox order, there could be some sneaky value there. They have also put a claim in on Tigers' outfielder Clete Thomas. If they stay in house, it looks like Cody Ross moves to center with Darnell McDonald getting more time in left. Looks like that Josh Reddick-Andrew Bailey trade is working out as planned. This injury could sap this lineup — especially considering how Bobby Valentine feels about Kevin Youkilis.

Outfield Help

Looking for some outfield help in the early weeks? Here are two names that could fit the bill: Chicago's southsider Alejandro De Aza and Minnesota's Denard Span. The two lead-off hitters are off to solid starts for two offenses that don't figure to supply much fantasy help. However, Span is a career .287 hitter with the potential to score 75-80 runs and swipe 25-30 bases. He has 10 hits in is last 19 at-bats, including four doubles. With a healthy Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Span could easily return to 2009 form should he stay healthy. De Aza crushed the ball down the stretch in 2011 and has picked-up where he left off. Is a 10-HR, 30-SB, 90-R season that far-fetched for a guy who knows to get on base?

Current Top 25 fantasy pitchers:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Chad Billingsly LAD 14.1 2 0 15 0 0.63 0.63
2. Aroldis Chapman* CIN 8.0 2 0 15 1 0.00 0.38
3. Javy Guerra LAD 6.0 1 5 5 0 0.00 0.67
4. Roy Halladay PHI 15.0 2 0 8 0 0.60 0.53
5. Lance Lynn* STL 12.0 2 0 13 0 1.50 0.75
6. Matt Garza CHC 14.2 1 0 14 0 1.23 0.75
7. Kyle Lohse* STL 13.1 2 0 5 0 1.35 0.53
8. Stephen Strasburg WAS 13.0 1 0 14 0 0.69 0.85
9. Fernando Rodney* TB 3.2 1 3 2 0 0.00 0.00
10. Edwin Jackson* WAS 14.0 1 0 15 0 2.57 0.64
11. Barry Zito* SF 16.0 1 0 8 0 1.12 0.69
12. Matt Cain SF 15.0 1 0 15 0 3.00 0.60
13. Brandon League SEA 6.0 0 4 4 0 0.64 0.83
14. Jake Westbrook* STL 14.0 2 0 4 0 0.64 0.86
15. Jonathon Niese* NYM 12.2 2 0 12 0 2.13 0.95
16. Bryan Shaw* ARI 6.0 0 2 8 2 0.00 0.50
17. Justin Verlander DET 16.1 0 0 14 0 2.20 0.55
18. Kyle Drabek* TOR 12.2 2 0 10 0 1.42 1.03
19. Matt Harrison* TEX 14.0 2 0 7 0 0.64 1.07
20. Frank Francisco NYM 4.0 0 3 7 0 0.00 0.75
21. Colby Lewis TEX 12.2 1 0 15 0 1.42 1.03
22. Craig Stammen* WAS 7.2 2 0 10 0 1.17 1.17
23. Grant Balfour OAK 7.0 0 2 5 0 0.00 0.57
24. Jim Johnson BAL 4.2 0 4 3 0 0.00 1.07
25. Jerad Weaver LAA 14.0 1 0 17 0 3.21 0.86

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Looking For Spot Starts

Some of this advice might seem obvious, but do you know where to look when snagging a spot start here or there? Look for those pitching against Pittsburgh (18 runs in nine games), Oakland (28 runs in 10 games), Minnesota (28 runs in nine games) and San Diego (34 runs in 10 games). But the Ryan Howard-less Phillies are actually 15th (second-worst) in the NL in runs scored thus far. The Mets just got three quality starts from RA Dickey, Jonathan Niese and Mike Pelfrey on the road in Philly. This offense might never return to its peak 2008 form and could (shockingly) provide some value to opposing pitchers.

Not Buying St. Louis' Starters

No Dave Duncan. No Tony LaRussa. No Albert Pujols. No Chris Carpenter. No problem. The Cards are still in first place thanks to hot starts from David Freese, Carlon Beltran and Rafael Furcal. However, the performance of starters Lance Lynn, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook has been the real reason for early success from the defending champs. They rank as the No. 5, No. 7 and No. 13 pitchers in all of fantasy baseball. While Lynn offers some intriguing K-rates (career 10.2 K/9) and the other two should win their share of games, it is hard to officially buy any of these names yet. Lohse and Westbrook have combined for nine strikeouts in 27.1 IP and each boast nearly identical career ratio's of 4.61/1.39 and 4.30/1.39. Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright have struggled out of the gate but are still the better longterm fantasy options.

Just Like Brian Wilson Did

Be it a Barenaked Ladies song, Beach Boy singer and Giants' closer, Brian Wilson has seen better days. Wilson looks to have structural damage to his pitching elbow and may require his second Tommy John surgery. This leaves Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla left to clean up the ninth for Bruce Bochy. He claims he will go by committee in the short team, but Romo and Casilla are the two names to invest in. In 48.0 innings, Romo was filthy last year in the set-up role with a 1.50 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and a downright insane 70:5 K:BB ratio. Casilla wasn't too far behind as his 1.74 ERA and 1.12 WHIP were more than servicable last year. However, his walk totals (25 in 51.2 IP) may push Bochy towards Romo first. Lopez is the lefty of the group and has been the least productive. Keep an eye on how and when Bochy handles his end game situations. 

Keep this link handy as Athlon keeps its Closer Grid up to date all season long.

-by Braden Gall

 @bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Subject:</p> <p> Fantasy Baseball Bests, Busts and Waiver Wire: Apr. 16</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 12:20
Path: /college-football/acc-running-back-rankings-2012
Body:

The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel. 

Here's how Athlon ranks the running backs in the ACC for 2012:

1. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (SO)
Rushing Stats:
239 att., 1,253 yards, 13 TD
Receiving Stats: 45 rec., 362 yards, TD

As a redshirt freshman, few players in the ACC had the type of impact Bernard had a year ago save for Mr. Watkins (a true freshman) at Clemson. It didn’t take long for fans to see the potential as Bernard scored two touchdowns in each of his first two games. He then rattled off five straight 100-yard games. He struggled down the stretch — likely hitting a rookie wall — with four games of 60 yards or less in his final six games. But he also posted a career-high 165 yards on a career-high 30 carries in the regular season finale against Duke. With a tremendous quarterback in Bryn Renner returning behind him and a solid offensive line up front, Bernard has a chance to build on his stellar first campaign in 2012. Additionally, his ability to excel as a receiver has to get new head coach and offensive guru Larry Fedora excited about using No. 26 this fall.

2. Andre Ellington, Clemson (SR)
Rushing Stats:
223 att., 1,178 yards, 11 TDs
Receiving Stats: 22 rec., 109 yards, 0 TD

Ellington’s first season as the starter in 2010 was cut short by a toe injury, but he rebounded with an excellent 2011 campaign. Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and added 22 receptions for 109 yards. He also closed out the year with back-to-back 100-yard games and rushed for 212 yards in a 56-45 victory over Maryland. Ellington is averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per rush during his career and has recorded 27 overall scores. There’s not much separating Ellington and North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard for the top spot in the ACC running back rankings. However, with Mike Bellamy likely to see a few more carries this year, it’s hard to see Ellington passing Bernard in rushing yardage. 

3. Perry Jones, Virginia (SR)
Rushing Stats:
184 att., 915 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 48 rec., 506 yards, 3 TD

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound tailback started all 13 games for the Wahoos last fall. He isn’t the typical three-down feature back but can make big things happen in all phases of the offense. He had at least five games of at least five receptions and finished as the team’s No. 2 leading receiver with 48 catches. His three receiving touchdowns tied for the team lead and he even tossed a 37-yard touchdown pass in the upset road win over Miami. He only topped the 20-carry mark three times last fall but averaged nearly five yards a carry over the coarse of the season. As the Virginia brand name continues its resurrection, expect Jones to be a focal point of the offense in 2012.

4. Kevin Parks, Virginia (SO)
Rushing Stats:
152 att., 709 yards, 9 TD
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 82 yards, TD

Parks came to Virginia with arguably the greatest prep resume for any tailback in history. His 10,895 yards are third all-time in American prep football history and no other player carried the football more than Parks’ 1,370 career attempts. Parks proved his high school resume was no fluke when he topped the 100-yard mark and scored three times in his UVa debut. He then scored twice more in Week 2. Despite missing the Idaho game and as only a freshman, Parks set the Virginia single-season rushing touchdown record with nine scores. And he did it as the back-up. Like his running mate Perry Jones, Parks is short in stature at 5-foot-8, but unlike Jones, he is thickly built and can be a goalline and short yardage player due to toughness and lower body strength. No matter who is technically named the starter, Mike London has to be pleased with his running back situation.

5. Montel Harris, Boston College (SR)
Rushing Stats:
31 att., 135 yards, 0 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 36 yards, 0 TD

Harris could rank higher on this list, but it’s hard to know what to expect out of him in 2012. He entered last season with a chance to break the ACC’s career rushing record, but managed only 135 yards and played in only two games after having knee surgery in the preseason. Harris was expected to be at full strength in spring practice, but aggravated his knee injury and it’s uncertain if he will return at 100 percent in time for the regular season. If the senior can’t return or is limited, Boston College will likely lean on junior Andre Williams to carry the load on the ground. Harris has had a terrific career, but it could end in disappointment if he can’t return in 2012.

6. Mike Bellamy, Clemson (SO)
Rushing Stats:
57 att., 343 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 4 yards, 0 TD

Bellamy may not have the numbers to rank No. 6 on this list, but he certainly has the talent. As a true freshman last year, he rushed for 343 yards and three touchdowns. Bellamy ranked as the No. 7 overall running back in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100, but playing time is limited with Andre Ellington ahead of him on the depth chart. Also, the sophomore has been in and out of coach Dabo Swinney’s doghouse, but it appears Bellamy is working his way back into his good graces heading into the summer. Bellamy may have only 300-500 rushing yards this year, but look for him to emerge as one of the ACC’s best backs going into 2013.

7. Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech (SR)
Rushing Stats:
61 att., 615 yards, 11 TD
Receiving Stats: 13 rec., 306 yards, TD

The “A-Back” in Paul Johnson’s patented triple-option attack averaged over 10 yards per clip a season ago, making Smith the clear big play threat in Tech’s offense. Over the last two seasons, he has touched the ball only 139 times and posted only one game with double-digit rushing attempts (12 against Miami in 2010). Yet, the 6-foot, 202 pounder mustered 1,632 yards from scrimmage over that span for an appalling per-touch average of 11.7 yards. And his 11 touchdowns last fall led all Yellow Jacket running backs. The offensive line at Tech returns largely intact, and the backfield is loaded, so expect Smith to only continue to rip off chunks of yards in 2012.

8. David Sims, Georgia Tech (JR)
Rushing Stats:
135 att., 698 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 29 yards, TD

The “B-Back” in the Yellow Jackets’ offense is asked to be a much more physical, more short yardage ball-carrier and Sims performed admirably a year ago. Filling in for famed Jonathan Dwyer, Sims led all running backs in carries and yards last year despite not playing in the bowl game. He checks in at around 220 pounds, so he fits the position perfectly. Sims is never going to be asked to pick-up big plays, but he will be a consistent force up the heart of the triple-option offensive attack in 2012 — especially running behind a veteran offensive line and quarterback.

9. Mike James, Miami (SR)
Rushing Stats:
72 att., 275 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 9 rec., 80 yards, TD

Serving as the backup for Lamar Miller, James appeared in 12 games with two starts a year ago. He finished second on the team in rushing, carries and total touchdowns. He showed flashed of upside in his best performance of the season against Duke, when he scored two touchdowns and recorded 101 yards from scrimmage on only nine touches against Duke. At 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, James has the skillset to be the three-down feature back that Al Golden craves. However, James’ upside in 2012 may be limited by a youthful offense and inconsistent quarterback play.

10. Josh Harris, Wake Forest (JR)
Rushing Stats:
101 att., 432 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 5 rec., 22 yards, 0 TD

A hamstring injury essentially ended Harris’ 2011 season after five games. Although he returned for two games later in the year, Harris wasn’t the same player and was relegated to only 10 carries after tallying 91 through the first five weeks. When healthy, Harris is capable of contending for All-ACC honors. As a sophomore in 2010, he rushed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns. Harris was averaging 82.4 yards per game before his injury and also chipped in five receptions. Assuming he returns at full strength for 2012, the junior will have a chance to rush for 1,000 yards. However, Harris will be running behind an offensive line that must replace four starters in 2012.

11. James Washington, NC State (SR)
Rushing Stats:
226 att., 897 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving Stats: 42 rec., 315 yards, 0 TD

Washington was a pleasant surprise for NC State last season. After rushing for just 291 yards in his first two seasons in Raleigh, he recorded 897 yards and seven scores last year. Washington was also a key factor in the passing attack, catching 42 passes for 315 yards. He posted three 100-yard efforts, rushing for a season-high 131 yards against Georgia Tech, 109 against Central Michigan and 110 in a 13-0 shutout win over rival North Carolina. NC State would probably like to see Washington improve slightly on his 3.9 yards per rush, but he will face competition from Tony Creecy and Mustafa Greene (provided a legal incident in the spring won’t prevent him from returning to the team).

12. Devonta Freeman, Florida State (SO)
Rushing Stats:
120 att., 579 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 111 yards, 0 TD

Florida State’s ground attack was one of the worst in the ACC last year, but it’s hard to fault Freeman or any of the other running backs. The Seminoles struggled to establish consistency or open any rushing lanes on the offensive line, which prevented Freeman from getting on track last season. As a true freshman last year, he rushed for 579 yards and eight scores, while catching 15 passes for 111 yards. Freeman posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts in mid-October, rushing for 109 yards against Duke and 100 against Maryland. The sophomore certainly has some talent and should be Florida State’s leading rusher in 2012. However, he will face competition from incoming freshman Mario Pender and sophomore James Wilder Jr. If Freeman was the clear No. 1 back, he would likely rank higher on this list.

13. Andre Williams, Boston College (JR)
Rushing Stats:
124 att., 517 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 11 yards, 0 TD

With Montel Harris battling a knee injury once again, Williams may end up shouldering much of Boston College’s rushing offense early in the year. The junior has shown flashes of ability, rushing for 185 yards on 42 attempts in the 2010 regular season finale. He also rushed for 114 yards and two scores in the opener against Northwestern in 2011 and posted 61 yards on 18 attempts in an upset win over NC State last year. If Harris is limited or unable to go, Williams could finish with over 200 carries and over 1,000 rushing yards. The junior needs a little help from the offensive line and passing attack to keep defenses from keying on the run, but this Boston College back could be higher on the list at the conclusion of the 2012 season. 

14. Michael Holmes, Virginia Tech (FR)
Rushing Stats:
Redshirted in 2011
Receiving Stats: Redshirted in 2011

Not much is known about the young tailback and that is just the way he likes it. The shy, soft-spoken prep star has yet to play a game in a Hokies uniform and has already become the center of attention in Blacksburg. The Harrisonburg High star rushed for a school record 2,877 yards in his career and scored 41 touchdowns as a senior. He now sits atop the Hokies depth chart and is preparing to carry the load for the Coastal Division favorites. The 5-foot-11, 208-pound tailback will compete with Tony Gregory, who is sitting out spring ball with a knee injury, and early enrollee J.C. Coleman.

15. Juwan Thompson, Duke (JR)
Rushing Stats:
110 att., 457 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 22 rec., 182 yards, TD

Thompson can be a bulldozer of a ball-carrier for the Blue Devils as he enters upperclass status. The 230-pounder finished last season as the team’s leading rusher and leading touchdown provider. When Desmond Scott missed three games early in the year, Thompson took over and never looked back. He posted his best two-game stretch at the end of September when he touched the ball 32 times for 131 yards and two scores in wins over Tulane and FIU. With Thompson, head coach David Cutcliffe has one of the ACC’s top triplets with quarterback Sean Renfree and wideout Conner Vernon.

Others to Watch

Rolandan Finch, Boston College (JR) – Finch led Boston College with 705 yards last season, including 243 in a 28-17 victory over Maryland. Andre Williams appears to be the Eagles No. 1 back, but don’t count out Finch from working his way into a split carry situation.

Mustafa Greene, NC State (SO) – Greene missed last season due to injury and had an off-the-field incident this spring that has put his status with the team in doubt. As a freshman in 2010, he rushed for 597 yards and four scores.

Charles Perkins, Georgia Tech (SO) – Rushed for only 95 yards last season, but could push for more playing time at the B-Back position.

Justus Pickett, Maryland (SO) - Pickett recorded 274 yards and one score as a freshman last season, but is not guaranteed a starting spot going into 2012.

Clifton Richardson, Virginia (SO) – With Perry Jones and Kevin Parks returning, there’s not a ton of carries available for Richardson. As a true freshman, he managed 366 yards and two rushing scores.

Desmond Scott, Duke (SR) – Scott finished second on the team with 367 rushing yards last season. He will compete with Juwan Thompson for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

Josh Snead, Duke (SO) – Snead missed 2011 with an injury, but rushed for 221 yards and one score as a freshman in 2010. Although Juwan Thompson and Desmond Scott are likely the top two backs, Snead could work his way into playing time.

James Wilder Jr., Florida State (SO) – Big expectations surrounded Wilder going into 2011, but he managed only 160 yards and one rushing score on 35 attempts. The sophomore had an off-the-field issue early in the spring, but is back at practice and expected to contend with Devonta Freeman and Mario Pender for carries.

Top Freshmen To Watch:

Randy “Duke” Johnson, Miami
The Duke is an speedy, incredible playmaker with the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Could also contribute on special teams. Whether or not his smallish 5-foot-9, 183-pound frame handle the pounding of three-down play remains to be seen.

Mario Pender, Florida State
The Cape Coral, Fla., native is already enrolled and working with an offense that is in desperate need of a true playmaker at running back. Keep an eye on the 6-foot-0, 190-pounder in Tallahassee.

J.C. Coleman and Drew Harris, Virginia Tech
The smaller (5-7, 170) Coleman perfectly compliments the burly (6-1, 220) Harris. Coleman brings third-down ability and out-of-the-backfield skill while Harris should excel around the goalline and in short yardage. Coleman enrolled early and could compete for carries with Michael Holmes right away.

Wes Brown, Maryland
Randy Edsall has always had successful running backs and Brown has workhorse written all over him. The 210-pound local product could have a chance to contribute right away for a program in desperate need of positive energy.

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

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Teaser:
<p> Athlon ranks the running backs in the ACC for the 2012 season.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 08:11
Path: /college-football/big-east-running-back-rankings-2012
Body:

The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel. 

Here's how Athlon ranks the running backs in the Big East for 2012:

1. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh (SR)
Rushing Stats:
164 att., 958 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving Stats: 30 rec., 200 yards, 0 TD

Graham was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season, but a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s eighth game ended his 2011 campaign. Through the first eight games, Graham posted 958 yards, including 201 in the opener against Buffalo and 226 in a 44-17 victory over South Florida. His production was even more impressive considering the struggles of the passing attack and an offensive line that never seemed to jell. Graham did not practice this spring, but is expected to return in time for the season opener. The Panthers won’t rush the senior back into action, but as long as he returns at full strength, Graham should be the Big East’s leading rusher at the end of 2012.

2. Lyle McCombs, Connecticut (SO)
Rushing Stats:
275 att., 1,151 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving Stats: 19 rec., 172 yards, 1 TD

The Huskies have pieced together a string of productive rushers, as three running backs have reached 1,000 yards since 2008. Donald Brown posted 2,083 yards in 2008 and Jordan Todman posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2009-10. McCombs was an unknown going into last year, but quickly emerged as the Huskies’ go-to back. He rushed for 141 yards and four touchdowns in the 35-3 rout of Fordham in the season opener and recorded 118 yards against Vanderbilt in Week 2. McCombs posted a season-high 152 yards against Syracuse and rushed for 130 yards on 32 attempts against South Florida. His rushing total is even more impressive when you consider Connecticut struggled to establish a passing attack last year, allowing defenses to key on stopping the run. McCombs is expected to be the Huskies’ No. 1 back once again in 2012 and should have a chance to equal last season’s numbers.

3. Matt Brown, Temple (SR)
Rushing Stats:
155 att., 916 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 7 yards, 0 TD

At 5-foot-5 and 170 pounds, Brown was the perfect complement to Bernard Pierce over the last three years. However, Pierce left early for the NFL and Brown will assume the No. 1 role in Temple’s backfield for 2012. In three years with the Owls, Brown has rushed for 2,275 yards and 18 scores and caught 24 passes for 95 yards. Although the senior is averaging 5.6 yards per carry throughout his career, will he hold up with over 200 carries in 2012? There’s no question Brown can be effective, but at his size, Temple needs to be sure to find another back that can handle 5-10 carries a game.

4. Jawan Jamison, Rutgers (SO)
Rushing Stats:
231 att., 897 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 62 yards, 0 TD

The Scarlet Knights expected a freshman back to handle most of the workload in the rushing attack last year, but Jamison wasn’t the pick in the preseason. Most expected Savon Huggins to become Rutgers’ No. 1 back, but Jamison emerged as the workhorse. He recorded his first 100-yard effort against Navy and posted 200 yards in a 20-3 victory over Cincinnati. Jamison capped off the season on a high note, rushing for 131 yards and two scores in the 27-13 Pinstripe Bowl win over Iowa State. Although Huggins is back from injury, Jamison will begin the year as the No. 1 back and should threaten the 1,000-yard mark once again in 2012.

5. Demetris Murray, South Florida (SR)
Rushing Stats:
121 att., 503 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 18 rec., 205 yards, 0 TD

With Darrell Scott departing early for the NFL, Murray is expected to take on the No. 1 role in the South Florida backfield. He has rushed for at least 500 yards in each of the last two seasons and has 12 scores on the ground during that span. Murray did not record 100 yards in a game last year, but posted 86 yards on a 37-17 win over Syracuse. Although Murray will likely lead the team in carries and rushing yards, offensive coordinator Todd Fitch will work in speedy Lindsey Lamar and another back to keep the senior fresh.

6. Jeremy Wright, Louisville (JR)
Rushing Stats:
73 att., 334 yards, 1 TD
Receiving Stats: 7 rec., 27 yards, 0 TD

There were high expectations for Wright going into 2011, but he finished with just 334 yards and one touchdown. After rushing for 327 yards and four scores as a freshman, Wright was supposed to push Victor Anderson for the No. 1 spot in the backfield. However, Wright posted only one 100-yard effort (108, Rutgers) and registered only seven rushing attempts in the final three games. Anderson finished as the team leader in rushing yards, but Dominique Brown surpassed Wright in the pecking order. Assuming Louisville’s offensive line performs better in 2012, Wright should easily surpass last season’s totals and emerge as the leading rusher.

7. Dominique Brown, Louisville (JR)
Rushing Stats:
140 att., 533 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving Stats: 16 rec., 98 yards, 1 TD

Brown was not expected to play a significant role at running back last season, but he finished second on the team in yards. The converted quarterback recorded 533 yards and four rushing scores, while catching 16 receptions for 98 yards and one touchdown. Brown did not record 100 yards in any game, but he rushed for 91 yards on 14 attempts in the 24-17 victory over Kentucky and 69 yards and one touchdown in the 34-24 win over South Florida. The junior will team with Jeremy Wright to anchor Louisville’s rushing attack in 2012, but the guess here is Wright will edge Brown for the lead in yards.

8. George Winn, Cincinnati (SR)
Rushing Stats:
40 att., 219 yards, 2 TDs
Receiving Stats: 2 rec., 6 yards, 0 TD

As if losing quarterback Zach Collaros wasn’t enough, Cincinnati has to replace running back Isaiah Pead. The Bearcats probably won’t replace Pead’s production from one rusher, but Winn has the inside track on the No. 1 role going into the fall. The senior has been used sparingly throughout his career, but rushed for 81 yards on 19 attempts against Miami (Ohio) in 2010 and recorded 78 yards and a score in the bowl victory over Vanderbilt. Winn will likely lead Cincinnati in carries, but sophomores Ralph David Abernathy IV and Jameel Poteat will also figure into the mix.

9. Lindsey Lamar, South Florida (SR)
Rushing Stats:
17 att., 150 yards, 0 TD
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 157 yards, 3 TDs

A case could be made that Lamar has been under utilized in his career at South Florida. The 5-foot-9 speedster is averaging 23.1 yards per kickoff return, but has only 354 receiving yards and 361 yards on the ground in his career. The senior started his career at running back, but was moved to receiver in 2010. However, Lamar has been shifted back to running back for his senior year and is expected to be a change of pace option to Demetris Murray.

10. Isaac Bennett, Pittsburgh (SO)
Rushing Stats:
58 att., 237 yards, 2 TDs
Receiving Stats: 14 rec., 88 yards, 1 TD

With Ray Graham coming off a torn ACL, it’s a good thing Pittsburgh has some depth at running back. Bennett became the Panthers’ go-to option in the backfield after Graham’s injury last year, rushing for 237 yards and two scores over the final five games. He posted back-to-back efforts of 69 yards against Louisville and West Virginia and rushed for 51 yards in the 33-20 win over Syracuse. Bennett will face competition for the No. 2 role in the backfield when highly-touted freshman Rushel Shell arrives in the fall.

Others to Watch

Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati (SO) – The Bearcats will struggle to replace Isaiah Pead’s production, but the team isn’t hurting for options. George Winn will likely start, but the speedy Abernathy will also serve as a change of pace option.

Kenneth Harper, Temple (SO) – Expected to win the battle to be Temple’s No. 2 back in 2012. Considering starter Matt Brown is only 5-foot-5, Harper will see plenty of carries this year.

Savon Huggins, Rutgers (SO) – Huggins was the top recruit in the Big East last season, but never got on track. He rushed for 146 yards and five touchdowns before a knee injury ended his season. If Huggins stays healthy, he will compete with Jawan Jamison for snaps.

Jameel Poteat, Cincinnati (SO) – Expected to team with Ralph David Abernathy IV to spell George Winn in 2012. Rushed for 108 yards and one score in 2011.

Rushel Shell, Pittsburgh (FR) – Shell ranked as the No. 33 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and is expected to figure into the mix for carries as soon as he arrives on campus. Isaac Bennett holds the lead on the No. 2 spot on the backfield…for now.

Jerome Smith, Syracuse (JR) – Antwon Bailey has finished his eligibility in Syracuse, leaving Smith as the likely No. 1 back for 2012. However, the Orange expect to use Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore in the rotation. Smith rushed for 134 yards and one touchdown in limited work last year.

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) 

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Teaser:
<p> Big East Running Back Rankings for 2012</p>
Post date: Monday, April 16, 2012 - 08:10
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/18-holes-play-2012
Body:

Many recreational golfers have simple reasons for why they have a favorite golf hole. Golf course architects often use something different than looks or location to select their favorites. We asked noted designers Damian Pascuzzo, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Tom Doak, Arthur Hills and Rees Jones to share some of their favorite holes. If you can get to all of them, let us know how you did it at editor@athlonsports.com.

 

No. 1
Ranch Golf Club, Par 5, 510 Yards
Southwick, Massachusetts

This Damian Pascuzzo design is rated one of the best in the state, and the first hole was created with all levels of golfer in mind. “There is a comforting feel to it, looking down from the tee over a grand expanse of fairway — 75 yards wide — with a solitary hickory tree left of center, a glimpse of the lake on the left and the native grasses,” Pascuzzo says. “There’s no pressure, but, if you are confident right out of the box, you can play left of the hickory and take a risky shot at the green in two, across the lake.” Pascuzzo also put in a cluster of fairway bunkers in the second landing area to penalize golfers.
Contact: (866) 790-9333, www.theranchgolfclub.com

No. 2
French Lick Resort (Ross Course), Par 4, 419 yards
French Lick, Indiana

While the Pete Dye Course at French Lick gets more attention, many like this classic Donald Ross design much better, and a recent redesign brought back many of the original 1917 features. There is an undulating fairway with two bunkers in the middle that are reachable off the tee. A third bunker on the right near the green provides the optical illusion that it is closer to the putting surface than it actually is. There is a bunker on the left, protecting that side of the green. The green has a ridge running down the middle.
Contact: (888) 936-9360, www.frenchlickgolf.com

No. 3
Half Moon Bay (Ocean), Par 3, 143 yards
Half Moon Bay, California

This is not only a beautifully designed hole, but also a very challenging short par 3. Arthur Hills' objective for the hole was to utilize the ocean view and keep the natural vegetation. “It is a simple short hole framed by native grassed mounds,” Hills says. “The beauty has to be seen.” Don’t get distracted by the splendor, or a bogey is a very real possibility. The ocean breeze will be in the golfer’s face, and three bunkers on the left will catch any tee shot that goes there. A tee shot that's too long will run off the humpback green and leave a challenging chip shot.
Contact: (650) 726-1800, www.hmbgolflinks.com

No. 4
Bandon Trails, Par 4, 408 yards
Bandon, Oregon

Although Tom Doak designed another course in Bandon (Pacific Dunes), he was impressed by the work of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, especially on this challenging par 4. “The fairway features a sharp ridge running diagonally across it from left to right,” Doak says. “If you play too safely to the left and clear it, your drive will kick away to the left leaving a longer approach shot to a narrow green entrance; but if you play too boldly to the right, you won't get over the top of the ridge, and then you'll have a blind second shot at the same narrow target.”
Contact: (888) 345-6008, www.bandondunesgolf.com

No. 5
Saratoga National, Par 3, 238 yards
Saratoga Springs, New York

This is the longest par 3 on the course and plays every yard of it. Most of the holes here have forced carries from the tee, and on this hole golfers must go over a small wetlands area that shouldn’t be a problem for most low- to mid-handicappers. There is a cluster of trees to the right framing the hole and creating an instant out of bounds for any slice. Going long is definitely better than short. The large bunker in the front right protects much of the putting surface. The green is oval-shaped and has subtle undulations.
Contact: (518) 583-4653, www.golfsaratoga.com

No. 6
Pacific Dunes, Par 4, 316 yards
Bandon, Oregon

Doak designed this hole with both the scenery and the challenge in mind and succeeded on both quests. “Most people think first about the dramatic holes along the cliff tops, but this hole is the most confounding to better players,” Doak says. “It features a very narrow green set atop a ridge, with a 20-foot-deep bunker at the base of the ridge at the left front of the green, and a steep fall-off on the right side of the green, all in fairway-height grass. For most players, it's a straightforward drive followed by an accurate pitch. But good players who think they might try to drive the green run the risk of getting themselves to one side of the green, at which point it's all too easy to play back and forth across the green trying to get a shot to hold.”
Contact: (888) 345-6008, www.bandondunesgolf.com

No. 7
Bay Harbor (Links), Par 5, 500 yards
Bay Harbor, Michigan

This hole has been described as one of the most picturesque in the country, and Hills, who designed the course, says that many golfers put it on their list of must plays. “Like all memorable holes it has to be seen to be appreciated,” Hills says. “The hole sticks in my memory because of the green site on a promontory, looking out over Lake Michigan. It has to be played.” From the tee box to the green, Lake Michigan runs along the right of the hole, presenting a spectacular water hazard. Anything right is gone, either in the water or in the natural vegetation of the rugged cliff. Golfers are also fighting the prevailing wind, which is in their face.
Contact: (231) 439-4028, www.bayharborgolf.com

No. 8
CordeValle, Par 4, 325 yards
San Martin, California

When Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed this hole he wanted it to provide drama. Instead of making the drivable green unreceptive to tee shots, he created a green that held on for who wanted to be daring. “An exciting, drivable par 4, this straightaway downhill hole across a lake was showcased in the dramatic playoff at the 2011 Fry's.Com Open on the PGA Tour,” Trent Jones Jr. says. “From the elevated tee, if you are strong enough, you can play across the lake into a ‘catcher’s mitt’ green that will hold onto a blistering drive. If you miss, you just may be sunk.”
Contact: (408) 695-4590, www.cordevalle.com

No. 9
Blackwolf Run (River), Par 4, 361 yards
Kohler, Wisconsin

Intimidation is the theme on this hole, which features water on both the left and right of the tee box. Hit a fairway wood to the left, avoiding the trees and the two fairway bunkers that designer Pete Dye has placed to grab a tee shot that looks like it is safe. Those bunkers, along with two on the two greenside bunkers, are meant to discourage long hitters from trying to reach the green from the tee. If that doesn’t, the water that guards the right side and the nearly 300 yards of carry required will make most golfers think twice and play the percentages.
Contact: (800) 344-2838, www.americanclubresort.com

No.10
Mirimichi, Par 4, 427 yards
Millington, Tennessee

This hole adds a little star power to our list; Justin Timberlake co-owns this eco-friendly course in West Tennessee with his parents, and it was the first course he ever played as a kid. This is a worthy hole to start the back nine and has everything a well-designed hole should have. It is picturesque, challenging and has both water and well-placed bunkers. The tee box looks out onto the fairway that doglegs to the left and protects that side with three fairway bunkers. There is another bunker on the right to capture any wayward long hitters. The green is 80 yards long and slopes severely from left to right where it is protected by a creek. The left side of the green is guarded by a bunker and native grass mounds.
Contact: (901) 259-3800, www.mirimichi.com

No. 11
Lake of Isles (North), Par 3, 196 yards
North Stonington, Connecticut

Sometimes great golf holes just fall in your lap, and that is what designer Rees Jones thought when he saw the spot for this devilish short hole. “We found a small peninsula jutting out into the Lake of Isles that proved to be an idea natural greensite for the hole,” Jones says. “The green is on a left to right diagonal, requiring both proper line and distance to reach the green surface. Greenside bunkers collect shots hit long or right; the front approach allows for a bail out short of the green.”
Contact: (888) 475-3746, www.lakeofisles.com

No. 12
Monarch Dunes, Par 5, 567 yards
Nipomo, California

The longest hole on the course is also the favorite of the man who designed it, Damian Pascuzzo. “The fairway is uphill, and while you can see how the landing area is framed by big trees, there is a mystery to the tee shot,” Pascuzzo says. “At the crest of the hill, there always is an anticipation of the reveal of what lies ahead on the other side. Few modern courses feature this design element. Here, you play to the middle of the hill, and then stay left, away from the bunkering with the second shot, to leave an easier approach to an elevated green.”
Contact: (805) 343-9459, www.monarchdunes.com

No. 13
Waldorf Astoria, Par 4, 324 yards
Orlando, Florida

Rees Jones is partial to this hole he created because of the challenges from any of the five sets of tees. “The hole presents a unique set of options off the tee,” Jones says. “The hole is a very short par 4, playing less than 300 yards from the white tees. Water protects the entire left side and rear of the hole. For the long hitter, the green is reachable from the tee, particularly since a ramp of fairway surrounds the lone frontal bunker. Playing out to the right is a safe tee shot producing a wedge into a green with distinct sections.”
Contact: (407) 597-3783, www.waldorfastoriaorlando.com

No. 14
Coyote Springs, Par 4, 450 yards
Coyote Springs, Nevada

This hole utilizes one of the 11 lakes on the Jack Nicklaus signature course, but the water is more cosmetic, located mainly to the left of the four tee boxes. The real hazard is the waste bunkers on both sides of the narrow fairway. Golfers can try and cut off some of the distance with a long, well-placed tee shot down the left side that will get a little more roll as it filters down to a collection area. The green is severely undulating and has a bit of a false front. The middle of the green is in a small valley and features the easiest pin placements. Reaching a back pin can be a challenge.
Contact: (877) 742-8455, www.coyotesprings.com

No. 15
Princeville (Prince), Par 5, 576 Yards
Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii

Original designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. oversaw a recently completed $5 million renovation, and he is excited at the changes to the course, especially this hole. “This is part of a tropical dream landscape for a golf course,” Trent Jones Jr. says. “This is a classic risk/reward hole. A slight dogleg right, it presents choices along the cliffs on the right. If you risk setting your line near the edge, you can reap the reward of prime position. However, if you veer too far off line, you can be lost.” The fairway slopes from left to right and balls in the middle to right funnel to the out of bounds.
Contact: 808-826-5001, www.princeville.com/golf

No. 16
Osprey Meadows at Tamarack, Par 4, 383 yards
Tamarack, Idaho

This is the shortest par 4 on the golf course, but it is certainly no pushover. There are 10 fairway bunkers that protect the right side so long hitters will think twice trying to get to the green off the tee. There is a collection area beyond the bunkers so balls that clear have the possibility of rolling onto the putting surface. The elevation of this course provides for longer drives, but don’t be tempted to go for the green in one. The wiser play is to take an iron off the tee and aim for the generous landing area that provides a good angle in for the second shot. There is a bunker that guards the left of the green that comes into play.
Contact: (208) 325-1000, www.tamarackidaho.com

No. 17
Palmetto Dunes (Arthur Hills Course), Par 4, 380 yards
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

This is a visually intimidating hole from the tee box and due to the natural water hazard that was waiting for Hills when he began to build the hole. “It is a dogleg left and a canal running through the property set the routing,” Hills says. “One must play the course or see a plan of the hole to appreciate the challenge. The tee shot plays into a bowl. The player wants to keep the shot within the bowl. It is generous. The shot to the green plays over the canal to the green, which is small and lies along the water. The green is sloped to the water. Over the green puts the player in a hollow. Then the next shot is up and over the back of the green to a surface sloping away toward the water. The hole has angles, water and a pitched green.”
Contact: (866) 380-1778, www.palmettodunes.com

No. 18
Chambers Bay, Par 5, 604 Yards
Tacoma, Washington

This finishing hole is quickly building up a history and tradition. Robert Trent Jones Jr. desired a course that could hold a national championship, and his work has been validated. “On this fescue highway to the home green, successfully navigating the sandy wastelands and bunkers means the work here has only just begun,” Trent Jones Jr. says. “Named 'Tahoma' in honor of a local landmark, this too, is a landmark hole, where the U.S. Open will crown a champion in 2015, and where the legendary 2010 U.S. Amateur semifinal match between David Chung and Byeong-Hun An was decided.”
Contact: (877) 295-4657, www.chambersbaygolf.com

—by John Reger

Teaser:
<p> Athlon unveils its ultimate golf course, circa 2012.</p>
Post date: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 14:08
Path: /college-football/sec-football-quarterback-rankings-2012
Body:

The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the quarterbacks in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel. 

Here's how Athlon ranks the 14 quarterbacks in the SEC for 2012:

1. Aaron Murray, Georgia (JR)
Passing Stats:
3,149 yards, 35 TD, 14 INT, 59.1%
Rushing Stats: 87 att., 103 yards, 2 TD

Only USC quarterback Matt Barkley returns to college football with more touchdown passes than Murray’s 35. In fact, he nearly lapped the entire SEC field as only Tyler Wilson topped 20 scoring strikes a year ago. He has now posted back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons and has accounted for 65 total touchdowns over the last two years. He also led his team to its first SEC Championship game since 2005. As an upperclassman now, he will face his tallest order as the heavy SEC East favorite without his three best offensive linemen protecting him. The junior quarterback from Tampa, Fla., needs to cut down on his mistakes, but like most gunslingers, he is willing to make the tough play and, at times, it costs him. Murray is a gamey, tough, poised leader who has competed for championships at every level of play. He will only get better in 2012.

2. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas (SR)
Passing Stats:
3,638 yards, 24 TDs, 6 INTs, 63.2%
Rushing Stats: 60 att., -3 yards, 4 TDs

Wilson patiently waited his turn behind Ryan Mallett and emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks last season. In his first year as the starter, Wilson led the SEC with an average of 261.2 passing yards per game in conference play and posted a 141.4 passer efficiency rating. He finished second to Georgia’s Aaron Murray in passing touchdowns in conference play, but led the SEC in total offense per game. Although Wilson was voted first-team All-SEC last season, the senior could struggle to repeat his 2011 passing totals, especially without Bobby Petrino calling the plays in Fayetteville. Wilson also loses receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, so new weapons will be forced to emerge. Don’t expect the Arkansas’ offense to fall completely off the map, but Petrino’s playcalling and gameplans will be missed. 

3. AJ McCarron, Alabama (JR)
Passing Stats:
2,634 yards, 16 TDs, 5 INTs, 66.8%
Rushing Stats:  30 att., -22 yards, 2 TDs

McCarron went into last season as an unknown, but finished as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. He wrestled control of the No. 1 spot away from Phillip Sims early in the year, throwing for 226 yards against Kent State and leading Alabama to a 27-11 victory over Penn State in Week 2. McCarron threw for 200 yards and two scores in a 38-14 blowout win over Arkansas and posted three touchdown passes in games against Auburn and Georgia Southern. In the first matchup against LSU, McCarron threw for only 199 yards and tossed one interception. However, his play in the national title game was a huge factor in Alabama’s win, as McCarron finished with 234 yards on 23 completions. Although offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has departed, McCarron should easily surpass last season’s totals. The junior also has an improving group of receivers and will be playing behind one of the top offensive lines in college football. 

4. Tyler Bray, Tennessee (JR)
Passing Stats:
1,983 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT, 59.5%
Rushing Stats: 26 att., -70 yards, 1 TD

The Vols passer finished third in the SEC in touchdown passes — and he only played seven games. Bray was off to a scorching start with 14 touchdowns in his first four games. But the loss of star wideout Justin Hunter, and then a broken thumb against Georgia, cost Bray most of his potential in 2011. He returned to play the final two games of the season but was clearly aggravated by the injury — he completed only 43.6% of his passes in the final two contests. In order to be considered a great player nationally, Bray needed to mature as a leader and get stronger. It appears that he is finally taking conscious steps to accomplish both of these goals. With Hunter back leading a loaded receiving corps in Knoxville this fall, the sky is the limit for the 6-foot-6, 213 pound California native.

5. James Franklin, Missouri (JR)
Passing Stats:
2,865 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT, 63.3%
Rushing Stats: 217 att., 981 yards, 15 TD

Franklin made some early mistakes in his first year as the starter, but at season’s end, had eclipsed all expectations. He scored a rushing touchdown in all but three games last fall and threw an interception in only six of his 13 starts. The electric athlete finished his first year by pounding an SEC-esque front seven from North Carolina to the tune of 142 yards rushing, 132 yards passing and three total touchdowns in the Independence Bowl. However, Gary Pinkel and Mizzou nation got some horrible news this spring when Franklin injured his throwing shoulder (a sprained GH joint) and had to have surgery. The expected timetable for his return to the field is August — putting his availability for Mizzou’s first SEC season in jeopardy. It is unknown what type of player he will be in 2012, since the injury has been known to sap arm strength. The Tigers will host East Division favorite Georgia in their first SEC game in Week 2.

6. Connor Shaw, South Carolina (JR)
Passing Stats:
1,448 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT, 65.4%
Rushing Stats: 135 att., 525 yards, 8 TD

Shaw got 16 touches in the season opener against East Carolina and totaled 47 yards. So Steve Spurrier’s apparent love of Stephen Garcia essentially kept Shaw off the field for the first month of the season. Eventually, the troubled signal caller was officially kicked off the team and the huddle was given to Shaw full-time. He flourished in his role as the starter, throwing for 311 yards and four touchdowns in his first start as the new executive of the Gamecocks offense. He was also the team's leading rusher once running back Marcus Lattimore was sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Shaw continued to develop over the course of the season, culminating in his best career game against rival Clemson. In the 34-13 win over the Tigers, Shaw completed 14-of-20 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 107 yards rushing and another score on 19 carries. He scored a rushing touchdown in each of his last six games and posted a nasty 8:1 TD:INT ratio in the final three contests. Most importantly, Shaw was 7-1 after Garcia was given the boot. With Lattimore returning to the field, Shaw could be in for big things in 2012.

7. Zach Mettenberger, LSU (JR)
Passing Stats:
92 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 72.7%
Rushing Stats: 2 att., 28 yards

After watching Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson struggle over the last few years to consistently produce a passing attack, LSU fans are anxious to get an extended look at Mettenberger. Although the junior passer has zero career starts, he figures to be an upgrade and should help the Tigers easily exceed last season’s average passing yards per game (152.5). Mettenberger began his career at Georgia, but was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. After one season at Butler Community College, he landed back in the SEC with LSU and is the clear-cut starter in Baton Rouge this year. Mettenberger is unproven, but has plenty of talent and should give the Tigers a much-needed boost in the passing attack.

8. Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt (JR)
Passing Stats:
1,524 yards, 9 TD, 10 INT, 50.0%
Rushing Stats: 117 att., 420 yards, 4 TD

While the younger brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers is nowhere near as physically gifted as his older sibling, Jordan Rodgers proved to be a gritty, hard-nosed, poised leader of his team. He struggled in his first two starts against Alabama and Georgia — he totaled 151 yards passing, 0 TDs and three INTs — but most players were stymied by those two defensive units. Beginning with the Army game, Rodgers began to find his legs – both literally and figuratively. He led the Dores to a 3-3 record to finish the season while rushing for nearly 50 yards per game and scoring all four of his ground touchdowns. This roster is more talented at the skill positions than it has been in decades, so Rodgers will have plenty of toys to work with in 2012 — if he can hold off Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels.

9. Tyler Russell, Mississippi State (JR)
Passing Stats:
1,034 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, 53.5%
Rushing Stats: 33 att., 45 yards, 1 TD

Chris Relf has expired his eligibility in Starkville, leaving the starting job to Russell this spring. The junior has thrown for 1,669 yards and 13 touchdowns over the last two seasons, but this will be his first year as the full-time No. 1 passer. Russell ranked as one of the top 15 quarterbacks coming out of high school and has shown flashes of promise in limited duty. The junior has a lot to prove in his first year as the starter, but Mississippi State has improved the depth and talent in the receiving corps, which should help Russell’s transition into the No. 1 role.

10. Jameill Showers, Texas A&M (SO)
Passing Stats:
40 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 80%
Rushing Stats: 33 yards, 1 TD

Not only is Texas A&M making a difficult transition from the Big 12 to the SEC, the Aggies have to break in a new quarterback. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and head coach Kevin Sumlin hope to establish an offense in College Station similar to the one they had at Houston, but it won’t be easy in the SEC. Showers has the most experience of the four quarterbacks competing for time, but it’s no slam dunk that he wins the job. He finished with 40 passing yards and added 33 on the ground last year in limited action. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and true freshman Matt Davis are the two candidates pushing Showers the most for playing time, but this battle is expected to go deep into fall practice. Despite the uncertainty entering the season, Sumlin and Kingsbury’s track record at Houston suggests the passing attack will be fine by midseason. 

11. Jacoby Brissett, Florida (SO)
Passing Stats:
206 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs
Rushing Stats: 13 att., 7 yards, 2 TDs 

New offensive coordinator Brent Pease has a difficult decision facing him this summer. He has two talented sophomores who were clearly not ready for the bright lights of SEC football last fall. And there is little separating Brissett from Jeff Driskel. Both have strong arms and both have above average athletic ability. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Brissett is the better passer and likely has a better grasp of working through progressions. The 6-foot-4, 232-pound Driskel has more raw athletic ability and is the better runner of the two. Brissett would have to be considered the favorite to win the job, but both players will get plenty of reps leading up to fall camp. The fact both players were prematurely forced into game action as freshman works as a positive, as neither will be overwhelmed when SEC play arrives in September. 

12. Kiehl Frazier, Auburn (SO)
Passing Stats:
34 yards, 0 TD, 2 INTs, 41.7%
Rushing Stats: 76 att., 327 yards, 3 TDs

A year after owning one of the top offenses in college football, Auburn finished seventh in the SEC in scoring and ranked 10th in passing. Youth and roster turnover contributed to the offensive struggles, but the Tigers failed to show much progress last year. If Auburn wants to contend for the SEC West crown once again, new coordinator Scot Loeffler will have to find some improvement from the passing attack. Frazier played in all 13 games last season, but completed only 41.7 percent of his throws. He was used mostly as a runner, recording 327 yards and three scores on the ground. Frazier ranked as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2011 recruiting class, but is far from a finished product. With a talented offensive line and receiver Emory Blake returning, Frazier has some pieces to work with, but has to prove he can be a consistent passer to move higher on this list.

13. Maxwell Smith, Kentucky (SO)
Passing Stats:
819 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 54.9%
Rushing Stats: 20 att., -109 yards, 0 TD

Smith heads into his sophomore year as the default starter for Joker Phillips. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder got his baptism into SEC football in November last year. Smith went 1-3 in four games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia. He attempted between 31 and 36 passes in each game and posted easily his best performance in the win over the Rebels. He threw for a career high 283 yards and two scores in the 30-13 drubbing. With Morgan Newton recovering from injury, Smith is the leader in the clubhouse to start. However, anything could go with Phillips’ offense in 2012 as the head coach tries to save his job.

14. Barry Brunetti, Ole Miss (JR)
Passing Stats:
144 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 54.3%
Rushing Stats: 33 att., 110 yards, 0 TD

It was a miserable all-around season last year in Oxford. The Rebels finished 2-10, which included a winless season in SEC play. The offense was largely to blame, as three quarterbacks received extended snaps, but none was able to emerge as the No. 1 starter. Brunetti completed 19 of 35 throws for 144 yards last year and added 110 yards on the ground. New coach Hugh Freeze had a high-scoring offense at Arkansas State but has a lot of work to do to replicate that at Ole Miss. Junior college transfer Bo Wallace is neck-and-neck with Brunetti for the No. 1 spot and both passers could see significant snaps. Until proven otherwise, the Rebels have one of the worst quarterback situations in the SEC.

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

@AthlonSports

Other SEC Spring Preview Content:

Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012

Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012

College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> SEC Football: Quarterback Rankings for 2012</p>
Post date: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 09:15
Path: /college-football/kansas-state-football-can-wildcats-repeat-last-years-success
Body:

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Can Kansas State Repeat Last Season's 10-3 Record?

Tim Fitzgerald, Publisher of GoPowercat.com
In some ways, Kansas State lived a charmed football life in 2011, but there was more to the Wildcats winning nearly every close game than simply luck. If K-State wants to repeat or build upon its 10-win season from a year ago, the Wildcats will need to stay true to their ability to control time of possession, limit turnovers and penalties, and make big plays in special teams. Two obstacles for Bill Snyder's team are a daunting schedule in the rebuilt Big 12 and their return to being one of the hunted teams in the conference.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
From 1995-2003, Kansas State won at least 10 games seven times. We’ll find out in a hurry if the second Bill Snyder renaissance project in Manhattan will enjoy the same staying power. There’s a lot to like about Kansas State with the best players on both sides of the ball returning – quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown. Klein has proven he’ll keep them in every game, but I have reservations about a team that ranked 101st nationally in total offense to continue to stay at the top of the Big 12. Kansas State won’t catch anyone off guard this season and the Wildcats may not be as lucky as they were a year ago. Ten wins will be awfully difficult to reach, but the Wildcats aren’t going to slip back into Ron Prince-era mediocrity. Kansas State will win more than they lose, but I could see Snyder’s team slipping to eight or nine wins.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Bill Snyder is a special coach and Collin Klein is a special quarterback. There is no questioning either of their abilities to lead a program. But I just can’t see Kansas State repeating its 10-2 regular season from 2011. Klein is as fun to watch play this game as any player in the nation, but he will no longer sneak up on defensive coordinators. And he has much less to work with this fall as the offensive line needs to be rebuilt. Additionally, the Wildcats beat Miami, Baylor, Missouri, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Iowa State by one score or less last year and were outgained by its opponents within conference play by 106.8 yards per game. With holes that need plugging on defense, and the addition of two quality football teams in TCU and West Virginia to the already tough road schedule that includes Oklahoma and Baylor, it seems far-fetched to expect another 10-win season. Kansas State is clearly a bowl team that will be a tough out each and every weekend, but seven or eight wins seems like the high-water mark for Snyder’s bunch this fall.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I would be really surprised if Kansas State matches its win total from last season. The Wildcats were the biggest surprise in the Big 12, but they were outgained by 106.8 yards per game in conference play and nine of their contests were decided by a touchdown or less. Although the Wildcats won 10 games, they could have easily finished 8-4. There’s enough talent to make a run at a similar record, but Kansas State suffered some key losses in the trenches, including right tackle Clyde Aufner and defensive tackle Ray Kibble. Quarterback Collin Klein carried this team last year, but can he stay healthy for a full year if he has to record 317 rushing attempts again? One factor that could help the Wildcats reach 10 wins is the uncertainty surrounding some teams in the Big 12. Oklahoma State and Baylor will probably take a step back, while it’s hard to gauge just how TCU will transition to the Big 12. You can never count out Kansas State with Bill Snyder on the sidelines, but I think this team takes a step back in the win column and finishes with an 8-4 or 9-3 record.  

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
The Wildcats will be a quality team once again, but I don’t see another 10-win campaign for Bill Snyder’s club. KSU had a magical run last season, winning eight games by a touchdown or less. It’s hard to see that happening again, especially with the departures of three offensive line starters and several contributors on defense. You can’t help but be a Collin Klein fan when watching K-State play, but the passing game is fairly limited and running for 27 scores will be difficult to repeat. Additionally, there will be an adjustment period for the defense as Tom Hayes takes over for former defensive coordinator Chris Cosh. I think the Wildcats will win seven or eight games, but fall short of double-digit victories.

How will Athlon predict the Big 12 standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

Related Big 12 Content

Kansas State 2012 Spring Preview
Ranking the Big 12 Quarterbacks for 2012

Ranking the Big 12 Head Coaches for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Kansas State Football: Can the Wildcats Repeat Last Year's Success?</p>
Post date: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 08:22
Path: /college-football/wisconsin-football-who-challenges-badgers-2012
Body:

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

With Ohio State ineligible to win the Leaders Division, which team will be the biggest threat to Wisconsin?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Can I say none of the above? I’m not even assuming Wisconsin will be the best team in the Leaders Division. That belongs to Ohio State, who may end up being this year’s version of USC as a potential top-10 team banned from the postseason. Ohio State’s plight leaves the Badgers as the favorite in the Leaders, especially with their quarterback situation settled with Danny O’Brien on board. If had to pick a team to be a threat I’d have to say Purdue. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is one of the Big Ten’s most underrated players. On offense, injuries have ended seasons for running back Ralph Bolden and quarterback Robert Marve. That seems unlikely to happen again. Still, I don’t have much faith in Purdue. Although the Boilermakers are good for an upset each year (Ohio State in 2011 and 2009), they also lost to Rice last year and nearly lost at home to Middle Tennessee. The Big Ten schedule also sets up well for Purdue, which has winnable road games at Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois and misses Michigan State and Nebraska from the Leaders division. All that might be enough to cobble together a nice Big Ten record which could make Wisconsin sweat for a second consecutive division title.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Penn State was one win away from winning this division last season. Illinois started the year 6-0. And Purdue got back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. All three will push Wisconsin for Leaders Division supremacy since Ohio State — the team that will own the best record — is not eligible to play in the Big Ten title game. The Nittany Lions have major quarterback and offensive line issues but the most talent of all the contenders. Illinois might have the most stability at the most important positions but it is impossible to get the second-half collapse out of my mind. I will surprise some and take the Boilermakers to be the top challenger to Wisconsin. First, they get the Badgers at home and the round robin between these four teams will likely play a big role in determining the champ. Second, they are as healthy as they have been in years (for now) and are trending upwards. And finally, they possess a defensive line that could be one of the league’s better units in a conference that places a premium on stopping the run. That said, the Badgers beat these three teams by a combined 94 points last year, so it is tough to see anyone else other than the Big Red playing in Indianapolis in December. 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
If Ohio State was eligible for the conference title, I think it would be the favorite to play in the Big Ten Championship at Indianapolis. But with a NCAA ban on postseason play, Wisconsin is the clear favorite to win the Leaders Division. Sure, the Badgers have question marks, but when you start examining the rest of the teams in the division, there isn’t much to like. There’s no question Penn State has some talent in the program, but the offensive line must replace four starters and quarterback play is an issue. I’m not sold on Bill O’Brien as a head coach either, which has me thinking Illinois might be Wisconsin’s biggest threat. The Fighting Illini collapsed after a 6-0 start, but Ron Zook didn’t leave the cupboard bare for new coach Tim Beckman. Illinois returns quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and a defense that could be among the best in the conference. The schedule also sets up favorably, as the Fighting Illini does not play Michigan State or Nebraska in crossover games with the Legends Division. Illinois certainly has some question marks and needs to adapt to a new coaching staff. However, if Beckman can get this team to play up to its potential, the Fighting Illini has a chance to push Wisconsin for the division crown.

Kevin McGuire, Examiner.com and No. 2-Minute Warning (@KevinonCFB)
Few will argue that Wisconsin is the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. Already with one of the top offensive players in the nation with running back Montee Ball, a Heisman frontrunner in my book, the Badgers filled the one glaring hole on their roster this spring by signing quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien. The blueprint that was used for the 2011 season seems as though it is being recycled in 2012, and for Wisconsin that should be a good sign. With the Buckeyes ruled out of the picture for us it becomes a little more obvious that Wisconsin is the team to beat in the fall.

If there is one team that has the potential to give Wisconsin a run this year though, it may just be the team the Badgers blasted in the regular season finale last fall to advance to the Big Ten championship game, Penn State. Bill O'Brien brings a new offensive flair to the program and if he can find the right players to get things moving, most notably at quarterback, then this could be a pretty good season for Penn State. Penn State's defense hopes to get some good production out of two key defensive players returning form ACL injuries with defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill is ready to pick up where Devon Still left on the inside of the defensive line. The secondary is also a huge question after losing three starters but Penn State has the schedule in their favor. Ohio State and Wisconsin, perhaps the two toughest games on the schedule other than a road trip to Nebraska, make trips to Penn State this season. After the way things went down in Madison last November for the Nittany Lions, revenge will be on the mind of many in the 2012 regular season finale in State College.

Will it once again be a game to determine which school heads to Indianapolis the following week for the Big Ten championship game? 

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
It looks pretty bleak in the Leaders Division after Wisconsin and the postseason-ineligible Ohio State Buckeyes, but I’ll go with Penn State because of its overall tradition of winning. Illinois and Purdue return more starters, but the Nittany Lions can focus on football this season after last year’s turmoil that led to the ouster of Joe Paterno. There are obvious problems for new coach Bill O’Brien — finding some/any quarterback play, as well as revamping the offensive line and secondary. However, I think the O-line will be fine and Silas Redd will continue to lead a successful running game. The front seven on defense should be solid, led by tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges. If O’Brien can find a decent signal caller between fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, junior Rob Bolden or redshirt sophomore Paul Jones, Penn State will be the closest challenger to Wisconsin to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

How will Athlon predict the Big Ten Leaders Division standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

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Teaser:
<p> Wisconsin Football: Who Challenges the Badgers in 2012?</p>
Post date: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 08:18
Path: /nascar/sizing-nascars-2013-hall-fame-class
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by Vito Pugliese

The 25 nominees for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class were announced Thursday in Charlotte, NC. A mix of pioneers, drivers, owners and promoters pepper the list, and going through the names, virtually all of them are qualified to make it into the Hall on the first ballot. However, only five are eligible to get in each year, so there are 20 who will be going home — kind of like the largest go-or-go-home field made up of all-stars and who's who of NASCAR history.

So who of this elite group will be selected in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class? While I’m not going to reveal my ballot quite yet, the following is who I believe will end up being voted in as the 2013 class.


Tim Flock
One part of the legendary flock of Flocks, Tim (his first name was actually Julius) along with brothers Fonty and Bob and sister Ethel Mobley — the second woman to compete in NASCAR — were pioneers of the sport, and part of the original guard that brought NASCAR from its infancy on dirt tracks and beaches to pavement and speedways during the mid- to late-1950s.

Upon learning of the organized racing series in stock cars by way of a comic strip, Flock finished fifth in the very first NASCAR race, a Strictly Stock event at the Charlotte Speedway dirt track in 1949. He finished eighth in NASCAR’s first official full season, and would end up a two-time series champion in just eight season of competition to go along with 39 wins in 187 starts.

Before there was a Ryan Newman, there was Flock — a wheelman feared in qualifying sessions He set the record for poles in a season in 1955 with 19 and held the record for most wins that same year with 18 until Richard Petty disposed of that 12 years later. Flock won the Daytona Beach race that season, and is generally regarded as the best Daytona Beach Course driver of all time.

Flock also has the distinction of being the only driver to compete with a primate on board — a monkey by the name of Jocko Flocko — as well as being the winner of the only sportscar race in NASCAR history, also in ’55. And for all of you Moneyball stat geeks, Flock’s percent winning percentage of 20.8 percent ranks second to Herb Thomas’ 21.0 percent.

Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts is another legend of the sport that many new fans may have heard of, yet know little about. The most popular driver of the 1957 season, Roberts was one of the first speedway aces in the series, becoming the first driver to win two 500-mile races in the same season (Trenton, N.J., and the Southern 500 at Darlington in ’58).

In a career that lasted 15 seasons but witnessed only 206 starts (pretty standard in an era where a bowling shirt and a leather helmet constituted safety equipment), Roberts won the Southern 500 twice (’58, ’63), and the 1962 Daytona 500.

Roberts actually resented the nickname “Fireball,” preferring to go by Glen. Curtis Turner shortened the nickname to something more fitting given his tenacity on the new, larger speedways of the early 1960s: “Balls.” In 64 races at tracks larger than one mile, Roberts tallied 14 wins, 27 top 5s and 37 top 10s. More telling, he led more than 50 percent of the laps run at these tracks.

Driving for owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick — himself an International Motorsports Hall of Famer —in the Super Duty Pontiacs fielded from “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” Roberts won the pole, qualifying race and Daytona 500 in ’62. Entering just 19 of 53 races that season, they would win or finish second six times.

In a tragic twist of fate, Roberts was involved in horrific fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. His fuel tank ruptured, pouring gasoline into the car as it burned with Roberts trapped inside. Suffering first and second degree burns over 80 percent of his body, he clung to life for weeks in a hospital only to succumb to pneumonia and blood poisoning.

Benny Parsons
You’d be hard pressed to find someone that had a negative word about Benny Parsons, because such a thing has never been muttered. The 1973 Winston Cup champion who denied King Richard what would have been an eighth title would go on to even more success as a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC Sports.

As an on-air personality, Parsons provided his perspective as a driver, genuine warmth and humor, and memorable features such as “Buffet Benny,” his catchphrase of “Man oh man oh man” and the patented, “... WOOOWWW!!!!”

Born in Ellerbe, N.C., just north of the site of this weekend's Truck Series race in Rockingham, it was a move to Detroit in 1960 to work at his father’s taxi service that would be Parsons’ first professional drive. Benny made his first Cup (then Grand National) start in 1964, driving for one of the most legendary names in Ford racing history: Holman-Moody. It was an inauspicious debut — an overheating engine resulting in a less-than-impressive 21st — at the half-mile oval in Weaverville, N.C., right behind another Holman-Moody entry, that of 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Cale Yarborough.

He may be best known for his title season of 1973. Involved in an early accident in the season finale at Rockingham, crews from up and down pit road pitched in to get his damaged Chevy back on track. Despite being 184 laps down, he earned enough points to best Petty in the championship standings.

A Daytona 500 win followed in 1975. Petty, who dominated the event but was laps down following repairs for a water leak, towed Parsons back to the front of the field with just a few laps left. And the “you can't pit right now, we’re eating ice cream” scene from Days of Thunder? That was Benny Parsons, subbing for an ailing Tim Richmond in 1987.

Parsons passed away in January 2007 after battling cancer. He took off the summer of ’06 to ensure he would be well enough to call the final races of the Chase for the Championship later that season. And that, friends, more than any winning percentage, is what being a racer is all about.

Curtis Turner
The numbers may not exactly scream “Hall of Fame,” but the legend of Curtis Turner speaks volumes. A lumber baron by day, liquor runner by night and a general hellraiser regardless of what time it was, Turner has a lot in common with 2011 inductee Junior Johnson — except for one important point: The law never caught Turner.

The story goes that Turner once lined up eight glass jars of moonshine on an empty road and proceeded to slide a Cadillac in between them — in reverse — executing a 180-degree “Bootlegger Turn.” He explained that he had to so he wouldn’t “waste all that good liquor.”

A self-made millionaire (in 1950s dollars, mind you) he made his fortune buying and selling timberlands, once trying to broker a deal that would have allowed the Ford Motor Company to advertise on U.S. currency. In 1959, with barely enough money to buy the property, Turner would start construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway — and with the help of a .38 Special Smith & Wesson, helped see it to completion.

The Blond Blizzard of Virginia was a legend bore of the lifestyle he lived: hard living, hard driving and hard partying. Turner never won what today is known as a Cup Series title, but he never lost a party. Fittingly, it was Turner that was the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, heralded as “The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.”

Turner would earn a lifetime ban from NASCAR founder Bill France for attempting to organize a drivers union in 1961, though he was allowed to return in ’65. He retired from competition in 1968 and was killed in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, Penn., on October 14, 1970, along with golfer Clarence King.

Benny Parsons once said, “Ask any fan under the age of 50 who the best driver is and they’ll tell you Dale Earnhardt. Ask any fan over the age of 50 and they’ll say Curtis Turner.”

Anne Bledsoe France
Forget any talk of Danica Patrick for a moment. Anne B. France was truly the First Lady of NASCAR.

While we can prattle on about championships, win ratios and the like, NASCAR was also a business, and businesses don’t just run themselves — particularly start-up companies in their infancy. While Big Bill France was promoting races, buying land and building high-banked superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, it was Anne who managed the finances and day-to-day operations of the burgeoning empires.

She first served as secretary and treasurer of NASCAR in its earliest years, and when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, served in the same roles for what would become International Speedway Corporation. She also managed Daytona's ticket office, remaining active in the business life until her passing in 1992.

Bill France Sr. and son Bill Jr. were honored in the first Hall of Fame class of 2010. It would only be fitting that the one missing member of NASCAR’s First Family be enshrined in 2013.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on the Hall of Fame with Vito below. And follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese

 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame field and who he believes will earn induction.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 12, 2012 - 18:58
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-weekend-rundown-apr-12
Body:

Stay tuned each week to Athlon Sports for a 2012 Fantasy Baseball Weekend Waiver Wire every Monday and a Weekend Rundown every Thursday.

David Wright’s Latest Tough Break
Poor David Wright, he just can’t seem to catch a break. Well, actually he did and that’s the problem for both him and his fantasy owners. Wright, the Mets’ third baseman who was plagued by injuries last season and dealt with a abdominal issue in spring training, was off to a sizzling start to the season. In the first four games, Wright had gone 7-12 (.583 average) with one home run and four RBIs.

Unfortunately, Wright injured his right pinkie finger sliding back into first base on a pickoff throw in Monday’s game against Washington. Further examination revealed he fractured the finger and while he has yet to be placed on the disabled list, he missed the Mets’ next two games, which coincidentally were the first two the team lost after starting 4-0.

Wright may be back in the lineup on Friday against Philadelphia as for now he’s wearing a splint and hoping to avoid surgery. If he does try and play with the broken pinkie, you have to figure at the least he will be limited at the plate. If he does go on the DL, the Mets will probably move Daniel Murphy to third and put Justin Turner at second base.

Murphy is off to a solid start at the plate, hitting .320 with three doubles and three RBIs, and his versatility adds to his fantasy value. However, the left-handed hitter doesn’t have near the power (20 career home runs in three MLB seasons) that Wright has.

Turner is more of an unknown, but could be worth a look in deeper leagues if he gets the starting job at second because of Murphy moving to third. In his first full major league season last year, Turner hit .260 with four home runs, 51 RBIs, 49 runs scored and 30 doubles in a little more than 400 at bats.

If Wright does go on the DL one replacement option, depending on the size and position eligibility requirements of your league, could be David Freese, who’s picked up where he left off during last year’s World Series, hitting .429 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in his first seven games. If he stays healthy, Freese could be in for a big season.

Other names to consider include Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, who’s off to a decent start (.269-1-6, 2 SB), San Diego’s Chase Headley, who hit a grand slam Sunday against the Dodgers, and Arizona’s Ryan Roberts, who could provide a little pop and speed as he posted a near 20-20 campaign (19 HR/18 SB) last season with the Diamondbacks.

There’s also Chipper Jones, who had knee surgery during spring training, but came out swinging when he made his season debut on Tuesday with a home run. Health and regular playing time are things to take into consideration with Jones, who is playing in his final season, but the veteran switch-hitter’s resume speaks for itself - .304 career batting average, 455 home runs, 1,563 RBIs, more walks than strike outs in 19 seasons.

Struggling Aces
It’s still early, but several frontline pitchers who were undoubtedly drafted rather high by the vast majority of fantasy owners are aiming for a much better showing on the mound as they make their second starts on Thursday.

Dan Haren got knocked around by the Royals in his first start, giving up 11 hits, including two home runs, and five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. The good news is that he struck out five, while just walking one and this time around he will take the mound against Minnesota in Target Field. The Twins are currently second-to-last in the majors with just 12 runs scored through their first five games and as a team they are hitting .190 entering Thursday’s game against Haren and the Angels.

San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner was a popular Cy Young pick headed into the season, but the 22-year-old lefty certainly didn’t get off to the start he was hoping for. Bumgarner lasted just four innings in his first start against Arizona, yielding four earned runs on seven hits, two of those leaving Chase Stadium, in just four innings. Unfortunately for Bumgarner, his second start comes today against a Colorado Rockies team that pounded out 22 hits and scored 17 runs against the Giants on Wednesday night.

The Cincinnati Reds gave up a lot to get Mat Latos in the offseason to be their ace, but he didn’t pitch like one in his first outing. Latos didn’t get out of the fifth inning against the Marlins in Great American Ballpark, giving up seven hits and four earned runs in the process. His second start will be on the road, taking on a Nationals team that’s gotten off to a 4-2 start.

These three are not the only top-flight starting pitchers struggling, however, as aces Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia are among those who have not had much success in their first two starts of the season.

Johnson, who was limited to just nine starts in 2011 due to shoulder issues, has been knocked around hard in his first two starts. Johnson, who held opposing hitters to a .185 average in 2010, has given up 21 hits in 9 2/3 innings (.447 average) to start the season.

Lincecum has looked nothing like his Cy Young self in his first two starts as his ERA currently stands at 12.91. He gave up five earned runs on six hits, two of those home runs, to the Diamondbacks on April 6, but still struck out seven with just one walk. On Wednesday night against the Rockies in Colorado, however, Lincecum didn’t make it out the third inning, as the Rockies collected eight hits and scored six runs in the shortest start (2 1/3 IP) of his career. There have already been questions raised regarding Lincecum’s diminished velocity, but command also has been an issue for the 27-year-old right-hander to start the season.

Sabathia won his second start, a 6-4 decision over Baltimore on Wednesday night, but the big lefty has surrendered 16 hits and nine earned runs in 12 innings so far. His ERA stands at 6.75 and although he has a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (5:15) right now, his owners no doubt would like him to not give up so many hits in the process.

It’s entirely too early to give up on any of these pitchers, but their next starts bear careful monitoring as the last thing any owner wants to do, especially to start the season, is have to worry about their ace hurler.

Weekend Series to Watch

Los Angeles Angels at New York Yankees
The Yankees make their 2012 home debut on Friday, hosting Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols will look to get on track at the plate, as the slugger is hitting just .222 with two RBIs and one run scored in his first five games. This is Pujols’ first game in new Yankee Stadium. He went 3-10 with one HR in 2003 inter-league series with the Cardinals in old Yankee Stadium. As a team, the Angels have hit just two home runs in their first five games.

For the Yankees, Derek Jeter has gotten off to a sensational start, batting .370 with one home run, which is the same number that Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have hit combined. Granderson is the only one of this quartet to go deep so far, while Cano and Rodriguez are looking for their first RBI of the season. A-Rod has been struggling the most, as the third baseman is currently batting just .174 with a total of four hits in his first six games.

Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox
Tampa Bay travels to Boston for a four-game set starting Friday, which could go a long ways to determining how the AL East race plays out. The Rays are off to a 4-1 start entering Thursday’s series finale in Detroit thanks in large part to hot start of Carlos Pena. The first baseman has thrived in his second tour of duty with Tampa, as he’s batting .389 with two home runs and seven RBIs in his first five games. Last season with the Chicago Cubs, Pena didn’t hit his second home run until May 4.

Boston has struggled mightily out of the gate with just one win in its first six games. The bullpen has been a disaster as closer Alfredo Aceves (27.00 ERA) and setup man Mark Melancon (36.00 ERA) have each already blown a save and have combined surrendered more home runs (two) than strikeouts (one) so far. The offense hasn’t exactly done its part either with just two home runs and 22 runs scored to this point. Jacoby Ellsbury (.130, 2 RBI, 0 SB) and Kevin Youkilis (.100, 0 R, 0 RBI) both hope to find their hitting groove at home. Last season, Ellsbury batted .326 with 15 home runs and 19 stolen bases in home games, while Youkilis is a career .305 hitter at Fenway.

— by Mark Ross, published on April 12, 2012

Teaser:
<p> Athlon has some things to watch to get you ready for this weekend's fantasy baseball action</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 12, 2012 - 12:46

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