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All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/ask-athlon-nfl
Body:

Q: What’s the farthest an NFL quarterback has ever thrown a football in practice?

— Al Gabel, Rockford, Ill.

A: Al, it’s tough to provide a definitive answer to your question. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that strong-armed gunners like Steve Bartkowski, Randall Cunningham and JaMarcus Russell could heave it close to 100 yards in the air, but no video evidence exists that we’ve been able to uncover. (Russell was touted for being able to throw it 75 yards from his knees, as though that were a useful skill.)

As for a game? We can at least cite a contender for longest pass. In 1966, Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith (left) and receiver Bob Hayes hooked up on a 95-yard touchdown, and reports have Dandy Don launching the ball 83 yards in the air, before Bullet Bob took it the rest of the way for the score. We’ll give the nod to Dandy Don, unless readers can provide definitive evidence to the contrary.

Rob Doster, Senior Editor

Have a question? Email us with any sports-related questions at editor@athlonsports.com
Please include first and last name, plus hometown.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 16:55
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Oregon Ducks, News
Path: /news/oregon-football-redesigns-uniformsagain
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New uniforms and alternate colors are one of the biggest crazes in college football. Oregon, largely thanks to Nike co-founder Phil Knight, always has some of college football's most innovative and flashy uniforms each year. The Ducks have dramatically changed their look since the 1990s and 2012's uniforms are another in the latest line of impressive designs.

Although some don't like Oregon's uniforms, these are pretty sharp. The yellow isn't the greatest uniform color, but it's not a bad look. The Ducks will also wear green, black and white jerseys during the year. And as usual, Nike and Oregon try to make the lightest possible uniform.

Coach Chip Kelly's motto is "Win the Day." Needless to say, the Ducks "Win the Day" with these impressive uniforms. 

Teaser:
<p> Oregon Football Redesigns Uniforms...Again</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 15:33
Path: /monthly/nba-offseason-summer-blockbuster-moves
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Highlights from the action-packed NBA offseason that included the Nets moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Dwight Howard being traded to the Lakers, Jeremy Lin re-signing with the Rockets and Ray Allen joining the enemy Heat.

 

Brooklyn Nets: Ball So Hard
Luxury tax? What luxury tax? Brooklyn re-signed Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace for a combined nine years and nearly $139 million, then traded for Joe Johnson, who is owed $89 million over the next four years. Owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z don’t care about the luxury tax. The new-look Nets are moving into the $1 billion Barclays Center in Brooklyn and need to bring a team with them. These are the “Core Four” the Nets are advertising:

“Hello Brooklyn, I’m #8, Deron Williams, three-time NBA All-Star and father of four.”

“Hello Brooklyn, I’m #7, Joe Johnson, six-time NBA All-Star and lifelong Razorback.”

“Hello Brooklyn, I’m #11, Brook Lopez, 20-point scorer and Batman’s biggest fan.”

“Hello Brooklyn, I’m #45, Gerald Wallace, All-NBA Defender and offseason fisherman.”

 

 

L.A. Lakers: Superman Returns
This isn’t the first time the Lakers have brought in a larger-than-life center whose nickname was “Superman” and whose greatest team accomplishment was losing in the NBA Finals as a member of the Orlando Magic. First, there was Shaquille O’Neal — who won three straight NBA titles after joining the Lakers. This time around, Dwight Howard is heading to Hollywood to team with Kobe Bryant. After months of well-known secrets and thinly veiled lies, Howard was finally traded in a four-team blockbuster that sent Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson to the 76ers, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, and Moe Harkless, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic and three protected first-round picks to the Magic.

 

L.A. Lakers: Rated PG
The old got older when the Lakers acquired 38-year-old two-time MVP Steve Nash to play alongside 33-year-old two-time Finals MVP Kobe Bryant. As usual, trade speculation continued to swirl around 7-foot All-Stars Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In the end, Bynum was shipped across the country to Philadelphia, while Gasol remained in L.A. — capping a strange year that started with him being traded, then un-traded in the Commissioner-vetoed Chris Paul deal.

 

Houston Rockets: Lin-sanity Redux
Jeremy Lin-sanity will continue in Houston, which is a huge relief for general manager Daryl Morey — who took the blame for cutting the phenom and will take the credit (or blame) for signing him to a three-year, $25.1 million deal.

“We should have kept @JLin7” – Daryl Morey tweet on Feb. 9

“Welcome to Houston @JLin7! We plan to hang on this time. You will love #RedNation” – Daryl Morey tweet on July 17

 

Miami Heat: Jesus to Judas
Ray Allen, the actor who played Spike Lee’s Jesus Shuttlesworth — Denzel Washington’s son, loosely based on Stephon Marbury — in the movie "He Got Game," left the Celtics for the defending champion Miami Heat. The move caused many Boston fans to label Allen a traitor, and added fuel to the fire in one of the NBA’s hottest rivalries.

 

Boston Celtics: Jet Fuel
Without Ray Allen standing in the corner or coming off screens late in games, the C’s needed another clutch 3-point shooter for their last hoorah with old timers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Enter the “Jet,” Jason Terry, who was the Sixth Man of the Year in 2009, an NBA champion with the Mavericks in 2011 and an NCAA champion with Arizona in 1997.
 

Teaser:
<p> Highlights from the action-packed NBA offseason that included the Nets moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Dwight Howard being traded to the Lakers, Jeremy Lin re-signing with the Rockets and Ray Allen joining the enemy Heat.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 15:19
All taxonomy terms: Monthly
Path: /monthly/top-10-high-school-football-teams-2012
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A quick overview of the high school football teams around the country with the brightest futures under the lights on Friday nights:

1. Trinity (Louisville, Ky.)
The Shamrocks split last year’s mythical national title with Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) in most major polls. After going 14–0 to clinch the 6A state title, the Rocks return a loaded senior class — including appropriately named wideout James Quick (right), USC commit defensive end Jason Hatcher and running back Dalyn Dawkins (nephew of former Eagles All-Pro Brian).

 

2. Grayson (Loganville, Ga.)
The No. 1 player in the nation, 6’5”, 260-pound defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, leads a wave of Clemson commits — including running back Wayne Gallman and defensive back David Kamara — for a Rams squad that went 15–0 and won the 5A state title last season.

 

3. Carroll (Southlake, Texas)
Dual-threat quarterback Kenny Hill, a Texas A&M commit, and the Dragons are riding a wave of momentum into this season after shocking Dallas Skyline in an epic playoff comeback en route to a 16–0 season and 5A-I state title.

 

4. Manatee (Bradenton, Fla.)
Size in the trenches and dynamic quarterback play from Mississippi State commit Cord Sandberg will make the Hurricanes tough to take down.

 

5. Santa Margarita Catholic (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.)
With Elite 11 quarterback and Nebraska commit Johnny Stanton (a.k.a. “Johnny Tebow”) running the show, the Eagles could be the best in the West this season.

 

6. Skyline (Dallas, Texas)
The Raiders — powered by the explosive duo of quarterback DeVante Kincade and receiver Ra’Shaad Samples — should be motivated for redemption after a controversial playoff loss to Southlake Carroll abruptly ended a 14–1 season in 2011.

 

7. Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nevada)
The Las Vegas powerhouse will go all-in to open the season on ESPN in a nationally televised contest against fellow football factory Our Lady of Good Counsel (Olney, Md.). A win will vault the Gaels into the national title picture.

 

8. Booker T. Washington (Miami, Fla.)
The Tornadoes play a brutal schedule — with Miami Northwestern, Miami Central and a Texas road trip to Cedar Hill as three of their first four games.

 

9. De La Salle (Concord, Calif.)
Coach Bob Ladouceur enters his 34th season with a 384–25-3 career record, 16 California state championships and five USA Today national titles.

 

10. Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.)
Junior quarterback Shuler Bentley, son of former Byrnes coach and current play-caller Bobby Bentley, leads a young Rebel squad ready to make noise nationally.
 

Teaser:
<p> The Top 10 high school football teams for 2012 include Trinity (Louisville, Ky.), Grayson (Loganville, Ga.), Carroll (Southlake, Texas), Manatee (Bradenton, Fla.), Skyline (Dallas, Texas), Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.), De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) and Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.).</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 11:04
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Miami Dolphins, NFL
Path: /nfl/does-hbos-hard-knocks-help-hurt-miami-dolphins
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Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.

Q: Does being on HBO's "Hard Knocks" help the Miami Dolphins in anyway this fall?

Brian Miller, PhinPhanatic.com (@Txmedic5)
HBO's "Hard Knocks" has not done Miami Dolphins' players any favors. From Chad Johnson being cut to showcasing the lack of production in Miami's wide receivers and tight ends, the HK episodes thus far have only further added tension to a team trying to rebuild its identity. On the outside, where the fans are the ones peering in, the decision to be on "Hard Knocks" has given Miami fans something to be excited about. 

The competition at quarterback alone has provided fans an opportunity to believe the future of the team is in good hands with Ryan Tannehill, while the exposure of new coach Joe Philbin is giving fans an opportunity to judge for themselves what normally is tasked by the opinion of a local media journalist. There is no right or wrong decision on joining "Hard Knocks," but it's clear that the show isn't giving anything away concretely to opposing teams. Aside from the embarrassing moments being played out for the players, I think the fans having something to hold onto may be the long term solution to turning around the image of the Miami Dolphins franchise. 

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not think it does. The Dolphins need a ton of work under rookie coach Joe Philbin as they try to avoid a sixth losing campaign out of their last seven. The HBO thing is cool, but it is also a distraction for a 6-10 club who traded its top receiver (by far), cut its top tackler (Yeremiah Bell) and will start a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. NFL teams barely need publicity; people have heard of you in this league. It’s pretty simple: if the Dolphins win, fans in South Florida will show up in droves. I see "Hard Knocks" hurting that process more than it will help.

Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com
Although I have never seen a single second of "Hard Knocks," I am not sure I see any way in which the Dolphins can benefit on the field from being featured on the series. If anything, I would think the team, with a new head coach, new coaching staff and a rookie quarterback running the offense, would not want to deal with the distractions and related issues that come with being on the series. It may be great television, help increase the Dolphins' PR exposure, give the team some extra attention and perhaps help sell some tickets and/or team merchandise, but come Week 1, no one's going to care about what they saw on HBO, only what they see the team do on the field. After all, isn't there a reason all 32 NFL teams passed on being featured on it last season?

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Certainly, the casual fan who doesn't follow every injury report or read coaching bios will benefit from the inside look at an NFL franchise. These fans may develop some sort of connection with interesting storylines (Joe Philbin's tragedy) and intriguing personalities (Lauren Tannehill). And the diehard NFL fan, like myself, loves the behind the curtain peek at how an NFL training camp is conducted. But there may not be such a thing as extra publicity for a league that already exists entirely in a fishbowl. Ticket sales only increase if you win games. The negatives of this type of exposure, like an assault and battery arrest or a first-year head coach adapting to the league, don't seem to outweigh the slight bump in interest fans may or may not develop with your roster. The Dolphins need a spark and so I understand why they said yes to HBO, but the headaches it appears to be creating won't be worth it. There is a reason most teams have turned down the opporunity.

Nathan Rush, AthlonSports.com
There is a reason nearly every team in the NFL turned down HBO's offer to be the featured team on "Hard Knocks" this season. As entertaining as the show is for fans, it's almost always a disaster for the team actually involved. With a rookie coach and rookie quarterback, Miami needed to avoid all distractions, not invite cameras into the facilities. The only member of the Dolphins who benefited was Ryan Tannehill, who earned instant respect thanks to his lovely wife Lauren — the real star of the show.

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster)
Yes. The Dolphins lack buzz and identity, and their "Hard Knocks" experience is helping to provide both. The greater benefit may arrive later when high-profile free agents start considering their options and remember what they saw from Miami — specifically, Lauren Tannehill — but this is a more focused and together team than it’s been in the recent past. Will it translate into wins on the field? That is unlikely, but the Dolphins were in desperate need of attention and HBO has given them more than their fair share.

Teaser:
<p> Does Being on HBO's Hard Knocks Help the Miami Dolphins in 2012?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/sec-footballs-breakout-players-2012
Body:

Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task. 

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

Predicting the SEC's Breakout Players for 2012

Denico Autry, DE, Mississippi State Despite Fletcher Cox leaving early for the NFL Draft, Mississippi State should still have a productive defensive line. Josh Boyd is a standout on the interior, while sophomore Kaleb Eulls had a solid freshman campaign last year. Autry earned first-team NJCAA All-American honors last season and was rated as one of the top junior college recruits in the nation. The Bulldogs would like to upgrade their pass rush, and a key part of that equation is Autry and his performance in 2012.

Trey DePriest/Adrian Hubbard/Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama Rather than single out one of these three sophomores, we are highlighting the entire trio as breakout candidates. DePriest, Hubbard and Dickson will be part of Alabama’s rebuilding effort on defense, as the Crimson Tide must replace Donta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris at linebacker. DePriest had the best statistical season last year, recording 25 tackles in 13 games. If Alabama’s defense wants to finish No. 1 in the nation once again, it needs a big year from this sophomore linebacking trio.

Alvin Dupree, LB, KentuckyWith Danny Trevathan moving onto the NFL, the Wildcats are searching for a new leader in the linebacking corps. As a true freshman last year, Dupree played in all 12 games and recorded 21 stops. At 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, the sophomore has the size and strength to hold up against the run, while remaining a threat to get after the passer. Dupree is slated to play in Kentucky’s hybrid end/linebacker role, which should allow him to thrive in only his second season of college ball.

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri It’s hard to be a breakout candidate if you rank as the No. 1 player in the 2012 signing class. However, it will be a major surprise if Green-Beckham isn’t a household name by the end of this year. The freshman has been as good as advertised in fall camp, leading the Tigers with six catches for 68 yards during the team’s second fall scrimmage. As long as quarterback James Franklin’s shoulder isn’t an issue, Green-Beckham should finish as college football’s most decorated freshman receiver for 2012.

Todd Gurley/Keith Marshall, RB, GeorgiaKen Malcome is expected to enter the season as the starter, but Mark Richt will find it difficult to keep Gurley and Marshall off the field. Both backs were ranked among the top 15 running backs in the 2012 signing class by Athlon Sports and will be counted upon to see a handful of carries each game. All signs point to a committee approach, but Gurley and Marshall should make plenty of noise in 2012.

Anthony Johnson, DT, LSUDespite losing Michael Brockers to the NFL Draft, LSU isn’t too concerned about its defensive line. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are back to wreck havoc against opposing quarterbacks off the edge, while the interior is solid with Bennie Logan, Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the rotation. Johnson ranked as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and played in all 14 games last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. The sophomore is primed for a monster year and could challenge for All-SEC honors.

Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt The SEC is loaded with talent on the offensive line this season, but Johnson shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing some of the top tackles in the conference. The Nashville native has started every game on the line for the Commodores over the last two years and was named the team’s Offensive Lineman of the Year for 2011. Johnson played at left tackle, center and guard last season but is expected to stay at left tackle for 2012. The Commodores have a few holes to plug on the offensive line, but there’s no question Johnson should be a reliable presence on the left side.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M Manziel finished spring practice just behind Jameill Showers for the starting quarterback spot. However, the redshirt freshman staked his claim for the job in the fall and was picked as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback for the season opener against Louisiana Tech. New coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury produced some of the nation’s top offenses while at Houston, but will likely seek more balance as the Aggies’ transition to the SEC. Manziel is a slightly different quarterback than the ones Sumlin tutored at Houston, as the freshman brings more of a dual-threat approach to the lineup. There’s no question Manziel has the talent – he was ranked among the top quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class - however, having no game experience and learning a new offense will be a challenge.

Mekale McKay, WR, Arkansas With Jarius Wright and Joe Adams catching passes in the NFL, the Razorbacks are searching for a new group of receivers for quarterback Tyler Wilson. Cobi Hamilton is slated to be the No. 1 option, and the Razorbacks have tight end Chris Gragg, but there’s no clear No. 2 target at receiver. McKay was ranked among the top 50 receivers in the 2012 recruiting class and has been one of the standouts of fall practice. At 6-foot-6, the freshman has potential to be a valuable weapon inside of the redzone and instant impact player for Arkansas.

Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU After finishing 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game last season and watching Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggle at times, LSU fans are excited for Mettenberger’s potential under center. He only threw 11 passes last year, but is expected to be the missing piece for LSU’s offense. Mettenberger began his career at Georgia but was dismissed from school and spent one season at Butler Community College. There will be growing pains with the junior quarterback, especially since 2012 will be his first year as a starter on the FBS level. There’s little doubt Mettenberger should be an upgrade at over Lee and Jefferson, but it may take a couple of games for him to get comfortable as the team's No. 1 quarterback.

LaDarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State Vick Ballard wasn’t the flashiest running back, but he amassed 2,157 yards and 29 rushing scores during his tenure in Starkville. Replacing Ballard is no easy task, but the Bulldogs have two capable options. Perkins is expected to ascend to No. 1 on the depth chart after rushing for 988 yards and five scores over the last two years. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Perkins doesn’t have Ballard’s size or power, but he should be a big-play threat for Mississippi State. Sophomore Nick Griffin will also figure into the battle for carries. 

Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida Purifoy was thrown right into the mix as a true freshman last season, playing in all 13 games and recording 27 tackles. He also forced one fumble during his limited action. At 6-foot-1 and 189 pounds, Purifoy has the size and athleticism to go up against the top receivers in the SEC and should be ready for a breakout year after spending much of 2011 in a reserve role.

Antonio Richardson, OT, TennesseeIf Tennessee wants to have any shot at finishing among the top three in the SEC East , the offensive line and rushing attack has to perform much better than it did in 2011. The Volunteers finished 12th in the SEC in rushing offense last season and recorded just 332.7 yards per game. The coaching staff shuffled the line in the spring, sliding Dallas Thomas from tackle to guard and promoting Richardson to the starting group. Richardson was ranked by most as a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and played in 12 contests last year. If Richardson can stabilize the offensive line, Tennessee should have no trouble improving on last season’s paltry rushing totals.

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri Richardson’s path to Missouri took a slight detour, as he spent two years at the College of the Sequoias, before making his first appearance at Missouri last season. Richardson made a huge impact in his first year in Columbia, recording 37 stops, three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. A shoulder injury sidelined him in the spring but all signs point to a return to full strength in the fall. With another offseason under his belt, look for Richardson to pickup his performance even more in 2012.

Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn With only one returning starter on the offensive line last season, the Tigers were a work in progress most of 2011. The line allowed 2.5 sacks per game but led the way for Auburn to average 182.3 yards per game on the ground. This unit should be one of the most improved in the SEC this season, especially with the emergence of Robinson and sophomore center Reese Dismukes. Robinson was one of the top linemen in the 2011 signing class but redshirted his freshman year. With a full offseason to build strength, look for the Louisiana native to excel in his first season as Auburn’s starting left tackle.

Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina Alshon Jeffery is gone, meaning South Carolina needs a new No. 1 receiver to emerge. Sanders doesn’t have Jeffery’s size, but the Florida native developed a nice rapport with quarterback Connor Shaw over the second half of last year, finishing with 29 receptions for 383 yards and three touchdowns. The junior is also a valuable contributor on special teams, averaging 9.3 yards on 16 punt returns last year. Even though Sanders doesn’t have Jeffery’s skill set, look for the junior to push for 50 receptions in 2012.

Jeff Scott, RB, Ole MissThe Rebels were one of the worst offenses in the SEC last season, averaging only 16.1 points per contest and ranking 114th nationally in total offense. New coach Hugh Freeze should help improve the offense, especially after leading Arkansas State to the No. 1 rank in the Sun Belt for total offense, scoring and passing in 2011. Scott is one of the few proven playmakers for Ole Miss and should be a bigger part of the offense after recording only 116 attempts last year. At 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, Scott probably won’t handle 275 carries, but he should finish with over 1,000 all-around yards in 2012.
 

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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SEC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes
SEC's Top 25 Games for 2012

Projecting College Football's 2012 Win Totals

Ranking College Football's Top 25 Quarterbacks for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 30 Running Backs for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 30 Wide Receivers for 2012

Ranking the SEC's Top 75 Players for 2012

Teaser:
<p> SEC Football's Breakout Players for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:14
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-backstory-games-2012
Body:

Anyone who follows college football knows the Alabama vs. Michigan opener will be one of the most important games of the college football season, encompassing Alabama’s bid to repeat as national champion, Denard Robinson’s Heisman Trophy campaign and more.

While we’re interested in those storylines for the the opener, we like to see the whole picture. For example, did you know these two storied programs have played only three times -- and never during the regular season and never outside the state of Florida?

 

Just about every game has a backstory -- a former student facing his coaching mentor, a rematch of a historically significant game, or the end of a rivalry series, a recruiting grudge match. That’s part of the reason we love college football.

 

The 2012 season will be no exception for what we’re calling “Backstory Games.” Mind you, these games don’t necessarily have to be competitive. These are simply games with the most intriguing subplots.

 

Sept. 1: Arkansas State at Oregon

The Offensive Genius Bowl

Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn and Oregon’s Chip Kelly are two of the brightest offensive minds in college football thanks to their up-tempo spread approach. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2005 almost no one knew who they were. That year, Malzahn was the coach at Springdale (Ark.) High, and Kelly was the offensive coordinator at Division I-AA New Hampshire. Moreover, the last time these two coaches were on the same field was the BCS National Championship Game following the 2010 season. Then-Auburn offensive coordinator Malzahn had the upper hand that day, but Oregon will be heavily favored for the 2012 opener.

Related: Oregon tops list of 15 key quarterback battles

 

Sept. 1: Washington State at BYU

The Leach-LaVell Bowl

Washington State's Mike Leach famously is one of the few successful college football coaches who never played a down of college football. That’s not to say Leach didn’t learn much football during his days as a student at BYU. Leach’s pass-oriented spread offenses has some of its roots in LaVell Edwards’ spread at BYU. Leach and his former boss Hal Mumme made plenty of visits to Provo when they were formulating their playbooks at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State.

Related: Coaches anonymously scout BYU

 

Sept. 1: Marshall at West Virginia

Marshall’s Last Chance Bowl

The Friends of Coal Bowl (the game’s real name) enters its final season for the foreseeable future. West Virginia’s non-conference schedule is full until 2017, and those schedules don’t include traditional rival Pittsburgh. Not that West Virginia was all that excited about even playing about a series it has dominated. Marshall is 0-6 since the series re-started in 2006, with only one of those games decided by fewer than 17 points.

 

Sept. 15: UCF at Ohio State

Oct. 13: North Carolina at Miami

Oct. 27: Ohio State at Penn State

The Scandal Trilogy

Five schools all in varying degrees scandals that has cost the jobs of the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, North Carolina coach Butch Davis, North Carolina assistant John Blake and UCF athletic director Keith Tribble. Only UCF is eligible for a bowl in 2012, and even that’s precarious if the Knights lose their appeal with the NCAA. The tally of sanctions so far: Eight years of postseason bans, 59 docked scholarships and 16 years of probation. And that doesn’t include any potential NCAA sanctions for Miami or for North Carolina’s academic scandal.

Related: Urban Meyer’s arrival has Ohio State back on track

 

Sept. 15: Connecticut at Maryland

The Randy Edsall Bowl

Don’t expect many in Connecticut to feel much sympathy for Randy Edsall’s dismal debut at Maryland. The Terrapins’ job is a step up from Connecticut, but Edsall didn’t win many fans in Storrs by announcing his abrupt departure via conference call with UConn players after the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskies -- many of whom recruited by Edsall -- could make his stay at Maryland that much more uncomfortable if they defeat Edsall the Terps on their home field.

Related: Edsall works to rebound from disastrous first season

 

Sept. 22: Rutgers at Arkansas

The Not Who You Expected to See Bowl

As recently as December, this looked to be a rematch between Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino. On a Thursday night in November 2006, Schiano and the Scarlet Knights defeated Petrino’s Louisville team on a game-winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining. The win was one of the most memorable moments in Rutgers and Big East football history and the only loss of the season for Louisville. Instead of Schiano v. Petrino, we’ll see Kyle Flood v. John L. Smith.

 

Sept. 22: Akron at Tennessee

Terry Bowden’s Return

The former Auburn coach will coach in an SEC stadium for the first time since a 24-3 loss at Florida on Oct. 17, 1998. Despite starting his career with a 20-1-1 record in his first two seasons in 1993-94, Bowden eventually was forced to resign midseason. In Bowden's last game against Tennessee, the Peyton Manning-led Volunteers' overcame six turnovers and a 10-point halftime deficite to defeat Bowden's Auburn team 30-29 in the SEC Championship Game.

 

Oct. 6: Miami v. Notre Dame (in Chicago)

The Return of Catholics v. Convicts

The stakes aren’t nearly as high as they were from 1987-90 when these two teams played under that moniker and accounted for three national championships. Still, this the first regular-season meeting between the two since 1990 (Notre Dame beat Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl). In 1989, Notre Dame’s 27-10 loss to Miami in the regular season likely cost the 12-1 Irish the national title. A year earlier, undefeated Notre Dame handed Miami its only loss of the season, a 31-30 defeat in South Bend, as the ’88 Irish won the national championship.

Related: Al Golden facing Miami challenges head on

 

Oct. 6: New Mexico State at Idaho

Remember the WAC Bowl

The league began in 1962 with Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and had 24 football teams come and go through the years. Even two new members (Texas State and UTSA) were picked up by other conferences ahead of the Aggies and Vandals, both former Sun Belt members themselves. New Mexico State and Idaho were the last WAC teams standing before the league announced Monday it would drop football.

 

Oct. 13: Alabama at Missouri

The Kent State Bowl

In a strange twist of fate, SEC expansion will bring Kent State alums Nick Saban, now at Alabama, and Gary Pinkel, now at Missouri, onto the same field for the 40th anniversary of the Golden Flashes’ only conference championship. Saban was a safety on that Kent State team, and Pinkel was a tight end. Both played for eventual Washington coach Don James on a team that helped Kent State heal from the fatal shootings of four student protestors at the hands of National Guardsmen in 1969.

Related: Kent State’s 1972 terrific trio remembered

 

Oct. 27: Notre Dame at Oklahoma

Oklahoma's Revenge

Notre Dame and Oklahoma have played only once since 1968, so this will be a rare matchup between two historical powers. It’s also a reminder of the 1957 meeting when Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma 7-0 in Norman. The Irish upset the Sooners (an 18-point favorite) that season to end Oklahoma’s record 47-game win streak. Starting with that meeting, Notre Dame has won seven in a row over the Sooners.

 

Nov. 2: Washington at Cal

The Tosh Lupoi Bowl

In one of the biggest coups of recruiting season, Washington plucked Cal’s defensive line coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Berkeley, destabilizing the Bears’ signing class. While most of Lupoi’s recruits didn’t follow him to Seattle, Shaq Thompson did. The safety could start from Day One for the Huskies.

Related: A Husky resurgence coming to Seattle

 

Nov. 11: Texas A&M at Alabama

The Our Coach is Your Coach Bowl

Texas A&M gave Alabama Bear Bryant. Alabama gave Texas A&M Dennis Franchione. Like Bryant, Gene Stallings, an original Junction Boy under The Bear, spent time in College Station before winning a national championship. The two programs have shared coaches. Now they share a division.

 

Nov. 17: Oklahoma at West Virginia

The Bill Stewart Bowl

West Virginia capped a wild 2007 season with a shocking 48-28 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. After the Mountaineers played themselves out of BCS championship game with a loss to 5-7 Pittsburgh, Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, leaving interim coach Bill Stewart in charge. Riding the momentum of the win, West Virginia promoted Stewart to the position permanently. Expect the mood to be somber. Stewart died in May of a heart attack less than a year after he was relieved of his coaching duties.

Related: Introducing West Virginia to the Big 12

 

Nov. 23: Arizona at Arizona State

Backyard Brawl West

This is more than just the West Virginia-Pittsburgh rivalry moved West, even though Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State coach Todd Graham are ex-Backyard Brawl coaches (and not at the same time). Rodriguez hired four assistants who coached under Graham last season and three others who were on the other sideline at West Virginia. Graham himself was a West Virginia assistant under Rodriguez. All the familiarity should add an edge to the rivalry.

Related: Rodriguez, Graham, new coaches at to Pac-12 intrigue

-David Fox 

@DavidFox615

Teaser:
<p> College football's top "backstory games" for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:01
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-10-biggest-injury-concerns-running-back
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Injuries are certainly a part of football, and fantasy football, for that matter, but when it comes to the latter that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't be prepared.

Here are the top injury concerns when it comes to running back. These ground-gainers are the eptiome of risk-reward when it comes to weighing potential opportunity versus their respective injury histories.

1. Jahvid Best, Detroit
Diminutive runner isn’t built for NFL workload and has paid the price with concussion problems. He has still yet to be cleared for practice and more than likely will start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he will miss at minimum the Lions' first six games. Be VERY wary.

2. Darren McFadden, Oakland
Uber-talent has been brittle his entire pro and college career. Has never played more than 13 games in a season. Electric upside, but almost certain to miss a few games.

3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
A completely destroyed knee is scary — even for someone as powerful as Peterson. Due to his violent running style, it is hard to see him ever playing completely injury-free.

4. Trent Richardson, Cleveland
This yearNo. 3 overall pick has yet to see any NFL action as he underwent arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 9 to remove a loose piece of cartilage from his left knee. While it's unrelated to the torn meniscus he suffered in the same knee in January's BCS National Championship game, it's still troubling when someone undergoes mutiple surgeries on the same body part in such a short time span. The team is hopeful Richardson will still make his debut in the Browns' season-opener, but that's the absolute best-case scenario right now.

5. Beanie Wells, Arizona
After his best season, Wells had to have knee surgery in January. Balky knees have been an issue dating back to Ohio State.

6. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
The early May arthroscopic knee surgery was his second in the past three offseasons. He also dealt with foot surgery at the end of last season.

7. Ryan Mathews, San Diego
The third-year pro has yet to play a full season in the NFL and it won't happen this season either. Mathews broke his collar bone on his first carry in the Chargers' first preseason game. It has been projected to be a four- to six-week recovery period, the former allowing him enough time to be ready for Week 1. The six-week range is probably the safer bet, which (hopefully) puts him back in the Bolts' backfield by Week 3.

8. DeMarco Murray, Dallas
Has dealt with serious injuries in each of his last three football seasons — hamstring and dislocated kneecap at Oklahoma and the broken ankle last fall. 

9. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
Constantly deals with nagging injuries, such as the banged up hand he suffered in a preseason game, but is explosive when in the lineup. A time-share with David Wilson might be the bigger concern.

10. Fred Jackson, Buffalo
Has played only five years and hasn't touched the ball 1,000 times yet. But he is 31 and recovering from a fractured fibula.

Two More to Watch

Reggie Bush, Miami
Last season was only the second time he has topped 10 starts in his six-year career. You have to doubt his ability to stay healthy.

Frank Gore, San Francisco
Played all 16 games last year but missed a total of 10 games in the previous four. Gore is only 29 but is approaching 2,000 career touches.

— Published on August 22, 2012

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Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Football: 10 Biggest Injury Concerns at Running Back</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /college-football/big-tens-top-impact-freshmen-2012
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With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Big Ten's most powerful program may have lost seven games last year, but Ohio State fans know exactly what a uber-freshman can do for a program. Braxton Miller claimed Freshman of the Year honors and is poised to run Urban Meyer's system to perfection this time around. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Big Ten (listed alphabetically): 

The Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Austin Blythe, OL, Iowa
The Williamsburg, Iowa, product will be the baby of the All-Iowa starting offensive line in Iowa City. All five starters hail from the Hawkeye State and this redshirt freshman will lock down the right guard position. This is a unit under heavy scrutiny, however, as it finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and 78th in the nation in sacks allowed.

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan
Few players have entered college with greater expectations than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cincinnati prospect. The true freshman enrolled early and made a big name for himself in spring ball with incredible instincts, physicality and explosiveness. He could force Kenny Demens to outside linebacker at best and will be the top reserve at worst. Bolden will be an All-Big Ten player very soon.

Darian Cooper, DL, Iowa
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound redshirt from famed DeMatha High School in Maryland is expected to start at defensive tackle this fall. This unit has been a huge area of strength under long-time coordinator Norm Parker, but with new play-caller Phil Parker in control, Iowa must answer questions along the defensive front. Cooper's work ethic and toughness will be a welcome addition.

Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan
The big wide receiver from West Des Moines, Iowa, will have a chance to play his way into the No. 3 wide receiver slot. He has been turning heads and making key catches in practice thus far and has put himself in the running for playing time. Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree have been very complimentary of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound target.

Taylor Decker, OL, Ohio State
The elite prospect from Vandalio, Ohio, is in a heated battle to start at right tackle for the Buckeyes. He enrolled early and excelled in spring, entering fall camp as the No. 3 offensive tackle. Should the 6-foot-7, 310-pound true freshman continue to develop quickly, he could easily find himself starting against Miami (Ohio) in Week 1.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
The Kenosha, Wisc., freshman showed early on last fall that he has plenty of potential. He carried 20 times for 98 yards and a score before injuring his groin early in the year. He redshirted as a result and will enter this season as the No. 3 back. In a Wisconsin offense that wears out its backs, Gordon could be a huge reserve this fall — and is likely the second-most talented No. 3 RB in the nation (how is LSU's Kenny Hilliard not No. 1?).

Eugene Lewis, WR, Penn State
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native was going to fight for playing time even with Justin Brown on the roster. Now that Brown is in Norman, Lewis will be given plenty of chances to fill the void. His immediate impact should come on special teams, but reports from camp thus far indicate he may be further along than initially expected. And it couldn't come at a better time.

Akeel Lynch, RB, Penn State
Much like Lewis, Lynch may be thrust into the offensive huddle quicker than anticipated. Silas Redd bolted for USC, leaving Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton, both of whom lack elite-level upside, to vie for carries. Lynch might have more upside than either of the veterans, and if he can grasp the offense and pass protections quickly, could end up starting in Happy Valley.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB/DE, Northwestern
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound hybrid dynamo might be the most heralded prospect in the history of Northwestern football. He was a top-50 recruit nationally from Centreville, Ohio, and it shouldn't take long for him to bolster a weak Wildcat front seven. He will play some linebacker, but Pat Fitzgerald has stated that defensive end is his more natural position. Either way, his raw talent is a rarity in Evanston. 

Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan (pictured)
The massive defensive tackle from Kansas City is expected to help plug the hole left by Mike Martin up the middle. A recent neck injury in practice put a scare into Maize and Blue nation and sent Pipkins to the hospital. All signs point to Pipkins being ready for the opener against Alabama, but how well an injured freshman's neck will be able to hold up against Barrett Jones, Chane Warmack and DJ Fluker remains to be seen.

Donovan Smith, OL, Penn State
The big fella from Owings Mill, Md., got all kinds of praise as a redshirt last fall. Now, it is time for him to step into the spotlight on the real football field. His 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame could make him a starting tackle right out of the gate against Ohio. If he continues his solid play, he will be more than simply a contributor.

Noah Spence, DL, Ohio State
Spence was the No. 1 defensive line prospect in the nation for a reason. He is an absolute monster. His size, strength, explosiveness and speed may force Urban Meyer to shoehorn him onto the field as a true freshman. This team is loaded with defensive line talent and there doesn't seem like a clear spot for Spence. But his raw physical skills might be too much for Meyer to ignore. Aldophus Washington might not be too far behind either.

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
The leading receiver for the Buckeyes last year caught only 14 passes. So the need for a play-maker at the position is painfully obvious. Enter Michael Thomas. He may not be the most talented wideout in OSU history but he might be the best option on the roster as only a redshirt freshman. He built a great rapport with Braxton Miller in the spring and will be asked to play a big role in 2012.

Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
The scout team super star from last fall nearly got his redshirt pulled halfway through the season. Yet, Pat Fitzgerald resisted and the result will be a polished all-league-type of player stepping into a starting role in his first year on the field. He has speed and quickness to burn — as his role as Denard Robinson on the scout team will attest to — and should be able to lock down one half of the field.

Dan Voltz, OL, Wisconsin
Voltz was the highest-rated recruit in the class for UW and the coaching staff learned very quickly that his lofty status was justified. He is pushing for playing time already and could force Travis Frederick or Ryan Groy to a different position in order to get the best five blockers on the field. For a true freshman offensive lineman to be able to crack the starting line-up at Wisconsin is no small feat and would be one of the top storylines in the Big Ten heading into the season.

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Andre Sims Jr., Aaron Burbirdge and Juwan Caesar, WR, Michigan State
Not counting inexperience at QB, this is the biggest area of concern for stacked MSU roster. 

Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Spartan fans should be very excited about its future pass rush with these three dynamos.

AJ Jordan and Jordan Fredrick, WR, Wisconsin
No Nick Toon means there should be plenty of chances opposite Jared Abbrederis.

David Santos, Max Pirman, Michael Rose, LB, Nebraska
Might only be reserves in 2012, but these three are the future at the historically strong Cornhusker LB position.

Bri’Onte Dunn and Warren Ball, RB, Ohio State
Dunn has impressed in camp and appears to be clear of summer incident. Ball is fighting for time as well.

Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan Davis, DB, Penn State
Completely reworked secondary will open up chances for youngsters to contribute.

Other Names To Watch:

Deion Barnes, DL, Penn State
Adam Depietro, OL, Northwestern
Kyle Dodson, OL, Ohio State
Greg Garmon, RB, Iowa
Deonte Gibson, DE, Northwestern
Zeph Grimes, et al, LB, Illinois
Keith Heitzman, DL, Michigan
Darius Hillary, DB, Wisconsin
Jesse James, TE, Penn State
Kyle Kalis, OL, Michigan
Ted Karras, OL, Illinois
Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern
KJ Maye, AP, Minnesota
Jephte Matilus, LB, Minnesota
Andre McDonald, WR, Minnesota
Drew Smith, LB, Northwestern
Ryan Watson, DE, Purdue
AJ Williams, TE, Michigan
Anthony Zettel, DL, Penn State

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012

Urban Meyer's Arrival Has Ohio State Back on Track

Teaser:
<p> The Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: Atlanta Falcons, NFC, NFC South, NFL
Path: /nfl/atlanta-falcons-2012-nfl-team-preview
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Atlanta Falcons check in at No. 8.

For the third time in four seasons, the Atlanta Falcons’ season ended in the first round of the playoffs. The New York Giants banished Atlanta from the postseason, 24–2, and went on to win the Super Bowl. There shouldn’t be any solace taken in the fact that in each of the three one-and-done playoff appearances, Atlanta lost to the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl.

The Falcons are in win-now mode, and that’s not just a playoff win. Atlanta needs — and is talented enough — to make a Super Bowl run.
Gone are both the offensive and defensive coordinators from the three failed Falcons playoff runs. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith brought in new coaching blood to spark a change. And team owner Arthur Blank is fully behind the change. Blank is tired of watching the late rounds of the playoffs from home. He’s calling for success, and he wants it immediately. 

Offense

The biggest addition to the Falcons’ offense will never step foot on the field of play. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter plans three things that could greatly enhance play when Atlanta has the ball: 1) create a better vertical attack; 2) use the screen pass more frequently; 3) reduce Michael Turner’s workload.

Even though quarterback Matt Ryan says the playbook has only changed about 15 to 20 percent, the newly added schemes could bolster Ryan’s numbers dramatically.

Koetter has always been a deep-threat mastermind, and Atlanta has the tools in Roddy White and especially Julio Jones to stretch the field. Ryan has been working on strengthening his passing arm, and the quarterback will have a complete offseason to work with his receiving corps to perfect these new deep routes.

The Falcons rarely threw screen passes under Mike Mularkey. Koetter plans to work with the running backs and the offensive line to incorporate the screen game into the offense. This will not only help keep opposing teams from retreating too quickly into the secondary, but it will also get players like running backs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. Snelling is the best receiver in the Falcons’ backfield, and Rodgers is a quick, change-of-pace back who can give Atlanta multiple looks. He had 151 receptions in three seasons at Oregon State.

At 30 years old, Turner is on the back end of his playing days. He finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,340 yards but was far more dangerous in the beginning of the season than at the end. Four of his six 100-yard games came in the first seven weeks of the season, though he did have a season-high 172 yards in a Week 17 win over Tampa Bay. The Falcons will reduce Turner’s workload in 2012 in an effort to keep him healthy and explosive. Gone are the days when Turner would accumulate 300 or more carries in a season.

Turner’s lightened workload will mean more opportunities for Rodgers, the team’s fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft. The Falcons coaching staff believes Rodgers can be an every-down back in the future. That future is not in 2012, but if Rodgers can double his workload from his rookie season — he had 57 carries in 16 games — it will take pressure off of Turner and keep the veteran fresh in the second half of the season.

Other than a few changes on the offensive line — Joe Hawley could beat out Todd ­McClure at center and there is an open competition at right guard — the Falcons will look very similar on offense from a personnel standpoint. The team expects Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, to shine in his second season. He missed three complete games and all but one series of another because of injury in his rookie campaign. If healthy for 16 games, Jones has the ability to lead the NFC in receiving. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez returns for his 16th and final season before heading off to his eventual destination, the Hall of Fame in Canton. 

Defense

As much of a game-changer as Koetter is expected to be on offense, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is supposed to be even more of a catalyst for the Falcons’ defense.

Nolan comes to Atlanta equally experienced with the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. The Falcons have been playing the 4-3, and Nolan says it isn’t wise to change schemes immediately, but expect him to plug in a good number of hybrid looks.

The biggest difference in the front seven will be the absence of linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles in each of the last three years. The former second-round pick signed a five-year deal with NFC South rival New Orleans. Nolan plans to play a lot of nickel packages, which would have turned Lofton, who is weak in pass coverage, into a two-down linebacker. The Falcons didn’t feel the need to pay Lofton’s salary demands for first- and second-down work.

Instead, Atlanta traded for veteran help in the secondary. The Falcons acquired former All-Pro Asante Samuel, who will team with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the team three elite cornerbacks. Expect Samuel and Grimes to remain on the outside while Robinson moves inside to cover the slot receiver.

The NFL has turned into a pass-happy league, and the NFC South has four very talented quarterbacks. The Falcons will spend a lot of time in Nolan’s “Big Nickel” package, and the secondary — which has been an area of weakness in the past — could be a bright spot in 2012. 

Specialists

Atlanta returns kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher. Bryant led the league in accuracy, hitting 93.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Bosher, the team’s sixth-round pick in 2011, got off to a rough start as a rookie but was punting the ball very well late in the season.

Return specialist Eric Weems left via free agency, so the Falcons will look at corner Dominique Franks along with rookies Cody Pearcy and James Rodgers (Jacquizz’s brother) to step up on special teams. 

Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC South

Getting over the playoff hump is of the utmost importance to the Falcons, but it’s only the first step. Atlanta cannot just settle for winning a playoff game. It’s “win now” time for this team, and if the Falcons don’t advance to the NFC Championship Game, the year will be a failure.

Much of the roster looks the same, with upgrades in the secondary and on the offensive line. The biggest area of change — and what could quite possibly be the factor that pushes the Falcons over the hump — is with both coordinators.

Koetter and Nolan will breathe new life into this Falcons team on both sides of the ball. It will be up to Smith, the head coach, and the players to do the rest.  

Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Just How Good?
If you just give wide receiver Julio Jones the four games he missed as a rookie, his numbers would project to this: 72 receptions, 1,279 yards and 11 touchdowns. He might actually do better in 2012 and move into the top five of the league in yardage and touchdown catches.
Dome sweet dome Only two teams in the NFL have better home records than the Falcons since 2008. Atlanta’s 26 wins at the Georgia Dome trail only Baltimore (27) and New England (28).

Smith’s A Winner
Mike Smith is Atlanta’s 14th head coach in franchise history. He’s the first head coach to lead the Falcons to four consecutive winning seasons, and his 43–21 regular-season record is the best four-year mark in franchise history. With 43 wins, Smith sits in third place on the all-time Falcons coaching list behind Leeman Bennett (46) and Dan Reeves (49). A seven-win season would propel Smith into first place on the list.

Quick Out of the Gate
No team in the NFL has scored more points than Atlanta on its first possession of the game over the past four seasons. The Falcons have accumulated 173 points on their first drives of games since 2008. New Orleans is second (171) with New England third (163).

Close Game, No Problem
Over the last four seasons, Atlanta leads the league in games decided by eight points or less, with a 22–10 record since 2008. In games decided by a field goal or less, the Falcons are 9–6.

Tough in the Red Zone
Atlanta was extremely tough on opponents when backed up into the red zone in 2011. The Falcons’ defense held opponents to a 78.7 scoring percentage when inside the 20-yard line, giving up 22 touchdowns and 15 field goals on 47 trips inside the red zone.

Moving the Ball
In 2011, the Falcons set a franchise record for most total net yards gained in a season with 6,026 yards. Atlanta broke the record that was set by the 2008 squad, which posted 5,779 total yards.

Streaking
Matt Bryant has been in the league 10 seasons and is showing no signs of slowing down. With three field goals in Week 7 last year, Bryant set a franchise record with 27 consecutive made field goals. His 27-for-29 performance in 2011 was good for third-best all time in the Falcons record books.
In good hands Tight end Tony Gonzalez moved into 11th place on the all-time list with his 875 receiving yards last year. Gonzalez now has 13,338 receiving yards in his career and needs 667 more to pass James Lofton and move into seventh place.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Thur., August 23

Order your 2012 Atlanta Falcons Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Atlanta Falcons 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2012-breaking-down-new-orleans-saints
Body:

What can the New Orleans Saints do for you this fantasy season? Check out Athlon Sports' team report as we break down the rookies, veteran players to watch and avoid, fantasy playoff schedule and more to help you get ready for the 2012 season.

Inside the Locker Room
with Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times Picayune

What sort of time share can we expect in the Saints backfield between Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas?
The Saints will employ a similar strategy as last season, with all three getting their share of touches weekly. I expect Ingram to win the starting spot with Sproles playing primarily in the nickel packages and two-minute offense. Thomas will share the workload with Ingram, subbing in for a series or two each half. Chris Ivory is also in the mix. He is healthy now and is the club’s best power runner.

Do you expect Jimmy Graham’s numbers to come down across the board?
No. I expect similar numbers. Defenses undoubtedly will concentrate their game-plans on Graham more this season. But it’s very difficult for teams to focus on one Saints perimeter player because they have so many other weapons at their disposal. Moreover, Graham is so talented and such a mismatch for most defenders that Drew Brees often throws to him successfully even when he’s double-covered.

Will Devery Henderson finish as the team’s No. 2 wide receiver?
No. Henderson is on the downside of his career. He might inherit Robert Meachem’s starting spot, but I expect Lance Moore to become the clear No. 2 in terms of production. Henderson’s role has diminished in recent years while Moore’s actually has expanded. In fact, I think there’s a greater chance that one of the team’s stable of young receivers — Adrian Arrington, Joe Morgan or Nick Toon — will overtake Henderson for the third receiver spot than Henderson does of being the No. 2 receiver.

What sort of impact will the offseason drama have on Drew Brees and the prolific Saints offense?
Little if any. As long as Brees is around, the Saints offense will continue to rack up yards and points. The biggest concern is the loss of head coach Sean Payton, a brilliant game-planner and offensive strategist. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and running game coordinator Aaron Kromer are well-versed in the Saints system and proved they could function just fine as play-callers a year ago when Payton went down with a leg injury. But Payton’s loss will be felt during weekly game-plan sessions, where he was a master at identifying opponents’ weaknesses and exploiting them. Still, the Saints have so much talent and Brees is essentially a coach on the field that I can’t see them dropping off much at all. The club’s top four rushers and top five receivers return from a unit that set the NFL record for yards gained in a season.

Athlon's Best Bets

Sleeper: Lance Moore, WR
Deep-Sleeper: Nick Toon, WR
Overvalued: None
Top Rookie: Nick Toon, WR
Bounce-Back: Mark Ingram, RB
Top IDP: Curtis Lofton, LB

2012 Draft Class

3. Akiem Hicks DT 6-5 318 Regina College
4. Nick Toon WR 6-2 215 Wisconsin
5. Corey White S 5-11 206 Samford
6. Andrew Tiller G 6-4 324 Syracuse
7. Marcel Jones T 6-6 320 Nebraska

Fantasy Impact: Thanks to a trade of their first-round pick and losing a second-round selection due to the bounty scandal, the Saints were largely quiet in the draft. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks has a lot of upside, but he played collegiately in Canada and will have a steep learning curve to contribute in 2012. Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore are set as the top three receivers for quarterback Drew Brees, but Nick Toon could work his way into the mix as the No. 4 receiver. Although he might not make much of an impact in 2012, he could be one to watch in 2013 or 2014.

Fantasy Playoff Run: Weeks 14-16 (at NYG, TB, at DAL)

The Saints should get off to a great start against a Giants team that was in the bottom six against QBs, WRs and TEs and did little to improve its starting defense. The Buccaneers were bottom three against QBs and RBs and middle of the road against WRs and TEs but did go defense with four of the first five draft picks. The game in Dallas for the title game could be a shootout.

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Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Football 2012: Breaking Down the New Orleans Saints</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 05:57
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2012-breaking-down-minnesota-vikings
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What can the Minnesota Vikings do for you this fantasy season? Check out Athlon Sports' team report as we break down the rookies, veteran players to watch and avoid, fantasy playoff schedule and more to help you get ready for the 2012 season.

Inside the Locker Room
with Jeremy Fowler, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Will Adrian Peterson return to full strength for the start of the season and therefore justify using a first-round draft pick to land him?
Peterson’s fantasy risk could keep owners nervous up until the days before the Vikings’ Week 1 opener. Asking Peterson to carry the ball 20 times a game less than nine months removed from a torn ACL would be ambitious. But don’t forget — Peterson is an otherworldly athlete, he’s drawn a line in the sand that he doesn’t plan to miss time and his rehab has gone smoothly by all accounts. If he doesn’t play Week 1, he likely won’t be out long.

How many touches can we expect from Toby Gerhart in 2012?
Even if Peterson returns to full health by Week 1, expect Gerhart to get eight-to-12 touches per game as the Vikings look to protect Peterson’s long-term promise. Gerhart seems to thrive off carries in bulk. If Peterson doesn’t make it back by the season’s start, Gerhart could have solid fantasy value.

Can Kyle Rudolph stay healthy and become a weekly fantasy starter at tight end?
Rudolph caught three touchdown passes in his last six games as a rookie and can become one of the most potent red-zone targets in the NFC North. Float it to the 6'6" Rudolph on a lob, and he’ll use his size and incredible hands to snatch the ball. Question is, can he consistently beat man coverage? And though the Vikings will run plenty of two-tight-end sets, Rudolph will be battling John Carlson for touches. Still, there’s little reason Rudolph shouldn’t break out.

Will Christian Ponder and the passing game be effective enough to create useful fantasy receivers other than Percy Harvin?
The Vikings have made enough improvements to the offensive line and at receiver to rescue a 28th-ranked passing offense to a more respectable level. They won’t challenge New Orleans’ touchdowns-in-seven-seconds-or-less offense, but Ponder will have more ammunition to work with after the Vikings added a potential elite left tackle (Matt Kalil), a viable deep threat (Jerome Simpson) and a talented receiving tight end to pair with Rudolph (Carlson). Let’s be real, though — the offense’s hopes hinge on Ponder’s progression. If he improves his decision-making, he’ll realize his sizable potential.

Which rookie wideout would you target in Minnesota?
The Vikings resisted the temptation to draft a receiver in the late-first or early-second round because they felt confident in Arkansas tandem Jarius Wright and Greg Childs. Despite a skill set suited for the slot (Percy Harvin’s home), Wright looks poised to have the bigger rookie impact than Childs, who is still trying to find his way after a torn patella tendon slowed him in his final two college years. The Vikings move Harvin around enough to make room for Wright, who will be explosive in space. Childs can be a deep threat eventually, but the Vikings have Simpson and Michael Jenkins to bridge the gap in 2012.
Note: Childs tore the patellar tendon in both knees early in training camp and is out for the season.

Athlon's Best Bets

Sleeper: Toby Gerhart, RB
Deep-Sleeper: Kyle Rudolph, TE
Overvalued: None
Top Rookie: Blair Walsh, K
Bounce-Back: Christian Ponder, QB
Top IDP: Jared Allen, DE

2012 Draft Class

1. Matt Kalil T 6-7 295 USC
1. Harrison Smith S 6-2 214 Notre Dame
3. Josh Robinson CB 5-10 199 UCF
4. Jarius Wright WR 5-9 180 Arkansas
4. Rhett Ellison TE 6-5 250 USC
4. Greg Childs WR 6-3 217 Arkansas
5. Robert Blanton S 6-1 200 Notre Dame
6. Blair Walsh K 5-10 192 Georgia
7. Audie Cole LB 6-4 239 NC State
7. Trevor Guyton DE 6-3 280 California

Fantasy Impact: Tackle Matt Kalil will help protect the blindside of quarterback Christian Ponder and open up rushing lanes for Adrian Peterson. Outside of Percy Harvin, the Vikings lack playmakers at receiver. Jarius Wright and Greg Childs will help stretch the field, but neither is likely to sustain fantasy value in 2012.

Fantasy Playoff Run: Weeks 14-16 (CHI, at STL, at HOU)

A start against the Bears should be good news for the WRs and TEs as Chicago was 11th-worst and seventh-worst, respectively, against the positions. The Vikes face a Rams team, now coached by Jeff Fisher, that was already top 10 against QBs and TEs. They play a Texans team in fantasy championship week that was top five against fantasy QBs, RBs and TEs last season and top 10 against receivers.

Dominate Your Fantasy Football League! Click here for the ultimate online resource for mock drafts, positional rankings, Athlon's Top 250 and more.

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Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Football 2012: Breaking Down the Minnesota Vikings</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 05:56
Path: /fantasy/fantasy-football-2012-breaking-down-miami-dolphins
Body:

What can the Miami Dolphins do for you this fantasy season? Check out Athlon Sports' team report as we break down the rookies, veteran players to watch and avoid, fantasy playoff schedule and more to help you get ready for the 2012 season.

Inside the Locker Room
with Ethan Skolnick, Palm Beach Post

Can Reggie Bush build on his first career 1,000-yard season or will Daniel Thomas (or Lamar Miller) steal a big chunk of his touches?
No offensive staff has believed in Bush as an every-down back until the one the Dolphins had last season. Now that staff is gone, and Joe Philbin hasn’t traditionally loaded up one guy with carries. Expect Bush to contribute more as a receiver, but less as a runner.

Is any Dolphins’ pass-catcher worth a fantasy roster spot?
No. Davone Bess is the Dolphins’ most reliable threat, but most of his damage is done horizontally, out of the slot, rather than vertically. Brian Hartline has slightly above-average speed and can tiptoe the sidelines, but more than 600 yards would be a stretch. And Clyde Gates is raw as a deep threat, with a long way to go.

Rank the four potential fantasy contributors at tight end for the Fish.
You know what you’re getting from Anthony Fasano, even though his improvement as a blocker won’t show up on the fantasy scoreboard. Rank Fasano first, though Charles Clay appears to have bigger upside as a receiver and will be on the field plenty. Michael Egnew also showed a feel for route-running in college. It’s not clear what to expect from Les Brown, since he’s so new to the position.

Athlon's Best Bets

Sleeper: Davone Bess, WR
Deep-Sleeper: Clyde Gates, WR
Overvalued: Reggie Bush, RB
Top Rookie: Lamar Miller, RB
Bounce-Back: Daniel Thomas, RB
Top IDP: Karlos Dansby, LB

2012 Draft Class

1. Ryan Tannehill QB 6-4 221 Texas A&M
2. Jonathan Martin T 6-5 312 Stanford
3. Olivier Vernon DE 6-2 261 Miami
3. Michael Egnew TE 6-5 252 Missouri
4. Lamar Miller RB 5-11 210 Miami (Fla.)
5. Josh Kaddu LB 6-3 239 Oregon
6. B.J. Cunningham WR 6-1 211 Michigan State
7. Kheeston Randall DT 6-4 293 Texas
7. Rishard Matthews WR 6-0 212 Nevada

Fantasy Impact: The success or failure of the Dolphins’ 2012 draft will hinge on whether or not Ryan Tannehill emerges as a successful starting quarterback. He should be selected in keeper formats, with his biggest impact likely to come in 2013. Lamar Miller is a big-play threat but is behind Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas for carries.

Fantasy Playoff Run: Weeks 14-16 (at SF, JAC, BUF)

New HC. New OC. New QB. Can Reggie Bush repeat? Deal with all of these scenarios then start the fantasy playoffs against San Francisco’s defense and a Jacksonville defense that ranked in the top seven against QBs, RBs and WRs. The good news: If the Dolphins find a reliable TE they could be worth a play. Jacksonville (30th) and Buffalo (32th) were terrible against fantasy TEs last season.

Dominate Your Fantasy Football League! Click here for the ultimate online resource for mock drafts, positional rankings, Athlon's Top 250 and more.

You can order your award-winning Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine here.

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Football 2012: Breaking Down the Miami Dolphins</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 05:50
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-offensive-linemen-2012
Body:

Playing on the offensive line is one of the least glamorous positions on the field. However, the players in the trenches are some of the most important, as the offense can't move the ball with a line that struggles to block. The 2012 college football season has plenty of talented linemen ready to challenge for All-American honors, led by Alabama's Barrett Jones. The senior is switching from left tackle to center but is expected to have another standout year. 

When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential. 

College Football's Top Offensive Linemen for 2012

Top 5 Centers for 2012

1. Barrett Jones, Alabama
Three years, three different positions. That’s how valuable Jones has been to Alabama’s offensive line during his career in Tuscaloosa. The Tennessee native started the first 25 games of his career at right guard and shifted to left tackle last season. He earned first-team All-SEC honors in each of the last two years and will slide inside to man the center spot with the departure of William Vlachos. Jones is the nation’s most versatile offensive lineman and the defending Outland Trophy winner should be one of college football’s top performers in 2012.

2. Khaled Holmes, USC
With Matt Kalil moving onto the NFL, it’s up to Holmes to become the leader for USC’s offensive line. That shouldn’t be a problem for the California native, as he has started in each of the last two years and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Holmes made a seamless transition from guard to center in 2011 and should be one of the top linemen in college football this year. 

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

4. Gabe Ikard, OG/C, Oklahoma
With Ikard leading the way, Oklahoma expects to have one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines. He started 12 games as a freshman in 2010 and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors for his performance in 2011. Ikard’s value to the team was on full display after he moved from guard to center to replace the injured Ben Habern last year. The junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012 and will likely slide back to center with Habern deciding to retire before fall camp.

5. Dalton Freeman, C, Clemson 
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior from Pelion, S.C., is the unquestioned leader of the Tigers offensive line. He is the lone returning starter from a group that led the ACC in passing offense and finished second in scoring. Protecting the deep collection of skill players is atop his priority list, and should he do that, Clemson could repeat as ACC champs.
 

Top 15 Offensive Tackles for 2012

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

2. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M 
Not too many players step into a BCS conference and start all 13 games as a true freshman. Joeckel did just that back in 2010 before earning first-team All-Big 12 honors last fall. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound bookend has played in all 26 possible career games and helped lead an O-Line that finished fourth nationally in sacks allowed per game last fall (0.69). The Aggies will experience growing pains shifting into the SEC, but the Joeckel-led offensive line shouldn’t be an issue.

3. Alex Hurst, LSU
The 6-foot-6, 340-pound senior right tackle was a force last season in paving the way for the powerful LSU running game. Three different Tigers running backs reached the 500-yard mark last season, and LSU compiled 35 touchdowns on the ground. Hurst was recognized as first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches in 2011, and he will be a top All-America candidate this season. Hurst and Chris Faulk should form the best tackle duo in the country in 2012.

4. Chris Faulk, LSU 
After redshirting in 2009, the big left tackle from Slidell, La., worked his way into a starting spot by the end of his freshman season. Despite dealing with a severe ankle sprain against Mississippi State, Faulk still started 13 of the 14 games en route to the BCS national championship game. He earned second-team All-SEC honors while protecting the blindside of both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. Behind Faulk and company, LSU finished second in the run-heavy SEC in rushing offense at 202.6 yards per game.

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

6. D.J. Fluker, Alabama
Fluker has started 21 games in his first two years in Tuscaloosa but is on the verge of a breakout year. The Alabama native was a key cog in the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack, allowing backs to average 5.5 yards per carry and record 34 scores on the ground. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Fluker has the strength to dominate on the right side of the line and continues to improve as a pass blocker. Look for the junior tackle to push for first-team All-SEC honors this season.

7. Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews helped pave the way for an Aggies offense that ranked No. 7 in the country and scored over 39 points per game last season. Texas A&M might not be able to equal that type of production in the physical SEC, but the transition will be much easier because of the quality of the A&M offensive line led by left tackle Luke Joeckel, center Patrick Lewis and a powerful right tackle in Matthews.

8. Oday Aboushi, Virginia
The Brooklyn, N.Y., lineman has started the last two seasons on an improving Cavaliers offensive line. Aboushi was twice the ACC’s offensive lineman of the week on the way to second-team all-conference honors. Aboushi, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Palestine, was honored at a reception last season for Muslim-Americans hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

9. James Hurst, North Carolina
Hurst has started every game but one in his first two seasons as North Carolina’s left tackle. He got his first start in the second game of his true freshman season and has been a mainstay at left tackle since. A Freshman All-American in 2010, Hurst received second-team All-ACC honors last season. He and teammate Jonathan Cooper became the first Tar Heel offensive line tandem to receive all-conference honors since 1993.

10. Justin Pugh, Syracuse
One of the nation’s top offensive tackles, Pugh enters his junior season with high expectations. He has started all 25 games over the last two seasons, culminating in two all-conference awards (2nd team in 2010 and 1st team in 2011). He has paved the way for back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers and is charged with protecting star quarterback Ryan Nassib this fall. With a great year at Syracuse, Pugh could leave early for the NFL. However, the junior is dealing with an injury that could force him to miss the start of 2012.

11. David Bakhtiari, Colorado
The junior left tackle is one of the few veteran, Pac-12-caliber players for Colorado, earning coaches’ second-team all-conference last season. Bakhtiari is entering his third season a starter.

12. LaAdrian Waddle, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders anchor up front is this senior from Columbus, Texas. Waddle has started 25 consecutive games and enters his final season in Lubbock as a reigning second-team All-Big 12 selection. Fans can bet on a first-team-type of season from the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder.

13. Morgan Moses, Virginia
The Cavaliers resurgence under Mike London began with recruiting victories like Moses, who came to UVa with five stars next to his name. He helped pave the way for Jones and Kevin Parks en route to finishing fourth in the ACC in rushing last fall. Additionally, the 6-foot-6, 335-pounder helped the Virginia finish third in the league (23rd nationally) with only 1.23 sacks allowed per game. Look for Moses to lead the Wahoo rushing attack once again in 2012.

14. Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Getting consistent play from the offensive line has been an issue for Notre Dame in recent years, but 2012 could be different. Martin has been a steady performer in his first two years and could challenge for All-American honors this season. He started all 13 games at left tackle last year and enters 2012 with 26 consecutive starts. The Irish allowed only 17 sacks last season and could improve upon that number with Martin returning for 2012. 

15. Kevin Graf, USC
Protecting Matt Barkley might be considered the single most important charge of any unit in the nation. The former top 100 recruit turned All-Pac-12 junior is the most accomplished of the bunch and will be asked to lead in Matt Kalil's absence. The Agoura Hills, Calif., native is the third Graf to call Heritage Hall home — his brother and father both played at USC.
 

Top 15 Guards for 2012

1. Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech
Uzzi is the leader of Georgia Tech’s offensive line, starting 24 games over the last two years and earning first-team All-ACC honors in 2011. He is a good fit in Georgia Tech’s blocking scheme, largely due to his good lateral ability and physical presence when clearing the way for rushers. The senior is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012 and was a big reason why the Yellow Jackets ranked second in the nation in rushing last season.

2. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
A two-time second-team All-ACC honoree, Cooper has the most starts (35) of any player on North Carolina’s roster. Cooper is a four-year starter on the Tar Heels’ offensive line as he made 10 starts at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009. For his career, Cooper has started every game he has played in, missing three in his first season because of injury. He pairs with tackle James Hurst to form one of the top left sides in the ACC.

3. Chance Warmack, Alabama
Barrett Jones is clearly the No. 1 offensive lineman for Alabama, but don’t overlook Warmack. The steady senior has started 25 straight contests and earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. The Georgia native is regarded as one of the top offensive guards for the 2013 NFL Draft and should increase his stock with another outstanding year.

4. Larry Warford, Kentucky
Warford is probably one of the nation’s most underrated players. He enters 2012 with 25 consecutive starts and has earned All-SEC honors in each of the last two seasons. At 6-foot-3 and 343 pounds, Warford has the size and strength to be a road grader on the ground, while helping to keep opposing linemen off the quarterback. The senior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-SEC selection for 2012.

5. Cyril Richardson, Baylor
Circle Richardson’s name if you are looking for someone who could emerge as one of the nation’s best linemen in 2012. He started all 13 games at left tackle last season and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. Richardson will move back inside to guard this year, and has massive frame (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) should give quarterback Nick Florence plenty of protection, while opening up rushing lanes for Jarred Salubi and Lache Seastrunk.

6. Alvin Bailey, Arkansas
There’s no question Bailey has the talent to be one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. However, he didn’t have the best spring, and the coaching staff isn’t guaranteeing him a starting spot for the opener. Bailey has started the first 26 games in his career and was selected as a second-team All-SEC selection last year. If the Oklahoma native plays up to his ability, he should finish higher on this list at the end of 2012.

7. Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
Jackson was the anchor for the Bulldogs' offensive line, which averaged 175.3 rushing yards per game last season. The 6-foot-4 guard started all 13 games in 2011 and earned second-team All-SEC honors. The SEC is loaded with talent on the offensive line, but Jackson should not be overlooked.

8. David Yankey, Stanford
The redshirt sophomore from Roswell, Ga., has big shoes to fill now that Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro have moved on. But the cupboard isn't bare with big Yankey leading the way. This unit was No. 17 nationally in rushing (trailing only Oregon inside the league) and seventh nationally in protecting the quarterback. Yankey should only be that much better in his second full season on the field.

9. Braden Hansen, BYU
Hansen has been a steady presence for BYU's offensive line and enters 2012 with 39 consecutive starts. The senior has been named to the Lombardi and Outland Trophy watch lists for 2012 and is on the radar for scouts in the 2013 NFL Draft.

10. Lane Taylor, Oklahoma State
The leader of the Pokes offensive line, Taylor returns for his final season with 36 career starts under his belt. As the only returning starter up front for one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, the Arlington, Texas native will be counted on for more leadership this fall.

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

12. Chris McDonald, Michigan State
McDonald has been a nearly automatic presence in the Spartans’ starting lineup, making 17 consecutive starts and 26 overall at right guard. With a new starting quarterback, McDonald may have to pave the way for running back Le’Veon Bell to carry the offense.
 
13. Mason Walters, Texas
The top blocker on a unit that has underachieved, Walters has started all 25 games of his two-year career at right guard. He is hoping to build upon his honorable mention All-Big 12 selection from last year.
 
14. Carson York, Oregon
York has been a stabilizing force on Oregon’s offensive line, starting 36 career games. However, his status for the season opener is in doubt, as he suffered a serious knee injury in the bowl win over Wisconsin. If healthy, York should be one of the best guards in the nation.
 
15. Blaize Foltz, TCU
With only two returning starters, the offensive line is the Horned Frogs' biggest question mark on offense. However, TCU has a solid duo to build around on the interior. Foltz should be leader for this unit after earning first-team All-Mountain West honors in 2011 and will be expected to challenge for All-Big 12 accolades in 2012.
Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top Offensive Linemen for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 05:15
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-2
Body:

One theme is consistent among competitors as NASCAR returns to Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time since track changes intended to create tighter racing.

“I just hope that they didn’t screw it up,” points leader Greg Biffle says.

“I just hope they didn’t screw up the race track,” Ryan Newman says.

“Nobody really knows what is going to happen,” Jimmie Johnson says.

After lackluster attendance in the spring and complaints by fans about the lack of action, track officials narrowed the groove to force cars to run closer together and create that door-banging excitement some fans said was lacking.

“I think it is going to be exciting either way,” Biffle says. “I heard they ground the corner more down the straightaway so that when you come up off the corner you will go across that patch coming on to the straightaway, which may be difficult to go from the bottom groove. They carried it around maybe further than it needed to be, but we will have to wait and see when we get there how the race track drives now. I hope it is good.”

Newman is worried what type of racing drivers will see.

“I hope they didn’t take the racing away,” he says. “The beating, banging and crashing is not the racing that I like. That’s what some of the fans enjoy, but that’s not the racing I like. I like being able to run side-by-side. The problem we had the tire just didn’t allow us to be able to fall off so the first five laps of the run were like the last five, 120 (laps) later. Your car didn’t fall off, your balance didn’t change, and everybody was virtually the same speed.

“To me, the tires are the biggest issue when it comes to a place like that.”

Goodyear did a tire test this summer. Cup teams will use a different left-side tire than in the spring race. The right-side tires will remain the same version run in the spring.

“I’m more interested in the changes done to the tire compound than anything else,” says Brad Keselowski, who has won the past two Bristol Cup races. “I think that’ll be the bigger key to the puzzle and we’ll just have to see how that unfolds. Obviously, I’m going to run all three series Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and if there’s a difference in the track I should be the first to know.”

The Camping World Truck Series races Wednesday night at Bristol with the Nationwide race Friday night and the Cup race Saturday night.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a lap around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. The "new" Bristol, 2013 schedule and Danica in the Cup Series highlights the news of the week.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 16:36
All taxonomy terms: Penn State Nittany Lions, Monthly
Path: /college-football/penn-state-football-near-death-experience
Body:

Penn State was spared the Death Penalty. But it will be many, many years before the Nittany Lions will field a competitive football team again. Acting with unprecedented speed and eschewing its standard investigative process, the NCAA handed down severe penalties that are sure to cripple this once-proud program for at least the next decade. Of the four major sanctions, only two — the four-year postseason ban and the scholarship reductions (the school must be down from 85 to 65 scholarships by 2014) — will significantly affect the program going forward. The school was also fined $60 million, but that’s hardly punitive to a university with an endowment of close to $2 billion. In addition, the program must vacate all of its wins dating back to the 1998 season. But that’s more symbolic. We can’t change history.

We can, however, alter the future, and that is what the NCAA has done — and rightfully so. Arguably, the NCAA stepped outside of its jurisdiction in this case. After all, Penn State did not break black and white NCAA rules of academic integrity and amateurism. This was a criminal matter. But the NCAA did what the courts could not: Act swiftly to punish Penn State football. It is not enough that the men in charge, the men who allowed Jerry Sandusky to prey on innocent boys, will be dealt with by the legal system. It is not enough that the university’s reputation has been tarnished, maybe forever. No, the football program had to be penalized as well. There needed to be ramifications for allowing one man, head coach Joe Paterno, to become so powerful that the school’s leadership was unwilling to take measures to stop Sandusky for fear of doing harm to the football program.

“In the case of Penn State, the results were perverse and unconscionable,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said at a press conference July 23. “No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflected by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in intercollegiate athletics.”

So while I’m a bit uncomfortable with the NCAA’s methods in this case — though there was a clear “lack of institutional control” in NCAA parlance — the end result more than justified the manner in which the penalties were handed down. This was a unique case that called for a unique response.

Penn State must move forward with a depleted roster and little hope for being relevant on the national stage for the foreseeable future. Several players, most notably star tailback Silas Redd, have already transferred, and others can transfer without penalty after the 2012 season.

Some have compared Penn State to USC. Don’t make that mistake. First of all, USC’s penalties — a two-year bowl ban and 10 lost scholarships per year over a three-year period — weren’t as severe. And, more important, USC was not involved in the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics. The school’s brand was not seriously damaged.

That, however, is not the case at Penn State.

Fair or not, it’s impossible to think about the university without thinking about a pedophile violating young boys in the showers of the football office and the ensuing coverup. That alone would be a tremendous hurdle for Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff to overcome on the recruiting trail. Now, add the sanctions to the mix, and Penn State will have the nearly impossible task of attracting talented football players to Happy Valley for the next four years. All of those young men from Aliquippa to Erie to Harrisburg who dreamed of one day putting on a Penn State uniform will have to question their dedication to Nittany Lion football.

So there will be football. No games will be missed — unlike at SMU, which lost two seasons of football. Instead, Penn State fans will watch a team of 60-odd scholarship players (20 fewer than most opponents), and those left likely won’t be the elite players who usually roam Beaver Stadium.

They won’t win many games. And that, to many Penn State fans, could be a fate far worse than the Death Penalty.

---By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
 

Teaser:
<p> Penn State Football: A Near-Death Experience</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 15:31
Path: /golf/fedexcup-power-rankings
Body:

It's playoff season on the PGA Tour, as the players descend on Bethpage State Park for The Barclays, the first of a four-tournament sprint to the FedExCup title and its accompanying $10 million payout.

Don't look to us to explain the format; you need a math degree from MIT to work your way through the various statistical scenarios. What we can do is give you list of contenders for the sixth FedExCup title. Missing from this list are three of the last four FedExCup winners — Jim Furyk (2011), Bill Haas (2010) and Vijay Singh (2008) — indicating that a slight changing of the FedEx guard might be afoot. Of course, the Cup's only two-time winner, Tiger Woods, is in the thick of the chase for the championship, and since his major drought continues, he might have to console himself with $10 million. That would buy a lot of meals at Perkins.

Here are 15 players to watch as the world's best contend for the Cup. In this ranking, we considered performance in this year's majors and WGC events, since they most closely approximate the conditions and field strength of the FedExCup quartet.

1. Rory McIlroy
Rory sits atop the golf world after eight-shot PGA win.
Current FedEx position: 3
2012 Wins: 2
2012 Top 10s: 7

2. Tiger Woods
Major drought now four-plus years and counting, but he's the only two-time Cup winner.
Current FedEx position: 1
2012 Wins: 3
2012 Top 10s: 6

3. Keegan Bradley
Playing some of the planet’s best golf right now. Put up a credible PGA title defense.
Current FedEx position: 8
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 5

4. Bubba Watson
Solid season proves he’s no one-hit wonder.
Current FedEx position: 5
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 5

5. Jason Dufner
Skipping The Barclays, but still a threat to win the Cup.
Current FedEx position: 2
2012 Wins: 2
2012 Top 10s: 8

6. Justin Rose
Red-hot Rose had top 5s at the Bridgestone and the PGA. He's due for a win.
Current FedEx position: 12
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 7

7. Zach Johnson
Sometimes, slow and steady wins the race.
Current FedEx position: 4
2012 Wins: 2
2012 Top 10s: 6

8. Steve Stricker
Typically solid campaign includes T7 at PGA.
Current FedEx position: 10
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 7

9. Matt Kuchar
Missed cut at PGA was a buzzkill for Kooch, but he's played well at the other marquee events.
Current FedEx position: 9
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 8

10. Carl Pettersson
Golf's most lovable Carl since Spackler is on a serious roll right now.
Current FedEx position: 7
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 6

THE NEXT 5
11. Ernie Els
Current FedEx position: 11
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 5

12. Hunter Mahan
Current FedEx position: 6
2012 Wins: 2
2012 Top 10s: 4

13. Luke Donald
Current FedEx position: 16
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 6

14. Dustin Johnson
Current FedEx position: 26
2012 Wins: 1
2012 Top 10s: 5

15. Graeme McDowell
Current FedEx position: 27
2012 Wins: 0
2012 Top 10s: 4

Teaser:
<p> It's Playoff Season on the PGA Tour</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 11:49
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-11
Body:

1. Jimmie Johnson  Loses a second one in three weeks in heartbreaking fashion. That may derail some teams, but with the 48, you get the feeling it only makes them more determined.

2. Brad Keselowski  Keselowski and the boys are rounding into form nicely, with seven consecutive runs of ninth or better. They’re going to be a handful at Bristol this weekend.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  After a broken transmission and a spin in the oil knocked Junior’s bunch back the last two weeks, they rebounded in fine fashion to the tune of a fourth-place finish in Michigan.

4. Greg Biffle  Earned his second win of the season at the 2-mile Michigan track. His other was at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. For those keeping score, there are five such tracks in the Chase.

5. Matt Kenseth  It’s been a rocky month for Kenseth, who suffered a cut tire late at Michigan while running in the top 5. As luck would have it, the 17th-place result actually bumped him up a notch to second in the standings.

6. Kasey Kahne  Since a 33rd in the June Michigan race, Kahne has been spot-on, recording eight straight top-15 runs. Like Biffle, the tracks in the Chase line up well for Kahne and his engineer/crew chief-extraordinaire, Kenny Francis.

7. Clint Bowyer  A solid seventh at Michigan did the trick. However, if this team — albeit a relatively new team — is going to challenge in the Chase, it needs more than a boatload of fifth- to ninth-place showings.

8. Martin Truex Jr.  Truex, like his teammate Bowyer, has been as steady as they come this season. However, his No. 56 team must push beyond the sixth- to 10th-place pattern it has fallen into and win races.

9. Denny Hamlin  Virtually invisible at Michigan, Hamlin may have notched the most under-the-radar 11th-place finish in NASCAR history. You have to wonder, with a Chase spot virtually sown up, if this team is doing some testing.

Teaser:
<p> Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are in a frenzied battle for supremacy of Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings. Could this be a preview of the NASCAR Sprint Cup title battle?&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 10:11
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bears, NFC, NFC North, NFL
Path: /nfl/chicago-bears-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

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

The Chicago Bears check in at No. 9.

Team president and CEO Ted Phillips fired general manager Jerry Angelo in the aftermath of last season’s team nose-dive from a 7–3 start to an 8–8 finish. The fatal fade was the direct result of quarterback Jay Cutler’s season-ending fractured thumb in the final minutes of the Week 11 victory over the Chargers. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie was a disaster, and the loss of do-everything running back Matt Forté two weeks later didn’t help.

Phillips hired former Bears area scout Phil Emery to replace Angelo with one simple edict: Narrow the talent gap between the Bears and the NFC North rival Packers (15–1) and Lions (10–6) — and do it now.

Emery opened with a bang, trading for troubled three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who had worn out his welcome in Miami. Emery also added nine unrestricted free agents and re-signed five of his own. Two key newcomers, quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush, give the Bears better depth at those positions than they’ve had since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004. 

Offense

Cutler has never had a legitimate, No. 1 go-to receiver in Chicago. Johnny Knox has been the closest thing to it, but he will start this season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he continues his recovery from offseason spinal fusion surgery.

The 6'4", 230-pound Marshall should more than make up the difference. Judging by the numbers Marshall has compiled, especially as a Bronco in 2007-08 when Cutler was his quarterback (206 catches, 2,590 yards), the excitement over his arrival is justified. Another complaint about the Bears’ mediocre receiving units of the past three seasons has been a lack of size. In the second round of the draft, they added 6'3", 216-pound rookie Alshon Jeffery. Part of their plan for Jeffery is pairing him with Marshall and creating a matchup nightmare for opponents in the red zone. if Knox is able to return healthy, he brings elite speed and a deep threat who averaged 19.6 yards per catch last season and 18.8 in 2010. Although Devin Hester’s production has diminished the past two seasons, he provides another dangerous big-time playmaker. Earl Bennett is Cutler’s most trusted receiver, because he’ll willingly cross the middle and work underneath, and he almost always catches everything he touches.

The offensive line has been an issue over the past two seasons, allowing 105 sacks and ranking near the bottom of the NFL when it comes to protecting the quarterback. The only addition has been former 49ers guard Chilo Rachal, but the O-line’s bigger problems have been at the tackles. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Gabe Carimi, will solidify the right side, assuming he’s fully recovered from the dislocated kneecap that sidelined him after just two games last season. But left tackle will remain a trouble spot unless J’Marcus Webb shows great improvement or someone emerges to unseat him. But who? Webb could be helped by the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. New coordinator Mike Tice, promoted from O-line coach, will not leave his left tackle on an island to protect Cutler’s blind side during seven-step drops, as was the case in 2011.

With Forté finally inked to a new long-term contract, he and Bush should form one of the more productive backfield tandems in the league. Bush's presence also should help keep Forté fresh by reducing his workload and the punishment he will sustain through the course of this season.

Defense

Every standout player on an above-average defense is over 30. But worry may be premature. Four of those old-timers were voted to the Pro Bowl last season — Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. It may be asking too much for all four to continue playing at the same elite level they have over the past decade, but none of them showed signs of wear last season. All four played all 16 games. But what are the odds they’ll remain that durable for another season?

Clearly, the Bears need more help from supporting players and for younger players to step up and play a bigger role, especially in the pass-rush department. The Bears tied for 19th in the NFL in sacks last season, despite the presence of right end Peppers, who had 11 sacks and still commands double-team attention. Even with offenses focused on Peppers, left end Israel Idonije contributed only five sacks. Up-and-down tackle Henry Melton quietly had seven sacks. But no one else who’s back for 2012 had more than two.

The Bears’ defense depends on getting pass-rush pressure almost exclusively from the linemen with little blitz help from the back seven, who ideally can focus on coverage. When the front four doesn’t produce, an average-at-best secondary is more easily exposed. An upgrade is needed across from Tillman, and the safety position has been a revolving door in Smith’s eight years. The Bears have selected a safety in each of the last eight drafts, but they’re still looking for a winning combination.

First-round pick Shea McClellin is being counted on to goose the pass rush, but it’s tough to imagine where any additional pressure will come from. Without that constant pressure up front, the Bears struggle to create the turnovers that have been a huge part of every successful defense during Smith’s reign. Since 2004, the Bears have 265 takeaways, the most in the NFL and 24 more than the second-place Panthers.

Specialists

In their eight years under coordinator Dave Toub, the Bears have annually boasted some of the best special teams units in the NFL, and it’s more than Hester’s 17 return touchdowns. And there is much depth behind Hester, including Eric Weems, and Knox if he returns this season. Robbie Gould is the fifth-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, and his kickoffs have gotten longer over the years, while his range on field goals has increased. He was 6-of-6 from 50 yards or farther last season. Punter Adam Podlesh, in his first year with the team, had an impressive 40.4-yard net average.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the NFC North

By almost all accounts the Bears have upgraded the talent on their roster, especially among backups and role players. Their losses in free agency were minimal. But it remains to be seen if they’ve closed the gap with the Lions and, more important, the Packers. Critics could argue that the only elite player they’ve added is Marshall. But the Bears have high hopes for their top two draft picks, McClellin and Jeffery. And they believe that with the addition of Bush and Campbell they will not be susceptible to the type of free-fall they experienced last season when Cutler and Forté went out. They’re hoping to get at least one more Pro Bowl-type year from their four 30-something defensive stalwarts.

Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Getting The Band Back Together 
Jay Cutler has clamored for a big wide receiver, specifically Brandon Marshall, since he came to the Bears in 2009. But Cutler didn’t really think it would happen. “I’ve talked to anybody and everybody that would listen to me in this building about Brandon Marshall and trying to get him,” Cutler said shortly after the Bears acquired Marshall for two third-round draft picks. “He changes games. When I met with (GM) Phil (Emery), I told him I needed an X. We went and got one of the best in the game.” Marshall has had numerous alcohol-related legal run-ins and has a history of violence against women, but he says he’s getting better since being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Cutler spent three seasons with Marshall in Denver and will be there for his new teammate. “Me and Brandon have a relationship,” Cutler says. “There are times I am going to be tough on him. There are times I’m going to give him a hug. Whatever it calls for, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Mayberry, NFL
Coach Lovie Smith, a native of Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,288), can relate to the small-town background of first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who was raised on a farm by his grandparents in a tiny Idaho town of 1,000. “I texted him and let him know that with 37 in his (high school) graduating class, and since there were 34 in mine, he’s a big-city boy to me,” Smith says. “But we have a spot for him and we’re excited for him to get here.”

Holding His Own
McClellin is considered somewhat of a tweener because he played defensive end and linebacker at Boise State and is “just” 6'3" and 260 pounds. The Bears will play McClellin at defensive end, and Smith has no concerns about his being an every-down player. “Weight is one of the most overrated things there is when you’re talking about a football player,” Smith says. “You’re talking about strength and athletic ability more than that. Shea, believe me, will be able to hold his own with the big boys.”

Going Long
In his first four NFL seasons, Robbie Gould attempted just two field goals of 50 yards or longer and missed both. In the past three seasons, he’s 11-of-13 from that distance, including 6-of-6 last year.

Sending A Message
Comic book aficionado Lance Briggs’ own creation “Pilot Season: Seraph” came out last year. Briggs teamed with writer Phil Hester and artist Jose Luis to tell the tale of Seraph, a man who, after trying to kill himself, instead becomes blessed with supernatural powers. Briggs says the theme of the comic book is faith and belief.

Instant Success
After being inactive for the first five games last season, second-round defensive tackle Stephen Paea sacked Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety on the second snap of his NFL career. “I didn’t even know,” Paea says. “I stood up and they said it was a safety.”

Trivial Pursuit
The only sack of 2010 fourth-round pick Corey Wootton’s NFL career came against the Vikings on Dec. 20, 2010, and essentially ended the career of Brett Favre, who left with a concussion, never to return. Probably.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Wed., August 22

Order your 2012 Chicago Bears Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Chicago Bears 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 09:00
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketballs-biggest-preseason-questions-17-midwest-region-1
Body:

With Midnight Madness less than two months away, our look at some of the biggest questions in college basketball for 2012-13 continues into its second week.

Like the NCAA Tournament, we’re taking on 17 questions in each of our four regions of the country (South, East, Midwest and West) for our Great 68 Questions. We’ve “seeded” our questions, too, ranking the biggest questions in each region.

 

Last week we looked at the South Region (SEC, Big 12, Conference USA, Ohio Valley and Sun Belt) and the East Region (ACC, Big East, the CAA and the Ivy league).

 

Today, we examine the top 17 questions in the Midwest Region, which includes the Big Ten, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and the MAC.

 

Midwest Region No. 1 seed: Does Tom Crean have Indiana ready to return to the Final Four?

A year after returning to the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers are thinking even bigger. Indiana has been at or near the top of nearly every media outlet’s early top 25 for 2012-13, including Athlon’s early rankings in March. The Hoosiers were good enough to defeat three top-five teams last season (Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan State), but all were in Bloomington. The Hoosiers went 0-3 against the same teams outside of Assembly Hall. Four starters return, including pro prospects Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, and the Hoosiers add a top-10 signing class to the mix. This group has talent and experience -- two things wholly absent from Crean’s first team in 2008-09. If Indiana can improve its road record (2011-12 included road losses to NCAA no-shows Nebraska and Iowa), the Hoosiers could contend for a Final Four or more.

Related: Big Ten coach rankings

 

No. 2: Will Deshaun Thomas step out of Jared Sullinger’s shadow?

Thomas arrived in the same signing class as Sullinger and was nearly as highly touted. Ohio State didn’t need Thomas to be a major contributor as a freshman, and as a sophomore he was the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer after Sullinger.  With Sully and William Buford gone, Thomas will need to take the next step to become Ohio State’s biggest scoring threat. Thomas already improved his shooting percentage fro 47.8 percent as a freshman to 52 percent as a sophomore while more than doubling his minutes. The 6-foot-7 power forward averaged 18.9 points during the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments and could threaten to match that average over the course of the 2012-13 season.

 

No. 3: Did Trey Burke return to a Big Ten-championship team?

Trey Burke was a revelation as a freshman, averaging 14.8 points and 4.6 assists as Michigan tied for the best record in the Big Ten. He considered the NBA Draft and would have been the second Wolverines point guard in two seasons to leave early, joining Darius Morris. Instead, Burke returns to a team aiming for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Michigan has two things it hasn’t had under John Beilein: depth and a strong frontcourt that can either bang or win with finesse. The Wolverines also return guard Tim Hardaway Jr. -- and Burke to run the show.

 

No. 4: Who is Michigan State’s leader in the post-Draymond Green era?

At one point or another in the last three seasons, Green led Michigan State in scoring, rebounding and assists. Although the Spartans lose their best player, they should remain in Big Ten contention. Branden Dawson, Michigan State’s top signee a year ago, missed the final six games of the season. The Spartans will count on him to fill the rebounding role (Green averaged 10.6 per game last season, Dawson averaged 4.5). Point guard Keith Appling (11.4 ppg) is also back. His 130 assists were four fewer than Green. Fellow guard Travis Trice surprised last season, and fleet-footed McDonald’s All-American Gary Harris should be one of the top newcomers in the Big Ten. It may take a team effort to replace Green, but Michigan State has the bodies to do so.

Related: Tom Izzo ranks as nation’s No. 1 coach

 

No. 5: How will Butler and VCU take to their new conference?

Butler and VCU both have hopes of competing for an Atlantic 10 title in their first season in the league, though the A-10 may be a more rugged conference than the Horizon and Colonial, respectively. Of the two, VCU may be more equipped to compete immediately in the new league. The Rams return loads of experience from a team that won 29 games before losing by 2 to Indiana in the Round of 32. Butler landed in the College Basketball Invitational last season after going 11-7 in the Horizon League. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke should help Butler’s main deficiency of outside shooting, but veteran point guard Ronald Nored is gone. With the traditional powers in the A-10, Temple and Xavier, going through some roster turnover, Butler and VCU may be in conference title mix.

Related: Stevens, Smart check in as top two coaches in A-10

 

No. 6: Who runs the point in Madison?

Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor didn’t match his prodigious junior season in 2011-12, but Taylor and his 87 career starts will be missed for certain. With a deep, senior-laden frontcourt of Jared Beggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, Wisconsin has one clear question: Who will man the point? Josh Gasser is a junior who stepped in for Taylor when needed, but he may need to be more aggressive a shooter. Redshirt freshman George Marshall also is a good distributor and penetrator off the dribble.

 

No. 7: Is Saint Louis ready for the big time?

Rick Majerus finally has some consistency on his roster. His early teams with the Billikens were filled with freshmen, and shortly before the 2010-11 season, Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed were suspended for the season. Although leading scorer Brian Conklin is gone in 2012-13, Saint Louis is gearing up for another NCAA Tournament run, and perhaps more. The Billikens return six of the top seven scorers, including A-10 Player of the Year candidate Mitchell. After several seasons of Temple and Xavier perched atop the A-10, a changing of the guard may be on its way. Saint Louis, which has not won even a share of a conference title since 1971, is poised to take advantage.

 

No. 8: Temple and Xavier lose key cogs. Are they still A-10 contenders?

We’ve twice mentioned roster turnover at Temple and Xavier in this countdown.  That’s with good reason. Both Temple and Xavier have finished in the top three in the A-10 in each of the last five seasons. The trend may change this season. First, teams like Saint Louis, Butler, VCU and more are in the mix. Second, the Owls and Musketeers are rebuilding. Xavier may have to rely on sophomore Dez Wells and a handful of freshmen with veterans Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons (a transfer to Arizona) gone. Temple’s situation is a little less precarious. The Owls have a proven scorer in Khalif Wyatt and veterans Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson on board, but guards Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore are out. Both should remain competitive, but NCAA Tournament berths for either are not guaranteed.

 

No. 9: Can the McDermotts take Creighton from good to great?

Dana Altman built a consistent NCAA Tournament program at Creighton, a program that has won at least 20 games in 13 of the last 14 seasons. The ceiling has never been higher in Omaha, with the Bluejays coming off a 29-6 season in Greg McDermott’s second season. All-American Doug McDermott is a National Player of the Year candidate again, but the goal is to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974. Almost every piece is back for Creighton, but the departure of three-year starting point guard Antoine Young is a big loss. Sophomore Austin Chatman and senior Grant Gibbs can both run the point to their strengths, but neither may bring the scoring threat Young did.

Related: McDermott, Marshall crack top 10 of “best of the rest” coaches

 

No. 10: What does the post-Robbie Hummel era mean for Purdue?

Purdue coach Matt Painter is starting over. Due to the season-ending injury that kept him out of the 2010-11 season, Hummel didn’t leave with his signing class of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Either way, Purdue will be young with nine underclassmen and four freshmen. The Boilermakers will have size and talent, but they’ll be at a major experience disadvantage against most other teams in the Big Ten. Not that it’s an unfamiliar place for Painter -- A team led by freshmen and sophomores, including Hummel and Moore, went 15-3 in the Big Ten in 2007-08.

 

No. 11: Does a healthy Trevor Mbakwe turn Minnesota to a Tournament team?

Tubby Smith led the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament in two of his first three seasons, but Minnesota slipped to 6-12 in the Big Ten in each of the last two. That said, Minnesota has to wonder what might have been last season. The Gophers got only seven games out of Trevor Mbakwe (13.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg) after he was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Senior Rodney Williams (17.2 ppg in the final nine games) and sophomore point guard Andre Hollins (16.8 ppg in the final nine) finished last season on a tear on the way to the NIT final. If that momentum carries, Minnesota will contend.

 

No. 12: Was John Groce the missing piece at Illinois?

John Groce’s teams at Ohio had a knack of getting hot at the right time. Despite never winning as much as a MAC division title, the Bobcats won two MAC tournaments in four seasons under Groce and advanced in the NCAA Tourney each time, including the Sweet 16 in 2012. Illinois has had the opposite program, missing the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five seasons. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are experienced guards who may excel under Groce, but Illinois may be a multi-year project. Groce, a noted recruiter at Ohio State, will be watched closely on his ability to restock the roster, too.

Related: Groce, Weber among top coaches hired for 2012-13

 

No. 13: Does Fran McCaffery have the nation’s top sleeper team?

Iowa quietly proved it was back on the right track last season, finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2006-07 and winning a postseason game (in the NIT) for the first time since 2003. Leading scorer Matt Gatens is gone, but the Hawkeyes are as optimistic as they’ve been in recent years. Every other key player returns. If freshman point guard Matt Gesell can handle the position, Iowa could contend for an NCAA Tournament spot.

 

No. 14: Are UMass and St. Joseph’s ready to step into A-10 prominence?

No one will confuse these UMass and St. Joe’s teams with the ones led by Marcus Camby and Jameer Nelson, but both schools enter the season with hopes of contending for NCAA Tournament berths. UMass returns all but one starter from a team that won 25 games and played in NIT thanks to the arrival of 5-9 point guard Chaz Williams. St. Joe’s brings back all five starters to a team that returned to 20-win status for the first time since 2007-08. The RedHawks also are led by one of the league’s best point guards, Carl Jones. 

 

No. 15: Does Ohio have another NCAA Tournament run in mind?

More often than not, when a mid-major loses a successful coach to a major power, it hits rebuilding mode. That might not be the case with post-John Groce Ohio. The Bobcats brought in former TCU coach Jim Christian, who is already a proven MAC winner, going 76-28 in the league and 137-59 overall at Kent State from 2002-08. D.J. Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg) is a senior, and a handful of other key players return to a team that took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.

 

No. 16: Has the NCAA Tournament window closed at Northwestern?

Northwestern has come close to reaching its first NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats have ultimately landed in the NIT in each of the last four seasons. John Shurna, Northwestern’s best player the last three seasons, is gone, meaning the  Wildcats will need a new go-to player. Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski and JerShon Cob are back, plus Northwestern adds Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire. The Wildcats lack the superstar, but they may be more balanced than they’ve ever been under Bill Carmody.

 

No. 17: What hope does Wichita State have with five seniors gone?

Wichita State spent three seasons building to 2011-12, winning the NIT a year before winning the Missouri Valley regular season title. Five seniors are gone, including two all-conference picks and an all-defensive team selection. Wichita State might not go neck and neck with Creighton, but the Shockers still have hopes for the postseason. Carl Hall was the league’s Newcomer of the Year last season, and Shockers could add a second consecutive player to win that award with the arrival of Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead.

-David Fox 

@DavidFox615

Teaser:
<p> College Basketball's Biggest Preseason Questions: 17 for the Midwest Region</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 07:58
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/top-10-nfl-players-age-35-and-over
Body:

Typically as NFL players age, their skills diminish and their battered bodies fail, leading many to retire or find another line of work before they hit 30. But a few are able to stand the test of time and excel in a league full of 20-somethings. Here are the 10 best old-timers in the NFL.

 
1. Tom Brady, New England, QB (Age: 35)
Brady likely had a Hall of Fame career before the last two seasons, but has now taken his game to perhaps a higher level, averaging nine yards per attempt the last two years and completing over 65 percent of his passes in both. Last year, the numbers were insane: 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. Brady may not just be the best player over 35, he may be the best player, period.
 
2. Peyton Manning, Denver, QB (Age: 36)
So we don’t know what kind of player Manning will be after a neck injury cost him the 2011 season, but the Broncos were willing to pay $18 million (and jettison Tim Tebow) to find out. Suffice to say they’re counting on something like the numbers he posted in 2010, when he threw for 4,700 yards, 33 scores, and 17 picks. Until we know he can’t produce like he used to, it’s hard to justify ranking anyone other than Brady ahead of him.
 
3. London Fletcher, Washington, LB (Age: 37)
Fletcher is like a bottle of fine wine – the older he gets, the better he is. Last season may have been his best yet: he led the league with 166 total tackles, had a pair of interceptions, and forced two fumbles.
 
4. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta, TE (Age: 36)
The 12-time Pro Bowler made another last year with 80 catches, 875 yards and seven scores.
 
5. Ray Lewis, Baltimore, LB (Age: 37)
Some say Lewis has lost a step, but he keeps getting voted to Pro Bowls anyway: last year was his sixth straight. He led the stout Ravens defense with 107 total tackles last year, forced a pair of fumbles, and also had an interception.
 
6. Brian Waters, New England, G (Age: 35)
It’s hard to assign value to offensive linemen, but Pro-FootballReference.com gives it a shot with a number it calls “approximate value.” Waters’ number was 11 last season. By comparison, Fletcher had a 12, Gonzalez, an 11, and Lewis, a 9. His comrades also recognized his value by selecting him to the Pro Bowl, his second-straight and sixth overall for the Patriots’ guard.
 
7. Charles Woodson, Green Bay, CB (Age: 35)
Woodson was a first team All-Pro selection after leading the NFL with seven interceptions last season, just two years removed from doing the same thing in 2009. They're already preparing a plaque for Woodson at the Hall of Fame; every passing season just adds another line of text.
 
8. Ronde Barber, Tampa, CB (Age: 37)
Barber’s definitely on the downside of his career, but it might be a Hall of Fame career, and last year, Barber did something that not many NFL corners do: start 16 games at age 37. He finished with three interceptions and 78 tackles, 66 of them solo.
 
9. Antoine Winfield, Minnesota, CB (Age: 35)
Like Fletcher, he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older until he missed 11 games with a broken collarbone last year. The Vikings’ corner had always been great against the run, but had also developed into a guy you didn’t want to throw against. Last year’s injury won’t sideline him this time around, and he’d made three-straight Pro Bowls coming into last season.
 
10. Jeff Saturday, Green Bay, C (Age: 37) 
Almost as strange as seeing Manning in a Broncos’ uniform will be someone other than Saturday snapping him the ball. Saturday signed a 2-year deal with the Packers, and is just one year removed from a Pro Bowl appearance.
 
 
by Chris Lee (@chrislee70), publisher of VandySports.com
Teaser:
<p> Sometimes in football, older is better</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 06:11
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-30-wide-receivers-2012
Body:

The Pac-12 and Big 12 are two of college football's top conferences for offense, so it's no surprise that eight of the top 10 receivers hail from those two leagues. USC's Robert Woods is coming off a stellar sophomore season and can only get better in 2012, especially if he is 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury. Clemson's Sammy Watkins will miss the first two games of the year but will be one of college football's top receivers by the end of 2012.

When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential. 

College Football's Top 30 Wide Receivers for 2012

1. Robert Woods, USC
One half of USC’s impressive receiver duo, Woods was one of eight players in the country to catch more than 100 passes -- and he was the only one to do so in 12 games thanks to USC’s bowl ban. Woods will get his chance to play in the postseason after accounting for 176 catches for 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns (15 last season) in his first two years at USC.

2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Despite his two-game suspension to start 2012, Watkins checks in as Athlon’s No. 1 player in the ACC. High expectations surrounded Watkins from the moment he arrived on campus, and he quickly emerged as Clemson’s top target, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 scores. The Florida native was also a dangerous weapon on special teams, averaging 25 yards per kickoff return and taking one back for a touchdown in the win over Maryland. Although Watkins could have trouble matching last season’s totals, expect the sophomore to finish as a first-team All-American.

3. Keenan Allen, California
Few players in the nation have as much raw physical talent and skill as Allen possesses. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound stud from Greensboro, N.C., flashed first-round NFL talent as only a sophomore last year by catching 82 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns. He is the half-brother of quarterback Zach Maynard and clearly has an unspoken rapport with Cal signal caller. Look for this to be Allen’s final year in a Golden Bear uniform.

4. Tavon Austin, West Virginia
At 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, Austin isn’t your prototypical wide receiver. Don’t be fooled though, the Baltimore native is one of college football’s top playmakers and will give Big 12 defenses plenty of headaches in 2012. He led the team with 101 receptions, ranked second with 1,186 yards, while catching eight touchdowns and taking two returns for a score on special teams. Austin closed out 2011 on a high note, catching 12 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl victory over Clemson. The senior is one of college football’s top all-purpose threats and should top 100 receptions once again in 2012.

5. Marquess Wilson, Washington State
Most Pac-12 fans are familiar with Wilson but expect to see him become a household name nationally after 2012. With Mike Leach’s pass-first attack coming to Pullman, the Cougars should be one of the top offenses in the nation. Wilson has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and caught 18 touchdown passes over the last two years. His best performance came against San Diego State in 2011, grabbing six passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. With Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Keenan Allen returning, it will be a battle to get first-team all-conference honors. However, there’s no question Wilson will have the stats to get in the mix for first-team All-Pac-12 and All-American honors.

6. Marqise Lee, USC
With Robert Woods posting a record-setting season on the other side, it was easy to overlook Lee’s performance in 2011. As a true freshman, he finished with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Lee came on strong over the second half of the season, catching at least seven passes in each of the final five games. Woods is still USC’s No. 1 receiver, but Lee will see plenty of passes in his direction. Expect the sophomore to surpass last season’s totals, while pushing for All-American honors.

7. Stedman Bailey, West Virginia
Bailey was a high school teammate of quarterback Geno Smith, and the chemistry showed. Bailey caught 72 passes, including 12 touchdowns. His 1,279 receiving yards set a school record and his eight 100-yard receiving game tied one. He’s the other half of the Big 12’s best receiving tandem along with Tavon Austin.

8. Justin Hunter, Tennessee
The talented receiver caught seven touchdown passes as a freshman in 2010 while averaging a staggering 25.9 yards on 16 receptions. The expectations for Hunter were sky-high last season before he suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the year at Florida. Hunter did total 302 yards and two scores in the first two games before his injury. If he returns to his former elite athlete level, Hunter will be one of the most explosive weapons in the SEC.

9. Terrance Williams, Baylor
Robert Griffin and Kendall Wright are gone, but the Baylor passing attack shouldn’t suffer too big of a drop in 2012. Williams will take over as the team’s No. 1 receiver after catching 59 passes for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the senior has the size and speed combination that will be very attractive for NFL teams next April. 

10. Kenny Stills, Oklahoma
Bob Stoops said Landry Jones’ late-season swoon wasn’t all on the shoulders of the quarterback. Certainly, that means Stills needs to improve his consistency. He was more productive last season as a No. 2 receiver to Ryan Broyles, but failed to catch a touchdown or produce a 100-yard game after the calendar turned to November. He has great potential, so now it’s time to put it all together.

11. Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee
Update: Rogers has been suspended indefinitely and may not play at Tennessee in 2012.

Few players are a bigger anomaly than Mr. Rogers. He has NFL size, speed, explosiveness and upside. He is a nightmare match-up for any NCAA defensive back and will make huge plays after the catch. But the knucklehead factor is strong with the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Calhoun, Ga., native. He has had multiple issues off the field and his dedication/commitment to his team and craft remain a large question mark. He also has a tendency to drop the easy pass. Should things fall right and Rogers stays focused, he could be the best WR in the SEC. If not, he might be the third-best WR on his own team.

12. Josh Boyce, TCU
Boyce is TCU’s top big-play threat at receiver, with nearly twice as many yards last season than the Horned Frogs’ No. 2 wideout. Boyce finished last season with 61 catches for 998 yards for an average of 14.9 yards per catch. Three of his nine touchdowns came in the upset of Boise State, including two touchdowns that torched the Broncos secondary for 74 and 69 yards.

13. Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas
The 6-foot-3 wide receiver should be quarterback Tyler Wilson’s favorite target this season. Hamilton had 34 catches for 542 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, averaging 15.9 yards per reception. He has the size and speed combination to be one of the top wideouts in the SEC and a star for the Razorbacks in 2012.

14. Ryan Swope, Texas A&M
Swope was one of the Big 12’s top receivers last season, catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 scores. His six 100-yard games and 89 catches were a school record. Matching those numbers could be difficult in 2012, especially with Texas A&M breaking in a new quarterback and offensive scheme. New coach Kevin Sumlin’s spread offense should allow for Swope to have plenty of looks in the open field, but he needs the new quarterback to quickly settle into the starting role. Even if Swope’s numbers drop a bit, expect the senior to challenge for first-team All-SEC honors. 

15. Nick Harwell, Miami (Ohio)
Harwell looks to be the next receiver in the list of standout receivers from the MAC. As a freshman in 2010, he caught 64 passes for 871 yards and six scores. Harwell was even better as a sophomore last year, grabbing 97 receptions for 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns. The Texas native had five games of at least 10 receptions, including 15 in the 24-21 loss to Temple. Harwell has been named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list for 2012.

16. Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech
Patton was one of 2011's top impact junior college transfers, recording 74 catches for 1,135 yards and 10 scores. He was a first-team All-WAC selection and is on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award for 2012. Patton had one 200-yard game (Central Arkansas) last year and should be Louisiana Tech's No. 1 target once again this season.  

17. Markus Wheaton, Oregon State
In a league stacked with future NFL stars at wide receiver, it is easy for Wheaton to get overlooked. With a freshman quarterback throwing the ball, the dynamic athlete caught 73 passes for 986 yards to go with 190 yards rushing. It would not be going out on a limb to suggest Wheaton reaches paydirt more than the one touchdown he scored last fall.

18. Darrin Moore, Texas Tech
A suspension for a DWI arrest has clouded Moore’s status with the team for 2012. Before a leg injury against Nevada last year, Moore was one of college football’s leading receivers with 21 receptions through the first two games. If he avoids a lengthy suspension, the senior should contend for first-team All-Big 12 honors. There's certainly some risk by ranking Moore this high, but there's also a lot of potential based on what we saw last year. 

19. Odell Beckham, LSU
Beckham had an impressive debut as a true freshman in 2011, catching 41 passes for 475 yards and two scores. The New Orleans native is primed for a breakout year, especially with Rueben Randle moving onto the NFL. New quarterback Zach Mettenberger should be able to stretch the field more than Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee did, which should allow Beckham to use his speed and athleticism even more in 2012. 

20. Tracy Moore, Oklahoma State
Justin Blackmon is gone, and so is Josh Cooper and their 193 catches between them. Moore is the Cowboys’ top returning receiver with 45 receptions for 692 yards and four touchdowns. The early returns on his move from inside receiver to outside have been positive.

21. Tevin Reese, Baylor
With Kendall Wright catching passes in the NFL, Reese and teammate Terrance Williams will be a bigger part of the offense in 2012. Reese has been a big-play threat for Baylor over the last two years, averaging 17.2 yards per catch last season, including a 69-yard touchdown against Oklahoma. Reese should post career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns in 2012.

22. Conner Vernon, Duke
Vernon has racked up 2,675 receiving yards and 13 touchdown passes on 198 catches in three seasons for the Blue Devils, leading the team in receiving the last two seasons. He could threaten school and ACC records by the end of the season.

23. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
Hopkins is a clear No. 2 receiver on a team with Sammy Watkins, but he’s poised to make a statement of his own in 2012. The junior caught 72 passes last season (fourth-most in Clemson history) for 978 yards with five touchdowns. He also had three 100-yard receiving games in the final seven.

24. Rashad Greene, Florida State
Thanks to Sammy Watkins’ emergence last season, it was easy to overlook Greene’s freshman totals in the ACC. He caught 38 passes for 596 yards and seven scores but was slowed by an injury that forced him to miss four games midway through the year. With a full offseason to heal back to 100 percent, Greene should be one of the ACC’s top receivers and the No. 1 target for quarterback EJ Manuel.

25. Emory Blake, Auburn
Injuries and quarterback play limited Blake's numbers last season, but he has potential to be one of the top receivers in the SEC. In 11 games last season, Blake caught 36 passes for 613 yards and five scores. He also averaged an impressive 17 yards per catch, while posting three 100-yard efforts last season. 

26. Cody Hoffman, BYU
Hoffman came on strong at the end of 2010 and picked up where he left off early in 2011. The California native caught eight passes for 138 yards against BYU in the third week of the season and closed out 2011 by recording three 100-yard performances. Hoffman is the No. 1 target for quarterback Riley Nelson and has a chance to improve on his numbers in 2012.

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

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

29. Kasen Williams, Washington
With Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar expiring their eligibility at the end of 2011, the Huskies are looking for a new go-to target. Williams should be Keith Price’s preferred receiver in 2012, especially after catching 36 passes for 427 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman last year. 

30. Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma
Finding weapons for quarterback Landry Jones is the biggest fall priority for the Sooners’ offense. Kenny Stills is one of the Big 12’s top receivers, but after that is where the question marks begin. Metoyer did not qualify last season and attended Hargrave Academy in preparation for 2012. He was one of the top receivers in the 2011 recruiting class and did not disappoint in spring practice, catching six passes for 72 yards in the Red-White game. Although Ryan Broyles will be missed, Metoyer’s emergence should ease concerns about the Oklahoma receiving corps.

The Next 12

Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest
DeVonte Christopher, Utah
Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
Noel Grigsby, San Jose State
Darius Johnson, SMU
Alec Lemon, Syracuse
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
T.J. Moe, Missouri
Jaxon Shipley, Texas
Devin Street, Pittsburgh
Eric Ward, Texas Tech

20 Freshmen to Watch (True and Redshirt)

Nelson Agholor, USC
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
Joel Caleb, Virginia Tech
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Quinshad Davis, North Carolina
Stefon Diggs, Maryland
Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
Deontay Greenberry, Houston
Cayleb Jones, Texas
Gabe Marks, Washington State
Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma
Andre McDonald, Minnesota
Davonte' Neal, Notre Dame
Durron Neal, Oklahoma
Jordan Payton, UCLA
Shaq Roland, South Carolina
Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
Michael Thomas, Ohio State
Jordan Thompson, West Virginia
Bryce Treggs, California

10 Transfers to Watch

DeAnthony Arnett, Michigan State (from Tennessee)
Brice Butler, San Diego State (from USC)
Chris Dunkley, South Florida (from Florida)
Bryce McNeal, Louisville (from Clemson)
Javares McRoy, Texas Tech (from Florida)
Shakim Phillips, Connecticut (from Boston College)
Kyle Prater, Northwestern (from USC)
Je'Ron Stokes, Bowling Green (Michigan)
Darryl Stonum, Baylor (Michigan)
Tyson Williams, Texas Tech (from West Texas A&M)

by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Mark Ross and Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

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Ranking College Football's Top 15 Tight Ends for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 30 RBs for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 30 QBs for 2012

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Ranking the Pac-12's Top 50 Players for 2012

Ranking the Big 12's Top 50 Players for 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's Top 50 Players for 2012

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Projecting College Football's Win Totals for 2012

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Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 30 Wide Receivers for 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:33
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-15-tight-ends-2012
Body:

The tight end position has been lacking in recent years, but there's a good crop of players ready to emerge in 2012. Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert ranks as Athlon's No. 1 tight end for this season, while Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins will only get better after a solid freshman campaign in 2011. Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz are two players who should easily surpass last year's totals, while non-BCS standouts Jack Doyle, Ryan Otten and Gavin Escobar should not be overlooked.

When compiling the rankings, Athlon considered how each player will perform in 2012, some past performance, personnel losses around the quarterback, conference difficulty and pro potential. 

College Football's Top 15 Tight Ends for 2012

1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame
An elite tight end is a rarity in college football in recent years. Luckily for Notre Dame, Eifert turned down the NFL Draft to return to South Bend and should be the nation’s best at his position going into the 2012 season. He ranked second on the team with 63 receptions, 803 yards and five receiving scores last year. Eifert had at least one catch in every game last season and caught eight passes for 75 yards and one touchdown in the win against Pittsburgh. With Michael Floyd finishing his eligibility in South Bend, Eifert is the now the leader of the receiving corps and should be targeted more by Notre Dame quarterbacks in 2012. 

2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
As only a true freshman, the big-time prep star from Gig Harbor High School produced a season no Washington freshman tight end has ever posted. His 538 yards receiving were No. 2 all-time in UW history for a freshman of any position while ranking No. 3 all-time for any tight end of any age. He did all of that on 41 catches to go with six touchdowns. He has a chance to be the best player at his position nationally with continued development.

3. Joseph Fauria, UCLA
The nephew of NFL veteran tight end Christian Fauria, Joseph Fauria caught 39 passes for 481 yards with six touchdowns last season. He’ll be a top target for new Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley in the new “Y” position.

4. Chris Gragg, Arkansas
The veteran tight end had an excellent season in 2011, ranking third on the team in receptions. Gragg totaled 41 catches for 518 yards and two scores, and he was a star (8 catches, 119 yards, 1 TD) in the Mississippi State game. Arkansas will look for more of the same in 2012.

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

6. Levine Toiolo, Stanford
Stanford’s three-tight end attack is down to two with juniors Zach Ertz and Toilolo. Though Toilolo was the third of the tree, he finished 348 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

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

8. Philip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn
Lutzenkirchen has 14 career touchdowns on 44 catches combined, while CBS broadcast team ensures we’ll never forget how to pronounce his name.

9. Ryan Griffin, Connecticut
Griffin will never be the flashiest pass-catching tight end in any league, but his all around play as both an in-line blocker and experienced receiver make him the best tight end in the Big East. His leadership will be invaluable along the line this fall.

10. Gavin Escobar, San Diego State
Escobar was the Mountain West's top tight end last season, catching 51 passes for 780 yards and seven scores. Repeating those numbers in 2012 could be difficult, especially with the Aztecs breaking in a new quarterback and the departure of running back Ronnie Hillman. The good news for San Diego State? New quarterback Ryan Katz has experience at Oregon State, and there's plenty of weapons on the outside, which should allow Escobar to continue to thrive over the middle.

11. Ryan Otten, San Jose State
Otten emerged as a key part of San Jose State's offense last year, posting career highs in catches (52), receiving yards (739) and scores (5). Injuries prevented Otten from reaching his potential in 2009 and 2010, as he combined for just 27 receptions over that span. The senior will have a new quarterback in 2012 but should push for 50-60 receptions once again.

12. Jack Doyle, Western Kentucky
Doyle has been a steady performer over the last three years and has been named to the Mackey Award watch list for the second consecutive year. He is coming off his best overall season, catching 52 passes for 614 yards, including nine for 89 yards in the 31-21 win over North Texas. The Hilltoppers will miss running back Bobby Rainey, but quarterback Kawaun Jakes should have his best season, which should allow Doyle to threaten last season's numbers.

13. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
Fiedorowicz has just 16 catches through two seasons at Iowa but is expected to have a breakout 2012 campaign. He came on strong over the final four games of 2011, catching 12 passes (three went for scores) over the final four weeks. New coordinator Greg Davis expects to get Fiedorowicz involved early and often in Iowa's offense this year.

14. Randall Telfer, USC
It's easy to overlook Telfer with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee dominating the catch totals each week. However, Telfer grabbed 26 receptions for 273 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Expect the sophomore to become a bigger part of USC's offense in 2012.

15. Zach Ertz, Stanford
Ertz is the second Stanford tight end to crack the top 15 of this list. With Coby Fleener catching passes in the NFL, look for Ertz to see more looks in 2012. He caught 27 passes for 346 yards and four scores last season and will be a valuable safety valve for Stanford's new quarterback.

The Next 11

Matt Furstenburg, Maryland
Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State
Hubie Graham, Pittsburgh
Chase Harper, Texas State
Andrei Lintz, Washington State
Colt Lyerla, Oregon
Nick O'Leary, Florida State
Jordan Reed, Florida
Dion Sims, Michigan State
Michael Williams, Alabama
Luke Willson, Rice

 

by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Mark Ross and Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

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Ranking the Big 12's Top 50 Players for 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's Top 50 Players for 2012

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Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 15 Tight Ends for 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:30
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-25-games-2012
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With 124 teams, ll conferences and Notre Dame, there are no shortage of great match-ups to fill the 14-week college football season. Rarely will a weekend go by without a top flight, marquee dual taking place somewhere in the country. And honestly, the weekends that always look bland and vanilla on the front end are generally the ones that end up providing huge upsets with national title implications hanging in the balance.

2012 won't be any different. There will be more than one Iowa State-Oklahoma State or Texas Tech-Oklahoma. There will be at least one more Michigan State-Wisconsin match-up. Maybe even two. And yes, there will be two more "Games of the Century" this season as well. Let's just hope that they don't take place at the exact same time — looking at you greedy TV executives. So with honey-do lists and in-laws to deal with, football fans can rest easy and budget their viewing needs according to Athlon Sports Top 25 Must-See college football match-ups. Because you don't want to miss any of these.

Criteria:

Importance: Does the game carry national, conference or divisional championship implication?
Level of Ability: Does the game involve the most elite players and coaches in the game today?
Storylines: What sort of rivarry, history, tradition and backstory exists?
Production Value: Does this game have high-flying, big-play, late-game heroics-type potential?

1a. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Alabama at LSU
The plotline for these two programs over the last 18 months or so has been well documented. Game of the Century Part 1 was an offensively challenged 9-6 road win for LSU on the legs of Brad Wing and Drew Alleman. While the Tigers deserved all the credit for the brutally contested clutch win, it still appeared to most who watched the game that Alabama was the superior team. As it turns out, it wasn’t really even close. LSU showed up for the BCS national championship game woefully under prepared and clearly lacking focus and motivation. The game now shifts to Baton Rouge, and the Death Valley faithful have had November 3 circled on the calendar ever since that fateful night in January when their team gained 92 total yards and five first downs.

1b. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Oregon at USC
The West Coast Game of the Century is easily the top football game west of the Mississippi this fall. In fact, when all the dust settles on the college football regular season, it could easily be the No. 1 football game played this fall. Two special offenses, a Heisman Trophy candidate, national title implications and the revenge factor from a terrific 38-35 showing last fall makes this must-see TV on Nov. 3. Fans better hope that the greedy television executives don't play the game at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama — which should decide the other half of the BCS national championship game on the exact same day. The Trojans are the pick since the game happens at home and they won last year, however, the Ducks' defense will be improved and good enough to win down in L.A. The scoreboard operator better do some stretching before the opening kick-off.

3. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Oklahoma vs Texas (Dallas, TX)
The Red River Shootout (no, I refuse to call it the rivalry based strictly on principle) is easily the most important football game played in the state of Texas every single season. The last 12 Big South champions were eitherTexas or Oklahoma, and other than Oklahoma State last fall, one of these two teams had claimed the Big 12 crown seven straight years. With Texas reestablishing itself last fall and Oklahoma getting Landry Jones back on offense, these two once again look like the top Big 12 champion picks in 2012. Therefore, the Texas State Fair once again will host the most important game played in the Big 12 this fall when the Cotton Bowl is cut right down the middle with Crimson and Cream on one side and Burnt Orange on the other.

4. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Michigan at Ohio State
Easily the biggest rivalry in the Midwest is, in most years, the biggest rivalry game in the nation. With the Urban renewal taking place in Columbus and Brady Hoke reenergizing the Michigan faithful in lightning rod fashion last fall, this game should return to the 10 Year War level of intensity. So can the Wolverines walk into the Horseshoe and beat the Buckeyes this fall? It will be tougher than most Maize and Blue fans want to admit. Ohio State has nothing else to play for but ruining its rival’s season. Ohio State has a better overall roster of talent. And Ohio State is at home. Remember, the worst Ohio State team in a decade nearly defeated the best Michigan team in half a decade last fall on the road in Ann Arbor. The smart money is on Ohio State.

5. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Georgia at South Carolina
If the SEC West semifinal is LSU-Bama, then the Eastern’s semi will take place in Columbia on the first Saturday in October. Normally one of the first two games of the year, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have to wait until the second month to square off. The Cocks won last year in a shootout in Athens on the back of turnovers and special teams — they scored essentially four touchdowns on defense and a fake punt. But Marcus Lattimore’s fourth quarter performance was what sealed the win for Carolina, and No. 21 is back healthy this fall. Georgia already has a strong track record of success in Williams-Brice Stadium and should have its full compliment of defensive stars by the time these two meet as well. The Dawgs have won four of the last five in Columbia.

6. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Clemson at Florida State
There are two games inside of the ACC that truly stand above the rest this fall, and since Clemson-Florida State figures to have more fireworks, it gets the nod as the most anticipated game of the year. The Tigers rolled-up 443 yards of offense in the 35-30 win over the Noles in Death Valley last year. Jimbo Fisher and company don't plan on allowing that type of offensive production this time around. Considering the rebuilt Clemson offensive line — and getting the game in Doak Campbell Stadium — FSU should be able to control the line of scrimmage this year. It will fall to Tajh Boyd, who dropped 344 yards and three scoring strikes on FSU last year, to make the key plays if Clemson wants to win. Of course, getting EJ Manuel back under center, who missed last year's game with an injury, helps the Seminoles' chances as well.

7. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Alabama at Arkansas
Arkansas fans are optimistic that, even without Bobby Petrino, their Razorbacks can compete for an SEC title. Well, winning the West is the first step and Week 3 gives John L. Smith a chance to prove his worth against the defending national champions. That said, AJ McCarron outplayed Tyler Wilson, Nick Saban out-coached Petrnio and the Bama defense out-stifled the Hogs last time they met. Arkansas will have to reverse nearly all of the above to pull off the upset this season. Running the ball more effectively will narrow the gap, as Bama outgained the Hogs 197 to 17 on the ground in the 38-14 decision last fall. Can the return of Knile Davis, and getting the contest at home, tip the scales in favor of Coach Smith? Fans won’t have to wait long to find out.

8. Week 13 (Nov. 23) LSU at Arkansas
Arkansas has had some recent success in this series with three wins in the last five meetings. However, last fall’s 41-17 whitewashing of the Hogs pushed LSU into the SEC title game. Les Miles’ bunch rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns at a per carry clip of 6.2 yards. Tyler Wilson and company mustered 248 total yards of offense. Shifting the series back home gives the Hogs a better shot at an upset this time around. So will having Knile Davis back fully healthy — a guy who rushed for 152 yards and a score on 30 carries in the 31-23 win over LSU two years ago.

9. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Oklahoma at West Virginia
While this match-up hasn’t happened much over the years — four times total and only once since 1982 — the most recent showdown in the Fiesta Bowl back in 2008 was one of the signature performances of recent BCS lore. The 48-28 win for West Virginia featured peak of the Pat White era and won the late Bill Stewart the head coaching job in Morgantown. Now, the Sooners will make their first-ever trip to Morgantown and more than just bowl bragging rights will be on the line. This is the top road test for Oklahoma this fall and a win over WVU on the road is a must if Bob Stoops wants to win yet another Big 12 championship.

10. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Michigan State at Michigan
This game has been one of streaks of late. Michigan won six straight from 2002 to 2007 before Michigan State took over the state in 2008. If the Spartans want to win a fifth straight in the series, quarterback play will have to stabilize for Michigan State over the first half of the season. This game could easily decide not only the Legends Division title but also the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl participant. For a team like Michigan State, who hasn’t played in Pasadena since 1988, this game carries more than just in-state bragging rights. Shockingly, Michigan is searching for its first Big Ten title since 2004 and a win over Sparty likely gives it to them.

Related: September's Top 10 Non-Conference Games of 2012

11. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan State at Wisconsin
This season could be an inverted version of last season for Michigan State and Wisconsin. It is hard to see State going into Madison and getting the win — a place Sparty hasn’t won in since 2001. Yet, these could very easily meet again in the second annual B1G championship game. These two played two of the most memorable Big Ten football games in the history of the league last year and this fall could feature two more heart-stopping editions of what is developing into an elite rivalry game.

12. Week 1 (Sept. 3): Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
The best current ACC stat? The winner of this game has gone on to win the Coastal Division every year since the conference split into two divisions. So no pressure in Week 1 in primetime on Labor Day night, right? Logan Thomas did his best Cam Newton impersonation in last year's 37-26 Thursday night win in Atlanta, scoring five times in the victory. Bud Foster's defense did just enough to get the win and will have had all summer to prepare for the vaunted Paul Johnson triple option. This game will feature strength on strength as the Hokies should possess one of the nation's elite defenses while the Yellow Jackets return a deep and talented offensive line and backfield. The whole nation will be watching the game that should once again decide one half of the ACC championship equation.

13. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Dawgs have won only four times in this series since 1989, but last year’s 24-20 win helped Georgia make it back to Atlanta and the SEC title game. On the arm of Aaron Murray and the river boat gambling of Mark Richt, Georgia won its first Outdoor Cocktail Party since 2007. If the Dawgs out-rush the Gators 185 to -19 again this year, fans can bank on another UGA victory.

14. Week 11 (Nov. 8): Florida State at Virginia Tech
Should the preseason predictions hold true, this will be a preview of this season's ACC championship game. Virginia Tech is the clear heavy favorite in the Coastal while Florida State gets its primary Atlantic Division test with Clemson at home. The last time these two met, the Hokies out-ran the Noles 44-33 in the 2010 ACC title game. In fact, after three decades of dominance from FSU in the series, Frank Beamer has won two of the last three meetings. These are easily the top two defenses in the league and points will be at a premium for a pair of mammoth quarterbacks — the 6-5, 240 pound Manuel and the 6-6, 260 pound Thomas. Expect heavy hitting and lots of ice packs.

15. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Auburn at Alabama
The Iron Bowl is filled with as much hatred as any other rivalry in the history of college football. And the stakes have never been as high as they have been over the past few seasons. The winner of this game has gone on to win the BCS National Championship in each of the last three seasons. The intensity and passion of an already rabid rivalry has reached an all-time high. With Bama acting as defending champs and Auburn enthused about new coordinators, War Eagle fans are expecting something much tighter than last season's 42-14 outcome.

16. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Alabama vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
This might be the marquee non-conference match-up of the season. It is the first regular season match-up between the two historic programs and the Wolverines own a two (1988, 200) to one (1997) lead in the series. The thought that it may be one-sided, however, keeps it from sitting much higher on the list. The defending national champions have one of the deepest college teams ever assembled and Brady Hoke will be hard-pressed to stop the Bama rushing attack in the second half. Michigan can keep it close for three quarters, but in Jerry's Palace with that offensive line, Nick Saban should come away victorious. This game means more nationally to college football than it does within the Big Ten — and even less than that in the SEC.

17. Week 8 (Oct. 20) South Carolina at Florida
Both South Carolina and Georgia get plenty of key contests at home this fall, but Carolina’s trip down to The Swamp is the second biggest SEC East game of the year. From 1940 to 2004, the Gamecocks were winless against the Gators. Since then, Steve Spurrier has defeated his alma mater three out of seven times, including the last two. Having said that, last year’s meeting was a hotly contested, defensive struggle in which both quarterbacks struggled to complete passes. Expect the defenses and ground games to play huge roles. If South Carolina wants to take the next step in its search for its first SEC title, winning on the road within the division is a must.

18. Week 3 (Sept. 15) USC at Stanford
While the top game out West is easy to pinpoint, the rest of schedule is loaded with very similar contests. With USC and Oregon as the clearcut picks to win the league, the next biggest game would have to be the top opportunity for an upset. At this stage, the Trojans' trip to Stanford feels like the toughest test for either team. The Cardinal have played very well against the Trojans over the last half decade, they play a physical brand of football that matches up well with USC, the game is at home on The Farm and it comes in only Week 3 of the season. Obviously, Stanford's quarterback play will have to be solid to win, but the ball-control ground game will give them a chance at a huge upset.

19. Week 6 (Oct. 4) USC at Utah
Thursday night. Primetime TV. Sold out road game against a very well coached team. This also is a recipe for an upset for the Trojans who will face the best team in the South in Week 6. This was a tricky 23-14 win for the Trojans last year in Week 2 where Jordan Wynn actually went toe-to-toe with Matt Barkley and held his own. The John White-led ground game had yet to get rolling and should be good enough at home to keep Barkley and Company off the field. Within the division, this is easily the biggest game of the year. Should Utah pull off the upset, it could be the biggest game of the year nationally.

20. Week 6 (Oct. 6) LSU at Florida
The Tigers and Gators lay claim four of the last nine national championships and both claim two of the best SEC resumes in history. While Florida won’t feature a vintage Gators squad, particularly on offense, this game still has plenty of weight in 2012. Florida’s defense should be nasty, but will have to play better at the point of attack after allowing 238 yards rushing to LSU last fall. The Gators mustered only 213 total yards in their second straight loss in the long-time crossover series.

21. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Ohio State at Michigan State
The preseason buzz around C-Bus will either be proven wrong — or completely justified when both Michigan State and Ohio State open Big Ten play in Week 5. The Buckeyes don’t play a tough non-conference game, so fans will find out exactly how far Braxton Miller has developed and just how salty the OSU defense will be in this game. Should Ohio State win on the road against Sparty, an 11-1 type of season is extremely possible. Should Brutus return home with the loss, expectations for Ohio State will be tempered very quickly.

22. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Ohio State at Wisconsin
Bucky Badger was literally inches from being undefeated last fall. The MSU hail mary and Braxton Miller’s near-the-line-of-scrimmage touchdown heave were both inches from going Wisconsin’s way. The Big Red defeated OSU 31-18 with relative ease the last time Ohio State visited Camp Randall, but this game will be decidedly tougher. While Ohio State can’t technically play for the Big Ten title, winning this game and claiming the best record in the division still means a lot to Urban Meyer. Fans know who actually won the Pac-12 South last year.

23. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan at Nebraska
The round robin in the Legends Division should be extremely entertaining this fall and Michigan has to face the Huskers on the road. However, if Nebraska wants to contend this fall, playing better defense against the Wolverines' rushing attack will be imperative. Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-17 blowout last fall. This game could be the pivotal road trip for Michigan — at least, until November 24.

24. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan has won three straight in this historic rivalry and none more painful than the most recent edition. Last year's final drive with under 30 seconds to play capped one of the largest fourth-quarter comebacks in the series history. Denard Robinson was brilliant, at times, but really the Notre Dame secondary played poorly. Brian Kelly is looking for his first win in the series and has a nasty defensive front seven to play with this time around. Robinson will need more than one ice bath when this one is over.

25. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Notre Dame at USC
These two historic rivals will do battle for the 83rd time when they meet on the final week of the regular season. While USC won last year and has claimed eight out of the past nine in the series, Notre Dame actually won the last the time they met in The Coliseum, 20-16 in 2010. Matt Barkley led a balanced offensive attack last fall to the 31-17 win in South Bend. USC rushed for 219 yards and posted 224 through the air. If the Irish expects to win out West again, it will have to muster more than 41 rushing yards.

Best of the Rest:

Week 3 (Sept. 15) Florida at Tennessee
Yes, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has seen better days. No, neither is picked to win the East. But this game has no shortage of storylines — or future NFL talent. One team possesses an electric high-flying offense while the other boasts one of the most explosive defenses in the league. And both have a head coach feeling the pressure from alumni and fans to win now. Florida has won seven straight in the series, but will be coming to Knoxville following a brutal trip to Texas A&M in Week 2. Meanwhile, the Vols will face ACC sleeper NC State in Week 1, so if both teams struggle out of the gate, this game could decide more than just bowl eligibility. If both enter 2-0, one team will leave as the clear contender to Georgia and South Carolina for SEC East supremacy.

Week 13 (Nov. 24): South Carolina at Clemson
It may not be the most high-profile rivalry and it may not have national implications like many other rivalries, but it is hard to find a yearly battle that possesses as much vitriol as the Tigers-Gamecocks. From 1997 to 2008, Clemson owned the series, winning 10 of the 13 meetings. But the last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy. None of the games have been close as Carolina has outscored its rival 97-37. Both teams are focused on a conference title in their respective leagues, so the game means little to the actual standings, but don't tell that to the people in the Palmetto State. Or to two teams that could potentially be ranked in the Top 10 by the time they meet.

Week 6 (Oct. 6) West Virginia at Texas
The Mountaineers have played the Longhorns just once in the two programs' history and fans should certainly see more excitement than the 7-6 Texas victory featured back in 1956 down in Austin. These two teams appear to be the top challengers to Oklahoma in the Big 12 conference crown race and this contest will feature arguably the top offense in the league and the easily the top defense in the league. Geno Smith and his wide receivers will put loads of pressure on a unit with dynamic defensive ends and great cornerbacks. From an Xs and Os standpoint, there are few match-ups that will be more intriguing in any league across the nation.

Week 5 (Sept. 27) Stanford at Washington
Both programs have aspirations to challenge Oregon in the North this fall and both should creep up on 10 wins. Stanford has crushed the Huskies the last three meetings and has won six out of seven in the series. Without Andrew Luck, however, Washington and Keith Price have closed the gap significantly. The key will be the growth of the Husky defense after allowing 65 points last year and 105 total points in the last two meetings. Getting the game at home in Seattle may give the Dawgs the bump needed to end the Cardinal's winning streak.

Week 1 (Sept. 1): Clemson vs. Auburn (Atlanta, Ga.)
The first Saturday night of the season in the Georgia Dome has turned into a yearly must-watch contest and these two Tigers won't disappoint. Clemson won the meeting 38-24 last fall while Auburn won the 27-24 thriller en route to its National Championship in 2012. Brian VanGorder should have the Auburn defense much improved, but if Aubie expects to upset Clemson, it will have to get quality quarterback play on offense. This will be a great barometer game for both programs right out of the gate.

Week 6 (Oct. 6): Florida State at NC State
The top sleeper team in the ACC is Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack. They are strong at the point of attack on both offense and defense and have excellent leadership from quarterback Mike Glennon. These two teams match-up extremely well and getting the game at home for NC State could spell upset for Florida State. Manuel will be pressed by one of the nation's top secondaries while the strong Florida State defensive line will force Glennon to be successful down the field. This was no contest last fall in Tallahassee 34-0, but the last time Fisher took his team to Raleigh, the Pack got the best of FSU 28-24. 

Week 13 (Nov. 24) Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
The Bedlam Series is one of the great rivalries in all of the country, and while Oklahoma has dominated all-time (81-18-7) and of late (winners of eight of the last nine), the Cowboys claim the current bragging rights. The 44-10 destruction at home at the hands of Brandon Weeden and Mike Gundy was the first win for the Pokes in the series since 2002 and it clinched the program’s first Big 12 championship and a trip to the BCS. With a true freshman quarterback, walking into Norman and getting a win over the Sooners seems like a tall order. But fans can bet the atmosphere will be must-see.

Week 9 (Oct. 27) Notre Dame at Oklahoma
These are two of the most powerful, most prestigious, trophy-laden programs in the history of the sport. Notre Dame has dominated the all-time series 8-1, which includes an undefeated 4-0 record in Norman. The last time these two squared off was 1999 when Notre Dame outlasted the Sooners 34-30. The strength of this Irish team will be its defensive front and the strength of the OU team will be its offensive firepower, so the battle of wills in the trenches will determine if Notre Dame can maintain that unblemished road record against Oklahoma.

Week 11 (Nov. 10) West Virginia at Oklahoma State
These two have played one time since 1929 — and three times total — when Oklahoma State won 35-33 in the 1987 Sun Bowl in El Paso. Both teams have Big 12 title aspirations and both offenses ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring and total offense last season. Add to it a Dana Holgorsen storyline that includes his former boss in Mike Gundy and fans should have plenty to watch on Nov. 10. The WVU headman spent 2010 as the offensive coordinator in Stillwater and now returns with a Big 12 rival stocked with offensive firepower.

Week 14 (Nov. 29): Louisville at Rutgers
The Cards are the prohibitive favorite and the 16-14 win over Rutgers last fall signaled a big turning point in Louisville's season. After a 2-4 start, the Cards out-lasted the top defense in the league before winning four of their next five games to end 2011. This year, on the final week of regular-season play, the Big East crown could be hanging in the balance. On paper, this road game should be the Cardinals' toughest league test and a third straight win over the Knights, a team that could be a top Big East contender, would likely produce Charlie Strong’s first trip to a BCS Bowl.

Week 12 (Nov. 17): NC State at Clemson
If the Pack is in fact the top sleeper team in this league, it will have to upset Clemson once again this season. After a 9-1 start, the No. 7-ranked Tigers went north to Raleigh and got embarrassed 37-13. Glennon was able to find success through the air throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the win while the defense made Tajh Boyd look bad. He managed only 238 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, expect Clemson OC Chad Morris to point to the lack of a rushing attack last fall — 28 carries for 34 yards —as one of the biggest concerns. Getting the game at home gives Clemson the edge but should NC State defeat FSU in Week 6, this game could become an division championship contest.

Week 8 (Oct. 20): Virginia Tech at Clemson
These two played twice last fall and Logan Thomas will readily admit that he didn't get the job done in the two losses. The Clemson defense struggled all season long but somehow managed to stop the burly passer and the explosive Hokie ground game. The 23-3 regular season win was merely a precursor to Clemson's 38-10 dominance in the ACC title game. Thomas and the Hokie defense should be much improved in 2012, so fans can bank on this one being much tighter this time around. This, too, could be a championship game preview.

Week 12 (Nov. 17) Stanford at Oregon
Stanford-Oregon has decided not only the "North," but also the Pac-12 championship for back-to-back seasons and it could be the case once again in 2012. The Ducks have won two straight and eight out of nine in the series and the game returns to Autzen Stadium this fall. If the Cardinal expect to challenge Oregon in the North, its stacked linebacking corps will have to play better against the high-powered Ducks — a team that has scored 105 points in the last two meetings.

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The ACC saw names like Sammy Watkins and Giovani Bernard produce more than just All-ACC honors as freshmen last fall. Despite off-the-field issues facing both Watkins and North Carolina, both playmakers have a chance to lead their respective teams to the best record in the conference. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the ACC (listed alphabetically): 

The ACC's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The massive redshirt freshman receiver could be a game-changer for EJ Manuel and the Florida State passing game. At 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, Benjamin may be the most talented FSU pass-catcher since the deep collection of NFL talent of the late 90s and early 00s. 

Travis Blanks, DB, Clemson
The Tigers' defensive woes are well documented. Prospects like Blanks should help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables attempt to improve a unit that was abused in the second half of the 2011 season. The hybrid talent, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, should be used all over the field in various roles after enrolling early last January.

Zac Brooks, RB, Clemson
Andre Ellington is a really good player but constantly misses time due to injury. There is no Mike Bellamy. And the rest of the depth chart lacks true upside. The coaching staff is counting on the Jonesboro, Ark., native to produce right away.

Kyler Brown, LB, Duke
From Matthews, N.C., Brown is expected to step in and help bolster the porous run defense that has all too often plagued the Duke defense. The redshirt freshman checks in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and should rack-up the tackles this fall in Durham.

Deon Bush, S, Miami
The Miami area prospect just missed landing in the top 100 recruiting rankings, but Bush will be hard to keep on the bench this fall. He has all the tools to be successful right away and only minor injury issues will keep him from contributing immediately.

Joel Caleb, WR, Virginia Tech
The uber-talented wideout has already been singled-out in practice by Frank Beamer. He has big-play ability, and Logan Thomas will need some help making things happen on offense should the Hokies expect to compete in the ACC.

Ronald Darby, DB, Florida State
There is no reason to believe this special talent won't become a big star in Tallahassee. Considering the recent departure of Greg Reid, the buzz Darby has been receiving from coaches and teammates alike seems to be much more than simple lip-service. He could make fans forget about the troubled Reid very quickly.

Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina
It took him two weeks to get onto the practice field, but Davis finally has made his UNC debut. His long, rangy frame could be the missing piece for a North Carolina offense that has all the pieces needed to be one of the most balanced and explosive in the league. The offensive line, the running game and the quarterback are already in place. 

Stefon Diggs, WR/RS, Maryland
The in-state speedster was the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation last fall and was a recruiting coup for the embattled Randy Edsall. The 6-foot, 185-pound dynamo will touch the ball in the passing game, ground game and return game. He should start right away and should be a close friend of unexpected new starting quarterback and fellow freshman Perry Hills.

Mario Edwards, DL, Florida State
Edwards is to the ACC what Anthony Johnson was to the SEC last fall. If he can pick up the mental aspects of the game quick enough to stay on the field, his raw physical ability should make him one of the brightest future stars in the league. Look for the massive 6-foot-3, 300-pound monster to bolster an already loaded defensive line in search of a conference crown. 

Ereck Flowers, OL, Miami
If the big local product from the city of Miami continues to play like he has in camp, he could very well be the starting right tackle at The U. His work ethic and size – at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds — will provide much needed help along the offensive front for Al Golden.

Perry Hills, QB, Maryland
When C.J. Brown tore his ACL, one of two freshmen were going to get the call to start for new coordinator Mike Locksley. Caleb Rowe appears to have lost the job to the Hills, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller from Pittsburgh. On a team that won two games a year ago and features huge amounts of roster turnover, Hills has been thrust into the most important starting position on the field. Should he adapt quickly, he could easily be in contention for ACC Freshman of the Year. If he struggles, Randy Edsall could be looking for work.

Tracy Howard, CB, Miami
This talented defensive back might be the biggest impact freshman in the ACC this season. Miami fans can expect the speedy coverman from Miramar, Fla., to be on the field from the first snap of the ball. Miami will play a lot of young players, and the No. 2-rated defensive back prospect in the nation has already drawn excellent reviews in camp for his play and leadership. 

Germone Hopper, WR, Clemson
With Watkins suspended for the first two games, the high-flying Clemson offense will provide plenty of opportunities for youngsters to make an impact. Hopper has gotten plenty of early looks in practice as one of the highest-rated prospects in the entire Clemson class. The 6-foot, 170-pound pass-catcher from Charlotte, N.C., was the No. 11-rated wide receiver prospect in the nation. Someone other than DeAndre Hopkins will catch passes in those first two games.

Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech
The younger brother of Tech quarterback, Snyjyn Days, could provide immediate help at inside backer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marietta, Ga., prospect redshirted last fall and knows Al Groh's system well enough to make a big impact this fall. Tech fans are hoping for some reinforcement for a defense that allowed 274 and 268 yards rushing in losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech respectively last fall.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The tiny tailback from Miami has speed to burn and will make some big plays this fall in a variety of ways. His 4.4 speed, to go along with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays on special teams will force Al Golden to get Johnson into his game plans. He may not have the size to unseat Mike James, or even be a 25-carry per game back, but Johnson will drop his fair share of jaws.

Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
Defensive line coach Dan Brooks has been impressed with Watkins thus far and thinks he will compete for a starting spot right away. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound, top-100 recruit from Forest City, N.C., will team with D.J. Reader to bolster a defensive line that desperately needs a boost.

Three RB Tandems To Watch:

Brandon Ross and Wes Brown, RB, Maryland
The high school teammate of Diggs, Brown, is a burly runner who will team with Ross, the redshirt freshman from New Jersey, in an effort to replace Davin Meggett. The ground game has always been a huge part of Edsall's coaching MO, but these two youngsters will attempt to build on the lone bright spot on the Terrapins' resume from last year — the ACC's No. 3-rated rushing attack.

Michael Holmes and JC Coleman, RB, Virginia Tech
Holmes could be this year's Bernard as he steps in as the top back in the Hokies' offense. While Holmes may not be a spectacular talent like David Wilson or Ryan Williams, he makes few mistakes and is as consistent as they come as a freshman. Coleman, who is dealing with a fractured hand, showed in a recent scrimmage that it will be tough to keep his big-play ability off the field for too long. 

Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, RB, Duke
The pair of freshman tailbacks are already being counted on by David Cutcliffe to perform quickly in 2012. He believes in the two youngsters so much that former star running back prospect Desmond Scott has been moved to wide receiver. Look for both to get plenty of chances for an offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in rushing last fall. 

Other Names To Watch:

Marvin Bracy, WR/RS, Florida State
Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Junior Gnockonde, LB/S, North Carolina
Eli Harold, LB, Virginia
Nick Hill, WR, Duke
Kiaro Holts, OL, North Carolina
Dylan Intemann, OL, Wake Forest
Raphael Kirby, LB, Miami
Alex Kinal, K, Wake Forest
Donaldven Manning, CB, Virginia Tech
Bradle Pinion, P, Clemson
Shakeel Rashad, LB, North Carolina
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> The ACC's Top Impact Freshman of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:10

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