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The NFC West managed to be a strong division last year, even with the 49ers disappointing and only going 8-8. This division has many strengths, however, with plenty of potential to send multiple teams to the playoffs once again. There should definitely be some late-season drama as teams jockey for postseason positioning.
Here are some NFC West players who could make a major difference for their respective team this season:
Lemuel Jeanpierre, Center, Seattle
Seahawks (1st place, 12-4)
It’s hard to find areas of improvement on a team that’s played in two consecutive Super Bowls and should have won them both. However, they did trade away Max Unger, who was a two-time Pro Bowler and integral part of the past few years’ success. This will be Jeanpierre’s sixth season, and he has only seen limited playing time. As the team’s center, he will have to take on a strong leadership role along the line and must be able to at least be decent at blocking. Pete Caroll and the Seahawks shouldn’t be hurting too much though despite the personnel changes at several key positions.
Another player to watch: cornerback Cary Williams
Jerraud Powers, Cornerback, Arizona Cardinals (2nd place, 11-5)
The Cardinals were an interesting team last year — they gave up a lot of yards and didn’t gain many, yet still found ways to win a bunch of games. Their pass defense was rough, although they have an elite corner in Patrick Peterson. Powers put up his best season last year mostly in the nickel, but he may be moving back to a larger role on the outside. Thus, he will need to improve in that area to help limit opponents’ passing attacks. The Cardinals, however, do have depth at the cornerback position now.
Another player to watch: running back Andre Ellington
Tramaine Brock, Cornerback,
San Francisco 49ers (3rd place, 8-8)
The 49ers had one of the roughest offseasons, highlighted by several high-profile retirements. They also lost two of their top four wide receivers, No. 1 running back, and two starting cornerbacks. The latter seems to be the issue of most concern right now because of the ambiguity at the position, with several players fighting for their spot on the cornerback depth chart. Brock figures to be one of the starters, but he has to stay healthy, after only playing three games last season. The 49ers have plenty of cornerbacks, but they don’t seem to have two clear-cut starters right now.
Another player to watch: running back Carlos Hyde
Nick Foles, Quarterback,
St. Louis Rams (4th place, 6-10)
The Rams finally gave up on Sam Bradford, and they hope Foles can be the answer at quarterback. He’s going to need some help though, especially from wide receivers Brian Quick and Kenny Britt, as well as Tre Mason and first-round pick Todd Gurley in the backfield. Foles figures to have very good upside, but whether or not his supporting cast can help him out will be seen during the season. The Rams also hope to get some better production out of Tavon Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in 2013.
Other players to watch: centers Tim Barnes/Barrett Jones/Demetrius Rhaney
(Nick Foles photo at top courtesy of St. Louis Rams)
LSU faithful received troubling news about their football program on Thursday night, following the arrest of four players. Defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao was arrested after an incident at a Baton Rouge bar on Tuesday night. Hours later Maquedius Bain, Dwayne Thomas, and 2014 starting quarterback Anthony Jennings were booked into a local prison on unlawful entry charges.
Per reports, Jennings filed a report to local police on June 10 that three pairs of shoes, a PlayStation 4 game system, and a MacBook Air laptop were stolen out of his apartment. Three days later, Bain retrieved the laptop for Jennings from a Nicholas Anderson. Anderson claimed he purchased the laptop for $150 on June 11 from an unidentified third party. Anderson was then arrested and charged with possession of stolen property.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
On June 12, Jennings confronted Anderson’s roommate asking about the stolen goods from his apartment. The unidentified roommate denied knowledge of the incident. After the initial confrontation Jennings, Bain and Thomas entered the apartment without permission to further interrogate Anderson’s roommate. After various threats including one by Bain and Thomas stating, “Not to wait until the situation got out of control,” the trio left but for a third time confronted the roommate when he left his West Campus apartment.
The incident came to a head later on June 12 when six to seven “large males” knocked on Anderson’s apartment door. The unidentified roommate answered the door with the men stating they were going to wait in the living room until Anderson returned. The roommate reportedly went into his bedroom then heard noise coming from Anderson’s bedroom. Thomas allegedly busted down Anderson’s locked bedroom door, gaining entrance and then leaving with three pairs of Air Jordan shoes worth $500 and a PlayStation 4 game system.
Reports have not been made clear if the shoes or the PlayStation 4 taken from Anderson’s room were the items stolen from Jennings’ room.
On June 14, the incident was reported to the police with the unidentified roommate identifying the men in the incident via a photo lineup to the LSU Police Department. The LSU PD then issued an arrest warrant for the LSU players involved on a charge of unauthorized entry into a home. Thomas was given an additional charge of simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling.
In Louisiana, the charge for unauthorized entry into a home carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $1,000 fine. Thomas could face a maximum sentence of seven years for the simple burglary charge.
Lealaimatafao also was arrested on Thursday after robbing a man and punching a woman in the parking lot of Reggie’s Bar in Tigerland. Per the Baton Rouge Police Department, Lealaimatafao and several other men beat a man unconscious, but the 6-foot-3, 300 pound, redshirt freshman then searched the beaten man’s pockets, robbing him. The girlfriend of the beaten man reportedly yelled at Lealaimatafao to stop what he was doing when he punched her, knocking her to the ground and then proceeded to go through the victim’s pockets. The Texas native was arrested on simple battery and attempted simple robbery charges. How the altercation was initiated has not been made clear.
The former Warren High School (San Antonio) star has had two other reported run-ins since joining the LSU program in 2014. He was arrested for stealing a bicycle near the LSU library and then missed much of the 2014 season after punching out a window at the team’s indoor practice facility, suffering an arm injury as a result.
Jennings, Thomas, Bain and Lealaimatafao have been suspended indefinitely per a statement head coach Les Miles released Thursday night. The statement read, “We have suspended these players. It has been our policy to suspend players who have been involved with legal issues. I have met with all three players involved extensively. We are still working with campus housing and the authorities to determine what exactly took place. This is an ongoing investigation and our players will cooperate fully.”
During the 2014 season, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron split time under center with Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris. Jennings started 13 games with Harris getting one start. However, neither player proved to be a reliable option on passing downs, especially in SEC action. As a sophomore, Jennings finished the season with a stat line of 1,611 yards passing, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing just 48.9 percent of his attempts. Harris dropped back to pass 45 times, recording 452 yards in the air with six touchdowns against two picks.
Bain, a 6-foot-4, 299 pound, sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was redshirted in 2013 but played in 10 games as a backup defensive tackle in 2014.
Thomas, a 6-foot, 182 pound, junior has been plagued with injury problems since arriving on campus from O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. As a true freshman in 2012, he played in four games before missing the remainder of the season due to injury, later granted a redshirt by the NCAA. In 2013, he played in 11 games missing two games due to injury. Thomas played in the first five games of 2014 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Thomas was expected to be a key contributor in the Tigers' secondary in 2015.
Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
Chris Singleton plays baseball for Charleston Southern, and the recent shooting in the church hit home for him.
Singleton's mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was one of the nine victims in the shooting. She was a high school track and field coach and a pastor at the church. Her son talked about the legacy she will leave behind.
"Honestly my knees are a little weak right now," Singleton said. "But I'm trying to stay as strong as I can while I press on."
The bravery and courage of Singleton is remarkable.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the Big 12 in 2015:
4: Top 15 finishes between 1961-2010 for Baylor
Between 1961 and 2010, the Baylor Bears finished ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll just four times. The No. 9 postseason ranking in 1951 had been the best finish in school history until last year. Over the last four seasons, the Bears have finished in the top 15 three times, including a program-best No. 7 ranking last fall.
6-foot-4: Average height of the Cyclones' top three WRs
If there is an area of strength for Iowa State entering 2015 it’s the wide receivers. A trio of massive targets gives the Clones one of the best sets of pass catchers in the nation. Sophomore Allen Lazard (6-5, 218) stared in 12 games as a freshman last year. D’Vario Montgomery (6-6, 236) was the leading receiver last year and Quenton Bundrage (6-2, 195) returns from injury and might be the best of the group.
5: Returning starters for Kansas
Only UTSA (3) has fewer returning starters in the nation. Certainly, some of that might be addition by subtraction considering the record. However, it’s hard to replace your top three receivers, the left side of the offensive line and 10 of the top 13 tacklers, including the three best players on the unit. David Beaty was hired for his ability to rebuild a roster but it may take a while.
185 and 2,574: Combined receptions and yards from Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton
Tyler Lockett (106 rec., 1,515 yards) and Curry Sexton (79 rec., 1,059 yards) are the only two Kansas State receivers to ever top 1,000 yards in the same season and both are gone from Manhattan. The duo combined for 185 of the team’s 250 total receptions and 2,574 of the team’s 3,235 passing yards. Bill Snyder has big shoes to fill on the outside, especially without his quarterback or tight end as well.
371.9: East Carolina’s passing yards per game
Bob Stoops shook up his coaching staff after one of his worst seasons in Norman by hiring East Carolina’s Lincoln Riley to run the offense. The Pirates were third nationally last year in passing offense at 371.9 yards per game. Riley's offense completed 63.1 percent of its passes for 4,835 yards in 13 games. He is charged with picking a quarterback at Oklahoma that best fits the overhauled offense.
20.2: Oklahoma State’s lowest scoring output of the Gundy era
The Cowboys scored just 20.2 points per game in 2005, Mike Gundy’s first as the head coach. Last fall, Oklahoma State scored its fewest points per game (27.6) since Gundy’s first season. In fact, until 2014, only once since then had the Pokes even averaged less than 34 points and that was in 2009 (28.4). With seven starters back on offense, including Mason Rudolph under center, Gundy’s squad should be back above 30 points per game in ’15.
5: All-Big 12 defensive selections no longer on TCU's roster
The Horned Frogs' biggest concern heading into what could be a magical year is the big voids left by the best defensive players on the team. Gary Patterson will be without the services of two first-team All-Big 12 picks in Paul Dawson and Chris Hackett and three second-team picks in Chucky Hunter, Sam Carter and Kevin White. TCU must replace the team’s best defensive lineman, the team’s best linebacker (and leading tackler) and three all-conference defensive backs.
5: Times Tyrone Swoopes' QB rating was under 100
Texas' Tyrone Swoopes finished his first full season under center with a quarterback rating of 116.46. That number ranked 90th in the nation behind players like LSU’s Anthony Jennings, Michigan's Devin Gardner and Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer. Five times Swoopes failed to post a QB rating of at least 100 and his play has to improve for the Horns to have any chance in the Big 12.
89.2: Texas Tech's penalty yards per game
Two signs of an undisciplined team are turnovers and penalties. Texas Tech hasn’t been good at either since Kliff Kingsbury’s arrival. The Red Raiders finished 128th — that’s last — in the nation with 89.2 penalty yards incurred per game. Baylor (9.8) was the only team in the nation charged with more penalty flags per game than Tech’s 9.3. Tech was 117th in giveaways as well with 28.
4,015: West Virginia average passing yards per season under Dana Holgorsen
Clint Trickett was much better than expected for West Virginia last season, leading the Mountaineers offense to 4,121 total yards. It was the third time in four years that Dana Holgorsen’s offense tallied more than 4,100 yards in a season. Over his four years, WVU has averaged 4,015 yards passing per game — a number brought down by the well-below average 3,145-yard season in 2013. In the three years prior to Holgorsen’s arrival, the Mountaineers threw for 2,403 yards per season.
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
While the value of a running back, in terms of salary cap allocation and draft status, may be diminishing, the importance of a strong ground game remains the same. Take Adrian Peterson for example. Even though the 30-year-old back missed practically all of last season, he's still considered the best at his position. Much of that probably stems from the fact that's he's just three seasons removed from rushing for 2,097 yards. The other interesting trend with this year's top 10 list is that three of the members changed teams during the offseason, including DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL rushing champion.
And not to be outdone, Ourlads also shows some love to the fullbacks, the unsung heroes in the backfield, whose contributions don't always show up on the stat sheet.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Running Backs
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Peterson was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and then suspended indefinitely last November after his much publicized off-the-field issues. He’s back now and is still under contract with the Vikings. Peterson is poised for a big 2015 season.
2. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle
Banged out 1,306 yards, fifth best in the league, and earned a new contract after leading the Seahawks to their second consecutive Super Bowl. The extra-effort runner cuts without the loss of speed.
3. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
The second-year pro slashed his way to 1,361 yards and eight TDs on the ground in 2014. In addition, he had no fumbles in 373 total touches. Bell likely will sit out the first three games this fall due to a marijuana arrest.
4. DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia
Led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, averaging 115.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry for Dallas. A good fit for the Eagles’ offense with his quick reactions, vision and the ability to split a crease with good body lean.
5. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
Was traded to Buffalo after jitterbugging his way to 1,319 yards for the Eagles in 2014. The Bills are gambling that McCoy will return to his days of being a north/south runner.
6. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Passed former Chiefs great Priest Holmes as the all-time leading rusher in team history despite battling injuries in 2014. He rushed for 1,033 yards, the fifth time he collected more than a 1,000 yards in a season.
7. Arian Foster, Houston
Since 2010, he has rushed for 6,052 yards and 50 touchdowns. In the same time frame, he has caught 219 passes for 1,948 yards and 12 TDs. Foster is a downhill power runner with good vision and cutback ability.
8. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
He followed his successful rookie season with a 1,139-yard rushing effort in 2014. The former Alabama star improved his route running and snatched 42 passes for 427 yards, averaging 10.2 yards per reception.
9. Matt Forte, Chicago
Forte broke Larry Centers’ record for receptions by a running back by catching 102 passes in 2014. He also rushed for 1,038 yards, the fifth time in seven years he joined the 1,000-yard club.
10. Frank Gore, Indianapolis
Signed as an unrestricted free agent by Indianapolis, leaving the 49ers as their all-time leading rusher with 11,073 yards. The ageless warrior brings a dedication and work ethic to a team seeking to upgrade its running attack.
11. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
12. Justin Forsett, Baltimore
13. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
14. Lamar Miller, Miami
15. Joique Bell, Detroit
16. Alfred Morris, Washington
17. Chris Ivory, N.Y. Jets
18. Tre Mason, St. Louis
19. Fred Jackson, Buffalo
20. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia
21. C.J. Anderson, Denver
22. Jacquizz Rodgers, Chicago
23. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
24. Rashad Jennings, N.Y. Giants
25. Andre Williams, N.Y. Giants
26. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
27. Steven Jackson, Free Agent
28. Pierre Thomas, Free Agent
29. Branden Oliver, San Diego
30. Ahmad Bradshaw, Free Agent
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Fullbacks
1. John Kuhn, Green Bay
The pride of Shippensburg University was an All-Pro selection in 2014. The old-school battering ram relishes contact and special teams play.
2. Marcel Reece, Oakland
Brings a complete tool box of block, run and catch to the table. As a pass receiver with rare speed to run away from defenders, he is an explosive check-down option for Derek Carr.
3. Anthony Sherman, Kansas City
A productive role player in the Chiefs’ West Coast offense as a blocker first and occasional receiver. In addition, he is one of the league’s top special teams players.
4. Bruce Miller, San Francisco
Is the most versatile member of the 49ers as a lead blocker, sometime receiver and whirling dervish special teams player. He makes an impact drawing blocks when he doesn’t make the tackle himself.
5. Henry Hynoski, N.Y. Giants
An H-back-type who blocks well on the run. Good size to run over inside linebackers or kick out penetration. Contributes on all special teams.
Steph Curry is riding high off the Warriors' championship win. First he owned Skip Bayless, and now he's doing anything he wants to do.
While driving with his wife Ayesha and sister, Sydel, the MVP felt the rhythm of Phil Collins get to him. Who can honestly resist going 100% on that drum solo?
The real question is who played the better drum? Curry or Mike Tyson?
Music, like sports, sparks debate, creates discussion and can even lead to heated disagreements.
But both are unquestionably a huge part of American culture. So Athlon Sports has decided to combine two of our favorite things — rock and roll with college football.
What if our favorite football programs were rock and roll bands? Every Power 5 team will be represented, so if you don’t see your favorite band or school here, keep your eyes peeled.
Here are the 14 Big Ten schools as rock bands:
A band that was at its peak a long time ago, delivering some of the greatest individual songs/athletes of its generation. But it also produced a lot of slow, soft crap and was basically dormant for about two decades until a bizarre resurgence in 2007. I am picturing Dick Butkus standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.
A Midwest college throwback that really isn’t all that good — unless you are in college, then it’s awesome. It had one epically good, historically great song that nearly won a Heisman Trophy despite a bad supporting cast near the turn of the century. Antwaan Randle El was a "Crazy Game of Poker" for most defensive coordinators.
Iowa: Grateful Dead
This group is extremely popular but only within a small cross section of the country. It appeals to a very specific type of fan who travels to support their team extremely well. However, the product itself is much slower than you’d think and a lot of people just don’t get it.
A progressive, heavy metal-ish act originally from a different conference (Canada), Rush has had some seriously talented arrangements over the years. They’re on stage performance is as loud as their songs and their wardrobe is even louder (and, at times, stranger). This is an eclectic group with a quirky identity that has been solid for a long time and not always fully understood. There seems to be a lot of red and black involved too.
They’ve been around a long, long time and saw their biggest rise to stardom take place in the 1990s. They are massive, loud and really good but sort of sanctimonious (always) and basically hollow for the last decade. They are good enough to love easily but holier than thou from time to time.
Michigan State: Bruce Springsteen
Is there a more blue-collar program in the country that has been more successful riding the work ethic train more than the Spartans? This has been a quality product in many different decades and appeals to the hard-working, middle class. And both have produced some serious Hall of Fame tracks.
Minnesota: Talking Heads
This is an extremely well-respected group among critics and experts but not really by the mainstream younger generation. Everything about both screams underrated despite some elite-level success a long time ago. The city is underrated, the history is underrated and the general personality is underrated.
Nebraska: Dave Matthews Band
This group totally kicked ass in the 1990s and delivered as much success as any act in the history of the sport. It built a massive, committed and, at times, delusional, fan base that is as supportive of their boys as any in the nation. However, it’s been sort of boring and rarely relevant since about 2003.
Chicago-based intelligent Dad Rock who hates being labeled as such (despite how true it is). In fact, they are almost too smart for their own good. Both are led by frontmen who consider themselves the smartest people in the room (mostly, because they are) and will tell you about it. Neither ever has been as respected as they probably should be.
Ohio State: The Black Keys
The pride of Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys are the biggest and best rock band going today. They are No. 1 in the nation, the reigning arena tour of the current landscape. They are loaded with elite talent and led by a guy who doesn’t care what you think. He’s going to do whatever he wants, do it well and then laugh at the smoldering rubble he leaves in his wake.
Penn State: Jack White
One of Ohio State's/The Black Keys' biggest rivals in the industry today, Jack White is extraordinarily talented despite a big conference move (from Detroit to Nashville). They are both obsessed with a blue and white color scheme and, let’s be honest, both are a little weird while still sustaining elite-level success. The live performances are second to none in the entire industry and both have done some things that have revolutionized the sport.
Purdue: The Yardbirds
Like Purdue quarterbacks going on to the NFL, the Yardbirds did one thing really well: supplying better bands with killer guitar players. Drew Brees is the Jimmy Page of the Big Ten. And good luck trying to find many fans of either in 2015.
Rutgers: The Gaslight Anthem
Grungy, loud, abrasive Northeastern rock that sounds and looks the same all the time. Their success is fairly new and has been pretty solid for a about half-a-decade with some killer songs. Questions about the groups’ long-term upside should be answered in the next few seasons/albums.
Wisconsin: Foo Fighters
Extremely consistent since their early 1990s emergence. They are catchy, tough to beat, classic rock and roll that hasn't ever been bad for the better part of a decade. But this group has never really been capable of winning a national title despite plenty of conference championships.
His middle daughter, Skylar, a 17-year-old high school athlete and Nebraska football fan, needed a history lesson. As the Cornhuskers struggled to become a power in their relatively new Big Ten home, Skylar Taylor wanted a little perspective. Losses to Minnesota and Iowa had stung. So had that conference championship debacle against Wisconsin a couple years back. And the 63–38 embarrassment in Columbus in 2012 wasn’t easy to take, either. So, Skylar asked.
“Dad, were we ever good?”
Somebody get the trainer.
“Wow,” says Taylor, who played for the Huskers from 1985-88 and rolled up a 31–6 record as a starter. “Think about that. We were once a national power.”
Nebraska hasn’t exactly been stumbling about the college football landscape throughout Skylar Taylor’s 17 years. The Huskers have won 10 or more games in a season seven times during her lifetime and hit nine on six other occasions, including last year. But it’s not the same in Lincoln as it was from 1970-97, when the Cornhuskers won five national titles and tore through the Big Eight Conference every year in advance of the annual post-Thanksgiving Plains showdown with Oklahoma. That was what drew Taylor, a blue-chip recruit from Fresno, Calif., to commit to Nebraska. It certainly wasn’t the weather.
“I tell people the reason I came to Nebraska was that they always seemed to be first or second in the country, and when I came here on a visit, the facilities were amazing, and the fans were crazy,” Taylor says. “That’s why I decided to come and play in the cold for Nebraska.”
Now a real estate agent in Lincoln and a host of pre- and post-game radio broadcasts on the Husker radio network, Taylor is like many other Nebraska fans who wonder why their beloved team isn’t relevant on the national scene the way it once was.
Since Tom Osborne retired from coaching after the 1997 season — with a national title, by the way — Nebraska has enjoyed the kind of success that many other programs envy. And some would scoff at those Cornhusker supporters who complain after a 9–4 campaign. Think the folks in Bloomington, Ind., Pullman, Wash., or Lawrence, Kan., might enjoy a season like that?
Nebraska had plenty of that under Bo Pelini, who was fired after going 9–4 in 2014. Pelini’s teams never won fewer than nine games during his seven-year tenure, but good isn’t good enough in Lincoln. And trips to the Holiday, Gator and Capital One Bowls aren’t what fans want in their Christmas stockings, especially since the Cornhuskers played in 19 “major” bowls from 1970-97 and four Fiesta classics after it earned major status.
Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley is the latest man charged with returning Nebraska to prominence. He follows Pelini, who took over for Bill Callahan, who replaced Frank Solich. None matched Osborne’s exploits, and as the 2015 season dawns, Skylar Taylor isn’t the only one wondering whether it’s possible for Nebraska to return to college football’s elite.
“The expectations are super high here,” Riley says. “That’s what the history is at Nebraska. They weren’t losing a whole bunch of games in the past. We have to take the next step and move forward.
“There are two things that have to happen. First, recruiting has to get better. We were 30th in the nation in recruiting, and we have to get into the top 25 and higher. It’s proven that teams at the top of the recruiting charts play in championship games. The second is that we have to use our talent in the best way. We get good players, but we have to utilize them in the right way.”
• • •
When junior defensive tackle Maliek Collins played at Kansas City (Mo.) Center High, his practice jersey was black. It was a nod to the famous Nebraska Blackshirt defenders, a tradition dating back to 1964, when the Huskers first went to offensive and defensive platoons and used the ebony pullovers to distinguish the first-team defense. Even though Collins admits he didn’t follow college football too closely while a prep standout, he does remember the days when Nebraska’s regular opponents were from a different part of the country.
“It’s odd,” Collins says. “I was used to seeing them play Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri.”
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
The Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, and there remains something of an identity crisis in Lincoln. The last 20 years have produced considerable upheaval among the nation’s conferences, and it’s not unusual that Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for a new home, especially since the state borders Iowa. But it also abuts Kansas and Missouri, Wyoming and Colorado, and there are residents of the state who live closer to Pac-12 country than the Big Ten’s traditional boundaries. When Nebraska played at Wyoming in 2011, it was more of a home game for many Cornhusker fans than are the ones contested in Lincoln. Nebraska’s address may be in the Big Ten’s neighborhood, but the Huskers still have some boxes to unpack before they can be considered true members of the conference.
“(The Big Ten) has impacted us somewhat,” Riley says. “It has to be fixed.”
There are those who wonder whether hiring Riley will solve the problem. No one can deny that he achieved a certain level of success at Oregon State, posting a 93–80 record, but he won more than nine games only once, in 2006. While the Beavers were 6–2 in bowl games during his tenure, they never played in a major bowl or even on New Year’s Day. Riley is universally liked, something that stands in stark contrast to the irascible Pelini, and he is respected. A native of Idaho and an Alabama alum who has spent the majority of his coaching career west of the Mississippi, Riley has to find a way to recruit the Midwest and East Coast.
He also has to get some players from California — like Taylor — as well as dip into the fertile grounds of Texas and Florida. When Osborne had it going at top speed during his tenure, he did it with a core of Plains personnel (not to mention the vaunted walk-on program) but also with some standouts from other parts of the country who were drawn by Nebraska’s success. Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the Huskers to national titles in 1994 and ’95, was from Florida. All-America linebacker Broderick Thomas (Texas), Neil Smith (Louisiana) and Irving Fryar (New Jersey) also traveled far to join the Nebraska family. The 2015 roster is heavy on the Heartland, but there are some players from the fertile crescents south and southeast of Lincoln. The key is attracting four- and five-star talents from those areas to augment the base.
“We’re right in the middle here,” Riley says. “We can reach to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver and maybe even Dallas. We can get kids to come unofficially in the spring, and if they can get here, we can grab them.”
While Riley tries to impress prospects, he spent the spring developing a new culture within the Nebraska program. His relentlessly positive attitude was refreshing to the players, who actually found it odd to see him dining with them after practices. With a new staff comes a new opportunity for those who didn’t play as much under Pelini. Although the members of the team haven’t come close to the success their forefathers enjoyed, they understand what is expected at Nebraska.
“We can talk about winning games, but we’re here to win championships,” junior safety Nate Gerry says. “We can think about the Big Ten championship, but we need to make the picture bigger. There’s more out there for us.”
If Riley and his staff can lift the Cornhuskers to the top of the Big Ten, he will create interest throughout the country and get fans, alumni and former players to embrace some new glory days and stop living on prior successes.
“These players don’t have the same commitment to the program,” Taylor says. “They say, ‘Oh, well, there’s always next year.’ Dude, this is Nebraska!
“That’s what I carried on my shoulders, to keep the tradition going. Have times changed? Absolutely. Is there more parity? Absolutely. I can speak for myself when I say that I didn’t want to be part of the (recruiting) class that wasn’t ranked in the top five or top 10.
“When you have that kind of success before you, you want to keep it going.”
In this case, Nebraska wants to get it started. Again.
Courtyard Hotels is giving one guy the greatest Father's Day gift a man could ever want.
A guy who's entire family bleeds yellow and green, got in touch with the hotel and with Clay Matthews on board everything went according to plan. The father got tickets to the Super Bowl (I'm sure he won't mind waiting) and he will get to attend with his son.
The only thing that would make it better is if the Packers are there with them.
Alabama has won plenty of hardware since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide missed out on an opportunity to play for the national championship last year after a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but the 2014 team recorded an impressive 42-13 win over Missouri for the SEC title.
And it should be no surprise that Alabama is celebrating the SEC Championship with some fancy hardware.
Check out the Crimson Tide’s 2014 SEC title rings:
Yessirrrrr pic.twitter.com/G2yFKqwC0m— OJ SMITH™ (@juicemane318) June 18, 2015
That's some shiny bling. Check out Alabama's 2014 SEC Championship rings (re: multiple players' Instagram accounts) pic.twitter.com/YxQm3kL6xl— Alex Byington (@abyingtonTD) June 18, 2015
The shooting in Charleston, South Carolina sent a shockwave through America.
An issue of this magnitude was too big for athletes to ignore, and many of them took to Twitter to talk about the shooting.
Prayers for the family and friends of the love ones that loss those in the tragic event in charleston. #PrayersForCharleston— Cj Spiller (@CJSPILLER) June 18, 2015
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:10 #southcarolina— Landry Fields (@landryfields) June 18, 2015
Pray for my city!!! https://t.co/xxLDuXwZ2H— Byron Maxwell (@BMaxx41) June 18, 2015
Send all my prayers to those victims families in Charleston S.C! We have to continue to pray and influence the next generation to do better!— Jordan Crawford (@jcraw55) June 18, 2015
What a horrible tragedy in Charleston. My prayers are with the victims, their families & friends. May justice be served for this terrorist.— Johnny Weir (@JohnnyGWeir) June 18, 2015
This #CharlestonShooting is without question a hate crime. And this man is still out there somewhere. Sickening. God help us!— Chimdi Chekwa (@ChimChek) June 18, 2015
A place of worship should always feel like a safe place. Extremely hard to understand what goes through the minds of some individuals(J-Mac)— Devin&Jason McCourty (@McCourtyTwins) June 18, 2015
If someone walks into a church and shoots people, regardless of race, he's a terrorist. He is causing terror. Step the fuck up, news orgs.— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) June 18, 2015
They only wanted to worship in peace. #CharlestonShooting— Sinorice Moss (@sinoricemoss) June 18, 2015
I've completely lost faith in our society. #CharlestonShooting— Sinorice Moss (@sinoricemoss) June 18, 2015
NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala kept it short and simple with his tweet, mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
See Martin... See Malcolm...— Andre Iguodala (@andre) June 18, 2015
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Quarterback is considered the most important position on the field, so it should be no surprise that the top 10 is littered by those who have taken their team to the ultimate goal — winning a Super Bowl. Led by reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, this year's top 10 quarterbacks include seven signal-callers that have combined to win 12 Lombardi Trophies and two others who could join this exclusive club in the near future. And while it's entirely likely that first-round draft picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, will get the starting nod in Week 1 for Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively, you won't see either rookie listed below since they have yet to take a single snap in an NFL game.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Quarterbacks
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
The consistent and confident signal-caller was awarded his second league MVP after he completed 341-of-520 passes for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns. He threw only five interceptions and hit 65.6 percent of his throws.
2. Tom Brady, New England
Joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only QBs in NFL history to win four Super Bowls. Brady may now have passed Montana, his boyhood idol, as the greatest QB to play the game.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans
There was no drop-off in Brees’ performance in 2014 — in fact, he delivered one of the best statistical seasons of his career. He continues to be an outstanding ball handler in play action and is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Signed a new contract in 2015, confirming the Steelers’ faith that he is playing at an elite level. His career 7.9 yards-per-attempt average is tied for sixth in NFL history.
5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
In his third season, the former Stanford Cardinal threw for 4,761 yards and 40 TDs. The big righthander processes information quickly and is a respected team leader.
6. Tony Romo, Dallas
Heading into his 13th year as a pro, Romo time and again has demonstrated the athletic ability to elude the rush, see the open receiver and hit him for a big play.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego
The five-time Pro Bowler is back in San Diego after some speculated he would be traded to the Titans. Few field generals sense the rush and step up and away from pressure as effectively as Rivers.
8. Peyton Manning, Denver
Age and time may well be the only opponents that the five-time MVP will not be able to defeat in his quest for another Super Bowl win. The 17-year veteran has 14 Pro Bowl appearances and is still one of the league’s undisputed superstars.
9. Russell Wilson, Seattle
The youngest QB to win a Super Bowl, Wilson had a banner 2014 season, throwing for 3,475 yards, rushing for 849 and accounting for 26 touchdowns.
10. Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants
The 34-year-old concluded last season with a career-best 63.1 completion percentage and threw for 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the Giants’ version of the West Coast offense.
11. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
12. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
13. Cam Newton, Carolina
14. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
16. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
17. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
18. Alex Smith, Kansas City
19. Carson Palmer, Arizona
20. Jay Cutler, Chicago
21. Geno Smith, N.Y. Jets
22. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
23. Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota
24. Ryan Fitzpatrick, N.Y. Jets
25. Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia
26. Nick Foles, St. Louis
27. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay
28. Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee
29. Matt Cassel, Buffalo
30. Derek Carr, Oakland
Alabama has made it to November in control of its destiny in the SEC West every year since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Although the Crimson Tide have a difficult slate ahead of them in the first two months of the season, no one will be surprised if Saban’s team makes it to November pacing the West once again. Alabama will have to face its two greatest rivals — LSU and Auburn — in the final month of the season, but don’t overlook its Nov. 14 matchup at Mississippi State. Here are four reasons why The Tide’s most important game of the season could be when it plays the Bulldogs in Starkville.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
1. QB-WR Tandem of Dak Prescott and De'runnya Wilson
Alabama’s struggles against good (sometimes even mediocre) passing attacks have been well documented. Unlike LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas though, Mississippi State appears to have proven playmakers that can take advantage of Bama’s commitment to man-to-man coverage on the outside and a lack of length at cornerback. In fact, as it stands now, Dak Prescott may be the only true NFL-caliber quarterback in the SEC — certainly the most proven after throwing for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. And on the outside, Prescott has a Mike Evans look-a-like in De’Runnya Wilson, who caught nine touchdowns in 2014, tied for the second most among returning SEC players. So, while Jeremy Johnson and D’haquille Williams have enormous potential at Auburn, Prescott and Wilson are proven commodities for the Bulldogs in the SEC.
2. The Physicality of Mississippi State
In their 11 losses since 2008, there have been two requirements for beating Alabama: first, feature a quarterback that can beat man coverage, and second, be physical. In Prescott, the Bulldogs actually have both. Mississippi State had the third-ranked rushing attack in the SEC in 2014, thanks to Prescott’s 986 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. His Tebow-like running style and his more legitimate arm will give his team a chance in every game. On defense, the Bulldogs will lean on three returners — Ryan Brown, Beniquez Brown and Chris Jones — to lead a young front seven, which was the strength of the defense a year ago. Of those three, Jones is widely believed to be most talented and has the ability to be a force against a young offensive line like Alabama’s.
3. The Ultimate Trap Game
Even though every game in the SEC is big, the expectations and the priorities around the Alabama program make Mississippi State a perennial trap game. Bama fans are quick to notice that the Bulldogs don’t recruit like Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M, and they’ve never really rivaled Alabama at any point like Tennessee has. And to the average Alabama fan, Mississippi State isn’t even the best school in its own state. Nick Saban fears the letdown every week, but that hasn’t kept Alabama from sleepwalking through its last couple of trips to Starkville in 2011 and ‘13. If the Crimson Tide make it to November in contention, the fans will breathe a sigh of relief while keeping an eye on the Nov. 28 Iron Bowl finale on the Plains, the scene of the infamous “Kick Six” in 2013.
4. It’s in Starkville
A part of me wants to just say “cowbells” and leave it at that, but I’ll elaborate. Away from home in 2014, Alabama struggled to communicate on both sides of the ball. After a neutral site game against West Virginia to open the season Nick Saban was quick to point out that no one on his defense appeared to know what their assignment was. Even though the Bama-Mississippi State game is the 10th game of the season for the Tide, when you subtract Landon Collins, Trey DePriest, and Xavier Dickson — three of Alabama’s most experienced players — Crimson Tide fans have to wonder who’s going to lead the defense if things start to go wrong on the road. Likewise, on offense, Lane Kiffin worked magic doing what he did with Blake Sims at quarterback. However, that too was less impressive on the road, and the Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2015.
— Written by Eron Jenkings, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Jenkins is a public school teacher in Baton Rouge, has written for several other publications and is an SEC fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @EronJenkins.
When the Baltimore Ravens trudged out of the locker room at Gillette Stadium following a bitter playoff loss to the New England Patriots, feisty veteran wide receiver Steve Smith vowed they’d be back and that the outcome would be different the next time.
Following an offseason defined by change — offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left to become the Denver Broncos’ head coach; defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions; and wide receiver Torrey Smith and pass rusher Pernell McPhee departed as free agents — the Ravens are confident that their roster is well stocked to make another serious playoff run.
The Ravens have made the playoffs six of the past seven years under coach John Harbaugh and are upbeat about their prospects following a strong draft that filled several needs. That included drafting UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman (a bigger, faster version of Torrey Smith) in the first round and tight end Maxx Williams in the second.
Although the Ravens weren’t particularly active in free agency due to a tight salary cap situation, general manager Ozzie Newsome cautions that he’s not done building the roster.
Although he is never among the first names mentioned in conversations about top NFL quarterbacks, Joe Flacco is a strong-armed, accurate, mobile QB who owns a Super Bowl ring and a $120.6 million contract. Flacco improved significantly under Kubiak a year ago. Now, he’ll collaborate with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to try to capitalize on his arm strength in more of a vertical passing game.
Flacco has a faster deep threat to work with in Perriman than Smith, who was no slouch. Flacco could still stand to improve on his deep-ball accuracy but has matured into a sharp football mind who makes sound decisions and gets the football out of his hands quickly. Matt Schaub is Flacco’s new backup.
Justin Forsett has transformed his NFL reputation from undersized journeyman to featured back. Forsett was rewarded with a three-year, $9 million contract. He’ll remain the primary back despite the Ravens drafting USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen, a big back with pass-catching skills. Lorenzo Taliaferro is in the mix as a red-zone presence but has to concentrate on avoiding the fumbles that sent him to the bench as a rookie.
Despite being 36 years old and entering his 15th NFL season, Steve Smith remains fast enough to create separation. He’s still physical and combative after the catch, not conceding anything and challenging defensive backs every snap. Smith will be targeted frequently, but Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken will also be involved.
Williams is expected to have an immediate impact in a passing game that has sorely missed the presence of Dennis Pitta over the past two seasons as he has twice fractured and dislocated his right hip. Pitta’s career is in doubt.
The offensive line represents one of the major strengths of the team. Flacco was sacked only 19 times last year, and all five starters are back. Powerful left guard Kelechi Osemele and gritty veteran right guard Marshal Yanda are entering contract years and are competing for one big deal with at least one expected to leave after this season. Center Jeremy Zuttah’s size and athleticism represent a major upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, a former starter traded to the Broncos. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is coming off a disappointing season in which he struggled in pass protection and didn’t have as much punch as a blocker after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Rick Wagner emerged as one of the NFL’s top right tackles, utilizing his strength and sound technique to wall off pass rushers. The top backup is John Urschel, a math whiz from Penn State who can play both guard spots and center in a pinch.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ aggressive 3-4 scheme creates a lot of pressure without blitzing with an emphasis on getting outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs isolated in one-on-one blocking situations. Dumervil and Suggs combined for 29 sacks last season as one of the most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the game.
Ngata was a disruptive force who will be replaced by Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan showed flashes of being a capable full-time starter with four sacks as a rookie. He needs to be more consistent, though, and maintain his intensity. Built low to the ground and with the ability to bench press more than 500 pounds, massive lineman Brandon Williams is one of the top nose tackles in the game. Chris Canty is a starter and an experienced leader but will be pushed by young defensive linemen Brent Urban, Carl Davis and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Defensive end Lawrence Guy is an underrated player who has a nose for the football. This should be a strong rotation.
C.J. Mosley is one of the most instinctive young inside linebackers in the NFL. He has great recognition skills and the speed to chase down running backs in the open field. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is up in years but rewarded the Ravens’ faith in him last season when he piled up 128 tackles — five fewer than Mosley — and forced two fumbles. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw hasn’t shown much more than being a brawny edge-setter; the team needs more pass-rush production out of him. Rookie rush linebacker Za’Darius Smith is the top candidate to replace McPhee as a situational pass rusher.
The secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Jimmy Smith was arguably playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain that required surgery. The Ravens felt good enough about his recovery this offseason to invest a four-year, $48 million contract in him. Veteran corner Lardarius Webb restructured his contract and has made a sound return from a troublesome back injury that hampered him last year. The Ravens lack a proven nickel back and will audition Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and rookie Tray Walker for that role. The team also signed veterans Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn to add to its cornerback depth and give the coaches more options to look at during training camp.
Safety was one of the weakest positions on the team last season, but rangy new free safety Kendrick Lewis is expected to stabilize the position. Matt Elam has been a bust through two NFL seasons but will get another chance to redeem himself at strong safety, his natural position. Will Hill revived his career last year after off-field problems cost him his job with the New York Giants. Hill is slated to compete with Elam for a starting position.
The kicking game is headlined by Justin Tucker, a former Pro Bowl selection and the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker has enough range that he’s a constant scoring threat. The return game is in flux after the Ravens cut Jacoby Jones. Punter Sam Koch averaged 47 yards last season and has good hang time and directional punting skills. Long snapper Morgan Cox is good enough at his job that the Ravens keep signing him to new contracts, even after he tore an ACL for the second time in his career last year.
Although the schedule is demanding, the Ravens remain playoff contenders — if a receiving corps in flux can get the job done and if the secondary can avoid the injuries that have prevented them from getting past Tom Brady in the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC North
Building on an 11–5 season and an AFC North title won’t be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The offense is loaded and returns every starter from a unit that averaged 411.1 yards per game last season, second best in the NFL. But the defense is a serious work in progress after the Steelers managed just 33 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1989, and allowed 4.4 yards per carry.
The schedule doesn’t do the team any favors, and by at least one measure it is the most difficult in the NFL. The Steelers’ opponents combined for a .578 winning percentage last season, the highest in the league. What’s more, the Steelers have to visit Seattle, San Diego, Kansas City and St. Louis after playing no games west of the Mississippi River in 2014. The Steelers parlayed a favorable schedule last season and a breakout campaign by the offense into their first division title since 2010. It will be much tougher for them to repeat as division champions, especially in the rugged AFC North.
Mike Tomlin has hardly tempered expectations for the unit that carried the Steelers last season. The ninth-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings in late March that the Steelers could have the best offense in the NFL this season because they “have the goods.” He won’t get any arguments in Pittsburgh or beyond the Steel City. The Steelers have arguably the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards last season and became the first player on franchise history to win a passing title (he shared the honor with Drew Brees). Roethlisberger, who turned 33 in March, is seemingly getting better with age. And the Steelers backed up general manager Kevin Colbert’s assertion that Roethlisberger’s best playing days are still ahead of him by signing Big Ben to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $108 million.
Roethlisberger has reigned in the sandlot style that defined him earlier in his career in large part because the players around him are better. Brown led the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698) last season and plays bigger than his listed size of 5'10", 186 pounds because of his ability to separate and make contested catches in traffic. If Brown’s production dips this season, it could be because the Steelers have an emerging star in second-year wideout Martavis Bryant as well as Markus Wheaton, who made a significant leap in his second season after playing sparingly as a rookie.
As good as Roethlisberger and Brown were last season, Bell won the Steelers’ MVP Award — as voted on by the players — and for good reason. The second-year man rushed for 1,361 yards and led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. There is not a better all-around back than Bell, who also excels at picking up blitzing linebackers. The Steelers have to hope that DeAngelo Williams can do a credible job of filling in for Bell, who is out at the start of the season because of an NFL suspension.
The offensive line returns intact and is still young but also experienced. Maurkice Pouncey re-established himself as one of the top centers in the NFL last season after coming back from a major knee injury. Right guard David DeCastro is the Steelers’ best pulling guard since perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.
It wasn’t that long ago that questions about whether the Steelers’ defense had gotten too old were as much an autumn ritual in Western Pennsylvania as the leaves changing colors. Not anymore. The average age of the Steelers’ projected starters on defense is 26.5. That number dips if rookie Bud Dupree, the team’s first-round pick, beats out Arthur Moats at left outside linebacker.
The Steelers have a new defensive coordinator with former linebackers coach Keith Butler taking over for Dick LeBeau. Butler won’t stray from the LeBeau’s core philosophy of shutting down the run first and foremost or the Steelers’ base 3-4 defense. He will try to simplify the defense to accommodate the youth he has inherited, and Butler has said that the Steelers have to become more opportunistic. They forced more than two turnovers in a game just twice last season, and they have 41 takeaways in their last two seasons. To put that into perspective, consider that the Steelers had 35 takeaways in 2010 alone, the last time they made the Super Bowl.
The linebackers playing to their pedigree could go a long way toward the Steelers fielding the kind of defense that can complement the offense. They should, at some point, have former first-round picks starting at all four linebacker spots. Two of those players in particular are key. Right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has to make a big jump in his third season after missing most of 2014 because of a dislocated wrist. Ryan Shazier may be the most likely candidate to break out after a high-ankle sprain and normal rookie growing pains limited the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft last season. Shazier’s speed and ability to play in space make him more valuable than ever with the Steelers playing their nickel defense more than 50 percent of the time. He is a playmaker, and the competition at inside linebacker, the Steelers’ deepest position, should only bring out the best in Shazier.
The secondary has gotten younger, and third-year man Shamarko Thomas gets the first crack at replacing the iconic Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has said that the Steelers’ two safety positions are interchangeable, but does the team have a player who can cover ample ground on the back end of their defense? Thomas and starting free safety Mike Mitchell are big hitters who support the run. There are questions about how well both can cover.
Shaun Suisham occasionally stubs his toe on field goals he should make but is otherwise as reliable as they come. Punter Brad Wing has to become more consistent in his second season, and the former LSU All-American will be challenged after having training camp all to himself last season. The Steelers have to get more out of kickoff returns after averaging only 21.7 yards per return last season. They drafted Dri Archer in the third round in 2014 to give them a jolt in the return game. He fared so poorly that he lost his job as the team’s primary kickoff returner before the midway point of the season. Archer, the fastest player on the team, has to emerge this season or he is in danger of becoming a bust.
The offense may have to carry the Steelers until a defense in transition comes together. The offense should be a tour de force if it stays relatively healthy, though the Steelers have to start faster. They managed just 19 points on 16 opening drives last season, and scoring first could help take some pressure off the defense.
Few people expected the Steelers to win 11 games last season, and it will be hard to duplicate that number in 2015. Ten victories could be enough to repeat as AFC North champions if the Steelers win at least four division games.
Prediction: 1st in AFC North
The Browns enter 2015 having changed offensive coordinators again, still searching for a real answer at quarterback and still trying to climb out of fourth place in the rugged AFC North. Though this year’s team should have better overall talent and depth and should benefit from having coach Mike Pettine and several key veterans back, it’s fair to wonder if there’s enough offensive firepower to allow the Browns to compete with the league’s best teams.
The defense has been upgraded, and with better tackling and better health among the front seven, there should be a noticeable improvement against the run. The secondary is an experienced and well-paid bunch, too, and has leaders and playmakers in Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Tramon Williams.
The offensive line is the team’s strongest and deepest unit, with Alex Mack set to return at center after an injury-shortened 2014 season and perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas back at left tackle. Thomas will tutor second-year guard Joel Bitonio and 2015 first-rounder Cameron Erving, who is Mack’s likely eventual successor at center but could play right guard or right tackle. The Browns will try to establish the run and hope to throw off play-action from that.
They’re still building for the future, too; a year after spending two first-round picks on early draft entries who brought maturity issues to the NFL, the Browns went with older, productive players, many of whom figure as 2015 contributors and 2016 starters.
Brian Hoyer was allowed to leave after starting 13 games at quarterback before giving way to Johnny Manziel, who was totally overwhelmed in two starts and spent 10 weeks of the offseason in a rehab center for undisclosed issues. Veteran journeyman Josh McCown was signed to start at quarterback, and veteran receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were added after the Browns learned their most talented receiver, Josh Gordon, was suspended for at least one year.
Tight end Jordan Cameron departed via free agency, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan asked out, meaning 2015 marks a fresh start for almost everybody who will touch the ball. Running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showed promise as rookies, and both are strong, physical runners who figure to have a chance to improve as they get more comfortable with the NFL game. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is a playmaker whose opportunities to be productive figure to depend on the ability of Bowe and Hartline to get open down the field.
Manziel returned to the team in the spring, but the Browns’ decision not to draft a quarterback affirmed the assumption that McCown will start 2015 and Manziel will be given a chance to learn how to be an NFL quarterback from the sideline. His task is to prove to the team that his admitted work-ethic issues from last season are in the past. McCown took a beating last year in Tampa Bay, but the Browns believe with a better offensive line and a run-first approach, he’ll be more like the player who kept the Bears afloat in 2013 when Jay Cutler was injured.
Improvement will be judged by efficiency and on the scoreboard. The 2014 Browns had the league’s worst completion percentage (54.6) and third-down success rate and were 27th in the NFL in scoring. The loss of Mack was huge to the offense’s identity and ability to convert key short-yardage chances. But even with the line set to return intact — and possibly with more depth — the Browns still have to prove they have the skill players to turn routine plays into big gains and consistently score more than 20 points per game.
The one offensive certainty: Thomas will come to play. Amazingly, the Browns left tackle has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted in 2007.
The Browns have been aggressive in consecutive offseasons in trying to add talent to every level of the defense and believe they’ve built a unit with the necessary talent and depth to be among the best in the AFC.
The defensive line was overvalued a year ago and suffered when injuries hit. But the linebacking corps got big seasons from Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger, and the secondary added Williams to a group that could really make a leap if 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert can overcome the maturity issues that plagued him a year ago.
Gipson contended for the NFL interception lead, and though Whitner is 30, he’s still active and disruptive. Haden has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks, and the Browns believe Gilbert has the talent to be a playmaker, too. Even with his issues last season he showed flashes on the field.
There’s age across the defense — Dansby, Whitner, Kruger, Williams, defensive end Desmond Bryant and new defensive end Randy Starks all have plenty of experience — but there are some young legs, too, in Haden, linebacker Chris Kirksey and rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton. The Browns considered Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, the best player to immediately shore up a run defense that ranked last in the NFL a season ago. The Browns drafted two defensive linemen in the first three rounds with Bryant nearing 30 and former first-round pick Phil Taylor entering the final year of his contract.
The Browns will ask a lot of this defense, but they believe that the group is up to the challenge if the run defense improves. Some help from the offense on the scoreboard and in time of possession would be welcomed, but there are pieces to work with here.
The Browns had to make a change at placekicker last season when Billy Cundiff struggled. Garrett Hartley was a December addition who faced no real pressure kicks, and it’s surprising the Browns didn’t draft a kicker to give him some competition this summer. Young punter Spencer Lanning established himself last season, but the Browns decided to make a change , acquiring Andy Lee from the 49ers in June. In Lee, Cleveland gets a three-time Pro Bowler who averaged 46.2 yards per punt (39.6 net) since taking over as San Francisco's punter in 2004, while the 49ers reportedly will receive the Browns' seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft. Lanning was released to make room for Lee. The punt-return game was a disaster last season, and Travis Benjamin is probably down to his last chance with the Browns in this training camp. Among the other candidates to return kicks and punts are rookie running back Duke Johnson, Gilbert and speedy second-year receiver Taylor Gabriel.
The Browns won seven games last year, the most by the franchise since 2007. But the offense went totally flat late in the year, there were too many off-field incidents, and the season ended with a five-game losing streak. The 2015 team should be equipped with better leaders, better chemistry and better depth, but it’s still fair to wonder who’s going to make big plays and if this team will score enough touchdowns to be a legitimate playoff contender.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North
Marvin Lewis is dubbing this season a “revival.” There’s been new construction at Paul Brown Stadium to upgrade the training facilities for the players as well as the game-day experience for fans. It’s a visual metaphor for the team itself: While things have been good in Cincinnati the past few seasons, they haven’t been good enough.
Four straight playoff berths have equaled four straight first-round defeats. Each loss has been similar in nature; the Bengals play well in the first half only to be dominated and eliminated in the second half. The offseason didn’t bring major changes to the roster, but there have been subtle moves, such as bringing back defensive end Michael Johnson and adding former Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk for stability in the front seven.
Some things don’t change, such as the need for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green to step up in the biggest moments. When that revival takes place, then the Bengals can be thought of as a real contender.
Dalton enters his fifth season as the starter. He has shown he’s capable of taking a team to the playoffs, but whether the Bengals have matched up against elite quarterbacks in the postseason (Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) or the pedestrian sort (T.J. Yates, Matt Schaub), Dalton has been outperformed by the opposing signal caller. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the ball out of Dalton’s hands more than predecessor Jay Gruden last season, and there’s reason to expect the focus of the offense again this season to be running the ball.
The backfield combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard produced more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 70 receptions. They are the most reliable weapons in this offense, and Jackson doesn’t care if defenses know they’re coming. Put it this way: Jackson wouldn’t have called for a pass on the goal line with the Super Bowl in the balance.
A return to health by numerous receivers should make Dalton more efficient and the passing game more productive. Green missed three games entirely plus significant portions of two others with toe and biceps injuries, then didn’t play in the postseason because of a concussion. Wide receiver Marvin Jones missed the entire season with a broken foot. Tight end Tyler Eifert had three catches in the opening game before suffering a dislocated elbow that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The offensive line returns intact, led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals used their first two draft picks on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, but don’t take that as a sign that the heart and soul of the Bengals is going anywhere anytime soon. Whitworth sets the tone on the field and in the locker room. He may be 33 and entering his 10th season, but he’s still an elite left tackle. Left guard Clint Boling was re-signed to a five-year deal, while the Bengals picked up the option for 2016 on right guard Kevin Zeitler. Center Russell Bodine will be in his second season, while Andre Smith and Eric Winston will get competition from Fisher at right tackle.
This unit needs new life infused into it. A lot of that infusion needs to come from recent draft picks whose time has come to put up or shut up.
The Bengals are hopeful that the return of Johnson after an ill-fated season in Tampa Bay will help revitalize a defensive line that lost its moxie last season. The Bengals managed just 20 sacks. No player outside of Carlos Dunlap (eight) and Geno Atkins (three) had as many as two sacks. Bringing back Johnson will allow the Bengals to put Wallace Gilberry back into the specialist role in which he was so effective from 2012-13. Gilberry can play inside or on the end, but he played too much last season. The strength of the line in the past was in its rotation, but that rotation failed the Bengals last season. There’s a question as to whether Geno Atkins will ever regain the All-Pro form he had prior to an ACL tear in 2013. He was just another guy last year, showing only flashes of the power and quickness that made offenses fear him.
Margus Hunt was a project when the Bengals drafted him out of SMU two years ago. The Estonia native had played football for just four years when the Bengals took him in the second round. The project phase of Hunt’s development is over. It’s time to put that 6'8", 290-pound body to good use. Hunt was plagued by an ankle injury last season, but he needs to be more than a body on the field. His size and athleticism make him a perfect complement in the rotation with Dunlap and Johnson.
The great unknown of the defense is linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He played in just five games last season because of various injuries, including two concussions suffered in the first two games of the season. There aren’t many players with his aggressiveness and instincts for diagnosing a play and making the tackle. That was missing from the defense throughout 2014. Burfict had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason, so just how good he can be this year remains to be seen. That’s one reason Hawk was signed; the other is for his leadership. Much like James Harrison in 2013, Hawk is a player who’s been there and done that. He’s not at the top of his game anymore, but he can still provide a strong presence.
Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard were first-round picks in 2012 and 2014, respectively. They were stuck behind Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones last year. That won’t be the case this season. They’ll be starting sooner than later. The Bengals are solid at safety with Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, a fourth-year player who is emerging as one of the better young safeties in the NFL.
The Bengals have a solid trio in kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris. Huber is finally getting some due for his ability to control field position with punts inside the 20. He has a career 4-to-1 ratio on punts inside the 20 vs. touchbacks. Nugent showed off his mental toughness by making 16 of his final 17 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder in the playoffs, after missing a 36-yarder in overtime against Carolina in October.
The scenarios for the Bengals haven’t changed much from a season ago. They have proven they are among the top six teams in the AFC. They are playoff-worthy. They have talent. Do they have the mental toughness to get over the hump? At some point you just have to make plays. Everyone has to deal with injuries. No team is always at its best. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win a game.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC North
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh.
Arkansas has mastered that philosophy under coach Bret Bielema, as the Razorbacks boast the nation’s best tandem in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Both players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2014 and should reach that level in 2015.
But Arkansas isn’t the only program with two solid running backs, as Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon and Alabama are the next teams in the mix.
Which teams have the best No. 1 and No. 2 running backs? Here’s the top 20 in college football, with an emphasis on talent, production so far in their career and projection for 2015.
College Football's Top 20 Running Back Tandems for 2015
The Razorbacks have the best one-two punch at running back for 2015. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins return after each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last season and combined for 24 rushing scores. This duo will also have one of the nation’s top offensive lines at their disposal, which includes three All-America candidates in guard Sebastian Tretola and tackles Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland.
Georgia’s rushing attack didn’t skip a beat despite losing Todd Gurley to a suspension, then a torn ACL in the win over Auburn. Nick Chubb emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs in the second half of 2014, averaging 165.4 rushing yards per game over the final eight contests. Sony Michel – a five-star recruit in 2014 – is the No. 2 back after averaging 6.4 yards per carry last year.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Even though Oklahoma has a new play-caller (Lincoln Riley) and a few tweaks to its offensive scheme, the rushing attack is still going to be a huge part of the gameplan. Samaje Perine headlines the backfield after rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman, while the No. 2 spot is up for grabs between Joe Mixon and Alex Ross.
Having a deep stable of running backs and receivers should help to ease the transition of Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams into the starting lineup. Royce Freeman had a huge freshman campaign in 2014, rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 scores. Thomas Tyner missed four games due to injury, but the junior has rushed for 1,284 yards over the last two years.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2015
In every season since 2008, Alabama has posted two running backs to reach the 600-yard mark. That streak should extend to eight consecutive years in 2015, as the Crimson Tide can lean on Derrick Henry as the No. 1 option, with Kenyan Drake the No. 2 rusher after returning from a leg injury. Henry shared carries with T.J. Yeldon last season and rushed for 990 yards and 11 scores.
6. Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott opens 2015 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and the junior closed 2014 playing as well as any running back in the nation. In Ohio State’s run to the national championship, Elliott rushed for 220 yards against Wisconsin, 230 versus Alabama and 246 in the 42-20 win over Oregon. Curtis Samuel (6.6 ypc in 2014) should see a bigger role in 2015.
With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston to the NFL, the focus in the Florida State offense shifts to Dalvin Cook and the rushing attack. The Miami native rushed for 1,008 yards and eight scores as a true freshman in 2014 and should push for All-America honors in 2015. Cook won’t have to carry the entire workload, as Florida State also has Mario Pender and four-star recruit Jacques Patrick.
Pittsburgh has the ACC’s No. 1 running back in James Conner, and sophomore Chris James is a solid No. 2 option for new coach Pat Narduzzi. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 scores last year, while James averaged five yards a carry on 87 attempts.
Since we are projecting ahead to 2015, this backfield is one on the rise for 2015. Jalen Hurd led the team with 899 yards as a true freshman in 2014, and he will have help from junior college recruit (and former Alabama back) Alvin Kamara. The stats don’t back up this ranking in June. But the Volunteers are primed to take a step forward on the ground in 2015.
10. West Virginia
Although coach Dana Holgorsen likes to throw the ball around, don’t overlook the Mountaineers’ rushing attack. Rushel Shell recorded 788 yards and seven scores in his first season of playing time at West Virginia, while Wendell Smallwood is one of the Big 12’s top all-around backs after recording 1,057 total yards last year. Redshirt freshman Donte Thomas-Williams is a name to remember.
Art Briles’ high-powered offense isn’t limited to only the aerial assault. The Bears averaged 215.5 rushing yards per game last year, headlined by Shock Linwood (1,252 yards) and Devin Chafin (4.8 ypc on 80 attempts).
The Rockets must replace all five starters on the offensive line, but coach Matt Campbell can still rely on his ground attack with the return of Kareem Hunt (1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns). Hunt’s 1,631 yards and 16 scores is even more impressive when you consider he only played in 10 games last year. The Rockets are overflowing with depth at running back, starting with Terry Swanson (6.5 ypc in 2014), Damion Jones-Moore and Marc Remy.
13. San Diego State
Behind running back Donnel Pumphrey, the Aztecs are the favorite to win the Mountain West’s West Division in 2015. Pumphrey finished fourth nationally with 1,873 yards in 2014. Chase Price should be the top backup after recording 674 yards and five touchdowns last year.
Related: Mountain West 2015 Predictions
With quarterback Rakeem Cato expiring his eligibility, the Thundering Herd may lean more on its rushing attack in 2015. That’s no problem for Marshall, as Devon Johnson (1,767 yards) and Remi Watson (546 yards) return.
15. Arizona State
D.J. Foster is moving to receiver, which means Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will handle the bulk of the carries for coach Todd Graham. Both players are due for a breakout season after combining for 604 yards and seven touchdowns in 2014.
16. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers have one of the nation’s top offenses for the 2015 season. Quarterback Brandon Doughty returns, and the ground attack is bolstered by Leon Allen (1,542 yards in 2014). Allen is among the top running backs in Conference USA. Anthony Wales (518 yards last year) is Allen’s primary backup.
Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions
Potential. That’s the word to remember when examining Miami’s backfield for 2015. Sophomore Joseph Yearby is a breakout candidate after rushing for 509 yards and one score in a backup role to Duke Johnson last year. Gus Edwards is the No. 2 back but could earn a split of the carries (349 yards, six touchdowns in 2014).
18. Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern had a successful debut on the FBS level by finishing 9-3 overall and a perfect 8-0 mark in conference play. The offense led the way for coach Willie Fritz, as two players – running back Matt Breida and quarterback Kevin Ellison – each eclipsed 1,000 yards. Breida averaged 8.7 yards per carry and recorded 14 rushing plays of 30 yards or more. Alfred Ramsby (4.5 yards per carry and 12 scores in 2014) is Georgia Southern’s No. 2 back.
Related: Sun Belt 2015 Predictions
19. Texas Tech
Texas Tech had the fewest rushing attempts of any Big 12 team in 2014, but the Red Raiders maximized their opportunities by averaging 5.2 yards per carry. DeAndre Washington is one of the Big 12’s most underrated players after leading the team with 1,103 yards last year. Justin Stockton is a big-play threat, averaging 8.3 yards per carry in 2014.
Similar to its conference comrade Georgia Southern, Appalachian State made a splash in its first year of FBS play. The Mountaineers finished 2014 on a six-game winning streak and enter 2015 as one of the favorites. Marcus Cox is the headliner at running back (1,415 yards), and coach Scott Satterfield plans on utilizing Terrence Upshaw (573 yards) more in 2015.
Other Backfield Tandems to Watch in 2015
Auburn: Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas/Peyton Barber
Boston College: Jon Hilliman and Myles Willis
California: Daniel Lasco and Vic Enwere/Khalfani Muhammad
LSU: Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams
Michigan: Derrick Green and Ty Isaac
NC State: Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes
Nebraska: Terrell Newby and Imani Cross
Notre Dame: Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant
Rutgers: Paul James and Josh Hicks/Robert Martin
TCU: Aaron Green and Shaun Nixon
UCLA: Paul Perkins and Nate Starks
Group of 5
Buffalo: Anthone Taylor and Devin Campbell
Cincinnati: Hosey Williams and Mike Boone
Houston: Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson
Louisiana Tech: Kenneth Dixon and Jarred Craft
New Mexico: Teriyon Gipson and Jhurell Pressley
Nevada: Don Jackson and James Butler
Wyoming: Brian Hill and Shaun Wick
Most people would love to have a movie made about their life. Turns out Michael Oher is not one of those people.
The Panthers left tackle said "The Blind Side" had a negative effect on his career. A movie made about Oher's earlier life overcoming various struggles and his growing relationship with the Tuohy's.
"People look at me, and they take thigns away from me because of a movie," Oher told ESPN. "They don't really see the skills and the kind of player I am. That's why I get downgraded so much, because of something off the field."
Oher goes on to say that people unfairly judge him based on things they saw in the blockbuster hit starring Sandra Bullock.
"This stuff, calling me a bust, people saying if I can play or not ... that has nothing to do with football," Oher said. "It's something else off the field. That's why I don't like that movie."
The man responsible for watching the blind side of Cam Newton this season says the movie gives him a bad rep and puts a lot of pressure on him.
"That's taken away from my football," Oher continued. "That's why people criticize me. That's why people look at me every single play."
Oher hopes that the movie and the attention it has placed on him will be a moot point this season. His main focus is football.
"I'm tired of the movie. I'm here to play football."
Music, like sports, sparks debate, creates discussion and can even lead to heated disagreements.
But both are unquestionably a huge part of American culture. So Athlon Sports has decided to combine two of our favorite things — rock and roll with college football.
What if our favorite football programs were rock and roll bands? Every Power 5 team will be represented, so if you don’t see your favorite band or school here, keep your eyes peeled.
Here are the 10 Big 12 schools as rock bands:
Texas: The Beatles
They are probably the biggest, most powerful, most lucrative rock group of all-time. Part of the reason the fabulous foursome from Liverpool fits in Austin is the rivalry with Oklahoma (more on that in a second). The more conservative, cleaner side of the rivalry is Texas. The star power is revered among fans and experts alike as some of the greatest performers in the history of the industry.
Oklahoma: The Rolling Stones
On the surface, The Stones are bitter rivals with The Beatles — despite plenty of overlap between Keith Richards and John Lennon. The Stones are the gruff, more abrasive side of the rivalry that has been successful for a much longer period of time. The highs maybe weren’t as high as The Beatles' but there were a lot more of them. Texas is pop and Oklahoma is the blues.
Oklahoma State: The Who
Pretty awesome and loaded with elite-level skill and talent, but sort of always second fiddle when it comes to The Beatles and The Stones. Well respected, extremely enjoyable and successful for a long period of time. However, it will always be unfortunately tethered and beholden to one all-powerful individual who makes or breaks the future success.
Baylor: Justin Timberlake
The early work leaves a lot to be ashamed of — be it on television as a youngster or in a boy band. But over time, his extraordinary talent single-handedly began to dominate an entire industry with big highlights and cool style. Now, he’s one of the hottest things in the world and generally beloved by almost everyone (except maybe some of those former boy band members).
TCU: Taylor Swift
She dominated her genre to near unprecedented levels and decided to make a big switch to a new place. In short order, she has managed to shift her style by adding lots of production value/new facilities and still produces in a big way. A little crazy but does her own writing and that gives her respect among experts and fans.
Kansas State: Prince
Always really, really good no matter what era or league this team plays in as long as the esteemed leader is in place atop the pyramid. This leader is a little weird and a little out there but a wizard on the big stage. The team isn’t good when being coached by a Prince and Prince isn’t good when he’s not named Prince. And the color scheme matches are undeniable.
West Virginia: Jimi Hendrix
One of the best party scenes in the business — to a fault. This group is the most likely to light things on fire and are as fun to watch as anyone else in the business. The elite-level successes have been short lived and few and far between because of some self-destructive tendencies.
Texas Tech: ZZ Top
It’s the state of Texas. It looks a little weird. It’s better than you think over a longer period of time than you think. It’s played at a tempo that few others in the industry can match. But it won’t ever be considered the best the Lone Star State has to offer.
It had to be, right? Who else could this possibly have been? Soft rock that rarely moves the needle but every now and then has a nice hit. Carry On Wayward Reesing has a nice ring to it.
Iowa State: The Band
Always playing second fiddle inside the state to either Iowa or Bob Dylan. Supremely underrated as far as atmosphere and entertainment value, as Jack Trice Stadium is underappreciated nationally. The Cyclones may never be as good as Levon Helm and company but there is something about the down-home personality and bizarre antics of Iowa State and that of The Band that just fits.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the Big Ten in 2015:
513.2: Indiana yards per game with Nate Sudfeld
In the five games that Sudfeld finished last year, the Hoosiers averaged 513.2 yards per game and won three times, including a road victory over eventual SEC East champ Mizzou. In the seven games Sudfeld didn’t finish (six of which he didn't play in), Indiana averaged 327.7 yards per game and won just once.
220.4: Wes Lunt’s division-leading yards per game
The quarterback play leaves much to be desired in the Big Ten West but Illinois may have the best one. Lunt missed five games last year but still led the division with 220.4 yards passing per game. He also posted the division’s best TD:INT ratio with 14 scoring strikes and just three picks. It’s Lunt who gives the Illini any chance at winning games in 2015.
5.2: Iowa’s yards per play under Greg Davis
Greg Davis took over as the Iowa offensive coordinator in 2012 and has not exactly set the world on fire in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have averaged just 5.2 yards per play in those three seasons — which would have ranked 98th in the nation last season. That said, his 2014 was his best year since arriving at Iowa with a 5.5 yards per play clip and his offense has gotten (slowly) more efficient each season he’s been there. (Although, that 5.5 clip was still just 72nd in the nation.)
41.5: Maryland’s leading rusher's yards per game average in 2014
C.J. Brown led Maryland in rushing last year at 41.5 yards per game, good for just 20th in the Big Ten last season. Brandon Ross is the leading returning rusher and he carried the ball just 85 times. Needless to say, the Terps need to improve on the 111th-ranked rushing offense if they want to keep improving in the run-oriented Big Ten.
3: Times Michigan finished the season ranked since 2006
Michigan obviously hasn’t had its best decade. But to finish the season unranked in six of the last eight seasons is downright unbelievable. Only once in 2006 has Michigan finished in the top 15 (2011) and only three times has it even been ranked at season’s end. The Wolverines were ranked in the top 15 to end the year 29 times between 1969 and 2006.
79.1%: Michigan State’s winning percentage since 2010
The Spartans have won 53 games in 67 tries over the last five years for a remarkable 79.1 percent clip. Michigan State has won at least 11 games four times during that span, which is the only time in school history that the program has won at least 11 times in a season. It marks the highest percentage over a five-year span for Sparty since 1951-55.
0-12: Minnesota against ranked foes under Jerry Kill
In four years under the highly respected Kill, Minnesota has quickly improved from a 3-9 afterthought to a perennial bowl team to a division contender. However, the Gophers have not been able to beat ranked teams, going 0-for-12 in his four seasons. Otherwise, Minnesota has won the games it’s supposed to, going 16-4 in the last two seasons against unranked opponents.
5,278: Ameer Abdullah's career yards from scrimmage
Abdullah is one of the greatest running backs at a school known for its great running tradition. In fact, no player in school history produced more yards from scrimmage than his 5,278 yards. Abdullah was the first Husker to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and his 4,588 career total is second to Rozier all-time in Lincoln. His 48 career touchdowns rank third all-time as well. Replacing him should be Mike Riley’s first order of business.
45: Career starts from Ibraheim Campbell
Northwestern finished above average on defense in the Big Ten last year, ranking in the top 50 nationally in yards per play allowed, turnover margin, red zone defense and big-play defense (20+ yards). A huge part of that was three-time All-Big Ten safety Campbell. He posted 316 career tackles and 11 career interceptions in 45 career starts for Pat Fitzgerald. Campbell was a leader and model athlete for Northwestern and will be missed.
4.3: Average recruiting ranking for Ohio State under Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer was going to bring the SEC to the Big Ten and that is exactly what happened. He has won a national title with elite athletes on both sides of the ball, crushing the Big Ten along the way. In four classes in Columbus, Ohio State has out-recruited every team in the nation but one with an average national recruiting ranking of 4.3. Only Alabama’s 1.0 average ranking is better over the last four cycles. Michigan is a distant second in the league with an average class ranking of 17.0 over that same span.
2.9: Penn State yards per carry
The Nittany Lions had major offensive line woes in 2014 and it led to a frustrated quarterback and zero running game. The Lions ranked dead last in the Big Ten in yards per carry (2.9), yards per game (101.9) and rushing touchdowns (13). Those numbers ranked 125th, 120th and 104th nationally. Christian Hackenberg needs more support from his ground game if the Lions want to be relevant in the Big Ten East.
836: Purdue offensive snaps
In an era of tempo offense in a league that is infamously slower than most, Purdue was one of the slowest and least effective. The Boilermakers ran just 836 offensive plays in 2014, ranking ahead of only Michigan and finishing 105th nationally. It’s hard to score points when the offense is on the bench, so it should be no surprise that Purdue averaged just 23.8 points per game (98th) last fall.
6.4: Rutgers yards per play allowed
The Knights finished dead last in the Big Ten and 113th nationally in defensive efficiency in 2014 by a wide margin. Rutgers allowed 6.4 yards per play — nearly a half yard more per play than Illinois, which checked in at No. 13 in the B1G. The Knights return five starters on defense in 2015.
1,987.3: Yards Wisconsin's leading rusher has averaged over last four years
Wisconsin is known for its running game and star ball carriers. Over the last four years, the Badgers' leading rusher has AVERAGED 1,987.3 yards and 24.0 touchdowns. Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball clearly upheld the lofty expectations for a UW running back. Corey Clement now steps into a starting role after averaging 7.0 yards per carry in his first two seasons (214 att., 1,496 yards). He’s talented enough to keep those average leading rusher statistics up at Wisconsin.
The scoreboard was still smoking in the wake of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history when Gus Malzahn made his decision. In reality, he had probably known what he had to do for a few weeks. No team closes a season by giving up at least 31 points in six straight games (against FBS foes) and doesn’t change some things. When you give up 55 points and 539 yards to your archrival in the season finale, the urgency to find a new way gets even greater.
Malzahn needed a new defensive coordinator, and he knew he was going to have to shop in the luxury aisle to get one. Some might think the 850 large the program had allotted for former DC Ellis Johnson was Ritz-level pricing, but that was discount stuff compared to the $1.6 million the Tigers will send Will Muschamp’s way this season. Muschamp — who was fired after four years as head coach at Florida but built successful defenses before that at Auburn, LSU and Texas — brings instant credibility to a side of the ball that had little last season. And he will be paid quite handsomely for that experience. In fact, he’ll be the second-highest-paid assistant in the country.
“That’s where the college game is at with the money and the TV,” Malzahn says. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”
Given Muschamp’s track record, his Riviera-level price tag isn’t so outrageous. Florida fans obviously focus on his 28–21 record during four years in Gainesville; but at Auburn, they’re more interested in the fact that none of his defenses finished worse than 15th nationally during that time. During his six years directing defenses at LSU (2001-04) and Auburn (’06-07), his units finished in the top 10 every year.
His 2008 Texas edition led the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense and held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. Muschamp is an excellent recruiter and brings some top-shelf assistants with him. If the Tigers D has the same success as Malzahn’s spread attack, Auburn will be back in the national title hunt. And it will make perfect sense that Muschamp gets a salary above those paid to more than 60 FBS head coaches in 2014.
“If you’re going to be consistently good and have a chance to win championships, you have to be good on defense, especially in our league,” Malzahn says.
Malzahn’s not the only SEC coach who thinks that way. Texas A&M will pay former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a reported $5 million over the next three years to fix a D that ranked 102nd in total yards allowed last year. That makes him No. 1 on the assistant coach payroll. He and Muschamp join four other conference coordinators (Alabama DC Kirby Smart, LSU OC Cam Cameron, LSU DC Kevin Steele and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt) who make at least seven figures. Last year, only three — Smart, Cameron and Chavis — earned that much.
The growing collection of million-dollar men makes sense in a conference that boasted nine of the nation’s top 19 assistant coaching salary pools. LSU’s $5.499 million outlay to assistants topped the national list, with Alabama ($5.213 million) second.
The growth has been quick. Consider that six years ago, Chavis made $400,000 at LSU. Last year, he earned $1.3 million. He’ll get $400,000 more than that in 2015. That’s a pretty steep climb in a short amount of time.
“There are rising salaries for all coaches — head coaches, coordinators and assistants,” says South Carolina boss Steve Spurrier, who made $4 million last year, the 10th-highest payday in the country. “It’s all about the rising revenues that are coming in.
“Hopefully, we’ll give some to the players soon, too.”
Hold on, Steve. That’s another topic altogether. The recent SEC binge on coordinator salaries is certainly about the big piles of cash flowing into schools’ coffers from TV deals, the new College Football Playoff and the growing professionalization of athletic departments. But coaches also realize that they had better beef up their staffs to attract, develop and deploy the best players in order to compete in the most cutthroat league around.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Last year, the SEC West went from merely brutal to absolutely pitiless. All seven teams finished the year with above-.500 records and played in the postseason. The last-place finisher, Arkansas, dismantled Texas in a bowl game, and the Mississippi schools reached heights they hadn’t experienced in decades. It is imperative that schools have the best possible coaches to run their attacks, or they risk getting overrun in one of the most competitive environments in all of sports.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been a head coach in the Big Ten, was the Miami Dolphins’ boss and directed the Baltimore Ravens’ attack for five seasons. As he tries to make the Tigers potent again — after a shaky 2014 — he understands the need for head coaches to bulk up their staffs as much as possible. That begins with their top lieutenants.
“When you have coached in the Big Ten and the NFL and then come to the SEC, and especially the SEC West, you realize the margin for error is so small,” Cameron says. “Coordinators can have huge impacts. The games are so close, so everybody has to be as qualified as possible.”
Cameron is right about the slim difference between success and failure. Last season, 19 SEC conference games were decided by seven or fewer points, and 10 had margins of three or fewer. In situations like that, it’s imperative for programs to have the most experienced and talented people possible in top assistant positions. Muschamp’s arrival in Auburn and Kevin Steele taking over in Baton Rouge mean there are now four former Power 5 conference head coaches among the coordinator ranks in the SEC. (Cameron and Alabama OC Lane Kiffin are the others.) In 2014, former UCLA head man Karl Dorrell led the Vanderbilt offense. Last year’s A&M defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, directed Marshall’s program for five years.
“You have former head coaches as coordinators and future head coaches as coordinators,” Cameron says. “There is so much at stake that everybody is trying to get as many good people as possible.”
• • •
The two highest-profile SEC hires of the offseason were curious less for their price tags than for those who brought them on board. Throughout their coaching careers, Malzahn and A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been known for their explosive offenses and overwhelming desire to pile up the points and yards, even if that put undue stress on their defenses.
High-speed attacks pressure rivals for 60 minutes, but they impact the defenses on their own teams every minute of the year. The most obvious effect is in the time of possession department. If an offense is holding onto the ball for only 20-25 minutes a game, that means opponents have it for a draining 35-40. Defenses trying to prepare for the kind of physical, pro-style opponents found throughout the SEC don’t have the ability to practice against that kind of scheme during the summer and then week-to-week. And when versatile prospects come into programs as freshmen, coaches try to decide whether they should play offense or defense. If the man in charge is more disposed to scoring points than preventing them, the toss-ups will often end up on the offensive side of the ball.
So, Sumlin’s decision to bring Chavis to College Station and Malzahn’s choice of Muschamp show how important those two creative offensive minds now consider the ability to stop people. At LSU, Chavis worked with an attack designed to complement his unit. The Tigers ran the ball. They worked the clock. And they were delighted with a 23–14 victory. It’s fun trying to score 50 but even more enjoyable to get the win. Muschamp’s defenses at Florida were stingy, but he lost his job because the Gators, who once spun scoreboards under Spurrier and Urban Meyer, were boring. Malzahn and Sumlin have invested big money in their new coaches, but they have to be willing to adapt their styles of play to let the defenses have a chance to thrive.
When Chavis met with Sumlin, the two discussed how the team would practice and any concerns Chavis had about tempo. And when spring drills began, the Aggies had actually slowed things down so much that it was Chavis who requested a change of pace. At Auburn, Muschamp’s unit will complement an attack that has averaged 493.4 yards in Malzahn’s 27 games at the helm.
“Will and (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) work real closely together,” Malzahn says. “We are making sure both sides’ needs are met. The experience so far has been really positive.”
Muschamp may have to convince his boss to play a little more to the defensive side of the ball at times, but the good news is that he won’t have too much interference from Malzahn. Lashlee may be the offensive coordinator, but the Tigers’ attack belongs to the head coach, who literally wrote the book (“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”) on the kind of run-based, spread attack he favors. According to Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, which combines content from three Alabama newspapers — Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — Malzahn “doesn’t meddle with the defense” and is “hesitant” even to stick his head in the room.
There have been great coordinators in the SEC for decades. One of the reasons Spurrier won a national title at Florida was that he had Bob Stoops, now the head man at Oklahoma, to run his defense. But Stoops wasn’t a huge name when he arrived from Kansas State. Cameron was when Miles brought him to Baton Rouge in 2013. He had spent 10 of the previous 11 seasons as an NFL coordinator and head man, so he brought instant credibility to the job at LSU.
A year later, Alabama coach Nick Saban got himself a high-profile coordinator when he hired Kiffin, the former Raiders, USC and Tennessee coach, to direct his offense. Although the Tide paid defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost twice as much as the $680,000 Kiffin earned, having a former NFL boss running the attack was big news. It also showed that Saban, who has four national titles to his credit, doesn’t mind having big names on his staff, especially on the side of the ball that isn’t his expertise. The goal is to win games, not rule absolutely — although Saban does a pretty good job with that, too.
“These coaches know they are the big men on campus, so they take the ego out of it and get someone in there to handle the other side of the ball,” Marcello says.
Cameron says there is more to it than just putting together and executing a game plan. Having former head coaches on the staff helps with recruiting. Since assistants spend more time on the road than do those who run the programs, having a former NFL assistant or college head man in the living room adds some serious cachet.
Thanks to television, coaches such as Muschamp, Kiffin and LSU’s Steele are recognizable and therefore have an edge over some of their lesser-known counterparts at other schools. Everybody on a staff must be out there selling, but top coordinators with national personalities can help a lot. They had better want to be part of the equation, rather than thinking they are above the daily grind of being an assistant.
“It’s very important that all coaches on a staff recruit and evaluate,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “Our coordinators do that, too. They have good relationship skills. If you have a coordinator who doesn’t recruit or have interest in recruiting, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Once the assistants lure top prospects to campus, they have to develop them — and not just to win games against SEC foes. Conference teams recruit some of the best players in the country, and though we would all like to think they are heading to school to become doctors and lawyers, most harbor NFL dreams. The exposure and level of competition in the SEC help them make progress toward that goal, but it’s imperative they receive the kind of development necessary to become attractive to professional talent evaluators.
That’s one reason why Miles considered Cameron an attractive candidate for the OC job. What young offensive player wouldn’t want to learn from someone who has not only helped produce NFL players but who also has coached them? At LSU, where the end of each season brings an exodus to the NFL of players who have been on campus the minimum of three years, it’s vital to have coaches who are capable of helping them maximize their talents — to help the Tigers but also to get them into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“When you talk to kids, they are looking for coaches who can help them develop today and for the next level,” Cameron says.
Muschamp and Chavis will be expected to provide immediate results for their new teams. At their price tags, they had better deliver quickly. If they do, you can bet that this time next year, there will be some new high-profile coordinators joining the SEC ranks at premium prices.
“It’s the demand for the position,” Richt says. “We’re in an academic setting, but it’s also a competitive setting. You want to hire the type of people who can get the job done in an excellent way. The higher the demand, the higher the salaries go.”
And it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop rising.
Baylor’s non-conference scheduling has been criticized frequently over the last few years. But the Bears are doing their best to upgrade the schedule and are on talks to appear in Australia (Sydney or Melbourne) against a Pac-12 opponent to open the 2016 season.
So that news got us thinking. What overseas cities need to have a college football game for an opener?
Here are a few cities or foreign destinations we think need to host a college football game in the future:
Location to be determined and it would take some creativity to fit the football field on the top deck. But if college basketball can do it, then let’s make it happen for college football. The military's newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald Ford (not pictured at right), is scheduled for deployment in 2019. Let’s go with an Air Force vs. Navy matchup.
Barcelona is one of the top travel destinations and is known for that other kind of football. And in tandem with the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, we could position a USF versus Buffalo matchup.
This is actually not an unrealistic trip or a location for a bowl. Since we are still trying to figure out the Bermuda Triangle, let’s go with an all-Hurricane matchup between Miami and Tulsa. Or since Bermuda is just off the coast of the Carolinas, we could propose a South Carolina-North Carolina pairing. Bermuda has to have good golf courses for Steve Spurrier, right?
This small Pacific Ocean island nation has some awesome views. Squeezing in a field will be a challenge. But let’s just say the fanbase for any team would appreciate a game in this location.
Dubai has been mentioned as a possible spot for a bowl or a game for Texas. Seems like it’s only a matter of time before a college football game ends up in the Middle East.
Relations between the United Stats and Cuba are thawing and what better way to continue that deicing than a game in Havana? After all, that’s where the Bacardi Bowl was played in the early 1900s to the mid-1940s.
Hong Kong’s picturesque skyline would be a good backdrop for the opening of the telecast. And the bright lights of the city would be a great place for Oregon to unveil another awesome uniform combination.
London already gets a few NFL games, but bringing a college matchup might have more spice than just a Jaguars contest. Let’s see: How about Michigan versus Alabama?
One of the world’s largest cities has a 95,500-seat stadium just waiting for a game. The 49ers-Cardinals played a NFL preseason game here in 2005. How about an Arizona-Texas Tech game?
There’s no shortage of stadiums in Paris. Let’s take LSU and the French Quarter overseas in the future to take on UL Lafayette.
The Olympics are coming to Rio in 2016, with the games scheduled to last from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21. That’s perfect timing to host a college football opener in late August/early September.
This would be even better if the game could take place in the old Colosseum. And for our modern day gridiron gladiators, how about Notre Dame and Florida State?
Asia is a region the Pac-12 wants to tap into, and Seoul is a good place to stage a game in the coming years.
I know. It’s cold and unrealistic. But Washington vs. Northern Illinois in a Huskies showdown has a good sound to it.
The Tokyo Dome has hosted MLB and NFL preseason games. Why not a college football matchup between two West Coast teams or a West Coast squad and team from the Midwest? Let’s say UCLA and Texas?
Other Locations Considered
An F1 racetrack (Don't forget that Virginia Tech and Tennessee are set to tangle at Bristol Motor Speeday in 2016)
Johnny Manziel is turning over a new leaf, and on that leaf there will be no more "money sign."
The Browns quarterback has gone on record to say that he will no longer be throwing up the trademark sign we've seen since his days at Texas A&M.
Johnny Manziel: "The money sign will not be back."— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) June 17, 2015
R.I.P. The Money Sign. It had a good run.
There are other celebrations we wouldn't mind seeing Manziel try out next season. After all, he has to do something when he gets excited.
1. The LeBron James
The signature James move signifies power and let's the crowd know you've just handled the situation. Manziel may need a few more successful 2-minute drives before he could pull this move off.
2. The Drake "Started From The Bottom" Dance
This might be the perfect dance since Manziel is starting from the bottom in his second season with the Browns.
3. The Whip
Manziel might need a little more rhythm than he's equipped with to pull this one off. Plus Odell Beckham Jr. seems to have it on lock.
4. The Andre Iguodala "Travel Dance"
It worked, he's an NBA champion now. This is the main reason he won MVP. Yes, just the dance.
5. The Lil' B "Cooking Dance"
Actually, no Johnny, don't do this or you will be cursed.
Steph Curry has been an NBA champion for less than 24 hours but this comeback game is on point.
ESPN's Skip Bayless, as he's known to do, tweeted about the "easy" road Curry and the Warriors had on their way to the championship. Chef Curry replied with the perfect tweet.
.@RealSkipBayless Love you too Skip!— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) June 17, 2015
1. It's not like the teams pick who they want to play.
2. The Thunder didn't even make the playoffs so they shouldn't be mentioned right now.
3. The validation Curry "needs" was met when he won league MVP and became a champion.
Not even Bayless can ruin your day when you're an NBA champion.