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Courtyard Hotels is giving one guy the greatest Father's Day gift a man could ever want.
A guy who's entire family bleeds yellow and green, got in touch with the hotel and with Clay Matthews on board everything went according to plan. The father got tickets to the Super Bowl (I'm sure he won't mind waiting) and he will get to attend with his son.
The only thing that would make it better is if the Packers are there with them.
Alabama has won plenty of hardware since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide missed out on an opportunity to play for the national championship last year after a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but the 2014 team recorded an impressive 42-13 win over Missouri for the SEC title.
And it should be no surprise that Alabama is celebrating the SEC Championship with some fancy hardware.
Check out the Crimson Tide’s 2014 SEC title rings:
Yessirrrrr pic.twitter.com/G2yFKqwC0m— OJ SMITH™ (@juicemane318) June 18, 2015
That's some shiny bling. Check out Alabama's 2014 SEC Championship rings (re: multiple players' Instagram accounts) pic.twitter.com/YxQm3kL6xl— Alex Byington (@abyingtonTD) June 18, 2015
The shooting in Charleston, South Carolina sent a shockwave through America.
An issue of this magnitude was too big for athletes to ignore, and many of them took to Twitter to talk about the shooting.
Prayers for the family and friends of the love ones that loss those in the tragic event in charleston. #PrayersForCharleston— Cj Spiller (@CJSPILLER) June 18, 2015
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:10 #southcarolina— Landry Fields (@landryfields) June 18, 2015
Pray for my city!!! https://t.co/xxLDuXwZ2H— Byron Maxwell (@BMaxx41) June 18, 2015
Send all my prayers to those victims families in Charleston S.C! We have to continue to pray and influence the next generation to do better!— Jordan Crawford (@jcraw55) June 18, 2015
What a horrible tragedy in Charleston. My prayers are with the victims, their families & friends. May justice be served for this terrorist.— Johnny Weir (@JohnnyGWeir) June 18, 2015
This #CharlestonShooting is without question a hate crime. And this man is still out there somewhere. Sickening. God help us!— Chimdi Chekwa (@ChimChek) June 18, 2015
A place of worship should always feel like a safe place. Extremely hard to understand what goes through the minds of some individuals(J-Mac)— Devin&Jason McCourty (@McCourtyTwins) June 18, 2015
If someone walks into a church and shoots people, regardless of race, he's a terrorist. He is causing terror. Step the fuck up, news orgs.— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) June 18, 2015
They only wanted to worship in peace. #CharlestonShooting— Sinorice Moss (@sinoricemoss) June 18, 2015
I've completely lost faith in our society. #CharlestonShooting— Sinorice Moss (@sinoricemoss) June 18, 2015
NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala kept it short and simple with his tweet, mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
See Martin... See Malcolm...— Andre Iguodala (@andre) June 18, 2015
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Quarterback is considered the most important position on the field, so it should be no surprise that the top 10 is littered by those who have taken their team to the ultimate goal — winning a Super Bowl. Led by reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, this year's top 10 quarterbacks include seven signal-callers that have combined to win 12 Lombardi Trophies and two others who could join this exclusive club in the near future. And while it's entirely likely that first-round draft picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, will get the starting nod in Week 1 for Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively, you won't see either rookie listed below since they have yet to take a single snap in an NFL game.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Quarterbacks
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
The consistent and confident signal-caller was awarded his second league MVP after he completed 341-of-520 passes for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns. He threw only five interceptions and hit 65.6 percent of his throws.
2. Tom Brady, New England
Joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only QBs in NFL history to win four Super Bowls. Brady may now have passed Montana, his boyhood idol, as the greatest QB to play the game.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans
There was no drop-off in Brees’ performance in 2014 — in fact, he delivered one of the best statistical seasons of his career. He continues to be an outstanding ball handler in play action and is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Signed a new contract in 2015, confirming the Steelers’ faith that he is playing at an elite level. His career 7.9 yards-per-attempt average is tied for sixth in NFL history.
5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
In his third season, the former Stanford Cardinal threw for 4,761 yards and 40 TDs. The big righthander processes information quickly and is a respected team leader.
6. Tony Romo, Dallas
Heading into his 13th year as a pro, Romo time and again has demonstrated the athletic ability to elude the rush, see the open receiver and hit him for a big play.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego
The five-time Pro Bowler is back in San Diego after some speculated he would be traded to the Titans. Few field generals sense the rush and step up and away from pressure as effectively as Rivers.
8. Peyton Manning, Denver
Age and time may well be the only opponents that the five-time MVP will not be able to defeat in his quest for another Super Bowl win. The 17-year veteran has 14 Pro Bowl appearances and is still one of the league’s undisputed superstars.
9. Russell Wilson, Seattle
The youngest QB to win a Super Bowl, Wilson had a banner 2014 season, throwing for 3,475 yards, rushing for 849 and accounting for 26 touchdowns.
10. Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants
The 34-year-old concluded last season with a career-best 63.1 completion percentage and threw for 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the Giants’ version of the West Coast offense.
11. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
12. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
13. Cam Newton, Carolina
14. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
16. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
17. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
18. Alex Smith, Kansas City
19. Carson Palmer, Arizona
20. Jay Cutler, Chicago
21. Geno Smith, N.Y. Jets
22. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
23. Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota
24. Ryan Fitzpatrick, N.Y. Jets
25. Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia
26. Nick Foles, St. Louis
27. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay
28. Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee
29. Matt Cassel, Buffalo
30. Derek Carr, Oakland
Alabama has made it to November in control of its destiny in the SEC West every year since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Although the Crimson Tide have a difficult slate ahead of them in the first two months of the season, no one will be surprised if Saban’s team makes it to November pacing the West once again. Alabama will have to face its two greatest rivals — LSU and Auburn — in the final month of the season, but don’t overlook its Nov. 14 matchup at Mississippi State. Here are four reasons why The Tide’s most important game of the season could be when it plays the Bulldogs in Starkville.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
1. QB-WR Tandem of Dak Prescott and De'runnya Wilson
Alabama’s struggles against good (sometimes even mediocre) passing attacks have been well documented. Unlike LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas though, Mississippi State appears to have proven playmakers that can take advantage of Bama’s commitment to man-to-man coverage on the outside and a lack of length at cornerback. In fact, as it stands now, Dak Prescott may be the only true NFL-caliber quarterback in the SEC — certainly the most proven after throwing for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. And on the outside, Prescott has a Mike Evans look-a-like in De’Runnya Wilson, who caught nine touchdowns in 2014, tied for the second most among returning SEC players. So, while Jeremy Johnson and D’haquille Williams have enormous potential at Auburn, Prescott and Wilson are proven commodities for the Bulldogs in the SEC.
2. The Physicality of Mississippi State
In their 11 losses since 2008, there have been two requirements for beating Alabama: first, feature a quarterback that can beat man coverage, and second, be physical. In Prescott, the Bulldogs actually have both. Mississippi State had the third-ranked rushing attack in the SEC in 2014, thanks to Prescott’s 986 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. His Tebow-like running style and his more legitimate arm will give his team a chance in every game. On defense, the Bulldogs will lean on three returners — Ryan Brown, Beniquez Brown and Chris Jones — to lead a young front seven, which was the strength of the defense a year ago. Of those three, Jones is widely believed to be most talented and has the ability to be a force against a young offensive line like Alabama’s.
3. The Ultimate Trap Game
Even though every game in the SEC is big, the expectations and the priorities around the Alabama program make Mississippi State a perennial trap game. Bama fans are quick to notice that the Bulldogs don’t recruit like Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M, and they’ve never really rivaled Alabama at any point like Tennessee has. And to the average Alabama fan, Mississippi State isn’t even the best school in its own state. Nick Saban fears the letdown every week, but that hasn’t kept Alabama from sleepwalking through its last couple of trips to Starkville in 2011 and ‘13. If the Crimson Tide make it to November in contention, the fans will breathe a sigh of relief while keeping an eye on the Nov. 28 Iron Bowl finale on the Plains, the scene of the infamous “Kick Six” in 2013.
4. It’s in Starkville
A part of me wants to just say “cowbells” and leave it at that, but I’ll elaborate. Away from home in 2014, Alabama struggled to communicate on both sides of the ball. After a neutral site game against West Virginia to open the season Nick Saban was quick to point out that no one on his defense appeared to know what their assignment was. Even though the Bama-Mississippi State game is the 10th game of the season for the Tide, when you subtract Landon Collins, Trey DePriest, and Xavier Dickson — three of Alabama’s most experienced players — Crimson Tide fans have to wonder who’s going to lead the defense if things start to go wrong on the road. Likewise, on offense, Lane Kiffin worked magic doing what he did with Blake Sims at quarterback. However, that too was less impressive on the road, and the Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2015.
— Written by Eron Jenkings, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Jenkins is a public school teacher in Baton Rouge, has written for several other publications and is an SEC fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @EronJenkins.
When the Baltimore Ravens trudged out of the locker room at Gillette Stadium following a bitter playoff loss to the New England Patriots, feisty veteran wide receiver Steve Smith vowed they’d be back and that the outcome would be different the next time.
Following an offseason defined by change — offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left to become the Denver Broncos’ head coach; defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions; and wide receiver Torrey Smith and pass rusher Pernell McPhee departed as free agents — the Ravens are confident that their roster is well stocked to make another serious playoff run.
The Ravens have made the playoffs six of the past seven years under coach John Harbaugh and are upbeat about their prospects following a strong draft that filled several needs. That included drafting UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman (a bigger, faster version of Torrey Smith) in the first round and tight end Maxx Williams in the second.
Although the Ravens weren’t particularly active in free agency due to a tight salary cap situation, general manager Ozzie Newsome cautions that he’s not done building the roster.
Although he is never among the first names mentioned in conversations about top NFL quarterbacks, Joe Flacco is a strong-armed, accurate, mobile QB who owns a Super Bowl ring and a $120.6 million contract. Flacco improved significantly under Kubiak a year ago. Now, he’ll collaborate with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to try to capitalize on his arm strength in more of a vertical passing game.
Flacco has a faster deep threat to work with in Perriman than Smith, who was no slouch. Flacco could still stand to improve on his deep-ball accuracy but has matured into a sharp football mind who makes sound decisions and gets the football out of his hands quickly. Matt Schaub is Flacco’s new backup.
Justin Forsett has transformed his NFL reputation from undersized journeyman to featured back. Forsett was rewarded with a three-year, $9 million contract. He’ll remain the primary back despite the Ravens drafting USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen, a big back with pass-catching skills. Lorenzo Taliaferro is in the mix as a red-zone presence but has to concentrate on avoiding the fumbles that sent him to the bench as a rookie.
Despite being 36 years old and entering his 15th NFL season, Steve Smith remains fast enough to create separation. He’s still physical and combative after the catch, not conceding anything and challenging defensive backs every snap. Smith will be targeted frequently, but Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken will also be involved.
Williams is expected to have an immediate impact in a passing game that has sorely missed the presence of Dennis Pitta over the past two seasons as he has twice fractured and dislocated his right hip. Pitta’s career is in doubt.
The offensive line represents one of the major strengths of the team. Flacco was sacked only 19 times last year, and all five starters are back. Powerful left guard Kelechi Osemele and gritty veteran right guard Marshal Yanda are entering contract years and are competing for one big deal with at least one expected to leave after this season. Center Jeremy Zuttah’s size and athleticism represent a major upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, a former starter traded to the Broncos. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is coming off a disappointing season in which he struggled in pass protection and didn’t have as much punch as a blocker after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Rick Wagner emerged as one of the NFL’s top right tackles, utilizing his strength and sound technique to wall off pass rushers. The top backup is John Urschel, a math whiz from Penn State who can play both guard spots and center in a pinch.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ aggressive 3-4 scheme creates a lot of pressure without blitzing with an emphasis on getting outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs isolated in one-on-one blocking situations. Dumervil and Suggs combined for 29 sacks last season as one of the most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the game.
Ngata was a disruptive force who will be replaced by Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan showed flashes of being a capable full-time starter with four sacks as a rookie. He needs to be more consistent, though, and maintain his intensity. Built low to the ground and with the ability to bench press more than 500 pounds, massive lineman Brandon Williams is one of the top nose tackles in the game. Chris Canty is a starter and an experienced leader but will be pushed by young defensive linemen Brent Urban, Carl Davis and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Defensive end Lawrence Guy is an underrated player who has a nose for the football. This should be a strong rotation.
C.J. Mosley is one of the most instinctive young inside linebackers in the NFL. He has great recognition skills and the speed to chase down running backs in the open field. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is up in years but rewarded the Ravens’ faith in him last season when he piled up 128 tackles — five fewer than Mosley — and forced two fumbles. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw hasn’t shown much more than being a brawny edge-setter; the team needs more pass-rush production out of him. Rookie rush linebacker Za’Darius Smith is the top candidate to replace McPhee as a situational pass rusher.
The secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Jimmy Smith was arguably playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain that required surgery. The Ravens felt good enough about his recovery this offseason to invest a four-year, $48 million contract in him. Veteran corner Lardarius Webb restructured his contract and has made a sound return from a troublesome back injury that hampered him last year. The Ravens lack a proven nickel back and will audition Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and rookie Tray Walker for that role. The team also signed veterans Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn to add to its cornerback depth and give the coaches more options to look at during training camp.
Safety was one of the weakest positions on the team last season, but rangy new free safety Kendrick Lewis is expected to stabilize the position. Matt Elam has been a bust through two NFL seasons but will get another chance to redeem himself at strong safety, his natural position. Will Hill revived his career last year after off-field problems cost him his job with the New York Giants. Hill is slated to compete with Elam for a starting position.
The kicking game is headlined by Justin Tucker, a former Pro Bowl selection and the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker has enough range that he’s a constant scoring threat. The return game is in flux after the Ravens cut Jacoby Jones. Punter Sam Koch averaged 47 yards last season and has good hang time and directional punting skills. Long snapper Morgan Cox is good enough at his job that the Ravens keep signing him to new contracts, even after he tore an ACL for the second time in his career last year.
Although the schedule is demanding, the Ravens remain playoff contenders — if a receiving corps in flux can get the job done and if the secondary can avoid the injuries that have prevented them from getting past Tom Brady in the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC North
Building on an 11–5 season and an AFC North title won’t be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The offense is loaded and returns every starter from a unit that averaged 411.1 yards per game last season, second best in the NFL. But the defense is a serious work in progress after the Steelers managed just 33 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1989, and allowed 4.4 yards per carry.
The schedule doesn’t do the team any favors, and by at least one measure it is the most difficult in the NFL. The Steelers’ opponents combined for a .578 winning percentage last season, the highest in the league. What’s more, the Steelers have to visit Seattle, San Diego, Kansas City and St. Louis after playing no games west of the Mississippi River in 2014. The Steelers parlayed a favorable schedule last season and a breakout campaign by the offense into their first division title since 2010. It will be much tougher for them to repeat as division champions, especially in the rugged AFC North.
Mike Tomlin has hardly tempered expectations for the unit that carried the Steelers last season. The ninth-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings in late March that the Steelers could have the best offense in the NFL this season because they “have the goods.” He won’t get any arguments in Pittsburgh or beyond the Steel City. The Steelers have arguably the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards last season and became the first player on franchise history to win a passing title (he shared the honor with Drew Brees). Roethlisberger, who turned 33 in March, is seemingly getting better with age. And the Steelers backed up general manager Kevin Colbert’s assertion that Roethlisberger’s best playing days are still ahead of him by signing Big Ben to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $108 million.
Roethlisberger has reigned in the sandlot style that defined him earlier in his career in large part because the players around him are better. Brown led the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698) last season and plays bigger than his listed size of 5'10", 186 pounds because of his ability to separate and make contested catches in traffic. If Brown’s production dips this season, it could be because the Steelers have an emerging star in second-year wideout Martavis Bryant as well as Markus Wheaton, who made a significant leap in his second season after playing sparingly as a rookie.
As good as Roethlisberger and Brown were last season, Bell won the Steelers’ MVP Award — as voted on by the players — and for good reason. The second-year man rushed for 1,361 yards and led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. There is not a better all-around back than Bell, who also excels at picking up blitzing linebackers. The Steelers have to hope that DeAngelo Williams can do a credible job of filling in for Bell, who is out at the start of the season because of an NFL suspension.
The offensive line returns intact and is still young but also experienced. Maurkice Pouncey re-established himself as one of the top centers in the NFL last season after coming back from a major knee injury. Right guard David DeCastro is the Steelers’ best pulling guard since perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.
It wasn’t that long ago that questions about whether the Steelers’ defense had gotten too old were as much an autumn ritual in Western Pennsylvania as the leaves changing colors. Not anymore. The average age of the Steelers’ projected starters on defense is 26.5. That number dips if rookie Bud Dupree, the team’s first-round pick, beats out Arthur Moats at left outside linebacker.
The Steelers have a new defensive coordinator with former linebackers coach Keith Butler taking over for Dick LeBeau. Butler won’t stray from the LeBeau’s core philosophy of shutting down the run first and foremost or the Steelers’ base 3-4 defense. He will try to simplify the defense to accommodate the youth he has inherited, and Butler has said that the Steelers have to become more opportunistic. They forced more than two turnovers in a game just twice last season, and they have 41 takeaways in their last two seasons. To put that into perspective, consider that the Steelers had 35 takeaways in 2010 alone, the last time they made the Super Bowl.
The linebackers playing to their pedigree could go a long way toward the Steelers fielding the kind of defense that can complement the offense. They should, at some point, have former first-round picks starting at all four linebacker spots. Two of those players in particular are key. Right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has to make a big jump in his third season after missing most of 2014 because of a dislocated wrist. Ryan Shazier may be the most likely candidate to break out after a high-ankle sprain and normal rookie growing pains limited the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft last season. Shazier’s speed and ability to play in space make him more valuable than ever with the Steelers playing their nickel defense more than 50 percent of the time. He is a playmaker, and the competition at inside linebacker, the Steelers’ deepest position, should only bring out the best in Shazier.
The secondary has gotten younger, and third-year man Shamarko Thomas gets the first crack at replacing the iconic Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has said that the Steelers’ two safety positions are interchangeable, but does the team have a player who can cover ample ground on the back end of their defense? Thomas and starting free safety Mike Mitchell are big hitters who support the run. There are questions about how well both can cover.
Shaun Suisham occasionally stubs his toe on field goals he should make but is otherwise as reliable as they come. Punter Brad Wing has to become more consistent in his second season, and the former LSU All-American will be challenged after having training camp all to himself last season. The Steelers have to get more out of kickoff returns after averaging only 21.7 yards per return last season. They drafted Dri Archer in the third round in 2014 to give them a jolt in the return game. He fared so poorly that he lost his job as the team’s primary kickoff returner before the midway point of the season. Archer, the fastest player on the team, has to emerge this season or he is in danger of becoming a bust.
The offense may have to carry the Steelers until a defense in transition comes together. The offense should be a tour de force if it stays relatively healthy, though the Steelers have to start faster. They managed just 19 points on 16 opening drives last season, and scoring first could help take some pressure off the defense.
Few people expected the Steelers to win 11 games last season, and it will be hard to duplicate that number in 2015. Ten victories could be enough to repeat as AFC North champions if the Steelers win at least four division games.
Prediction: 1st in AFC North
The Browns enter 2015 having changed offensive coordinators again, still searching for a real answer at quarterback and still trying to climb out of fourth place in the rugged AFC North. Though this year’s team should have better overall talent and depth and should benefit from having coach Mike Pettine and several key veterans back, it’s fair to wonder if there’s enough offensive firepower to allow the Browns to compete with the league’s best teams.
The defense has been upgraded, and with better tackling and better health among the front seven, there should be a noticeable improvement against the run. The secondary is an experienced and well-paid bunch, too, and has leaders and playmakers in Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Tramon Williams.
The offensive line is the team’s strongest and deepest unit, with Alex Mack set to return at center after an injury-shortened 2014 season and perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas back at left tackle. Thomas will tutor second-year guard Joel Bitonio and 2015 first-rounder Cameron Erving, who is Mack’s likely eventual successor at center but could play right guard or right tackle. The Browns will try to establish the run and hope to throw off play-action from that.
They’re still building for the future, too; a year after spending two first-round picks on early draft entries who brought maturity issues to the NFL, the Browns went with older, productive players, many of whom figure as 2015 contributors and 2016 starters.
Brian Hoyer was allowed to leave after starting 13 games at quarterback before giving way to Johnny Manziel, who was totally overwhelmed in two starts and spent 10 weeks of the offseason in a rehab center for undisclosed issues. Veteran journeyman Josh McCown was signed to start at quarterback, and veteran receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were added after the Browns learned their most talented receiver, Josh Gordon, was suspended for at least one year.
Tight end Jordan Cameron departed via free agency, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan asked out, meaning 2015 marks a fresh start for almost everybody who will touch the ball. Running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showed promise as rookies, and both are strong, physical runners who figure to have a chance to improve as they get more comfortable with the NFL game. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is a playmaker whose opportunities to be productive figure to depend on the ability of Bowe and Hartline to get open down the field.
Manziel returned to the team in the spring, but the Browns’ decision not to draft a quarterback affirmed the assumption that McCown will start 2015 and Manziel will be given a chance to learn how to be an NFL quarterback from the sideline. His task is to prove to the team that his admitted work-ethic issues from last season are in the past. McCown took a beating last year in Tampa Bay, but the Browns believe with a better offensive line and a run-first approach, he’ll be more like the player who kept the Bears afloat in 2013 when Jay Cutler was injured.
Improvement will be judged by efficiency and on the scoreboard. The 2014 Browns had the league’s worst completion percentage (54.6) and third-down success rate and were 27th in the NFL in scoring. The loss of Mack was huge to the offense’s identity and ability to convert key short-yardage chances. But even with the line set to return intact — and possibly with more depth — the Browns still have to prove they have the skill players to turn routine plays into big gains and consistently score more than 20 points per game.
The one offensive certainty: Thomas will come to play. Amazingly, the Browns left tackle has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted in 2007.
The Browns have been aggressive in consecutive offseasons in trying to add talent to every level of the defense and believe they’ve built a unit with the necessary talent and depth to be among the best in the AFC.
The defensive line was overvalued a year ago and suffered when injuries hit. But the linebacking corps got big seasons from Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger, and the secondary added Williams to a group that could really make a leap if 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert can overcome the maturity issues that plagued him a year ago.
Gipson contended for the NFL interception lead, and though Whitner is 30, he’s still active and disruptive. Haden has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks, and the Browns believe Gilbert has the talent to be a playmaker, too. Even with his issues last season he showed flashes on the field.
There’s age across the defense — Dansby, Whitner, Kruger, Williams, defensive end Desmond Bryant and new defensive end Randy Starks all have plenty of experience — but there are some young legs, too, in Haden, linebacker Chris Kirksey and rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton. The Browns considered Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, the best player to immediately shore up a run defense that ranked last in the NFL a season ago. The Browns drafted two defensive linemen in the first three rounds with Bryant nearing 30 and former first-round pick Phil Taylor entering the final year of his contract.
The Browns will ask a lot of this defense, but they believe that the group is up to the challenge if the run defense improves. Some help from the offense on the scoreboard and in time of possession would be welcomed, but there are pieces to work with here.
The Browns had to make a change at placekicker last season when Billy Cundiff struggled. Garrett Hartley was a December addition who faced no real pressure kicks, and it’s surprising the Browns didn’t draft a kicker to give him some competition this summer. Young punter Spencer Lanning established himself last season, but the Browns decided to make a change , acquiring Andy Lee from the 49ers in June. In Lee, Cleveland gets a three-time Pro Bowler who averaged 46.2 yards per punt (39.6 net) since taking over as San Francisco's punter in 2004, while the 49ers reportedly will receive the Browns' seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft. Lanning was released to make room for Lee. The punt-return game was a disaster last season, and Travis Benjamin is probably down to his last chance with the Browns in this training camp. Among the other candidates to return kicks and punts are rookie running back Duke Johnson, Gilbert and speedy second-year receiver Taylor Gabriel.
The Browns won seven games last year, the most by the franchise since 2007. But the offense went totally flat late in the year, there were too many off-field incidents, and the season ended with a five-game losing streak. The 2015 team should be equipped with better leaders, better chemistry and better depth, but it’s still fair to wonder who’s going to make big plays and if this team will score enough touchdowns to be a legitimate playoff contender.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North
Marvin Lewis is dubbing this season a “revival.” There’s been new construction at Paul Brown Stadium to upgrade the training facilities for the players as well as the game-day experience for fans. It’s a visual metaphor for the team itself: While things have been good in Cincinnati the past few seasons, they haven’t been good enough.
Four straight playoff berths have equaled four straight first-round defeats. Each loss has been similar in nature; the Bengals play well in the first half only to be dominated and eliminated in the second half. The offseason didn’t bring major changes to the roster, but there have been subtle moves, such as bringing back defensive end Michael Johnson and adding former Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk for stability in the front seven.
Some things don’t change, such as the need for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green to step up in the biggest moments. When that revival takes place, then the Bengals can be thought of as a real contender.
Dalton enters his fifth season as the starter. He has shown he’s capable of taking a team to the playoffs, but whether the Bengals have matched up against elite quarterbacks in the postseason (Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) or the pedestrian sort (T.J. Yates, Matt Schaub), Dalton has been outperformed by the opposing signal caller. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the ball out of Dalton’s hands more than predecessor Jay Gruden last season, and there’s reason to expect the focus of the offense again this season to be running the ball.
The backfield combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard produced more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 70 receptions. They are the most reliable weapons in this offense, and Jackson doesn’t care if defenses know they’re coming. Put it this way: Jackson wouldn’t have called for a pass on the goal line with the Super Bowl in the balance.
A return to health by numerous receivers should make Dalton more efficient and the passing game more productive. Green missed three games entirely plus significant portions of two others with toe and biceps injuries, then didn’t play in the postseason because of a concussion. Wide receiver Marvin Jones missed the entire season with a broken foot. Tight end Tyler Eifert had three catches in the opening game before suffering a dislocated elbow that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The offensive line returns intact, led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals used their first two draft picks on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, but don’t take that as a sign that the heart and soul of the Bengals is going anywhere anytime soon. Whitworth sets the tone on the field and in the locker room. He may be 33 and entering his 10th season, but he’s still an elite left tackle. Left guard Clint Boling was re-signed to a five-year deal, while the Bengals picked up the option for 2016 on right guard Kevin Zeitler. Center Russell Bodine will be in his second season, while Andre Smith and Eric Winston will get competition from Fisher at right tackle.
This unit needs new life infused into it. A lot of that infusion needs to come from recent draft picks whose time has come to put up or shut up.
The Bengals are hopeful that the return of Johnson after an ill-fated season in Tampa Bay will help revitalize a defensive line that lost its moxie last season. The Bengals managed just 20 sacks. No player outside of Carlos Dunlap (eight) and Geno Atkins (three) had as many as two sacks. Bringing back Johnson will allow the Bengals to put Wallace Gilberry back into the specialist role in which he was so effective from 2012-13. Gilberry can play inside or on the end, but he played too much last season. The strength of the line in the past was in its rotation, but that rotation failed the Bengals last season. There’s a question as to whether Geno Atkins will ever regain the All-Pro form he had prior to an ACL tear in 2013. He was just another guy last year, showing only flashes of the power and quickness that made offenses fear him.
Margus Hunt was a project when the Bengals drafted him out of SMU two years ago. The Estonia native had played football for just four years when the Bengals took him in the second round. The project phase of Hunt’s development is over. It’s time to put that 6'8", 290-pound body to good use. Hunt was plagued by an ankle injury last season, but he needs to be more than a body on the field. His size and athleticism make him a perfect complement in the rotation with Dunlap and Johnson.
The great unknown of the defense is linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He played in just five games last season because of various injuries, including two concussions suffered in the first two games of the season. There aren’t many players with his aggressiveness and instincts for diagnosing a play and making the tackle. That was missing from the defense throughout 2014. Burfict had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason, so just how good he can be this year remains to be seen. That’s one reason Hawk was signed; the other is for his leadership. Much like James Harrison in 2013, Hawk is a player who’s been there and done that. He’s not at the top of his game anymore, but he can still provide a strong presence.
Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard were first-round picks in 2012 and 2014, respectively. They were stuck behind Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones last year. That won’t be the case this season. They’ll be starting sooner than later. The Bengals are solid at safety with Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, a fourth-year player who is emerging as one of the better young safeties in the NFL.
The Bengals have a solid trio in kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris. Huber is finally getting some due for his ability to control field position with punts inside the 20. He has a career 4-to-1 ratio on punts inside the 20 vs. touchbacks. Nugent showed off his mental toughness by making 16 of his final 17 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder in the playoffs, after missing a 36-yarder in overtime against Carolina in October.
The scenarios for the Bengals haven’t changed much from a season ago. They have proven they are among the top six teams in the AFC. They are playoff-worthy. They have talent. Do they have the mental toughness to get over the hump? At some point you just have to make plays. Everyone has to deal with injuries. No team is always at its best. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win a game.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC North
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh.
Arkansas has mastered that philosophy under coach Bret Bielema, as the Razorbacks boast the nation’s best tandem in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Both players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2014 and should reach that level in 2015.
But Arkansas isn’t the only program with two solid running backs, as Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon and Alabama are the next teams in the mix.
Which teams have the best No. 1 and No. 2 running backs? Here’s the top 20 in college football, with an emphasis on talent, production so far in their career and projection for 2015.
College Football's Top 20 Running Back Tandems for 2015
The Razorbacks have the best one-two punch at running back for 2015. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins return after each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last season and combined for 24 rushing scores. This duo will also have one of the nation’s top offensive lines at their disposal, which includes three All-America candidates in guard Sebastian Tretola and tackles Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland.
Georgia’s rushing attack didn’t skip a beat despite losing Todd Gurley to a suspension, then a torn ACL in the win over Auburn. Nick Chubb emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs in the second half of 2014, averaging 165.4 rushing yards per game over the final eight contests. Sony Michel – a five-star recruit in 2014 – is the No. 2 back after averaging 6.4 yards per carry last year.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Even though Oklahoma has a new play-caller (Lincoln Riley) and a few tweaks to its offensive scheme, the rushing attack is still going to be a huge part of the gameplan. Samaje Perine headlines the backfield after rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman, while the No. 2 spot is up for grabs between Joe Mixon and Alex Ross.
Having a deep stable of running backs and receivers should help to ease the transition of Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams into the starting lineup. Royce Freeman had a huge freshman campaign in 2014, rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 scores. Thomas Tyner missed four games due to injury, but the junior has rushed for 1,284 yards over the last two years.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2015
In every season since 2008, Alabama has posted two running backs to reach the 600-yard mark. That streak should extend to eight consecutive years in 2015, as the Crimson Tide can lean on Derrick Henry as the No. 1 option, with Kenyan Drake the No. 2 rusher after returning from a leg injury. Henry shared carries with T.J. Yeldon last season and rushed for 990 yards and 11 scores.
6. Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott opens 2015 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and the junior closed 2014 playing as well as any running back in the nation. In Ohio State’s run to the national championship, Elliott rushed for 220 yards against Wisconsin, 230 versus Alabama and 246 in the 42-20 win over Oregon. Curtis Samuel (6.6 ypc in 2014) should see a bigger role in 2015.
With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston to the NFL, the focus in the Florida State offense shifts to Dalvin Cook and the rushing attack. The Miami native rushed for 1,008 yards and eight scores as a true freshman in 2014 and should push for All-America honors in 2015. Cook won’t have to carry the entire workload, as Florida State also has Mario Pender and four-star recruit Jacques Patrick.
Pittsburgh has the ACC’s No. 1 running back in James Conner, and sophomore Chris James is a solid No. 2 option for new coach Pat Narduzzi. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 scores last year, while James averaged five yards a carry on 87 attempts.
Since we are projecting ahead to 2015, this backfield is one on the rise for 2015. Jalen Hurd led the team with 899 yards as a true freshman in 2014, and he will have help from junior college recruit (and former Alabama back) Alvin Kamara. The stats don’t back up this ranking in June. But the Volunteers are primed to take a step forward on the ground in 2015.
10. West Virginia
Although coach Dana Holgorsen likes to throw the ball around, don’t overlook the Mountaineers’ rushing attack. Rushel Shell recorded 788 yards and seven scores in his first season of playing time at West Virginia, while Wendell Smallwood is one of the Big 12’s top all-around backs after recording 1,057 total yards last year. Redshirt freshman Donte Thomas-Williams is a name to remember.
Art Briles’ high-powered offense isn’t limited to only the aerial assault. The Bears averaged 215.5 rushing yards per game last year, headlined by Shock Linwood (1,252 yards) and Devin Chafin (4.8 ypc on 80 attempts).
The Rockets must replace all five starters on the offensive line, but coach Matt Campbell can still rely on his ground attack with the return of Kareem Hunt (1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns). Hunt’s 1,631 yards and 16 scores is even more impressive when you consider he only played in 10 games last year. The Rockets are overflowing with depth at running back, starting with Terry Swanson (6.5 ypc in 2014), Damion Jones-Moore and Marc Remy.
13. San Diego State
Behind running back Donnel Pumphrey, the Aztecs are the favorite to win the Mountain West’s West Division in 2015. Pumphrey finished fourth nationally with 1,873 yards in 2014. Chase Price should be the top backup after recording 674 yards and five touchdowns last year.
Related: Mountain West 2015 Predictions
With quarterback Rakeem Cato expiring his eligibility, the Thundering Herd may lean more on its rushing attack in 2015. That’s no problem for Marshall, as Devon Johnson (1,767 yards) and Remi Watson (546 yards) return.
15. Arizona State
D.J. Foster is moving to receiver, which means Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will handle the bulk of the carries for coach Todd Graham. Both players are due for a breakout season after combining for 604 yards and seven touchdowns in 2014.
16. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers have one of the nation’s top offenses for the 2015 season. Quarterback Brandon Doughty returns, and the ground attack is bolstered by Leon Allen (1,542 yards in 2014). Allen is among the top running backs in Conference USA. Anthony Wales (518 yards last year) is Allen’s primary backup.
Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions
Potential. That’s the word to remember when examining Miami’s backfield for 2015. Sophomore Joseph Yearby is a breakout candidate after rushing for 509 yards and one score in a backup role to Duke Johnson last year. Gus Edwards is the No. 2 back but could earn a split of the carries (349 yards, six touchdowns in 2014).
18. Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern had a successful debut on the FBS level by finishing 9-3 overall and a perfect 8-0 mark in conference play. The offense led the way for coach Willie Fritz, as two players – running back Matt Breida and quarterback Kevin Ellison – each eclipsed 1,000 yards. Breida averaged 8.7 yards per carry and recorded 14 rushing plays of 30 yards or more. Alfred Ramsby (4.5 yards per carry and 12 scores in 2014) is Georgia Southern’s No. 2 back.
Related: Sun Belt 2015 Predictions
19. Texas Tech
Texas Tech had the fewest rushing attempts of any Big 12 team in 2014, but the Red Raiders maximized their opportunities by averaging 5.2 yards per carry. DeAndre Washington is one of the Big 12’s most underrated players after leading the team with 1,103 yards last year. Justin Stockton is a big-play threat, averaging 8.3 yards per carry in 2014.
Similar to its conference comrade Georgia Southern, Appalachian State made a splash in its first year of FBS play. The Mountaineers finished 2014 on a six-game winning streak and enter 2015 as one of the favorites. Marcus Cox is the headliner at running back (1,415 yards), and coach Scott Satterfield plans on utilizing Terrence Upshaw (573 yards) more in 2015.
Other Backfield Tandems to Watch in 2015
Auburn: Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas/Peyton Barber
Boston College: Jon Hilliman and Myles Willis
California: Daniel Lasco and Vic Enwere/Khalfani Muhammad
LSU: Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams
Michigan: Derrick Green and Ty Isaac
NC State: Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes
Nebraska: Terrell Newby and Imani Cross
Notre Dame: Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant
Rutgers: Paul James and Josh Hicks/Robert Martin
TCU: Aaron Green and Shaun Nixon
UCLA: Paul Perkins and Nate Starks
Group of 5
Buffalo: Anthone Taylor and Devin Campbell
Cincinnati: Hosey Williams and Mike Boone
Houston: Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson
Louisiana Tech: Kenneth Dixon and Jarred Craft
New Mexico: Teriyon Gipson and Jhurell Pressley
Nevada: Don Jackson and James Butler
Wyoming: Brian Hill and Shaun Wick
Most people would love to have a movie made about their life. Turns out Michael Oher is not one of those people.
The Panthers left tackle said "The Blind Side" had a negative effect on his career. A movie made about Oher's earlier life overcoming various struggles and his growing relationship with the Tuohy's.
"People look at me, and they take thigns away from me because of a movie," Oher told ESPN. "They don't really see the skills and the kind of player I am. That's why I get downgraded so much, because of something off the field."
Oher goes on to say that people unfairly judge him based on things they saw in the blockbuster hit starring Sandra Bullock.
"This stuff, calling me a bust, people saying if I can play or not ... that has nothing to do with football," Oher said. "It's something else off the field. That's why I don't like that movie."
The man responsible for watching the blind side of Cam Newton this season says the movie gives him a bad rep and puts a lot of pressure on him.
"That's taken away from my football," Oher continued. "That's why people criticize me. That's why people look at me every single play."
Oher hopes that the movie and the attention it has placed on him will be a moot point this season. His main focus is football.
"I'm tired of the movie. I'm here to play football."
Music, like sports, sparks debate, creates discussion and can even lead to heated disagreements.
But both are unquestionably a huge part of American culture. So Athlon Sports has decided to combine two of our favorite things — rock and roll with college football.
What if our favorite football programs were rock and roll bands? Every Power 5 team will be represented, so if you don’t see your favorite band or school here, keep your eyes peeled.
Here are the 10 Big 12 schools as rock bands:
Texas: The Beatles
They are probably the biggest, most powerful, most lucrative rock group of all-time. Part of the reason the fabulous foursome from Liverpool fits in Austin is the rivalry with Oklahoma (more on that in a second). The more conservative, cleaner side of the rivalry is Texas. The star power is revered among fans and experts alike as some of the greatest performers in the history of the industry.
Oklahoma: The Rolling Stones
On the surface, The Stones are bitter rivals with The Beatles — despite plenty of overlap between Keith Richards and John Lennon. The Stones are the gruff, more abrasive side of the rivalry that has been successful for a much longer period of time. The highs maybe weren’t as high as The Beatles' but there were a lot more of them. Texas is pop and Oklahoma is the blues.
Oklahoma State: The Who
Pretty awesome and loaded with elite-level skill and talent, but sort of always second fiddle when it comes to The Beatles and The Stones. Well respected, extremely enjoyable and successful for a long period of time. However, it will always be unfortunately tethered and beholden to one all-powerful individual who makes or breaks the future success.
Baylor: Justin Timberlake
The early work leaves a lot to be ashamed of — be it on television as a youngster or in a boy band. But over time, his extraordinary talent single-handedly began to dominate an entire industry with big highlights and cool style. Now, he’s one of the hottest things in the world and generally beloved by almost everyone (except maybe some of those former boy band members).
TCU: Taylor Swift
She dominated her genre to near unprecedented levels and decided to make a big switch to a new place. In short order, she has managed to shift her style by adding lots of production value/new facilities and still produces in a big way. A little crazy but does her own writing and that gives her respect among experts and fans.
Kansas State: Prince
Always really, really good no matter what era or league this team plays in as long as the esteemed leader is in place atop the pyramid. This leader is a little weird and a little out there but a wizard on the big stage. The team isn’t good when being coached by a Prince and Prince isn’t good when he’s not named Prince. And the color scheme matches are undeniable.
West Virginia: Jimi Hendrix
One of the best party scenes in the business — to a fault. This group is the most likely to light things on fire and are as fun to watch as anyone else in the business. The elite-level successes have been short lived and few and far between because of some self-destructive tendencies.
Texas Tech: ZZ Top
It’s the state of Texas. It looks a little weird. It’s better than you think over a longer period of time than you think. It’s played at a tempo that few others in the industry can match. But it won’t ever be considered the best the Lone Star State has to offer.
It had to be, right? Who else could this possibly have been? Soft rock that rarely moves the needle but every now and then has a nice hit. Carry On Wayward Reesing has a nice ring to it.
Iowa State: The Band
Always playing second fiddle inside the state to either Iowa or Bob Dylan. Supremely underrated as far as atmosphere and entertainment value, as Jack Trice Stadium is underappreciated nationally. The Cyclones may never be as good as Levon Helm and company but there is something about the down-home personality and bizarre antics of Iowa State and that of The Band that just fits.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the Big Ten in 2015:
513.2: Indiana yards per game with Nate Sudfeld
In the five games that Sudfeld finished last year, the Hoosiers averaged 513.2 yards per game and won three times, including a road victory over eventual SEC East champ Mizzou. In the seven games Sudfeld didn’t finish (six of which he didn't play in), Indiana averaged 327.7 yards per game and won just once.
220.4: Wes Lunt’s division-leading yards per game
The quarterback play leaves much to be desired in the Big Ten West but Illinois may have the best one. Lunt missed five games last year but still led the division with 220.4 yards passing per game. He also posted the division’s best TD:INT ratio with 14 scoring strikes and just three picks. It’s Lunt who gives the Illini any chance at winning games in 2015.
5.2: Iowa’s yards per play under Greg Davis
Greg Davis took over as the Iowa offensive coordinator in 2012 and has not exactly set the world on fire in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have averaged just 5.2 yards per play in those three seasons — which would have ranked 98th in the nation last season. That said, his 2014 was his best year since arriving at Iowa with a 5.5 yards per play clip and his offense has gotten (slowly) more efficient each season he’s been there. (Although, that 5.5 clip was still just 72nd in the nation.)
41.5: Maryland’s leading rusher's yards per game average in 2014
C.J. Brown led Maryland in rushing last year at 41.5 yards per game, good for just 20th in the Big Ten last season. Brandon Ross is the leading returning rusher and he carried the ball just 85 times. Needless to say, the Terps need to improve on the 111th-ranked rushing offense if they want to keep improving in the run-oriented Big Ten.
3: Times Michigan finished the season ranked since 2006
Michigan obviously hasn’t had its best decade. But to finish the season unranked in six of the last eight seasons is downright unbelievable. Only once in 2006 has Michigan finished in the top 15 (2011) and only three times has it even been ranked at season’s end. The Wolverines were ranked in the top 15 to end the year 29 times between 1969 and 2006.
79.1%: Michigan State’s winning percentage since 2010
The Spartans have won 53 games in 67 tries over the last five years for a remarkable 79.1 percent clip. Michigan State has won at least 11 games four times during that span, which is the only time in school history that the program has won at least 11 times in a season. It marks the highest percentage over a five-year span for Sparty since 1951-55.
0-12: Minnesota against ranked foes under Jerry Kill
In four years under the highly respected Kill, Minnesota has quickly improved from a 3-9 afterthought to a perennial bowl team to a division contender. However, the Gophers have not been able to beat ranked teams, going 0-for-12 in his four seasons. Otherwise, Minnesota has won the games it’s supposed to, going 16-4 in the last two seasons against unranked opponents.
5,278: Ameer Abdullah's career yards from scrimmage
Abdullah is one of the greatest running backs at a school known for its great running tradition. In fact, no player in school history produced more yards from scrimmage than his 5,278 yards. Abdullah was the first Husker to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and his 4,588 career total is second to Rozier all-time in Lincoln. His 48 career touchdowns rank third all-time as well. Replacing him should be Mike Riley’s first order of business.
45: Career starts from Ibraheim Campbell
Northwestern finished above average on defense in the Big Ten last year, ranking in the top 50 nationally in yards per play allowed, turnover margin, red zone defense and big-play defense (20+ yards). A huge part of that was three-time All-Big Ten safety Campbell. He posted 316 career tackles and 11 career interceptions in 45 career starts for Pat Fitzgerald. Campbell was a leader and model athlete for Northwestern and will be missed.
4.3: Average recruiting ranking for Ohio State under Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer was going to bring the SEC to the Big Ten and that is exactly what happened. He has won a national title with elite athletes on both sides of the ball, crushing the Big Ten along the way. In four classes in Columbus, Ohio State has out-recruited every team in the nation but one with an average national recruiting ranking of 4.3. Only Alabama’s 1.0 average ranking is better over the last four cycles. Michigan is a distant second in the league with an average class ranking of 17.0 over that same span.
2.9: Penn State yards per carry
The Nittany Lions had major offensive line woes in 2014 and it led to a frustrated quarterback and zero running game. The Lions ranked dead last in the Big Ten in yards per carry (2.9), yards per game (101.9) and rushing touchdowns (13). Those numbers ranked 125th, 120th and 104th nationally. Christian Hackenberg needs more support from his ground game if the Lions want to be relevant in the Big Ten East.
836: Purdue offensive snaps
In an era of tempo offense in a league that is infamously slower than most, Purdue was one of the slowest and least effective. The Boilermakers ran just 836 offensive plays in 2014, ranking ahead of only Michigan and finishing 105th nationally. It’s hard to score points when the offense is on the bench, so it should be no surprise that Purdue averaged just 23.8 points per game (98th) last fall.
6.4: Rutgers yards per play allowed
The Knights finished dead last in the Big Ten and 113th nationally in defensive efficiency in 2014 by a wide margin. Rutgers allowed 6.4 yards per play — nearly a half yard more per play than Illinois, which checked in at No. 13 in the B1G. The Knights return five starters on defense in 2015.
1,987.3: Yards Wisconsin's leading rusher has averaged over last four years
Wisconsin is known for its running game and star ball carriers. Over the last four years, the Badgers' leading rusher has AVERAGED 1,987.3 yards and 24.0 touchdowns. Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball clearly upheld the lofty expectations for a UW running back. Corey Clement now steps into a starting role after averaging 7.0 yards per carry in his first two seasons (214 att., 1,496 yards). He’s talented enough to keep those average leading rusher statistics up at Wisconsin.
The scoreboard was still smoking in the wake of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history when Gus Malzahn made his decision. In reality, he had probably known what he had to do for a few weeks. No team closes a season by giving up at least 31 points in six straight games (against FBS foes) and doesn’t change some things. When you give up 55 points and 539 yards to your archrival in the season finale, the urgency to find a new way gets even greater.
Malzahn needed a new defensive coordinator, and he knew he was going to have to shop in the luxury aisle to get one. Some might think the 850 large the program had allotted for former DC Ellis Johnson was Ritz-level pricing, but that was discount stuff compared to the $1.6 million the Tigers will send Will Muschamp’s way this season. Muschamp — who was fired after four years as head coach at Florida but built successful defenses before that at Auburn, LSU and Texas — brings instant credibility to a side of the ball that had little last season. And he will be paid quite handsomely for that experience. In fact, he’ll be the second-highest-paid assistant in the country.
“That’s where the college game is at with the money and the TV,” Malzahn says. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”
Given Muschamp’s track record, his Riviera-level price tag isn’t so outrageous. Florida fans obviously focus on his 28–21 record during four years in Gainesville; but at Auburn, they’re more interested in the fact that none of his defenses finished worse than 15th nationally during that time. During his six years directing defenses at LSU (2001-04) and Auburn (’06-07), his units finished in the top 10 every year.
His 2008 Texas edition led the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense and held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. Muschamp is an excellent recruiter and brings some top-shelf assistants with him. If the Tigers D has the same success as Malzahn’s spread attack, Auburn will be back in the national title hunt. And it will make perfect sense that Muschamp gets a salary above those paid to more than 60 FBS head coaches in 2014.
“If you’re going to be consistently good and have a chance to win championships, you have to be good on defense, especially in our league,” Malzahn says.
Malzahn’s not the only SEC coach who thinks that way. Texas A&M will pay former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a reported $5 million over the next three years to fix a D that ranked 102nd in total yards allowed last year. That makes him No. 1 on the assistant coach payroll. He and Muschamp join four other conference coordinators (Alabama DC Kirby Smart, LSU OC Cam Cameron, LSU DC Kevin Steele and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt) who make at least seven figures. Last year, only three — Smart, Cameron and Chavis — earned that much.
The growing collection of million-dollar men makes sense in a conference that boasted nine of the nation’s top 19 assistant coaching salary pools. LSU’s $5.499 million outlay to assistants topped the national list, with Alabama ($5.213 million) second.
The growth has been quick. Consider that six years ago, Chavis made $400,000 at LSU. Last year, he earned $1.3 million. He’ll get $400,000 more than that in 2015. That’s a pretty steep climb in a short amount of time.
“There are rising salaries for all coaches — head coaches, coordinators and assistants,” says South Carolina boss Steve Spurrier, who made $4 million last year, the 10th-highest payday in the country. “It’s all about the rising revenues that are coming in.
“Hopefully, we’ll give some to the players soon, too.”
Hold on, Steve. That’s another topic altogether. The recent SEC binge on coordinator salaries is certainly about the big piles of cash flowing into schools’ coffers from TV deals, the new College Football Playoff and the growing professionalization of athletic departments. But coaches also realize that they had better beef up their staffs to attract, develop and deploy the best players in order to compete in the most cutthroat league around.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Last year, the SEC West went from merely brutal to absolutely pitiless. All seven teams finished the year with above-.500 records and played in the postseason. The last-place finisher, Arkansas, dismantled Texas in a bowl game, and the Mississippi schools reached heights they hadn’t experienced in decades. It is imperative that schools have the best possible coaches to run their attacks, or they risk getting overrun in one of the most competitive environments in all of sports.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been a head coach in the Big Ten, was the Miami Dolphins’ boss and directed the Baltimore Ravens’ attack for five seasons. As he tries to make the Tigers potent again — after a shaky 2014 — he understands the need for head coaches to bulk up their staffs as much as possible. That begins with their top lieutenants.
“When you have coached in the Big Ten and the NFL and then come to the SEC, and especially the SEC West, you realize the margin for error is so small,” Cameron says. “Coordinators can have huge impacts. The games are so close, so everybody has to be as qualified as possible.”
Cameron is right about the slim difference between success and failure. Last season, 19 SEC conference games were decided by seven or fewer points, and 10 had margins of three or fewer. In situations like that, it’s imperative for programs to have the most experienced and talented people possible in top assistant positions. Muschamp’s arrival in Auburn and Kevin Steele taking over in Baton Rouge mean there are now four former Power 5 conference head coaches among the coordinator ranks in the SEC. (Cameron and Alabama OC Lane Kiffin are the others.) In 2014, former UCLA head man Karl Dorrell led the Vanderbilt offense. Last year’s A&M defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, directed Marshall’s program for five years.
“You have former head coaches as coordinators and future head coaches as coordinators,” Cameron says. “There is so much at stake that everybody is trying to get as many good people as possible.”
• • •
The two highest-profile SEC hires of the offseason were curious less for their price tags than for those who brought them on board. Throughout their coaching careers, Malzahn and A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been known for their explosive offenses and overwhelming desire to pile up the points and yards, even if that put undue stress on their defenses.
High-speed attacks pressure rivals for 60 minutes, but they impact the defenses on their own teams every minute of the year. The most obvious effect is in the time of possession department. If an offense is holding onto the ball for only 20-25 minutes a game, that means opponents have it for a draining 35-40. Defenses trying to prepare for the kind of physical, pro-style opponents found throughout the SEC don’t have the ability to practice against that kind of scheme during the summer and then week-to-week. And when versatile prospects come into programs as freshmen, coaches try to decide whether they should play offense or defense. If the man in charge is more disposed to scoring points than preventing them, the toss-ups will often end up on the offensive side of the ball.
So, Sumlin’s decision to bring Chavis to College Station and Malzahn’s choice of Muschamp show how important those two creative offensive minds now consider the ability to stop people. At LSU, Chavis worked with an attack designed to complement his unit. The Tigers ran the ball. They worked the clock. And they were delighted with a 23–14 victory. It’s fun trying to score 50 but even more enjoyable to get the win. Muschamp’s defenses at Florida were stingy, but he lost his job because the Gators, who once spun scoreboards under Spurrier and Urban Meyer, were boring. Malzahn and Sumlin have invested big money in their new coaches, but they have to be willing to adapt their styles of play to let the defenses have a chance to thrive.
When Chavis met with Sumlin, the two discussed how the team would practice and any concerns Chavis had about tempo. And when spring drills began, the Aggies had actually slowed things down so much that it was Chavis who requested a change of pace. At Auburn, Muschamp’s unit will complement an attack that has averaged 493.4 yards in Malzahn’s 27 games at the helm.
“Will and (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) work real closely together,” Malzahn says. “We are making sure both sides’ needs are met. The experience so far has been really positive.”
Muschamp may have to convince his boss to play a little more to the defensive side of the ball at times, but the good news is that he won’t have too much interference from Malzahn. Lashlee may be the offensive coordinator, but the Tigers’ attack belongs to the head coach, who literally wrote the book (“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”) on the kind of run-based, spread attack he favors. According to Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, which combines content from three Alabama newspapers — Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — Malzahn “doesn’t meddle with the defense” and is “hesitant” even to stick his head in the room.
There have been great coordinators in the SEC for decades. One of the reasons Spurrier won a national title at Florida was that he had Bob Stoops, now the head man at Oklahoma, to run his defense. But Stoops wasn’t a huge name when he arrived from Kansas State. Cameron was when Miles brought him to Baton Rouge in 2013. He had spent 10 of the previous 11 seasons as an NFL coordinator and head man, so he brought instant credibility to the job at LSU.
A year later, Alabama coach Nick Saban got himself a high-profile coordinator when he hired Kiffin, the former Raiders, USC and Tennessee coach, to direct his offense. Although the Tide paid defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost twice as much as the $680,000 Kiffin earned, having a former NFL boss running the attack was big news. It also showed that Saban, who has four national titles to his credit, doesn’t mind having big names on his staff, especially on the side of the ball that isn’t his expertise. The goal is to win games, not rule absolutely — although Saban does a pretty good job with that, too.
“These coaches know they are the big men on campus, so they take the ego out of it and get someone in there to handle the other side of the ball,” Marcello says.
Cameron says there is more to it than just putting together and executing a game plan. Having former head coaches on the staff helps with recruiting. Since assistants spend more time on the road than do those who run the programs, having a former NFL assistant or college head man in the living room adds some serious cachet.
Thanks to television, coaches such as Muschamp, Kiffin and LSU’s Steele are recognizable and therefore have an edge over some of their lesser-known counterparts at other schools. Everybody on a staff must be out there selling, but top coordinators with national personalities can help a lot. They had better want to be part of the equation, rather than thinking they are above the daily grind of being an assistant.
“It’s very important that all coaches on a staff recruit and evaluate,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “Our coordinators do that, too. They have good relationship skills. If you have a coordinator who doesn’t recruit or have interest in recruiting, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Once the assistants lure top prospects to campus, they have to develop them — and not just to win games against SEC foes. Conference teams recruit some of the best players in the country, and though we would all like to think they are heading to school to become doctors and lawyers, most harbor NFL dreams. The exposure and level of competition in the SEC help them make progress toward that goal, but it’s imperative they receive the kind of development necessary to become attractive to professional talent evaluators.
That’s one reason why Miles considered Cameron an attractive candidate for the OC job. What young offensive player wouldn’t want to learn from someone who has not only helped produce NFL players but who also has coached them? At LSU, where the end of each season brings an exodus to the NFL of players who have been on campus the minimum of three years, it’s vital to have coaches who are capable of helping them maximize their talents — to help the Tigers but also to get them into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“When you talk to kids, they are looking for coaches who can help them develop today and for the next level,” Cameron says.
Muschamp and Chavis will be expected to provide immediate results for their new teams. At their price tags, they had better deliver quickly. If they do, you can bet that this time next year, there will be some new high-profile coordinators joining the SEC ranks at premium prices.
“It’s the demand for the position,” Richt says. “We’re in an academic setting, but it’s also a competitive setting. You want to hire the type of people who can get the job done in an excellent way. The higher the demand, the higher the salaries go.”
And it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop rising.
Baylor’s non-conference scheduling has been criticized frequently over the last few years. But the Bears are doing their best to upgrade the schedule and are on talks to appear in Australia (Sydney or Melbourne) against a Pac-12 opponent to open the 2016 season.
So that news got us thinking. What overseas cities need to have a college football game for an opener?
Here are a few cities or foreign destinations we think need to host a college football game in the future:
Location to be determined and it would take some creativity to fit the football field on the top deck. But if college basketball can do it, then let’s make it happen for college football. The military's newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald Ford (not pictured at right), is scheduled for deployment in 2019. Let’s go with an Air Force vs. Navy matchup.
Barcelona is one of the top travel destinations and is known for that other kind of football. And in tandem with the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, we could position a USF versus Buffalo matchup.
This is actually not an unrealistic trip or a location for a bowl. Since we are still trying to figure out the Bermuda Triangle, let’s go with an all-Hurricane matchup between Miami and Tulsa. Or since Bermuda is just off the coast of the Carolinas, we could propose a South Carolina-North Carolina pairing. Bermuda has to have good golf courses for Steve Spurrier, right?
This small Pacific Ocean island nation has some awesome views. Squeezing in a field will be a challenge. But let’s just say the fanbase for any team would appreciate a game in this location.
Dubai has been mentioned as a possible spot for a bowl or a game for Texas. Seems like it’s only a matter of time before a college football game ends up in the Middle East.
Relations between the United Stats and Cuba are thawing and what better way to continue that deicing than a game in Havana? After all, that’s where the Bacardi Bowl was played in the early 1900s to the mid-1940s.
Hong Kong’s picturesque skyline would be a good backdrop for the opening of the telecast. And the bright lights of the city would be a great place for Oregon to unveil another awesome uniform combination.
London already gets a few NFL games, but bringing a college matchup might have more spice than just a Jaguars contest. Let’s see: How about Michigan versus Alabama?
One of the world’s largest cities has a 95,500-seat stadium just waiting for a game. The 49ers-Cardinals played a NFL preseason game here in 2005. How about an Arizona-Texas Tech game?
There’s no shortage of stadiums in Paris. Let’s take LSU and the French Quarter overseas in the future to take on UL Lafayette.
The Olympics are coming to Rio in 2016, with the games scheduled to last from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21. That’s perfect timing to host a college football opener in late August/early September.
This would be even better if the game could take place in the old Colosseum. And for our modern day gridiron gladiators, how about Notre Dame and Florida State?
Asia is a region the Pac-12 wants to tap into, and Seoul is a good place to stage a game in the coming years.
I know. It’s cold and unrealistic. But Washington vs. Northern Illinois in a Huskies showdown has a good sound to it.
The Tokyo Dome has hosted MLB and NFL preseason games. Why not a college football matchup between two West Coast teams or a West Coast squad and team from the Midwest? Let’s say UCLA and Texas?
Other Locations Considered
An F1 racetrack (Don't forget that Virginia Tech and Tennessee are set to tangle at Bristol Motor Speeday in 2016)
Johnny Manziel is turning over a new leaf, and on that leaf there will be no more "money sign."
The Browns quarterback has gone on record to say that he will no longer be throwing up the trademark sign we've seen since his days at Texas A&M.
Johnny Manziel: "The money sign will not be back."— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) June 17, 2015
R.I.P. The Money Sign. It had a good run.
There are other celebrations we wouldn't mind seeing Manziel try out next season. After all, he has to do something when he gets excited.
1. The LeBron James
The signature James move signifies power and let's the crowd know you've just handled the situation. Manziel may need a few more successful 2-minute drives before he could pull this move off.
2. The Drake "Started From The Bottom" Dance
This might be the perfect dance since Manziel is starting from the bottom in his second season with the Browns.
3. The Whip
Manziel might need a little more rhythm than he's equipped with to pull this one off. Plus Odell Beckham Jr. seems to have it on lock.
4. The Andre Iguodala "Travel Dance"
It worked, he's an NBA champion now. This is the main reason he won MVP. Yes, just the dance.
5. The Lil' B "Cooking Dance"
Actually, no Johnny, don't do this or you will be cursed.
Steph Curry has been an NBA champion for less than 24 hours but this comeback game is on point.
ESPN's Skip Bayless, as he's known to do, tweeted about the "easy" road Curry and the Warriors had on their way to the championship. Chef Curry replied with the perfect tweet.
.@RealSkipBayless Love you too Skip!— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) June 17, 2015
1. It's not like the teams pick who they want to play.
2. The Thunder didn't even make the playoffs so they shouldn't be mentioned right now.
3. The validation Curry "needs" was met when he won league MVP and became a champion.
Not even Bayless can ruin your day when you're an NBA champion.
The NFC North is filled with talent and potential, just look at the Detroit Lions’ success last year. The Packers and Lions should be in contention for the playoffs like last year, and the Vikings and Bears should certainly see improvement. However, they will need help especially in areas that have the ability to get stronger this upcoming NFL season.
Take a look below at some of the players that can be of utmost importance to their teams:
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Free Safety,
Green Bay Packers (1st place, 12-4)
The standout safety from Alabama played well last year after taking the starting role for the Packers around the midway point of the season. Thus, with 10 starts under his belt, including a couple in the playoffs, he undoubtedly has the experience and skills to jump to an even better level of play. He only recorded one interception during the regular season, but he flashed signs of progress there with two picks in the NFC Championship Game. His second year will certainly be better and that should help out the Packers' already lauded defense.
Another player to watch: wide receiver Davante Adams
Darius Slay, Cornerback, Detroit
Lions (2nd place, 11-5)
After making significant progress from his rookie year to last year, Slay looks to continue on the upward trend on a team that was middle of the pack in pass defense. He helped shut down top quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Tony Romo last season, showing great improvement along the way The Lions will need him to take one more step, where he can define himself as one of the league’s top, young cornerbacks. He had a couple off games, but if he can be consistent on any given Sunday, then he will help the Lions in massive ways.
Another player to watch: linebacker Kyle Van Noy
Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback,
Minnesota Vikings (3rd place, 7-9)
The Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year made his way to the starting role after Matt Cassel broke his foot early in the season, and he remained in it throughout the remainder of the year. He played well enough to put his team in position to win, with several one-score losses during the season. His legs provide him speed to move around the pocket and scramble if needed, which is a plus. However, his 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions can surely be improved, and having Adrian Peterson in the backfield can only help.
Another player to watch: linebacker Anthony Barr
Matt Slauson, Left Guard,
Chicago Bears (4th place, 5-11)
Although entering his seventh year in the league, Slauson can make a strong impact for the Bears, after missing most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Jay Cutler, who is known for getting pressured and sacked a lot, needs more help from his offensive line in order to thrive. Thus, if Slauson can stay healthy, he will be an important factor for the Bears’ offensive production. He looks to be a leader along the line that also boasts two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long.
Another player to watch: defensive end Ego Ferguson
"It was, if not the best, one of the best conferences in the country [in 2014]," he said. "It’s an elite league from a standpoint of athleticism, dynamic offenses and physical play within the front sevens."
That combination of dynamic offense and physicality left the Beavers struggling to a 5-7 season, which ended with the surprising departure of longtime head coach Mike Riley for Nebraska. Riley was far and away the most-tenured coach in the conference, with 12 consecutive seasons spent at Oregon State from 2003 through 2014, and two years there prior in the late 1990s.
Perhaps equally as surprising as Riley's exit was Oregon State brass wooing Andersen away from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a perennial Top 25 program with six Rose Bowl appearances in the last 21 years — Oregon State's last came at the conclusion of the 1964 season.
Riley resurrected the program, which had long been a conference doormat, but the Beavers could never quite break through the gate USC patrolled in the early 2000s and the one rival Oregon has manned the last five years. Now, Andersen's mission is finding a way to get Oregon State to that next level of success at a time when the league is deeper than it's ever been.
It's the same challenge that Andersen's former coaching counterparts in the now football-defunct Western Athletic Conference, Sonny Dykes and Mike MacIntyre, face at Cal and Colorado.
Andersen, Dykes and MacIntyre coached Utah State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, respectively, in the 2012 season. All reached the Top 25 at some point in that campaign, but success has largely eluded Dykes and MacIntyre since taking over downtrodden Pac-12 programs.
Andersen, on the other hand, stepped into a favorable situation at Wisconsin. He went 19-7 in his two years there, and last season won the Big Ten West behind a typically stout Badgers defense and the play of Heisman Trophy runner-up running back Melvin Gordon.
Oregon State presents a different challenge, one that will test Andersen and his staff immediately.
"I felt like this in the Big Ten: If you have a deficiency [in the Pac-12], you're going to have some problems. People are going to catch up to it," he said. "You better find a way to hide or cover up your deficiencies."
Andersen and Co. effectively covered up for sometimes inadequate quarterback play at Wisconsin, relying on an offensive line rife with NFL-caliber talent to pave holes for Gordon. He obliged with an individual campaign that, statistically, was the best since Barry Sanders' legendary 1988 run.
With the counter-punch of Corey Clement supplementing Gordon's otherworldly output, Wisconsin had no shortage of ways to attack via the rush. Oregon State, on the other hand, has ranked at or near the bottom of rushing offenses in the Pac-12 for the last four seasons.
Compounding the challenge Andersen faces is that Oregon State heads into 2015 making a quarterback change for the first time in four years, when Sean Mannion took over as the starter in his freshman season. Mannion rewrote the Pac-12 record books in his four seasons with the Beavers, setting a high bar for his successor.
"The quarterback always has to be a leader," Andersen said. "Whoever [the quarterback] is, [he is] going to be very young. It's just a fact."
Indeed, true freshman Seth Collins' primary competitor for the vacancy is redshirt freshman Nick Mitchell. Whomever takes over, the Oregon State offense faces a much different dynamic than a year ago with the proven Mannion behind center.
But for Andersen, commanding the offense comes down to a simple formula.
"When we walk out on the field, that the offense has the confidence that the quarterback is going to make good decisions, he's going to manage the game and he's going to be smart: That's what we need from the quarterback position at this point."
Neither quarterback can rely on fifth-year wide receiver Richard Mullaney: Once tabbed as a possible breakout star in the vein of past Beaver standouts Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, Mullaney is transferring.
If the offense is going to have any success transitioning in its first year from Riley's pro-style to Andersen's spread, the onus falls on a line that returns all five starters. The defense — overseen by one of the Pac-12's best, former Utah coordinator Kalani Sitake — is almost entirely rebuilding, with just two starters returning.
Andersen-coached teams at both Wisconsin and Utah State featured offensive stars, but both programs made their bones with some of the best defenses in the nation. With very little experience for a side that allowed 31.6 points per game a year ago, Oregon State reaching the top-20 levels of Andersen's Aggies and Badgers is a steep climb.
However, Andersen sees the smash-mouth philosophy he hopes to instill being a seamless fit for a conference long celebrated for offensive innovation.
"People talk about the Pac-12 as far as the skill set and the wide-open offenses, but…now that I’ve been here for a little bit and had an opportunity to study the league from afar, I have a lot of respect for the physicality," he said, listing off various qualities that jumped out to him. "The front sevens, the great pass rushers, the ability of some very, very talented young offensive linemen… It’s the best of the best."
If Andersen can find ways to put Oregon State consistently in the hunt in the Pac-12 with his intended approach, he'll have established himself among the best of the best in the coaching ranks.
Heading into the fourth year under head coach Urban Meyer's direction, things could not be looking brighter for Ohio State football. Virtually every media outlet has predicted Ohio State to be the favorite to win the 2015 national championship.
The roster is heavily stocked with talented players at every position; a case in point is that Ohio State has three players at quarterback in Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones who could start for essentially any other college football program in the country. The aforementioned players, along with returning junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, are mentioned as leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season.
Yet I have a painful, and somewhat embarrassing admission to make regarding the present Ohio State offense...
I truly did not anticipate it working out this well over the past few seasons. Quite frankly, I was actually concerned about the direction the Ohio State offense might take when Meyer took over the head coaching position in November 2011.
Before you become indignant at my past concerns, let me explain why I had them. While Meyer always had dynamic offenses in his previous coaching stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, I had a big concern — The quarterback being the dominant running threat in the offense, versus a traditionally dominant running back.
Let me expand upon my thoughts for you. Throughout Ohio State's illustrious football history, the old Woody Hayes mantra of "Three Yards And A Cloud Of Dust" have been associated with tremendous running backs - Archie Griffin. Tim Spencer. Keith Byars. Eddie George. Maurice Clarett. Chris "Beanie" Wells. I realize I am leaving out so many other talented Buckeye running backs, but you get the idea.
And when Meyer was hired, how many dominant running backs could be named at any of his previous coaching stops? Zero. Not even one 1,000-yard rusher, ever.
Sure, the offenses were explosive. Meyer relied upon the traditional “running back by committee” (RBBC) approach, with multiple players usually carrying the ball for maybe 400 to 800 yards in a season. But who was usually the leading rusher, or among the leading rushers, at these previous coaching stops?
While at Bowling Green in 2001, quarterback Josh Harris was the leading rusher; in 2002, Harris was only 70 yards behind leading rusher Joe Alls. After moving on to to Utah in 2003, Meyer continued his committee approach with quarterback Alex Smith in both the 2003 and ‘04 seasons; Smith wound up the No. 2 rusher in both seasons.
After moving on to to Florida in 2005, Meyer continued his committee approach, albeit with mixed results. Things really started to percolate in 2006, when Meyer recruited some guy named Tim Tebow to quarterback his offense. Tebow emerged as the leading rusher for Florida from 2007-09, and was the second- leading ground gainer in ‘06 for Meyer's first national championship team.
Please do not misunderstand me when I write that the quarterback as a rushing threat in Meyer's offense was or is a bad thing. I have long been a proponent of the option as a tremendous way to keep opposing defenses off-balance. During Hayes' tenure, quarterbacks such as Rex Kern and Cornelius Greene were always considered a part of the offensive attack.
My concern for Ohio State heading into the 2012 season was the lack of a traditional plow-horse tailback. The kind of player such as the aforementioned Byars, George, Clarett, or Wells, who could be counted upon to carry the ball at least 20 to possibly 30 times a game, when the field is muddy and passing is almost impossible. The kind of running back who could rise to the occasion, even when the opposing defense was completely focused upon shutting the running game down.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, it certainly seemed as though my concerns, which were voiced by other Ohio State observers, might be legitimate. In the season opener against Miami (Ohio), Miller carried the ball 17 times for 161 yards. After the game, even Meyer stated that 17 carries by his starting quarterback were too many.
By the conclusion of the season, Miller was the leading rusher with 1,271 yards, yet Carlos Hyde had emerged as a dominant rushing threat in his own right, rushing for 970 yards. In 2013, Hyde finally delivered a 1,000-yard rushing season by a running back under Meyer, finishing with 1,521 yards, while Miller also rushed for 1,068 yards. While Miller was the catalyst of the offense, perhaps Meyer realized that a stocky, bullish-type runner was needed within the B1G for his offense to truly thrive.
In 2014, with Hyde off to the NFL and Miller out for the season, new players had developed within Meyer's offense. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 1,878 yards, while quarterback J.T. Barrett contributed 938 yards of his own. In the few games Cardale Jones played in, Jones was able to add 296 yards rushing during the Buckeyes' run to the national championship.
As for 2015 and beyond? Let us just say that if there are any running backs that may be concerned about not being a focal point of the Ohio State running game, it certainly does not seem to have affected the recruiting efforts. Incoming freshman Michael Weber signed with the Buckeyes despite Elliott's return, along with other players such as Curtis Samuel, Bri'onte Dunn, and Warren Ball. Other top running back recruits have already verbally committed for both the 2016 and ‘17 classes.
The moral of the story for this Ohio State fan? A rush to judgment is often a mistake. In this circumstance, Buckeye fans are the welcome beneficiaries of Meyer's offensive philosophies and approach, as the results over the past few seasons have demonstrated.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Minnich also writes and podcasts for menofthescarletandgray.com, a site dedicated to Ohio sports with a special emphasis on the Buckeyes. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
Music, like sports, sparks debate, creates discussion and can even lead to heated disagreements.
But both are unquestionably a huge part of American culture. So Athlon Sports has decided to combine two of our favorite things — rock and roll with college football.
What if our favorite football programs were rock and roll bands? Every Power 5 team will be represented, so if you don’t see your favorite band or school here, keep your eyes peeled.
Here are the 12 Pac-12 schools as rock bands:
Arizona: The Ramones
Their sound and touring is exactly what Rich Rodriguez would use to describe his offense — up-tempo, fast and non-stop. This group is never fully respected when its good by the big cities of the East Coast despite hailing from the Eastern time zone and they are at their best when they are running a lot of plays and having fun in the process.
Arizona State: Daft Punk
No one can really name anyone who plays on the team but no one misses the party. The kings of the club scene, they dominate the charts once every eight years with electric and innovative play-calling and a high level of talent. There is no better place to hang out than when they are on the big stage.
Cal: Bob Marley and The Wailers
The framework of the personality is politically charged and progressively motivated at its core. It’s really catchy and enjoyable in the right situation but too much of it can be a bad thing over time. And Tight Wad Hill has a similar aroma as the Marley tour bus.
Where else can you find this many hippies in one place? This group was very successful and reached cult status but did so over a decade ago. Then a complete lack of commitment internally and creative differences led to a costly break-up. Trey Anastasio has tried his hand at something new (in the Pac-12) but it hasn’t worked out as most expected — despite a good personality fit.
Oregon: David Bowie
Flashy, experimental and big on wardrobe changes makes David Bowie a perfect fit in Eugene. Extremely well respected but a little weird and far-out most of the time and never won the national title of the music industry despite being somewhat ahead of his time. He’s been around a long time and loves to try new things and act a little crazy, earning critical acclaim in the process.
Oregon State: Alabama Shakes
An independent, bluesy, soul rock band that has only recently risen into musical success. They do things their own unique way and have grown their popularity among the grassroots live music lovers of the festival scene. Both have a lot of upside and potential moving forward with unusual stars fronting the act.
Stanford: Neil Young
One of the most creative, intelligent and forward-thinking individuals in the history of music. He’s had a long and incredibly decorated career with major (yet possibly) underrated successes over a 50-year period of time. The Silicon Valley of music (he holds numerous U.S. patents) has impacted nearly every angle of the industry.
One of the best light shows in the business belongs in the City of Lights. This is a big band with big budgets, tons of record sales and a high-profile name. However, the substance has been severely lacking for most of its existence and has never really been better than 8-4. And like UCLA basketball, Chris Martin’s spouse is more well-known.
USC: Led Zeppelin
Possibly under appreciated on the East Coast (especially during their height) but beloved on the West Coast. Generally, this team is led by a heartthrob superstar who dominated his industry while on the team but never reached the same levels of success in the next phase of his career (and the most gifted architect of the team was always someone else — Troy Polamalu, Mike Patterson, Reggie Bush, Sam Baker, Rey Maualuga). Slightly self-destructive, extremely elite and powerful and somewhat misunderstood during its time.
Utah: Jason Isbell
You think you know all about him but you’re not entirely sure. He dominated the music world as a member of the Drive-By Truckers only to move on with a more calculated (and sober) approach in his new genre. He now wins on the field with a more complete and refined game that speaks to an old-school mentality in a new-wave industry.
Reached the top of the mountain in the early 1990s behind the leadership of a cult hero in the city of Seattle. However, this program hasn’t been able to get out of its own way and was obviously and tragically self-destructive. It’s been a memory every since. And like Dave Grohl, head coaches have headed to Los Angeles to try their hand at other things.
Washington State: Robert Randolph and the Family Band
They sort of dwell in music obscurity, but when it’s good, it’s as fun to watch as anything in the game today. The leader is generally too talented and smart for his own good at times, creating elite-level schemes and concepts without the championship-level appreciation. There is some Ernest Hemingway to both Mike Leach and Mr. Randolph.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the SEC in 2015:
1.5: Alabama’s points per trip inside the 40 margin
A measure of a team’s ability to finish drives on offense and stop drives on defense is points per trip inside the 40. Alabama led the nation with a plus-1.5 point margin last season. It was 20th nationally with 5.0 points per trip inside the 40 on offense and was sixth with just 3.5 points allowed per trip inside the 40 on defense.
5: Times Arkansas held an opponent under 70 yards rushing
Everyone knows about the Razorbacks' identity on offense, finishing 26th nationally at 218 yards rushing per game. But the defense held it’s own in a big way on the ground as well, holding five different opponents to less than 70 yards. This included Alabama (66), LSU (36), Ole Miss (63) and Texas (2).
329.8: Will Muschamp’s career worst yards allowed
In 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Muschamp has never allowed more than 329.8 yards per game, 5.3 yards per play or 23.7 points per game in any season. Auburn last year allowed 398.8 yards per game, 5.7 yards per play and 26.7 points per game.
5.42: Jim McElwain’s lowest offensive output
In eight years as a coordinator or head coach, McElwain’s lowest offensive output was 5.42 yards per play in his first season at Colorado State. During his three years in Fort Collins, the Rams posted an average of 6.31 yards per play with a high of 7.1 in 2014. Last season, the Gators averaged 5.24 yards per play and were even worse in 2013 (4.79).
8.7: Georgia’s field position margin
The Dawgs led the SEC and were fifth nationally with an average starting field position of the 34.5-yard line. The Dawgs also led the SEC and were third nationally in opponent’s starting field position at the 25.8-yard line. The 8.7 margin was good for third nationally and well ahead of the SEC’s No. 2 team, Tennessee (5.6, 12th).
11: Kentucky division wins against teams not named Vanderbilt
Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, the Wildcats have won just 11 games against teams not named Vanderbilt. Kentucky is 13-10 against the Dores but just 11-84 against Florida (0-23), Tennessee (1-22), Georgia (3-20), Missouri (0-3) and South Carolina (7-16).
50.0: LSU’s team completion percentage last fall
The Tigers had quarterback issues in 2014 to say the least. LSU finished 138-of-276 for the entire season, ranking 120th in passes completed (ahead of mostly option offenses). That 50.0 percent completion rate ranked just 122nd nationally, ahead of only Hawaii, USF, Miami (Ohio), Navy and Army.
1: Times Mississippi State has gone to five straight bowls
The 2014 season was a season of firsts for Mississippi State. It marked the first time in school history that the Bulldogs had been to five straight bowls. It also marked the first time in school history that they reached No. 1 ranking in the AP poll. In fact, Mississippi State spent four weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation and won 10 games for only the third time in school history.
3: Fumbles lost by Missouri
The Tigers led the nation with just three fumbles lost last season, tied with Boston College and UNLV. Their 10 total fumbles ranked fourth nationally as well. Additionally, only Oregon (22) forced more fumbles than the Tigers (21). Needless to say, Gary Pinkel’s squad won the turnover battle last fall (+9).
1994: Last time Ole Miss allowed less than 4.67 yards per play
The Ole Miss Landshark defense allowed just 4.67 yards per play last fall, ranking seventh in the nation. The last time the Rebels allowed less than 4.67 yards per play was way back in 1994. With seven starters back on defense (and nine more on offense), Hugh Freeze could see his team repeat the feat in 2015.
14.0: South Carolina QB sacks
Steve Spurrier has harped on it all offseason long. The Gamecocks have to get better at pressuring the quarterback or his putrid defense has no chance of improving. South Carolina ranked last in the SEC and 119th nationally with just 14.0 sacks — or just 1.08 per game. Spurrier is hoping he can get an instant impact from newcomer D-linemen Dexter Wideman and Marquavious Lewis.
5.7: Yards per play when Joshua Dobbs started
The Vols offense averaged just 4.5 yards per play during the first eight games of the season last fall. Tennessee was 3-5 and would have ranked 122nd nationally at 4.5 yards per play. Dobbs entered the starting lineup against South Carolina and the offense surged, averaging 5.7 yards per play and going 4-1 down the stretch — which would have been good for 57th nationally.
153.63: Kyle Allen’s QB rating over the final four games
Joshua Dobbs was great for Tennessee and Jeremy Johnson will be for Auburn, but don’t overlook Allen in College Station. The uber recruit took over the Texas A&M offense and cruised in the final month. His QB rating over the final four games was 153.63 — which would have ranked third in the SEC and 13th nationally. Allen completed 65.1 percent of his passes and posted an impressive 12:4 TD:INT ratio over that span.
-16: Vanderbilt’s turnover margin
Vanderbilt was both bad and unlucky last season at protecting the football. The Dores' minus-16 turnover margin was last in the SEC and 124th nationally. This was an astronomical swing from the James Franklin era, where the Dores were plus-7 in the turnover margin department in 2013. The minus-23 swing is virtually impossible to replicate and should improve in 2015.
There's something about a LeBron James loss that makes the internet rejoice.
After the Warrios defeated the Cavaliers to win the NBA Championship in six games, the internet brought out its best memes for the occasion.
I'm done. pic.twitter.com/JiJErNpqNE— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) June 17, 2015
Kobe at the crib like pic.twitter.com/5Ntb6tuztq— illroots 4 the kids (@illroots) June 17, 2015
Who made this? I want you to accept your MVP trophy lol pic.twitter.com/BYwhwh6w9d— Robert Littal (@BSO) June 17, 2015
This the most accurate one yet... pic.twitter.com/UFDK67TGV3— Stone M. (@Stone_Marley) June 17, 2015
People are TOO. QUICK. pic.twitter.com/oIR6xRLBdt— Harry Lyles Jr. (@harrylylesjr) June 17, 2015
Yall really terrible human beings pic.twitter.com/DrqKevoNk8— Andrés EagleDollar (@EllRino) June 17, 2015
How many times has Lebron lost in the finals? pic.twitter.com/OMMWlN1261— Tom Brady's Ego (@TomBradysEgo) June 17, 2015
James record in the Finals stands at 2-4, something he won't be able to soon forget.
Finding a dependable and productive starting quarterback is a huge challenge for all 128 college football coaches each season. While recruiting and developing a player is the easiest and preferred route, sometimes that plan doesn’t work. Transfers are a huge part of any offseason and can help the coaching staff bridge the gap to the next prospect or fill a void after a player didn’t develop as expected.
There are several players expected to make an impact as a transfer quarterback in 2015, including Everett Golson at Florida State and Vernon Adams at Oregon. Outside of the Power 5 ranks, Jeff Driskel at Louisiana Tech and Max Wittek at Hawaii are two names to watch among Group of 5 teams.
Power 5 Quarterback Transfers
Vernon Adams, Eastern Washington to Oregon
Adams is one of the most interesting quarterback transfers to hit the FBS level in recent years. The California native was one of the top players in the FCS ranks over the last three seasons, throwing for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns and rushing for 1,232 yards and 11 scores. While Adams has been an elite quarterback for Eastern Washington, he has to translate that production to the Pac-12 and a level of play with more talent. The Ducks certainly aren’t hurting for options or talent at the skill positions. If Adams quickly settles into the starting job, Oregon should be in the mix for a playoff spot once again.
Virginia has been a busy place for quarterback transactions this offseason. David Watford departed to Hampton, and Greyson Lambert left for Georgia after spring practice. Adding Brewer as a graduate transfer makes a lot of sense for Virginia, as more depth is needed behind starter Matt Johns. The junior has two years of eligibility left and was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Brewer has yet to throw a pass on the FBS level.
Ferguson left Penn State after one season in Happy Valley. In his only year with the Nittany Lions, the California native played in five games and completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards and one score. Louisville’s quarterback competition is a crowded one, as Reggie Bonnafon, Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin and Ferguson are all competing for the first snap. Bonnafon has the edge to start in 2015.
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
Garman was a late addition to Maryland’s 2015 roster, joining the team in late May as a graduate transfer. Caleb Rowe is expected to be the Terrapins’ quarterback this year, but the junior is recovering from a torn ACL. Garman completed only 54.9 percent of his passes (277) at Oklahoma State in 2014. However, he also has a knack for producing big plays, completing 19 passes of 30 yards or more.
Golson transferred from Notre Dame following spring practice and was brought in to compete with Sean Maguire for the starting job. Replacing Jameis Winston is no easy task, but Golson – 3,445 passing yards and 29 passing touchdowns in 2014 – should be one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC if he beats out Maguire.
Lambert started nine games for Virginia in 2014 but was edged by Matt Johns at the end of spring practice for the starting job. The Georgia native is eligible to compete immediately as a graduate transfer and will open fall practices at No. 3 after Jacob Park announced his intentions to transfer in June. Lambert is a good addition for a team with an uncertain quarterback situation, but it’s unlikely he wins the job with Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey ahead on the depth chart.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Mayfield has traveled an interesting path to Oklahoma. The Texas native was a walk-on recruit to Texas Tech and started the season opener for the Red Raiders in 2013. Mayfield finished 2013 with 2,315 passing yards and 12 touchdowns but decided to transfer at the end of the regular season. And after sitting out 2014 due to transfer rules, the junior is the frontrunner to take the first snap for Oklahoma in 2015. New play-caller Lincoln Riley is tweaking the Sooners’ offensive scheme, and Mayfield should benefit by the shift to more of an Air Raid style.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Chad Voytik returns as Pittsburgh’s starter after throwing for 2,233 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. But with a new coaching staff and offensive scheme, Peterman will have an opportunity to push for time in the fall. Peterman was recruited to Tennessee by current Pittsburgh play-caller Jim Chaney. The familiarity should help Peterman quickly acclimate to his new surroundings.
Rettig – a former four-star prospect out of high school – is locked into a tight battle with Chris Laviano for the starting job. Rettig redshirted in his only year at LSU but threw for 3,424 yards and 40 touchdowns in his senior year at Cathedral High School. While Laviano won the job in the spring, Rettig will have an opportunity to claim the starting spot in the fall.
Rudock left Iowa for a chance to start at Michigan and learn under Jim Harbaugh for one season. In four seasons with the Hawkeyes, Rudock completed 417 of 691 passes for 4,819 yards and 34 scores. The senior is expected to edge Shane Morris for the starting job in the fall.
Other Power 5 Quarterback Transfers to Watch
Josh Grady, Vanderbilt to Florida
Ty Griffin, Georgia Tech to Oregon
Nic Shimonek, Iowa to Texas Tech
Group of 5 Quarterback Transfers
FIU has a promising sophomore in Alex McGough, but it never hurts to add competition for a team that finished 4-8 and averaged only 23 points per game in 2014. Anderson completed 25 of 53 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown in three seasons of playing time at Pittsburgh.
Russell Bellomy, Michigan to UTSA
Bellomy was buried on the Michigan depth chart and transferred to UTSA as a graduate transfer for 2015. The Texas native played in six career game with the Wolverines and will push Blake Bogenschutz and Austin Robinson for snaps.
Michael Birdsong, James Madison to Marshall
Birdsong started for James Madison in 2013, throwing for 2,728 yards and 22 scores and adding 310 yards and three scores on the ground. Marshall’s offense is one of the best among the Group of 5 ranks, and Birdsong is inheriting plenty of talent to work with in 2015. The junior finished spring at the top of the depth chart.
Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions
The Zips are looking for a spark in their passing attack after throwing only seven touchdown passes in MAC play last year. Chapman – a former four-star recruit – is expected to push returning starter Kyle Pohl for the starting job.
Cody Clements, UAB to South Alabama
Clements was a good find for UAB on the recruiting trail last season, as the Cerritos College transfer threw for 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. The California native transferred to South Alabama after UAB disbanded its football team for 2015 and is expected to start for coach Joey Jones.
Wyoming averaged 227.8 passing yards per game last season, but this offense should have an upgrade at quarterback with the addition of Coffman. The Indiana transfer threw for 2,734 yards and 15 scores in 2012 with the Hoosiers.
Driskel was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but the Florida native had his share of ups and downs in Gainesville. With one year of eligibility left and a new offensive scheme for the Gators, Driskel decided to transfer to Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs had good success with a graduate transfer last year (Cody Sokol), and Driskel will have plenty of talent to work with, including star running back Kenneth Dixon. Driskel threw for 3,411 yards and 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions in his Florida career.
Greg Ward is a rising star at quarterback for new Houston coach Tom Herman, but depth behind the junior was an issue. Schulz is a graduate transfer from Utah and threw for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns in three years with the Utes.
Smith battled shoulder injuries at Kentucky and used the 2014 season as a redshirt year. But when he’s healthy, Smith has proven he can be a solid FBS quarterback. The senior threw for 21 touchdowns and 3,070 yards in three seasons with the Wildcats.
Southern Miss has a returning starter at quarterback in junior Nick Mullens (12 TDs, 9 INTs in 2014), but Matthews – a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class – will have an opportunity to win the starting job. The Kansas native was also recruited to Oklahoma State by current Southern Miss coach Todd Monken.
UConn is desperately looking for a spark on offense after averaging only 169.3 passing yards per game in 2014. Shirreffs had success in a limited role at NC State in 2013, completing 4 of 5 passes for 17 yards and one score, along with 158 yards on the ground. Shirreffs has an edge over Tim Boyle and Garrett Anderson to start.
With an 8-29 mark in three years at Hawaii, Norm Chow is squarely on the hot seat entering 2015. But Chow has reason for optimism this year, as Wittek was a former top 100 recruit in the 2011 signing class and a four-star prospect. Wittek only completed 50 of 95 passes for 600 yards and three scores in two seasons of playing time with the Trojans. However, he’s a talented passer and is an upgrade for the Rainbow Warriors at quarterback.
Other Quarterback Transfers to Watch
Damion Hobbs, Oregon to Utah State
Jake Rodrigues, Oregon to San Diego State
Blaire Sullivan, UTEP to Texas State
Conference USA has a bit of momentum after a 4-1 postseason last year. Last year C-USA's East Division featured Marshall, which was one game away from a perfect season. Key personnel losses will make a second run at perfection a tough task for the 2015 version of the Thundering Herd. In fact, the turnover throughout the conference should result in some good competition and possibly a new team atop the C-USA mountain.
There are seven teams in Conference USA's East Division. This article will apply the win totals from one online sportsbook and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Conference USA East Division
(Over 2.5 wins -130...Under 2.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-6
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The 49ers will be brand new to everyone in the conference as they make the jump from FCS to FBS. Things start with Kalif Phillips, who rushed for almost 1,500 yards. Matt Johnson is back under center after tearing his MCL last year. He's got his top two wideouts back and an offensive line with three returnees as well.
Defense: This is a unit that allowed over 30 points per game against FCS competition. Larry Ogunjobi leads the way with five sacks. Safety Branden Dozier was the team's leading tackler last year with 86 and he's back as well.
Schedule: This is all brand new for the 49ers, who play Georgia State, Presbyterian, Temple and Kentucky out of conference. They play three of four at home in October, but flip it around and have three of four on the road in November.
Selection: Charlotte will be in for a long season. They have never beaten any FBS-level teams. I just don't have a feel on this team like we did when Texas-San Antonio made the same jump. That was a veteran team with Larry Coker. This is a squad led by Brad Lambert. I'd stay away as the low win total number could be achieved.
(Over 5 wins -130...Under 5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-6
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Jacquez Johnson threw for over 2,000 yards on offense, but is without leading receiver Lucky Whitehead. Johnson has Jenson Stoshak and Kalib Woods on the outside and both are capable, but won't match up to Whitehead's production most likely. The left side of the offensive line is strong and should open holes for Buddy Howell and Jay Warren.
Defense: This was a horrible defense last year that gave up over 30 points in eight straight contests to close things out. This was with cornerback D'Joun Smith who was underrated. He's gone now as well as Andrae Kirk and Damian Parms. This unit will be just as leaky as it was last year.
Schedule: A road game at Tulsa starts things off for FAU with home games against Miami and Buffalo to follow. The fourth non-conference game is in November and it's at Florida as part of a rough finishing stretch. Marshall and Rice both come to Boca Raton in October.
Selection: Small lean to the over, but it's a suggestion that lacks confidence. FAU figures to pick up at least one win in September before a home-friendly October. Johnson is capable of winning a game or two, but this defense is capable of losing just as many, if not more. The Owls were one of my favorites last year as an underdog. They'll be a team that's going to play in a lot of overs.
(Over 6 wins +155...Under 6 wins -195)
Record Last Year: 4-8, 3-5
Returning Starters: 14 (6 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The Panthers bring back Alex McGough under center and he'll be relying on a solid run game. Anthon Samuel comes over from Bowling Green and he makes a nice combo with Alex Gardner. McGough also gets his security blanket back in tight end Jonnu Smith, who caught 61 passes last year.
Defense: The Panthers can get to the quarterback with Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, who combined for almost 15 sacks last year. This unit brings back the majority of its linebackers and secondary so the Panthers should be pretty fierce.
Schedule: Four of the first five are on the road including contests at UCF, Indiana and Louisiana Tech. The Panthers do get a breather with NC Central at home in September. The final non-conference game is at UMass on Oct. 3. This is not a friendly slate at all.
Selection: The under is the play here, but not at that price. It's hard to make any case for this team winning seven games especially considering the rough start. UMass is a winnable game, but I really like the Minutemen. If you can honestly make a case for the over, then go for it, because you won't get a better price.
(Over 10 wins -105...Under 10 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 13-1, 7-1
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Rakeem Cato is gone and in steps transfer Michael Birdsong who was solid for James Madison. Birdsong will have Devon Johnson in the backfield and Davonte Allen as well as Deon-Tay McManus on the outside. The offensive line brings back an experienced crew for the most part. There will be a bit of a step down, but maybe not as much as we think.
Defense: There's a lot gone from last year's top-20 unit. The front seven has only two returnees and neither were that good at rushing the passer. There are several seniors so you have to hope that their experience pays off.
Schedule: A home game against Purdue kicks things off with games against Ohio, Norfolk State and Kent State to follow in September. The MAC opponents are on the road making them slightly tougher. It's a manageable conference slate as well with a road game at Western Kentucky closing things out. Last year the two played a 67-66 game won by the Hilltoppers.
Selection: I like the under for the Thundering Herd. Road games at MTSU, Kent State and Western Kentucky should present the best chances for a loss. They'll roll through the rest of the schedule and make another bowl appearance.
(Over 7 wins -105...Under 7 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 6-6, 5-3
Returning Starters: 13 (6 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Austin Grammer is under center and he had 23 touchdowns last season. This group scored less than 20 points just twice last year. The Blue Raiders will need to ride a real good run game with Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson.
Defense: The numbers were ugly for the MTSU defense last year. It should be a lot better as a veteran unit led by T.T. Barber and Kevin Byard. There could be as many as eight seniors getting the start for Rick Stockstill's defense.
Schedule: The Blue Raiders travel to Alabama on Sept. 12. They also get Jackson State, Illinois and Vanderbilt early on in the season. Ironically, they alternate home and road games all year long.
Selection: I lean to the over and would like it more at plus money. MTSU has a great home schedule and should pick up wins at Florida Atlantic and UTSA. The Blue Raiders will be better than last year. Stockstill is a good coach and have these guys pointed in a good direction.
(Over 4.5 wins -145...Under 4.5 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 6-6, 4-4
Returning Starters: 11 (7 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Taylor Heinicke is gone and that's the biggest hole that needs to be filled of almost any team in this conference. He meant the world to the Monarchs and now the keys are being handed over to Shuler Bentley. Ray Lawry rushed for 16 touchdowns last year and will be counted on again this year. Zach Pascal and David Washington return at receiver, but they will have to fill the hole left by Antonio Vaughan.
Defense: This was honestly one of the worst defenses in FBS. ODU allowed 56 points to Marshall, 66 to Western Kentucky and 46 to NC State. Even worse is that this side of the ball only has four returnees. There will be immense growing pains, but it's not as if they didn't have enough last year.
Schedule: The highlight of the year will be Sept. 19 when NC State comes to Norfolk. Before then ODU plays at Eastern Michigan followed by a home game with Norfolk State. Appalachian State wraps up the September three-game home stretch. Games against Marshall and Western Kentucky could get ugly.
Selection: Slight lean to the over although that means Bentley takes the job and runs with it. ODU has winnable conference games against Charlotte and Florida Atlantic at home. One can make the case for the under, but it's not one of my favorites.
(Over 7.5 wins -130...Under 7.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 4-4
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: One of the most fun offenses in the country to watch brings back a ton of pieces. Brandon Doughty threw for almost 5,000 yards and 49 touchdowns last year. He'll be joined once again in the backfield by Leon Allen, who added 13 touchdowns of his own. Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor are two more weapons on the outside. This team scored over 50 points four times last year.
Defense: This side of the ball was 121st in terms of scoring defense, allowing 39.9 points per game last year. WKU brings back a lot, including Nick Holt and his 111 tackles. Cornerback Wonderful Terry, one of the best names in the conference, is back as well. He had two interception returns for touchdowns in 2014.
Schedule: The Hilltoppers play at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana to go along with a home contest against Miami (Ohio). WKU plays four road games in October with some pretty tough opponents.
Selection: I really like the over for WKU. This offense will roll and the defense will get better. The schedule is real tough and if you lean to the over like I do then you think this team has the pieces to win on the road. Doughty is a lot of fun and on a bigger program, he'd be in the Heisman race.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.