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Goalies are used to getting goals scored on them, as opposed to scoring them, but Everton's goalie Tim Howard blasted a kick from his own goal line in a game against Bolton, it went high into the air, took a perfect bounce and sailed into the goal over the opposing goalies head.
And now, Howard feels bad about his spectacular (if albeit a bit lucky goal.)
“It's not a nice feeling for a keeper. It's really awful actually,” Howard told Sky Sports. “For the back four and the goalkeepers at both ends, there was an awful wind swirling. You could see everybody was mistiming balls. Defenders were missing clearances that normally they would put up the field. I think the wind is the hardest condition to play in. Snow, rain, sun doesn't matter, but the wind really does play tricks on you.”
Howard said he spoke with Bogdan after Everton's 2-1 loss to Bolton.
“I let him know that I was feeling for him,” Howard said. “It's not a nice place to be. I've been there before, a long, long time ago, and that was why I didn't celebrate.”
How many offensive players would apologize to the goalie they just scored on? Probably zero, but that's what happens when you truly know what it feel like to be in the other guy's cleats.
It's that time of year again, New Year's resolution time. Everyone makes crazy promises to themselves like "I'm cutting back on my carbs" or "No more Tuesday morning mojitos" only to fall right back into a rut by MLK Day. Well at least you're not alone. Apparently pro athletes also like to set goals for themselves when the calendar turns over. Here are some resolutions we uncovered during a variety of interviews* with the biggest names in sports.
Peyton Manning: Learn how to throw a deep out route from wheelchair.
Urban Meyer: Spend more quality time with the family.
Albert Pujols: Get approval from MLB to wear first ever solid gold uniform.
LeBron James: Lose weight to lessen the load on D-Wade's shoulders during the playoffs.
DeSean Jackson: Undergo surgery to replace alligator arms with human arms.
Jeff Van Gundy: Find the cure for male pattern baldness.
Stan Van Gundy: Find the cure for male pattern fatness.
Tony LaRussa: Enjoy retirement and stop using home phone to make pitching changes.
Cam Newton: Force a trade back to Auburn to get a better contract.
Tim Tebow: Pray just a little bit more.
Kris Humphries: Figure out how to get more face time on television – ESPN, TNT and NBATV don’t count.
David Stern: Use "basketball reasons" to rig the playoffs so the Lakers play the Heat in the Finals.
Derek Jeter: Change nothing.
Dwight Howard: Stop requesting trades to places like New Jersey.
Kobe Bryant: Pass the ball to Kobe Bryant more.
Baseball Hall of Fame: Take the words “integrity, sportsmanship and character” out of voting guidelines for the next ten years.
Theo Epstein: Come to senses, quit immediately.
Philadelphia Eagles: Make the playoffs.
NHL: Stop broadcasting games on public access television.
Brett Favre: Un-retire and return to a successful career in cell phone dong shots.
Ndamukong Suh: Learn how to tackle without being charged with aggravated assault.
College athletics: Do anything right.
*We made these up.
Nearly two weeks into the current NBA season, the 3-2 Clippers are still the big deal when it comes to grabbing headlines out of Los Angeles. But the news about one of the game’s best big right now still comes out of the Lakers’ camp.
Andrew Bynum, suspended the first four games of the season for his removing J.J. Barea from his shoes in last year’s Western Conference semifinals, has been on a tear — in reality and fantasy — since his shortened punishment came to an end.
The Lakers’ 7-foot 285-pound center has been back since Dec. 31 and is ranked 15th overall in fantasy and seventh at the center position in nine-category leagues over the last seven days.
During those seven days and three games leading up to tonight’s game at Portland, Bynum has played 32:40 a game, is shooting .622 from the field, .571 from the stripe and averaging 22.7 points, 17.0 boards and 2.0 blocks.
He enters tonight’s Trail Blazers game coming off his first career 20-20 game — 21 points and 22 rebounds — with three blocks in a team-high 38 minutes. And he said his conditioning is still not where he wants it to be.
The condition of Bynum has always been his problem as a reliable or dependable fantasy player.
A year after being drafted last in the fourth round of last year’s Athlon Sports one-keeper, two-starting centers draft — with nine keepers ahead of him, Bynum was selected as the fifth pick in the sixth round with five keepers ahead of him.
The draft drop came on the heels of Bynum averaging 11.3 points, 9.4 boards and 2.0 blocks in 54 games — just one below the 55.3 games he’s averaged for his career.
And it’s the 55.3 that scares most fantasy players — and certainly Lakers fans — more than any other number.
ESPN’s Brian McKitish, citing the injuries that have plagued Bynum his entire six-year career, gave him a preseason rank of 19th. In Yahoo leagues this season, Bynum had an average draft position of 67.5 this season, making him a late fifth-round pick. The Yahoo/Rotowire preseason kit gave Bynum a ranking of 15th at the center position, also giving him props for his upside but acknowledging that if healthy he’s a worthy gamble.
Bynum’s production will be off the charts if that number of games played is in the 70s. Add in the departure of Lamar Odom, being surrounded by a 33-year-old Kobe Bryant, a 31-year-old Pau Gasol and a condensed season means everyone that drafted Bynum, 24, got a helluva deal this year.
Let the run of 20-20s begin.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
by Rob Doster
BBVA Compass Bowl
SMU (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Date: Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
The Panthers, who played in the Compass Bowl following the 2010 season as well, make the return trip to Birmingham to face June Jones' pass-oriented Mustangs. Pitt was a few breaks away from a 10-win season but instead is coming off a roller coaster ride that saw the Panthers fail to post back-to-back wins after Week 2 and included heartbreaking losses to Iowa and Notre Dame in nonconference action and Cincinnati and West Virginia in Big East play. And now, they're arriving without a head coach, as Todd Graham took the job at Arizona State (a message he relayed to his team via text). Nevertheless, the only season of the Graham era did produce some highlights, including a 21–14 win over Big East co-champ Louisville and a season-ending 33–20 win over Syracuse that clinched bowl eligibility.
The Mustangs are bowling for the third consecutive season, but they limp into Birmingham having lost four of six, three of them by significant margins. In particular, SMU struggled against C-USA's upper echelon, losing to Southern Miss, Houston and Tulsa by an average score of 34–6. The Mustangs did post a signature win — a 40–33 overtime victory over TCU — so it would be foolish to discount their chances.
WHEN PITTSBURGH HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Tino Sunseri regressed a bit during his junior season, as his TD-to-interception ratio fell from 16-9 to 10-10. The Panthers suffered a devastating loss with a knee injury to running back Ray Graham in a win over Connecticut, putting extra pressure on Sunseri and the passing game; Graham had rushed for 964 yards in eight games, an average of 120.5 yards per game. The Mustangs boast a more-than-respectable defense, although they had trouble producing turnovers, with only five interceptions all season.
WHEN SMU HAS THE BALL:
The key for the Mustangs: Protect the football. Jones' crew ranked dead last in the nation in turnover margin (-1.42) thanks to 31 giveaways, including an alarming 19 interceptions. The Mustangs live and die on the arm of quarterback J.J. McDermott, who had four 300-yard outings, including a 349-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece against TCU. McDermott also had four games with multiple interceptions, and the Mustangs were 1–3 in those games. Pitt was vulnerable against the pass, ranking 71st in the nation at 233.3 ypg, so expect the Mustangs to throw early and often.
Not much to see here. Neither team has an especially reliable kicker, nor does either cause much heartburn in the return game. SMU's Richard Crawford does rank ninth nationally in punt return average (12.67) but he did most of his damage with a 141-yard performance against UCF.
Both teams could use a boost of momentum heading into the offseason, but Todd Graham's messy departure has left a cloud over the Pittsburgh program. Expect the Mustangs to muster enough offense to outscore the Panthers.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24
Seton Hall's Peter Dill can teach all the bench warmers out there a thing or two about riding the pine. He made ESPN's Sportscenter just by going a little nuts with his post-basket celebrations from the bench. And the best part, is he had nothing to do with any of the baskets he's celebrating.
He got a little notoriety last year when he went nuts with the Aaron Rodgers belt celebration, and it looks like he's continuing it this year as he broke out a few new celebratory moves against UConn this year. This year's celebrations range from a whipping fist pump to a sort of dice-rolling fist pump (he's into the fist pumps, but then again, what else are you going to do once you've exhausted the belt dance?)
But his best move was the Thor Hammer he broke out after a couple big baskets. The smashing of a giant, invisible hammer on the floor was the cherry on top. And Seton Hall won. So maybe there's something to his sideline celebrations.
-By Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
There is no better time of the year for recruiting fans than January. National Signing Day is less than a month away and the nation’s best are doing battle in San Antonio and St. Petersburg, Fla.
This week, recruitniks everywhere get the first real glimpse of the nation’s top prep athletes going head-to-head against equivalent talent at all-star events across the fruited plain. While inter- and intra-state all-star games can feature a state’s or region’s best prospects, the national all-star competitions clearly raise the bar.
Nowhere else in college football recruiting can you watch the nation’s No. 1 defensive end battle with the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle in practice for a full week. And this season’s Under Armour All-American Game and U.S. Army All-American Bowl are no exception.
The story in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the Under Armour practices have been taking place all week, began with the defensive lines. The big uglies up front on defense have been dominant, and rightly so, as the nation’s No. 1 defensive end Mario Edwards (AC100 No. 2) and the nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (AC100 No. 13) will spearhead the D-lines. In fact, six of the top nine defensive end prospects in the Athlon Consensus 100 (and three of the top five nose tackles) will be competing in the Under Armour All-American Bowl on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
And Florida State Seminoles fans should be grinning from ear to ear Thursday night. AC100 defensive ends Chris Casher and Dante Fowler Jr., along with Edwards, are all committed to Jimbo Fisher and Florida State. The Noles boast the No. 6 class in the nation due in large part to the defensive line haul. Fisher has three of the nation’s top six defensive ends. However, Fisher and newly paid defensive coordinator Mark Stoops will have to do some work to keep Fowler, who has been linked to the Florida Gators of late, in the Seminole fold.
End Channing Ward (No. 9 DE, AC100 No. 56) and future Georgia Bulldog tackle Jonathan Taylor (No. 5 DT, AC100 No. 36) each had solid starts to practice as well. Ward is set to announce during the UA Game Thursday night.
The offensive lines have the tallest order of the week. Trying to jell five to ten individuals together in one week all while facing what is easily the toughest competition of their young careers is virtually impossible. However, one name has stood out above the rest along the offensive line. Oregon State Beavers commitment Isaac Seumalo (AC100 No. 77) has been praised repeatedly by Edwards, Casher and Fowler.
The Offenses Return to Form
The offenses bounced back as the week of practice went along. Five of the nation’s top nine quarterback prospects, including the No. 1 passing prospect in the nation Jameis Winston (AC100 No. 10), will be chucking the football around on Thursday night. Winston, who is also an elite level baseball prospect, is also committed to Florida State and will likely start for the White Team. The White Team will also feature the nation’s No. 5 signal caller in Cal commit Zach Kline and the No. 9-rated quarterback Tanner Magnum, who is verballed to BYU. Kline has been drawing rave reviews in practice and could push Winston for the start. Keep an eye on both No. 8 and No. 5 in white Thursday night.
The Black Team will feature future Texas gunslinger Connor Brewer (No. 3 QB, AC100 No. 64), Clemson Tigers commitment Chad Kelly (No. 8 QB and Jim Kelly's nephew) and future Miami Hurricane Preston Dewey (No. 17 QB). Head coach Steve Mariucci is still looking for his starter, however, as he reported to ESPN on Wednesday that none of the three players has truly separated himself as the starter.
The quarterback is the most important position on the field and will be easily the most scrutinized group during the week of practice. It appears that the White Team, led by Winston and Kline, will have a distinct advantage at the position for the game Thursday night.
It won’t just be quarterbacks exciting the fans at Tropicana Field, however. There are plenty of talented skill names to keep an eye on, especially in a year highlighted by a deep running back class. The Miami Hurricanes’ Randy “Duke” Johnson (No. 7 RB, AC100 No. 49) is a big play waiting to happen and has been playing well all week long — as has fellow future Hurricane wideout Angelo Jean-Louis (No. 10 WR, AC100 No. 75). Al Golden has to be pleased with what he has seen from these two this week. Both will suit up for the Black Team, along with the nation’s No. 2 running back Jonathan Gray. Expect Johnson (jersey No. 1) and Gray (jersey No. 32) to play major roles on Thursday night. Texas’ Thomas Johnson, the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver prospect, is another name to keep an eye on (jersey No. 8).
Meanwhile, the White Team features the nation’s No. 1 runner in Keith Marshall. He is the sixth-rated player in the nation overall and will be wearing No. 4. The future Georgia Bulldog will share carries with future Sooner Alex Ross (No. 8 RB, No. 60) and Our Lady of Good Counsel product Wes Brown.
The fireworks for the White Team could come through the air, however. Future SEC star wide receivers Chris Black (No. 3 WR, AC100 No. 27), who is committed to Alabama, Shaq Roland (No. 5 WR, AC100 No. 46), who is committed to South Carolina, and Avery Johnson (No. 8 WR, AC100 No. 68), who is committed to LSU and is Patrick Peterson’s little brother, will likely shine as Winston and Kline sling passes all over The Trop.
You can bet Cal’s Jett Tedford will be watching as well. The future stars of his passing game, Kline and Lakewood (Calif.) standout Darius Powe (jersey No. 10), have both reportedly performed very well in practice thus far and will be on full display Thursday night.
Landon Collins, DB (AC100 No. 20)
Geismar (La.) Dutchtown
Finalists: Alabama, LSU
Collins is easily the biggest name to announce at the Under Armour event this year. He is the No. 3-rated defensive back in the nation and is the No. 20 overall player in the nation. His 6-foot, 205-pound frame and physical brand of football make him an ideal fit at safety. Alabama and LSU are his two finalists and were his only two official visits. Reports on Tuesday indicated that Collins was "80%" sure on which school he would be choosing after speaking to both the Tide and Tigers' coaching staffs. The slight edge goes to the former defensive back, Nick Saban.
Channing Ward, DE (AC100 No. 56)
Aberdeen (Miss.) Aberdeen
Finalists: Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss
The big 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has had an excellent week of practice down in Florida. All accounts are he is ready to take his game to the next level; however, where that might be remains to be seen. Auburn had been considered a finalist as well but appears to have fallen behind his top four. He took official visits to each of his four finalists, and the in-state Ole Miss Rebels look like the team to beat.
Prediction: Ole Miss
Cyrus Jones, ATH (AC100 No. 63)
Baltimore (Md.) Gilman
Finalists: Virginia Tech, Alabama
This do-everything talent states that he made his decision about where he will be playing his college ball over a month ago. And apparently he can keep his mouth shut as his secret has yet to get out. After eliminating Ohio State, Auburn and Maryland, the Tide and Hokies are the only two to remain. Alabama assistant Sal Suneri has recruited the Baltimore-DC area incredibly well for Nick Saban and deserves plenty of credit for making Jones a priority. Despite the many connections to Virginia Tech, it looks like the Tide is the team to beat.
Other potential commitments to watch for:
Wes Brown, RB (AC100 No. 168)
Olney (Md.) Good Counsel
Finalists: Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Miami, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech
Lucas Thompson, DB (AC100 No. 271)
Winter Garden (Fla.) West Orange
Finalists: East Carolina, South Carolina, Miami
Chaz Elder, DB (unranked)
College Park (Ga.) Banneker
Finalists: South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.
What teams will struggle to match its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Boise State – 2012 will be the Broncos’ final year in the Mountain West, before making the move to the Big East in 2013. Boise State should be picked as the preseason conference favorite, but it’s unlikely it will finish in the BCS top 10 at the end of the year. Quarterback Kellen Moore departs after a fantastic career, leaving big shoes to fill under center. Joe Southwick, Grant Hedrick, Jimmy Laughrea and incoming freshman Nick Patti will battle to replace Moore in spring practice. Running back Doug Martin also departs, but D.J. Harper is expected to get another year of eligibility after two season-ending knee injuries. The offensive line loses three seniors, including valuable left tackle Nate Potter. The defense is also hit hard by senior departures, as linemen Tyrone Crawford, Billy Winn, Chase Baker, Shea McClellin and Jarrell Root are all out of eligibility. Although the backups up front have some experience, it’s still a lot to replace. Linebackers Byron Hout and Aaron Tevis, along with defensive backs George Iloka and Cedric Febis are also out of eligibility. Although Boise State still deserves a spot in the preseason top 25, it’s going to be very difficult to repeat another top 10 finish in the BCS. Expect the Broncos to take a step back in 2012, before jumping back into the top 10-15 in 2013.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s going to be very difficult for the Cowboys to repeat as Big 12 champs. In addition to replacing one of the nation’s top pass-catch duos, Oklahoma State’s offense will lose All-American tackle Levy Adock and two other starters on the offensive line. The defense returns mostly intact, but ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones must be replaced, along with safety Markelle Martin. Oklahoma State’s 11 regular season wins in 2011 was its first double-digit victory total since posting 10 in 1988. The Big 12 won't get any easier next season, as Texas is expected to improve, while TCU and West Virginia are joining the conference. Coach Mike Gundy has raised the bar in Stillwater, but even though the program is in a much better position to handle the departures, the Cowboys will still take a step back in 2012.
Stanford – Just like Oklahoma State, Stanford is in a better position than it was five years ago to soften the blow of some of the defections. However, losing quarterback Andrew Luck is enough for this team to slip out of most preseason top 25 lists. The Cardinal will likely have an open competition for the job, with sophomore Brett Nottingham the early leader going into spring practice. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have to break in some new receiving targets, as tight end Coby Fleener and receiver Chris Owusu are out of eligibility. Also, the offensive line will need some work, as guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin have declared for the NFL Draft. The secondary will have to be revamped, but linebacker Shayne Skov will give the defense a boost with his return from a knee injury.
Tattoos are getting more and more popular. But that doesn't mean they're always a good idea. To drive that point home, here is a photo gallery of tattoos involving the wondrous world of fast food. Don't get us wrong, we love a good Gordita as much as the next red-blooded American, but that doesn't mean we're going to get it tattooed across our lip (which someone did a few scrolls down.)
We're not sure if these people lost a bet, just love fast food, or were drunk when they thought this was a good idea. But what happens when you turn 45 and you're sporting a McDonald's tattoo across your back? You're probably not going to be up for the promotion to Vice President are you? No, but we do appreciate you giving us these photos to laugh at.
We're pretty sure this one isn't real, but we're going to include it anyway.
Yes, this is the Hardee's star
And finally, it looks like someone lost a bet. A very awesome bet.
So while this gallery is called "worst" we're really not sure what would qualify as a "best" tattoo that's somehow related to fast food (although my favorite on here is probably the Cracker Barrel, for the sheer ridiculousness of it.)
If you know of any other awesome fast food tattoos we missed, feel free to send them into us. Or if you're trying to decide on getting one, let us help consult. We'd love to see an Arby's tattoo someday (dare to dream.)
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Date: Jan. 6, 8:00 PM ET
Location: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
This game looks to be the most anticipated non-BCS contest of the postseason, and it quickly sold out Cowboys Stadium after the pairing of Top 10 teams was announced. Arkansas and Kansas State both went 10-2 this season, with the Razorbacks relying on a high-octane passing attack and the Wildcats riding a solid ground game and excellent turnover margin to double-digit wins. Arkansas plays in the brutal SEC West, and the two best teams in the country — Alabama and LSU — gave the Hogs their only two losses. Both of Kansas State’s defeats were also to quality teams — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — in a rugged Big 12 schedule.
Arkansas missed the postseason in 2008, coach Bobby Petrino’s first season in Fayetteville. However the Razorbacks have rebounded with three straight January bowls, including last year’s BCS appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The former Southwest Conference member will be making its 12th Cotton Bowl appearance. K-State did not get to a bowl from 2007-09, but the Wildcats returned to the postseason last year in the Pinstripe Bowl. Bill Snyder has the rescued the program for a second time, and he will receive many Coach of the Year honors for this season’s performance. This will be the 14th bowl in KSU history, and Snyder has been the coach for 13 of those postseason games.
WHEN KANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:
Junior quarterback Collin Klein had a breakout season in Manhattan, running for over 1,000 yards and scoring an amazing 26 touchdowns on the ground. He played wide receiver as a freshman and received some backup duty at quarterback as a sophomore. Klein became the starter this season and threw for 1,745 and 12 touchdowns along with his rushing accomplishments. Running back John Hubert added 933 yards and three scores on the ground this season. The Wildcats rushing duo accounted for 481 of the team’s 566 carries in 2011.
K-State’s leading receiver is Chris Harper, who finished with 39 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season. Sophomore Tramaine Thompson was second on the team with 281 receiving yards and will serve as Wildcats’ return man. Unfortunately, productive freshman Tyler Lockett (nephew of K-State great, Aaron) was lost for the season with a lacerated kidney in the Oklahoma State game.
Arkansas struggled in rushing defense, ranking 80th in the country. Senior linebacker Jerry Franklin led the Hogs in tackles for a fourth-straight season. He totaled 93 stops this year along with 10 tackles for loss. Safety Tramain Thomas was second on the team with 87 tackles and also added five interceptions. The Arkansas defensive line must play well in this game to give Franklin and Thomas a chance to get stops against a solid K-State running game.
WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL:
Arkansas gunslinger Tyler Wilson does his damage through the air, throwing for over 3,400 yards and 22 scores this season. The junior signal caller did a solid job in his first year as a starter, and he did not have the benefit of star tailback Knile Davis running the ball. Davis had over 1,300 yards in 2010 but missed this season with a severe ankle injury. There have been rumors that he could return for the Cotton Bowl, but Davis would lose a year of eligibility in that case.
The Hogs have a highly productive receiving group, and the leader in 2011 was Jarius Wright. The senior wideout had 63 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 scores. Senior Joe Adams (630 yards) and junior Cobi Hamilton (516 yards) are also solid targets, while tight end Chris Gragg had a productive season with 40 catches for 492 yards and two scores. Arkansas used a committee approach to the running the ball with Davis out. Dennis Johnson led the way with 637 yards and three touchdowns, but Ronnie Wingo Jr. and short-yardage back Broderick Green will also get carries.
The Kansas State gave up plenty of yards this season in the high-scoring Big 12. The Wildcats did not get much pressure opposing quarterbacks, which contributed to allowing over 267 passing yards per game. Linebacker Arthur Brown blossomed after transferring (Miami) back to his home state, leading the team with 95 stops this year. Cornerback Nigel Malone also had an excellent season with 57 tackles and a Big 12-leading seven interceptions. K-State will need to cause some turnovers to slow down the Razorbacks’ attack.
Both teams are fairly solid in this critical area. Arkansas arguably has the best punt returner in the nation in Adams, who averaged a nation-leading 16.2 yards on 16 returns and took three to the end zone. The Hogs will split kick returns between Johnson and Marquel Wade, both of whom averaged over 25 yards per kick return and scored once this season. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged a stellar 45.2 yards on 49 punts, including putting 14 of them inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker was 18-for-24 on field goals with a long of 50 yards.
Kansas State had a top returner in the aforementioned Lockett, who averaged a whopping 35.2 yards on 16 kick returns with two touchdowns before his injury. Thompson should handle both sets of returns in this game, and he had a solid average of 13.2 yards on just nine punt returns. Junior kicker Anthony Cantele had a quality season, going 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Junior Ryan Doerr averaged 40.5 yards on 59 punts, with 13 placed inside the 20-yard line.
It will be fun to watch the Arkansas aerial wizardry against Mr. Klein and K-State’s efficient rushing attack. There will be plenty of points scored as Jerry Jones watches his alma mater at Cowboys Stadium. The key to this game will be turnovers, a factor that the Wildcats have relied on heavily this year.
Wilson threw the ball over 400 times this year, but he had only six interceptions. Kansas State will challenge the Arkansas defense with Klein starring in the game, but I’ll take Wilson to lead the Razorbacks to an exciting Cotton Bowl victory.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 31
When the once-proud Indianapolis Colts staggered to an 0–13 start this season, many assumed heads would roll this offseason.
Most casual observers pointed to head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor when the man who led with Quiet Strength retired following the 2008 campaign.
But for those with ears to the street, a growing rumbling for longtime Vice Chairman Bill Polian and his son, Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian, to be shown the door could be heard loud and clear.
Even a 2–1 finish to the season and a final 2–14 mark could not save the Polians, who were fired by owner and CEO Jim Irsay following a Week 17 loss to Jacksonville — a defeat that clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
“It was a very tough decision for me,” said Irsay. “I had a chance to express to them, and Bill in particular how hard it was and the appreciation the franchise has for all that has been done. Obviously, he and I go back 30 years. So this is difficult. This is the tough part of this business.”
Undeniably one of the greatest architects in the history of the NFL, Bill Polian was named the league’s Executive of the Year six times (1988, ’91, ’95, ’96, ’99 and 2009). Most notably, Polian built the Buffalo Bills’ roster — drafting defensive end Bruce Smith and acquiring USFL quarterback Jim Kelly — that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93. From there, he whipped the expansion Carolina Panthers into shape, as the team made the NFC title game in only its second season of existence.
Polian arrived in Indianapolis in 1998 and his first draft choice was a young gun out of Tennessee named Peyton Manning, who went No. 1 overall ahead of Washington State’s Ryan Leaf, who went No. 2.
In 14 seasons, the Polian-designed Colts made the playoffs 11 times and went to the Super Bowl twice — hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XLIV just five seasons ago.
“I would like to thank Jim Irsay and the Irsay family for all they have done for me over the past 14 years,” Bill Polian said in a statement released after the news broke Tuesday.
“I’m grateful for all the support the fans have shown us in good times and bad. Indianapolis has been a wonderful place to live and work. Most of all I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff who have played the pivotal role in this magnificent journey. I will miss them all.”
Bill’s son, Chris, also joined the Colts in 1998 as the Director of Pro Scouting before rising through the ranks to become the team’s Vice President and General Manager, posts he served — with decidedly mixed review — over the past four seasons.
With the No. 1 pick in the draft — which most speculate will be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — Irsay has decided to make a clean break with a new regime in the front office, which came as painful news to the player most associated with Bill Polian.
“I was surprised, shocked, disappointed,” Manning told the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t want to speak for Bill, but I did meet with him and he is (shocked) as well. It’s a sad day and it’s the worst part about this business. I’m sorry that it went down this way. I always thought Bill and I might retire around the same time. You kind of hoped for that fairytale ending, after winning a Super Bowl.”
After watching helplessly from the sideline in the wake of multiple neck surgeries, Manning was once again powerless as the only personnel man he’s ever known was let go.
Now, the question is: Will Manning be the next big name to exit Indy?
I have a friend who's a huge Chargers fan. Every year he's let down. He knows how the season is going to end before it begins. His favorite team, always over hyped in the preseason and a darling Super Bowl pick of the pundits, will falter. Usually they will falter early in the year. This year they faltered in the middle and end.
But there was one silver lining for him this year. He knew there was no way Norv Turner was going to keep his job after the Chargers didn't even make the playoffs, with a Super-Bowl caliber team.
There was just no way that Norv, who is more of a coordinator than a head coach could not get fired. The team doesn't play hard for him. He's too easy on them. Whatever it is, he's just not head coach material.
So, while his team took crushing defeat after crushing defeat, he could just smile, knowing that while the Chargers might not win the Super Bowl next year, they would definitely have someone new at the helm. The new guy may be just as bad, but he will be different, which would give him at least a little hope that his favorite team could live up to their potential.
And then the news came down today that the Chargers were going to retain head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. So I made this clock for him.
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Tennessee Volunteers fans are going to win in 2012 – no matter where they fall on the Derek Dooley love-hate spectrum.
So why is Big Orange nation working itself into a ravenous frenzy on Jan. 3?
Relax, Dooley is going to be the head coach of the Tennessee football team in 2012, so the fans need to get used to it. But make no mistake, he will have to win football games, at least seven (if not eight), to see another New Year’s in Knoxville. Either way, fans screaming for Dooley’s head to roll down Kingston Pike should get what they want in 2012.
If Tennessee fails to reach a bowl game for the second consecutive year, Dooley will be fired and those blood-thirsty fans should be happy. If Tennessee develops its young talent, wins more than it loses and plays in the postseason, well, isn’t that what all Vols’ fans should want? Isn’t that simply the next step in one of the most embattled and unique coaching tenures in the history of SEC football?
Dooley has certainly had his chances to make a statement in his young head-coaching career — the defensive gaffe in the closing seconds in Baton Rouge comes to mind. Yet, the task Dooley faced when he stepped into the spotlight in 2010 might have been the most tumultuous coaching situation in the SEC since the advent of divisional play 20 years ago.
After a lackluster defeat at the hands of rival Kentucky that crushed the Vols' bowl hopes, it doesn’t appear things are getting any easier for the tormented head coach. Dooley had to address the media Tuesday morning for the first time in over a month after defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach, and top recruiter, Peter Sirmon accepted similar positions under Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington. Do not get worked up over whether Tennessee is a "better job" than Washington. The Pacific Northwest will always be considered an upgrade to two coaches who are from the area. So Sirmon and Wilcox leaving are not signs of a sinking ship.
That said, who Dooley tabs as his new defensive coordinator could end up being one of the most important decisions of his career — both in terms of developing and acquiring talent.
"The program is significantly better than it was 22 months ago, when we all got here," Dooley said Tuesday. While it’s hard to convince many Vols fans to be optimistic, Dooley isn’t too far off. He continued, “We’re on our way. The worst is behind us.”
He also announced the release of freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., had been asking for the release in order to move closer to his father, who is sick. Arnett caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.
Here are some facts to consider:
Tennessee has lost 14 games over a two-year period of time for the first time in school history.
Four of those 14 losses came at the hands of the two teams playing in the BCS national title game.
It’s the most pre-Kiffin losses in a two-year span since 1976-77, when Tennessee lost 12 games between the Bill Battle and Johnny Majors coaching change.
Johnny Majors lost 23 games in his first four seasons.
In 2011, Tennessee ranked 116th in the nation in rushing and 12th in the SEC at 90.1 ypg.
Tennessee ranked 106th in the nation in scoring at 20.3 ppg.
The Vols scored a total of six third-quarter points in SEC play. They were outscored 84-6 in the third frame of SEC play and were outscored 132-35 in the second half of SEC action. In conference, Tennessee was shutout four times in the second half.
Lane Kiffin signed 22 players in the 2009 class. Eleven lettered, nine played in a game and three played in all 12 games this fall. Those 22 signees played an average of 3.1 games this season.
According to Athlon Sports 2009 preseason football magazine recruiting rankings, not one of the top seven-rated players in the ‘09 class played a single game in 2011 (In order: Bryce Brown, David Oku, Janzen Jackson, NuKeese Richardson, Darren Myles, Jared Askew and James Green). All seven nationally rated recruits in that class failed to play in a game in 2011.
Justin Hunter, Tyler Bray and Janzen Jackson, arguably the best three players on the roster in the spring, combined to play 10 total games this season.
The 2012 Vols could potentially return 19 of 22 starters.
Tennessee finished No. 2 in the SEC in passing offense — with Matt Simms and Justin Worley attempting a combined 149 passes.
According to NCAA.org official stats page, 82 of 114 eligible Vols were underclassmen and only 13 were seniors.
- Derek Dooley has to produce wins in 2012 or he will not be retained as the Tennessee head coach.
Most Tennessee fans would have to agree, it certainly looks like “the worst” has already taken place.
The bottom line is “Just win, baby.” The 14 losses mean nothing. The bare Philip Fulmer cupboard means nothing. The horrific third quarter stats mean nothing. What matters is wins and losses in 2012 — and that there are no more excuses for Dooley. Once he fills the voids on his defensive staff, and assuming he can keep a top 20 recruiting class intact, he will have all the pieces in place to win in 2012.
The schedule appears to have given Dooley a chance to keep his swan song at bay as well. There are no Oregons on the slate in the non-conference — or LSU on the SEC line-up. The toughest non-conference test will be the Kickoff Classic battle with a five-loss NC State team in Atlanta. Otherwise, Georgia State, Akron and Troy should all be wins. Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Kentucky each visit Knoxville while the Vols have to travel to Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. At first look, it’s the sixth most difficult SEC schedule next season and appears relatively manageable.
The biggest impact Dooley can have on his own legacy as Tennessee’s head coach is his developing leadership. It starts with making intelligent, savvy hires in the face of the most recent defections of Wilcox and Sirmon (like new running back coach and rising star recruiter Jay Graham). Uniting a locker room divide should also be atop the list. Building cohesion in the face of adversity is one of the few tangible impacts a coach can have on a locker room. Finally, in-game adjustments are signatures of a quality field general who has quality platoon leaders.
Dooley needs to create a distinct identity that Vols’ players and coaches can rally around and be proud to represent. This will build a foundation for success on the field, in the locker room and on the recruiting trail. It’s also where a portion of the responsibility falls to the players, like Tyler Bray. The maturation process has to continue for the players just like it has to for Dooley.
Tennessee Volunteers fans have every right be disturbed with what has taken place in Knoxville over the last two seasons. However, burning down the twittersphere and talk show phone lines serves no purpose other than elevating your own blood pressure. Because right now, Big Orange Nation is actually in worse shape that the football program itself.
The talent and schedule are set-up for Dooley to win in 2012. If he wins, be happy and relish the fact that Tennessee is a winning football program once again. If he does not, you won’t have to see those orange pants on the sideline ever again.
In which case, Dooley would have been very right about one thing at least: the new head coach will be stepping into a program that is in dramatically better shape than it was 22 months ago.
Wisconsin's Montee Ball is one of the best running backs in the nation. So it's no surprise that he can leap defenders who are attempting to tackle him.
Usually, he has no problem pulling off athletic feats like that. Usually.
On this particular play, Ball tries to jump an Oregon Duck player in the Rose Bowl and comes up just a little bit short. As you can see in the video, the Ducks' helmet drill Ball right in his namesake. No cup or padding is going to make this hit OK. It's a surprise Ball even stayed in the game after this.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3)
Date: Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.
The ACC and Big East are often criticized for being the two worst BCS conferences, but the 2012 Orange Bowl should be a showcase for two of the top offenses in college football.
It’s been an up and down year for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Coming off a 6-7 record in 2010, not much was expected from the Tigers in 2011, especially with a new offensive scheme implemented. However, all of the new pieces seemed to fit and the Tigers began the year 8-0 and emerged as a threat to play for the national title. Despite the hot start, Clemson dropped three of their next four games, before rebounding to dismantle Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship.
Although Swinney has led Clemson to two ACC title game appearances under his watch, offensive coordinator Chad Morris deserves much of the credit for the success of this team in 2011. The offense finished 10th in the ACC in scoring last season, but showed dramatic improvement this year, averaging 33.6 points a game and ranking 29th nationally by averaging 440.6 yards per game.
This is Clemson’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since this system’s inception in 1998. The Tigers have three previous trips to the Orange Bowl, with the last coming in 1982 against Nebraska.
West Virginia had some offseason turmoil, as Bill Stewart was forced out in early June, prompting Dana Holgorsen to become head coach a year earlier than expected. Although the coaching transition resulted in a few uneasy moments while the situation was sorted out, most expected this would have little impact on the 2011 season. And that’s exactly how it played out. Holgorsen’s arrival helped to ignite a struggling offense, while defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel navigated some key departures to keep this defense among the best in the Big East.
Although there’s a battle in the courtroom still to play out, this appears to be West Virginia’s last season in the Big East. And if this is indeed its finale in the conference, the Mountaineers will be going out on top. After losing to Syracuse and Louisville, West Virginia’s Big East title hopes looked bleak in early November. However, a win over Cincinnati on Nov. 12 and a loss by Louisville on that same weekend vaulted the Mountaineers back into conference title contention.
The Mountaineers have claimed a share of the Big East title in three out of the last five seasons. This is West Virginia’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl and its first BCS bowl trip since the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
These two teams have met only once, with Clemson claiming a 27-7 victory in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
WHEN CLEMSON HAS THE BALL:
In addition to hiring Morris, the emergence of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins has helped to ignite this offense. The Tigers scored 30 or more points in nine games this season and led the ACC with 284.8 passing yards per game.
In his first season as the starter, Boyd threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns, which prompted his selection as the ACC’s first-team all-conference quarterback. He finished with 186 yards and five scores on the ground, but Morris would like to get a little more production from him in that department.
Watkins has emerged as one of the top receivers in college football, catching 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 scores. He has chipped in 229 yards on the ground, while also averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return. Watkins is one of the nation’s most dangerous players with the ball in his hand, and Clemson will look to get him 10-15 touches in this game.
There’s no shortage of weapons outside of Watkins, as DeAndre Hopkins caught 62 passes and tight end Dwayne Allen also chipped in 48 catches, with eight going for scores. Running back Andre Ellington is another dangerous weapon, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Mike Bellamy is the team’s top backup rusher, but he is suspended for this game, leaving Clemson with very little depth behind Ellington.
West Virginia’s defense had to break in seven new starters coming into this season, but finished 27th nationally in total defense and 31st in pass defense. The Mountaineers struggled to stop the run, finishing 51st nationally with 140.8 yards per game allowed.
West Virginia’ secondary was already under fire with Boyd and Watkins, but was dealt another blow when safety Terence Garvin was ruled out of this game due to knee surgery. He finished third on the team with 72 tackles, while adding two interceptions and recording 3.5 sacks. The Mountaineers allowed only 199.6 passing yards a game during the regular season, but that will be tested without Garvin as they try to stop Clemson’s offense.
Coordinator Jeff Casteel did a good job keeping West Virginia’s defense among the best in the Big East this year, but it will be put to the test with the question marks in the secondary. The Mountaineers have to get pressure on Boyd and not allow him to hit big plays to Watkins, Allen or Hopkins. West Virginia’s defense allowed 2.3 sacks per game, and Clemson’s offensive line allowed 2.3 a contest. Considering the Tigers’ have struggled to protect Boyd at times, the Mountaineers need to get pressure and disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. If West Virginia struggles to get after Boyd, it could be a long evening for the defense with the playmakers on the other sideline.
WHEN WEST VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:
The transition to Holgorsen’s offense hasn’t been a smooth one for the Mountaineers – but it hasn’t been a debacle either. West Virginia finished seventh nationally in passing offense, but ranked 100th in rushing offense.
Quarterback Geno Smith makes West Virginia’s offense go, throwing for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns this year. The junior attempted 483 passes and tossed only seven picks. Smith does not like to run, but can make a few plays with his legs if needed.
Smith has no shortage of talented receivers, starting with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Bailey led the team with 1,197 yards and 11 receiving scores, while Austin paced the team with 89 receptions. Ivan McCartney, Devon Brown and Tyler Urban are also solid options in the receiving corps.
Clemson’s secondary ranks 38th nationally in pass defense and has allowed 20 passing scores this year. However, the Tigers rank 56th nationally in pass efficiency defense. There’s no question Smith and his receivers are going to get their yards. However, Clemson cannot afford to let West Virginia’s passing offense consistently hit big plays downfield.
Perhaps the biggest key to slowing down West Virginia for the Tigers is winning the battle in the trenches. Clemson end Andre Branch collected 10.5 sacks in the regular season and will be one of the players to watch in this game. The Mountaineers allowed 2.2 sacks per game and if they cannot protect Smith, Clemson’s defense will take the upper hand.
In addition to struggling to protect Smith, West Virginia’s offensive line had its share of troubles opening up holes for the rushing attack. The Mountaineers shook up the front five late in the year and it’s uncertain who will start in the Orange Bowl. Regardless of which players get the call to start, this group will be under fire.
Although it isn’t crucial for this team to rush for 200 yards every game, the Mountaineers have to get some production on the ground. Dustin Garrison led the way with 742 yards, and Shawne Alston chipped in 339 yards and 10 touchdowns. Garrison suffered a knee injury in practice and won't be able to play against Clemson. Look for Alston and freshman Andrew Buie to shoulder the workload at running back.
This unit has been an adventure at times for West Virginia. Mike Molinari and Corey Smith have traded the punting job throughout the year, with Smith gaining the upper hand at the end of the season. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has connected on 16 of 22 attempts, including 3 of 4 from beyond 40 yards.
Austin is one of the top return men in college football, averaging 26.5 yards per kick return and 14.1 on punt returns. He has scored twice on kickoffs this season.
Clemson can match West Virginia on returns, as Watkins averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro connected on 20 of 25 attempts for Clemson, while punter Dawson Zimmerman averaged 38.2 yards per punt.
With two high-flying offenses, this matchup has the potential to be one of the highest-scoring games of the 2011-2012 bowl season. However, with the long layoff, it may take a quarter for both offenses to find their rhythm.
Both teams will have their moment, but Clemson’s defensive line will be able to disrupt West Virginia’s offensive timing and get after Smith in all four quarters. The Tigers also have more balance on offense, which is eventually the deciding factor.
Clemson 34, West Virginia 27
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.
What teams will surpass its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 regular season record in 2011, expect the Buckeyes to jump back into 10-win territory in 2012. Most importantly, Ohio State is not expected to have any suspensions impact the offense like it did this season. However, the Buckeyes were hit with a one-year bowl ban, so this team will be ineligible to compete for the Big Ten title. Quarterback Braxton Miller should shine in new coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense, especially with a group of young receivers getting better next year. The Buckeyes will have three key losses on the offensive line – tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, along with center Mike Brewster – but Miller’s mobility should help ease the concerns about this group. Ohio State had an uncharacteristic season on defense, finishing sixth in total and scoring in the Big Ten. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the NFL Draft, and the secondary will lose Tyler Moeller, but the rest of the defense is expected to return intact. With a lot of new faces seeing time this year, Ohio State’s defense should finish near the top of the Big Ten in 2012. Meyer is a proven winner and is putting together a terrific recruiting class in a short amount of time. With Wisconsin losing quarterback Russell Wilson and the ongoing uncertainty at Penn State, expect Ohio State to begin the year as the favorites in the Big Ten Leaders Division - without a chance to play in the conference title game.
Texas – There’s been much speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future in Austin, but all indications point to his return on the sidelines in Austin for 2012. And there’s a lot of reasons for Texas to be optimistic next season. The Longhorns made a two-win improvement from 2010 this season and a similar jump isn’t out of the question. Coordinator Bryan Harsin was brought in from Boise to jumpstart the offense, but the Longhorns finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring. Quarterback play was an issue all year, but Case McCoy and David Ash should be better with another offseason to work with the offense. However, Texas would probably be better off by settling on one quarterback and developing the scheme around him. Expect the Longhorns to focus on the run next season, especially with four starters coming back on the offensive line, along with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. The backfield will also get a boost with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Athlon Consensus 100. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should remain one of the best units in the Big 12. There’s a lot of pressure on Mack Brown to win next season and the pieces are in place to expect nine wins.
Washington – The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Steve Sarkisian, posting back-to-back seven-win seasons. And the future looks bright for 2012. Quarterback Keith Price was solid in his first year as the starter, throwing for 2,625 yards and 29 scores, while tossing 11 picks. Price battled injuries most of the year and a full offseason to heal should allow him to be 100 percent next season. He should have no shortage of weapons in the receiving corps, as Kasen Williams and James Johnson are proven targets, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could contend for All-American honors next season. Running back Chris Polk declared for the NFL Draft, which leaves Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to battle for the No. 1 role in the backfield. The Huskies also have to replace the left side of their offensive line. The defense has been a sore spot under Sarkisian, and coordinator Nick Holt was canned following an after the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. If Washington wants to push Oregon for the Pac-12 North title next year, the defense has to improve. The line will lose end Everrette Thompson and tackle Alameda Ta’amu, while linebacker Cort Dennison and cornerback Quinton Richardson also depart. Even with Polk departing, the Huskies should be picked second in the Pac-12 North and could start the year in many preseason top 25 lists.
During the Fiesta Bowl between Stanford and Oklahoma State, this little gem occurred after a kickoff. Jeremy Stewart doesn't think that Ty Montgomery should take the kickoff out of the end zone.
Ty Montgomery thinks he should. Then, as he's running out Stewart says "No, you will not" and decks him before he makes his way out of the end zone. If you watch the tape, it doesn't look like Montgomery would have made it past the 5 yard line, so Stewart essentially saved Stanford 15 yards on his heads up play.
Oklahoma State went on to win the Fiesta Bowl 41-38 in overtime (after Jordan Williamson, the freshman Stanford kicker missed a game-winning field goal, and then another in overtime). But this play may be the one that stands out when people talk about this game.
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers
Step aside Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Bart Starr, there’s a new record-breaking quarterback in Titletown. A pending free agent, Flynn completed 31-of-44 passes for a team-record 480 yards, a club-record six TDs and one INT in what was likely his last regular season game with the Packers, a 45–41 shootout victory over the NFC North rival Lions. “It’s very humbling,” said Flynn, following his breakout performance at Lambeau Field. “Just think of all the great quarterbacks that have come through here.”
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Needing a win to secure the AFC North crown, as well as the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs — as opposed to the No. 5 seed and a Wild Card matchup with a loss — Baltimore rode Rice to a 24–16 win at Cincinnati. The 5'8", 212-pounder showed off both power and speed, with 24 carries for 191 yards (8.0 ypc) and two TDs — a 70-yard sprint to start the scoreboard festivities and a 51-yard fourth-quarter scamper to seal the victory.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
The G-Men were on Cruz control during their 31–14 must-win over the Cowboys, in a playoff play-in game for the NFC East division title. The second-year Minuteman out of UMass capped off the most unlikely of years with a six-catch, 178-yard effort highlighted by a 74-yard TD. After entering the season with zero career receptions, Cruz has 82 grabs for 1,536 yards (18.7 ypc) and nine TDs this season, becoming Eli Manning’s go-to receiver along the way.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
Someone has to catch all those Drew Brees bombs; and during a 45–17 win over Carolina, it was Graham, who hauled in eight receptions for 97 yards and one TD, and partner in crime Marques Colston, who had seven catches for 145 yards and two TDs. The 6'6", 260-pound Graham, who played basketball at Miami (Fla.), finished the season with 99 catches for a team tight end record 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
Minnesota’s hardest hustler didn’t slow down in a meaningless 17–13 loss to Chicago in the season finale. Allen posted a season-high 3.5 sacks — his sixth multi-sack game of the year — giving him 22 sacks this season, 0.5-sack shy of the NFL single-season record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. In eight seasons, Allen has recorded 105 sacks and 26 forced fumbles, earning four trips to the Pro Bowl.
Lebron James continues to follow in his idol's footsteps. Just days after Michael Jordan announced his engagement to Yvette Prieto, Miami Heat Star Lebron James announced he was engaged to his longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson.
James popped the question on New Year's Eve with teammates and friends looking on. It was also James' 27th birthday.
Chris Paul and Heat Owner Mickey Arison tweeted their congratulations.
Lebron and Savannah have two sons. Savannah and James have been dating since high school. James, who struggled last year after he was turned from one of the most well-loved players in the NBA to one of the most hated after leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to go to the Miami Heat didn't respond well to playing the role of league villain. Something he recently admitted.
Maybe his new engagement will help soften his image, especially among women, who will see a guy who stayed with his high school sweetheart, despite being one of the most famous and wealthy athletes on the planet.
Here's a photo gallery of the Brinson and James:
There's no way to know if Michael Jordan's engagement prompted James to follow suit (James used to wear #23 in homage to his on-court idol), but we'll see if Lebron's first marriage fares better than Jordan's (MJ lost a reported $150 million after his first marriage dissolved in 2006.)
Heat fans are hoping this is the year Lebron finally does for the first time what his idol was able six times, and that's win an NBA championship.
by Mark Ross
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)
Date: Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.
Michigan and Virginia Tech seem to have a lot in common. Not only do they have similar statistics when it comes to offensive and defensive production, both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks, 1,000-yard running backs, didn’t win their respective conferences and don’t deserve to be in a BCS bowl.
While the first four claims are fact, it’s the last one that’s purely opinion, and it’s an opinion that seems to be shared by the majority of college football fans and pundits alike.
Surprise is probably the best word to use in describing the reaction after Sugar Bowl officials picked No. 13 Michigan and No. 11 Virginia Tech for its Jan. 3 match up. In the process, these same officials not only bypassed two teams — No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State — that were ranked higher in the BCS standings, but also a Michigan State team that defeated the Wolverines earlier this season and was the runner-up to Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
Regardless of your opinion of the BCS system and its flaws, this much is clear — Sugar Bowl officials wanted Michigan and Virginia Tech and that’s what they got. Now it’s up to both of these teams to seize the chance on the big stage and prove to the fans and pundits that the Sugar Bowl made the right choice.
For one, Michigan is more than happy to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. The program is enjoying a revival under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who led the Wolverines to double-digit wins for the first time since 2006.
That may not seem like a big deal to most programs, but this is Michigan we are talking about, who has the most wins (894) in college football history and had made a bowl game 33 straight years before going 3-9 in 2008 under Rich Rodriguez.
Michigan did get back to a bowl last year, its first in three seasons, but got thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed by Mississippi State in a 52-14 Gator Bowl debacle. So besides showing the nation that the football program is back among the elite, the Wolverines also want nothing more than to make last year’s poor bowl performance a distant memory.
Virginia Tech may have more than 200 less wins than Michigan, but as far as recent history goes, the Hokies arguably have more claim as one of the sport’s elite programs than the Wolverines. Virginia Tech currently has the third-longest bowl steak in the nation at 19 straight postseason appearances and has won 10 or more games eight straight seasons.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer has the most wins among FBS active head coaches with 250. He’s just 8-10 in bowl games, however, with a 1-4 record in BCS bowls, including last year’s 40-12 disappointing showing against Stanford in the Orange Bowl.
Virginia Tech made it to the ACC Championship Game once again this year, but fell to Clemson, 38-10, to deny the Hokies a fourth ACC title in five seasons. Clemson is the only team to defeat Virginia Tech this season, as the Tigers also beat the Hokies 23-3 in Blacksburg, Va., back on Oct. 1.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:
The little engine that makes Michigan’s offense go is dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson. The junior, affectionately known as “Shoelace,” has kept opposing defenses in knots the past two seasons with both his legs and arm.
Robinson is averaging nearly 100 yards rushing a game, which ranks him 28th in the nation. His total rushing yards are down (1,163 to 1,702) compared to last year as is his yards per carry average (5.6 to 6.6), but he’s had fewer attempts (208 to 256) and scored more rushing touchdowns (16 to 14).
Robinson also has attempted fewer passes (237 to 291) to this point than last season, while throwing for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns. He’s not the most accurate passer, completing 56.1 percent of his attempts thus far, and has tossed 18 interceptions.
Even though his overall numbers are down compared to last season when he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, he is still an extremely dangerous weapon as he ranks 29th in the nation in total offense with 268.3 yards per game.
Part of the reason Robinson’s rushing attempts are down is because of the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. A sophomore, Toussaint established himself as Michigan’s lead back in the second half of the season. The first Wolverine not named Robinson to rush for 1,000 yards or more in a season since Mike Hart in 2007, Toussaint has 112 carries for 678 yards (6.1 ypc) in the past five games alone.
Robinson and Toussaint have combined to rush for 2,174 yards and 25 touchdowns. They are the main reason the Wolverines have the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack, averaging more than 235 yards on the ground alone.
Four different Wolverines have caught at least 18 passes this season led by Junior Hemmingway’s 32 receptions for 636 yards. Senior tight end Kevin Koger is the team leader in touchdown receptions with four.
Michigan’s offensive line has done a good job all season opening up running lanes and protecting Robinson when he stays in the pocket. The line is a veteran group led by senior center David Molk, who was awarded this year’s Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. Molk also was named the Big Ten’s top offensive lineman and has started 41 games in his career.
Michigan is averaging more 420 yards of total offense and 34 points per game. By comparison, Virginia Tech’s defense has allowed that many yards and points in a game twice. Once to Miami (Fla.) in a 38-35 win and to Clemson in the ACC title game loss. The Hokies will look to continue their defensive consistency against the Wolverines.
Virginia Tech has already faced several dual-threat quarterbacks similar to Robinson, most notably Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (twice) and Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, so Robinson won’t necessarily be a new challenge. However, the Hokies will need to limit Michigan’s entire rushing attack if they want to force the Wolverines to throw more, which is not Robinson’s strong suit.
The Hokies are one of the more solid defenses in the nation, performing well against both the run (107.8 yards per game allowed, 17th in the country) and pass (206.2 ypg allowed, 40th). They also are giving up less than 18 points per game and are 11th in sacks per game with nearly three a contest. It will be interesting to see how much pressure they can get on Robinson, and if they will be able to bring him down before he gets out of the pocket.
Two Hokies to watch for on the defensive side are Jayron Hosley and Kyle Fuller. Not only are the two defensive backs good in pass coverage, combining for four interceptions, but they also are capable of rushing the passer. Fuller is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks and it will be interesting to see if Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster uses him or Hosley as a “spy” on Robinson or blitzes with them often to try and pressure the Wolverine’s signal-caller.
As long as they can contain Robinson, the Hokies should be able to force a mistake or two out of him, as they have already picked off 15 passes this season.
WHEN VIRGINIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
Virginia Tech has its own dual-threat quarterback in Logan Thomas, but it also has David Wilson, the ACC Offensive Player and Player of the Year, in its backfield. Wilson is fifth in the country with 1,627 rushing yards (125.2 per game), is averaging more than six yards per carry, and has scored 10 total touchdowns.
The junior has rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of 13 games and has a chance to break Virginia running back Thomas Jones’ ACC single-season record of 1,798 yards, which he set in 1999 in 11 games.
Wilson is a fast and explosive runner who is deceptively strong for his size (5-10, 205) and does not go down easily. He’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield and, when given the chance, as a returner. Josh Oglesby serves as the Hokies’ change-of-pace back for Wilson and has 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.
While Michigan’s Robinson and Tech’s Thomas may both be dual-threat quarterbacks, they do it in different ways. Thomas is 6-6, 254, which has brought out comparisons to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
At times this season, Thomas has played like Newton, using his size and strength to bowl over defenders on quarterback draws and sneaks, or shaking off pass rushers long enough to prolong the play and come up with big yards. The sophomore is the latest in a line of successful dual-threat Virginia Tech quarterbacks, most notably Michael Vick and last season’s starter, Tyrod Taylor.
Thomas doesn’t rush nearly as often as Robinson, mostly due to Wilson’s presence in the backfield, but he does have more than 400 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He has completed close to 60 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.
Thomas has spread the ball out to his receivers with six different Hokies catching at least 14 passes. Jarrett Boykin leads the team with 57 catches, while Danny Coale has the most receiving yards (787) and Boykin and Marcus Davis are tied with five touchdowns each. Those three and D.J. Coles have combined for 172 catches, 2,466 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The starting offensive line consists of four seniors and one sophomore and has done a good job of keeping Thomas upright, allowing just over a sack a game. Michigan’s defense comes into this game 27th in the nation in sacks with 2.3 per game and will try and get to Thomas and slow down Wilson with a trio of defensive linemen in Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen.
The Wolverines are surrendering less than 130 yards rushing per game, so one of the key battles to watch is their run defense against Wilson and Ogelsby. If Virginia Tech can find success on the ground, it should open up things downfield for Thomas and the receivers to make some noise.
Michigan’s defense has been solid all year, one of the biggest reasons for its turnaround this season. Last year the Wolverines gave up nearly 450 yards and 34 points per game, which ranked them in the bottom 20 of the nation in both categories. This season, the Wolverines are currently 18th in the nation in total defense, surrendering less than 320 yards per game, and are giving up less than 18 points per game, which ranks them seventh overall.
With improvement like that, it’s easy to see why the Wolverines went from 7-5 last year to 10-2 this season. Now they get to see if they can maintain this level of performance against the Hokies.
Both Michigan and Virginia Tech rank near the bottom when it comes to net punting and kickoff returns. Virginia Tech is the only team with either a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown this season. Virginia Tech’s Hosley can be dangerous as a returner and has two punt return touchdowns in his career.
Virginia Tech has a reputation for its special teams play, most notably its propensity to block kicks, but the Hokies have just one punt block to this point. Michigan also has one blocked kick this season.
Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons has connected on all but one of his 53 PAT attempts. The sophomore has made 10 of 14 field goal attempts, but just two of those makes were between 40-49 yards.
Cody Journell, like Gibbons, is a sophomore and has missed just one PAT (43-of-44) this season. The Virginia Tech placekicker also hasn’t attempted a field goal from beyond 50 yards, but he has made 14 of his 17 field goal tries overall, including three of four from 40-49 yards.
As noted above there are a lot of similarities between these two teams, but let’s concentrate on the ones that matter to the game itself. Both Michigan and Virginia Tech feature strong defenses that don’t give up a lot of yards or points. Both also have offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks and 1,000-yard running backs. So either something has to give or this is going to be a low-scoring affair.
I’ll lean towards the former as while I see neither team exploding offensively, I do think Virginia Tech has a slight edge on Michigan when it comes to overall offensive makeup. Robinson is by far a better and more dangerous runner, especially in the open field, than Thomas, but Thomas has the edge as a passer and also has a better receiving corps. Toussaint has been extremely productive as the Wolverines’ lead back recently; while Wilson has been doing it all season for the Hokies.
Both teams are on a mission to prove to everyone that they belong in a BCS bowl, but as everyone knows, only one can win. Both teams are no stranger to a BCS bowl, but Virginia Tech was here just last year, and while the Hokies may not have the best record in the BCS spotlight, they are more familiar with it than the Wolverines, who haven’t been in a BCS bowl since 2007.
In the end, I think Virginia Tech’s experience, coupled with its offensive balance and special teams prowess, will be enough to slow down this “young” and hungry Michigan squad.
Virginia Tech 27, Michigan 24
At the beginning of the 2011 NFL season Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris was one of the most promising coaches in the NFL. One of the few coaches who seemed to be farthest from the hot seat.
And on the second day of 2012, he's now been fired. An almost unthinkable scenario just four months ago.
But that's what a 10-game losing streak to finish a season will do a head coach in these win-now times.
In a statement from the Bucs brass, they thanked him for his service: "We want to thank Coach Morris for all his hard work and dedication as head coach of the Buccaneers," Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer said in a statement.
The Bucs, who are one of the younger teams in the league, hadn't won a game since beating the Saints on October 16th. One of the main reasons they lost their next 10 was the regression of quarterback Josh Freeman.
Freeman, who was a fan favorite last year, was expected to make the jump to elite quarterback in 2011, but failed to do so, throwing a whopping 22 interceptions, after only tossing 6 to the wrong team last year.
The 2011 Bucs were expected to compete for an NFC South title. But when that faded, it seems Tampa Bay felt they needed to make a change at head coach. What this means for the future of Josh Freeman will come to light at the NFL draft. With a high draft pick and a lot of high-quality quarterbacks in this year's draft,t he BUcs may look to go in another direction. Or they may stick with Freeman.
No replacement has been announced.
The stakes are high enough as it is. In fact, they couldn't be higher during a regular-season game. Rarely are there games where a division title and a playoff berth is on the line and the loser will be eliminated entirely.
That's what's on the line on Sunday night in what might just be the Game of the Year in the NFL between the Giants (8-7) and the Cowboys (8-7) at the Meadowlands. The winner wins the NFC East and locks in the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs. The loser's season is immediately over and there's a chance they could slip all the way to third place.
And hard as it is to believe, that's not all. The ramifications for the loser goes way beyond wins and losses. The Giants are at a crossroads with their 65-year-old coach, Tom Coughlin, who could be facing an uncertain future. Ditto for their once-heralded defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. And in Dallas, they all work for a reactionary owner in Jerry Jones. Who will he blame for failure? Jason Garrett? Tony Romo? Both?
Maybe the loser will realize how close they came and they'll decide to stay the course and take their chances with the same key players in 2012. Change, though, tends to be inevitable in the NFL especially in big markets. So both teams might really be playing for a lot more than a playoff berth and a division championship.
Both teams could be playing for a lot of people's jobs.
What if the Cowboys lose?
Is there anyone who thinks Jerry Jones will quietly accept failure, considering the Cowboys have just one playoff victory in the last 15 years?
The brash owner has voiced mostly support for his sometimes embattled quarterback, Tony Romo, but how many times is he really going to watch him come close and fail? And considering the rash of rookie quarterbacks who have had stellar debuts this year, it's a pretty good bet that Jones will at least eye Romo's successor at some point – likely early – in the NFL draft. If he doesn't replace him immediately in the event of a loss, he will very likely make sure the replacement is on the roster looking over his shoulder.
And what about Garrett, who just a few years ago was considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL and the next great up-and-coming coach? Jones thought enough of him to pay him millions when he was just Wade Phillips' offensive coordinator. But Garrett's fate could have been decided the moment he iced his own kicker in a loss at Arizona. If the Cowboys had won that game they could've clinched the NFC East last week against the Eagles, instead of having to rest their starters and set up one final, do-or-die game.
Jones may like Garrett, but he's a showman at heart. If they fail to make the playoffs, can he really resist the urge to bring in one of the bigger names on the market. Can he just sit quietly while Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher and Jon Gruden all get away?
There will be other decisions, too. Felix Jones was supposed to be the next great Cowboys running back and they even jettisoned Marion Barber to give him his chance. But the best Cowboys running back this season was DeMarco Murray. Jones still has one year left on his contract, but as much as he's a favorite of Jerry Jones, the emergence of Murray makes it seem unlikely he'd get a big offseason contract extension. And if he doesn't, could he be trade bait to a team that needs a running back so the Cowboys can bolster their depth?
What if the Giants lose?
The Giants are a franchise that craves stability, and they have a coach that ownership absolutely loves. But the cold, hard truth is that they haven't been to the playoffs since 2008 and in Coughlin's eight-year tenure their only postseason wins came during their Super Bowl championship run in 2007. That has given Coughlin a lot of milage, but the honeymoon can't last forever.
It will be a painfully hard decision for the owners and one the Giants don't want to make, but can they really ignore what would be a 2-6 second half, the latest in a string of second-half collapses on Coughlin’s watch? Can they ignore no playoffs in the last three years and no playoff wins in seven of eight seasons? Maybe they can be seduced by all the big names standing on the sideline, too. And there's also the question of whether any change they make will include GM Jerry Reese, because a good argument could be made that any failure by this team had more to do with the makeup of the roster and the depth than anything a coach did or didn't do.
They won't have any Romo-like decisions to make at quarterback, where Eli Manning will be coming off his finest season, but there could be other parts of the team that need a makeover -- their defense in particular. That will bring up the status of Fewell. Coughlin rarely fires his assistants, unless he does so under pressure. And if he fires Fewell, the Giants will end up with their fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons. That's usually a bad sign.
What would make ownership make Coughlin make a change? Well, what if the Rams fire Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLII? That might make them think about it, at least.
One thing is certain, though: The prize for losing this game isn’t just an early vacation and a second- or third-place schedule in 2012. The prize could be a long, painful offseason and plenty of changes along the way.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
The Skycam fell onto the field during the Insight Bowl between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Oklahoma Sooners. No one was hurt, but one of the Iowa players barely missed being knocked on the head by it and became tangled up in its wires.
It's surprising that this doesn't happen more often, with Skycam cameras zooming around almost every stadium in the country. These high wire cameras are attached at the very tops of the corners of each sports stadium, and while they provide very awesome views of on-field action, they are only help up by not-so-thick wires.
And these wires have to hold the strain of camera putting wear and tear on them as they follow the action on the field and fly from one end of the stadium to the other.
It will be interesting to see if more precautions are put into place to have other Skycam's around the country get checked more rigorously. Imagine if this happened in the middle of the last play of the Super Bowl and a Skycam "tackled" a player going into the end zone. Actually, that would be kind of awesome.
by Nathan Rush
Ohio State (6–6) vs. Florida (6–6)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
Coined the “Urban Meyer Bowl” this year’s Gator Bowl pits the two-time BCS national title-winning coach’s former team, Florida, where he coached from 2005-10, against his new team, Ohio State, where he will coach beginning in 2012.
The Buckeyes had national championship aspirations for 2011. After all, coach Jim Tressel had proven capable of winning it all and quarterback Terrell Pryor was returning for his senior season.
But those expectations vanished faster than TP2’s black-on-black Nissan 350Z, after NCAA investigation led to Tressel being fired, Pryor entering the NFL supplemental draft and OSU’s top playmakers — running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey — being suspended indefinitely. Interim coach Luke Fickell took over a program backpedaling in shambles, but was still able to lead the Buckeyes to a bowl.
Gator Nation was sad to see Meyer “retire” after the 2010 season, but excited about the arrival of Will Muschamp — an energetic then-39-year-old defensive coordinator who had won a BCS title at LSU under Nick Saban and been the head coach in-waiting at Texas under Mack Brown before arriving in Gainesville. Muschamp also brought three-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis with him to the Swamp.
Many expected the Gators to contend for the SEC East title and possibly a BCS berth. But those illusions of grandeur were quickly squashed, as UF lost six of its last eight games. The Gators only notched one win against a team in a bowl this year — a 26–21 nail-biter over Vanderbilt.
Both traditional football powers have fallen on hard times, with identical 6–6 records, and will need to win this rematch of the BCS national title game following the 2006 season — when the Gators upset the Buckeyes, 41–14 — in order to avoid a losing mark. Florida has not finished below .500 since 1979, while Ohio State’s last losing season was in 1988.
WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL:
After being suspended for the first six games of the season, “Boom” Herron exploded onto the scene to rush for 596 yards and three TDs over the last six contests — including a 160-yard workhorse effort against Wisconsin, OSU’s best win of the year. Last season, Herron totaled 1,155 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. This will be the 5’10”, 205-pounder’s final game in scarlet and gray, expect him to see plenty of action running behind a quality O-line led by center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.
Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has been Pryor-lite this year, passing for 997 yards, 11 TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for another 695 yards and seven TDs on the ground. The stage is set for a coming out party of sorts for the 6’3”, 210-pound Huber Heights, Ohio, native. The Buckeyes have no receivers of note, with only three players catching over 10 passes this year.
Florida’s defense ranks ninth in the nation (299.58 ypg) and 25th in scoring (20.58 ppg), but has been susceptible to the run, ranking 40th (132.33 ypg). With so many four- and five-star recruits, more “splash” plays were expected from the Gators stop-unit, which had only eight INTs and four fumble recoveries this season. Linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Matt Elam have been the best of the bunch.
WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL:
Following Weis’ departure for Kansas, interim offensive coordinator Brian White will call the shots in the Gator Bowl, which will be quarterback John Brantley’s last stand. The one-time Texas commit and longtime Tim Tebow backup was never able to put it all together at Florida — passing for 1,912 yards, 10 TDs and six INTs in his final campaign. True freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are waiting in the wings if the oft-fragile Brantley goes down again.
There is plenty of speed in the backfield, with 2010 NCAA Indoor Track 60-meter champ (6.56 seconds) Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combining to rush for 1,329 yards and eight TDs this season. Both runners are a threat to take it the distance at any time. Receiver Andre Debose is also a big-play threat, with 423 yards and four TDs on just 15 catches (28.2 ypc).
Ohio State has struggled against the run, allowing 142.42 yards per game. However, the Buckeyes did limit Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball to just 85 yards. End John Simon has been disruptive, with seven sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. In a down year for the Buckeyes, Simon, safety C.J. Barnett and linebacker Andrew Sweat were the only defenders to be named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten.
Gators kicker Caleb Sturgis was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, after connecting on 21-of-25 field goals — including three from beyond 50 yards — and all 28 extra points this year. Demps (25.0 ypr, 99-yard TD vs. Georgia) is a dangerous kick returner, as are Rainey and Solomon Patton. Rainey has a punt return TD as well.
Ohio State’s Jordan Hall gives the Bucks solid starting field position on kick returns (28.1 ypr), and kicker Drew Basil is adequate (15-of-18 FGs). But there are no Joey Galloways or Mike Nugents on special teams for OSU.
Meyer’s new team will ground-and-pound his old squad, as Muschamp’s first season train wreck ends in a Gator Bowl loss. After a bitter start to the season, Ohio State’s year will end with a sweet win over Florida, its most-hated intersectional rival.
Ohio State 27, Florida 20
by Rob Doster
Teams: Michigan State (10–3) vs. Georgia (10-3)
Date: Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
This game, one of the most intriguing matchups of bowl season, is a rematch of the 2009 Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 24–12, and also another chance for the Spartans to redeem themselves against an SEC foe after losing in embarrassing fashion to Alabama 49–7 in last year's Capital One Bowl. In fact, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is still looking for his first bowl win as the boss in East Lansing (0–4). Similarly, the Bulldogs are seeking redemption after an embarrassing 10–6 Liberty Bowl loss to UCF last season.
Raymond James Stadium will play host to two 10-win teams who lost conference championship games and still have something left to prove. The Bulldogs overcame an 0–2 start to race to the SEC East title but squandered early opportunities in the SEC Championship Game and were ultimately pounded by LSU, 42–10. Meanwhile, the Spartans squandered an eight-point fourth quarter lead against Wisconsin and lost the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game 42–39.
Still, both teams seem to be headed in a positive direction, and the winner will get an extra boost of momentum heading into the stretch drive of recruiting season. Mark Richt has kept the wolves at bay and fashioned a 10-win team that boasts an elite defense, while Dantonio has led a Spartan surge on the strength of a balanced offensive attack that has averaged 38.6 ppg over MSU's last five games. The key could be the ability of the Spartans defense to contain record-setting Georgia signal-caller Aaron Murray, who set a new standard in Athens with 33 touchdown passes this season.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL:
Watching Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins try to find the weak spots in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense will be one of the highlights of bowl season. The Bulldogs are third nationally in total defense, allowing only 268.5 yards per game, but they'll have their hands full against Cousins and his complement of weapons. The Spartans turned a corner offensively after a 24–3 loss to Nebraska, scoring no fewer than 31 points over their next five games, a stretch during which Cousins has thrown 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions, including a 281-yard, three-touchdown performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the season, Cousins ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency (151.37). Providing balance is sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 900 yards and 11 scores and posted 100-yard rushing games against Iowa and Wisconsin. The Spartans were effective in protecting the football, committing only 15 turnovers all season. Leading the charge for the Dawgs defense will be explosive sophomore linebacker Jarvis Jones, who ranked third nationally in sacks with 1.04 per game and forced two fumbles.
WHEN GEORGIA HAS THE BALL:
The Dawgs will be tested by a Spartans defense that finished just a couple of notches behind Georgia in total defense (5th) and allowed only 17.5 ppg. Georgia showed nice balance on offense this season, rushing for 172.7 yards per game while throwing for 255.4. Murray shared the wealth, throwing touchdown passes to 10 different receivers this season, and he was at his best down the stretch in rivalry games against Auburn (four touchdown passes) and Georgia Tech (252 yards, four TDs) — Georgia's only two victims who posted winning records on the season. Running back Isaiah Crowell has been something of a disappointment to some Dawg fans despite leading SEC freshmen in rushing with 847 yards. The Georgia offense will try to use Crowell to loosen the Spartans defense and make things easier for Murray and top targets Malcolm Mitchell, Orson Charles and Tavarres King.
Both teams boast experienced kickers, although Georgia's Blair Walsh was uncharacteristically inconsistent this season, missing 12 field goals after missing only 13 in his first three seasons in Athens. Bulldogs punter Drew Butler is a weapon, ranking 12th nationally at 44.3 yards per boot. For Michigan State, Keshawn Martin is a effective punt returner, averaging 11.78 yards per return and taking one back for a score against Northwestern.
This matchup has everything a college football fan could want — namely, two superb quarterbacks with weapons and two imposing defenses. So which team can overcome the heartbreak of a championship game loss and find redemption in Tampa? Both squads have shown resiliency and toughness this season, but the Spartans' lack of success against SEC foes has to be a bit of a red flag. Look for the Dawgs to do just enough to win, as they have so often during the Mark Richt regime.
Georgia 24, Michigan State 21
by Nathan Rush
Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas
The first-ever Big Ten vs. Conference USA postseason matchup is a surreal pairing of two teams in the middle of downward spirals — albeit of decidedly different natures — led by interim head coaches.
Houston is hung over after having its BCS bowl dreams dashed and undefeated season ruined by Southern Miss during a 49–28 loss in the Conference USA title game. Then, Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, who was 35–17 in four seasons at UH, left to take the Texas A&M job. Special teams coordinator, inside-receivers and tight ends coach Tony Levine will take over the top spot for the TicketCity Bowl. But make no mistake, the Coogs will rely heavily on the leadership of record-breaking sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, who will be making the final start of an historic career.
On the other side, no one is smiling in Happy Valley these days, following the disgraceful exit of iconic coach Joe Paterno and disgusting criminal charges of child abuse filed against JoePa’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. In the wake of the shocking scandal, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as interim coach, posting a 1–2 record — losing to Nebraska (17–14), winning at Ohio State (20–14) and getting blown out at Wisconsin (45–7) in the regular season finale.
WHEN HOUSTON HAS THE BALL:
The Cougars’ high-octane attack ranks No. 1 in total offense (599.0 ypg), passing (443.8 ypg) and scoring (50.8 ppg).
Keenum orchestrates Houston’s scoreboard fireworks display; but the signal-caller has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Receivers Patrick Edwards (1,524 yards, 18 TDs), Justin Johnson (1,081 yards, 11 TDs) and Tyron Carrier (914 yards, 5 TDs), and running backs Charles Sims (782 yards, 9 TDs) and Michael Hayes (707 yards, 11 TDs) give UH a variety of playmakers capable of putting up big numbers in any given game.
Speaking of numbers, Keenum has taken the video game-gaudy statistical tradition of former Houston passing legends Andre Ware and David Klingler to another level. The 6’2”, 210-pounder from Abilene, Texas, owns the all-time FBS records for total offense (19,572 yards), passing yards (18,685) and passing TDs (152). This season, the 23-year-old — who was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a knee injury last season — led the nation in both passing yards (5,099) and passing TDs (45), while completing 71.7 percent of his passes and throwing just five INTs.
On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to have a formidable defense, ranking fifth nationally in points allowed (15.7 ppg) and 10th in total defense (300.9 ypg). But Penn State played only two offenses ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring — Wisconsin (4th) and Alabama (16th). PSU went 0–2, losing by a combined score of 72–18 in those contests.
WHEN PENN STATE HAS THE BALL:
If Coach Bradley has his way, the Nittany Lions will play ball-control football, squeeze the air out of the pigskin, dominate time-of-possession and keep Keenum and Co. off the field. That is Penn State’s only realistic formula for victory; PSU will not be able to win a shootout against Houston.
This season, Penn State’s season-high was 41 points, scored against lowly Indiana State in the opener. The Nittany Lions topped 30 points two other times, against Eastern Michigan and at Northwestern. Houston, however, scored over 40 points in 10 games this year and failed to score 30 points only once — scoring 28 in its lone loss to Southern Miss.
Stud sophomore running back Silas Redd (1,188 yards on 5.2 ypc, 7 TDs) will have to dominate a Cougars run defense that ranked 77th nationally, allowing 171.8 yards per game and 12 rushing TDs in 13 games this season.
If Houston scores often that just means more kick return chances for Penn State ace Chaz Powell, who averages 28.3 yards per return and has a 95-yard TD on his resume. Kicker and punter Anthony Fera is also a weapon, having connected on 14-of-17 field goals while averaging 42.0 yards per punt. But Fera will need to be careful punting to Cougars returners Patrick Edwards and Damian Payne, who combined to score two TDs and average 17.3 yards per return. Tyron Carrier is a force on kickoff returns, with a 24.8-yard average and a 100-yard TD. Houston hasn’t punted much or kicked many field goals (10-of-12).
Houston sends Keenum out in style, while Penn State ends an ugly season with an embarrassing loss. The Cougars’ offense will run past a Nittany Lion defense — and program — that is licking their wounds after the JoePa, Sandusky disaster.
Houston 42, Penn State 20