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Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David looks toward the future with a menu of potential Cup Series drivers for which you may want to start rooting.
At some point, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster will get an infusion of young talent, drivers that aren’t rookies now and might not be in 2015. Some of those names you might already know, especially if you make NASCAR Nationwide Series races appointment viewing every Saturday. You might already have a favorite or two out of the latest litter, but in case you don’t, I’ve compiled this handy fan’s guide to the future Cup Series rookies:
Are you a fan of nostalgia, strong family ties and easy championships? Chase Elliott is your driver.
A frustrating sight at short tracks is when a young driver fails to succeed despite having the best car and crew and deepest resources. Elliott had all of that, plus a famous dad, but capitalized on the opportunities given to him, smoking fields at hallowed grounds across the nation, collecting trophies from such notable events like the All American 400, the Snowball Derby and the Winchester 400.
Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup Series champion and a 16-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, helped make sure his son Chase, now 19, had everything at his competitive disposal. That Chase was able to take advantage was a good sign — one seen by Rick Hendrick, who signed the younger Elliott to a development contract over three years ago.
Now in the Nationwide Series, Elliott, the top-ranked Cup Series prospect per MotorsportsAnalytics.com, is poised for a series title in his rookie year, having collected wins at Texas, Darlington and Chicagoland. His aggression level is high, and a weapon he used to pick off the win at Darlington, easily his year’s best highlight. He’ll fit into the system already in place at Hendrick Motorsports, which amplifies the talents of drivers who utilize intelligence and aggression. He’s the closest thing to a sure thing among a deep crop of rising talent.
Are you a motorsports snob and appreciate refined race craft? Ryan Blaney is your driver.
While Blaney was still acclimating to life in high school, he was displaying a veteran-like presence on short tracks around the Carolinas.
Unlike his father Dave, who is a Dirt Sprint Car legend, Ryan was nurtured on pavement and learned pace and conservation early enough — my best memory of him was a conservative ride at Hickory Motor Speedway that resulted in a savvy up-front finish as other gas-happy kids wore their equipment out — to have it translate to higher-mileage contests in NASCAR. His assimilation has been quick. He has a win for each year he’s raced in a NASCAR division, none more impressive than his score this summer at Bristol when he stymied Kyle Busch on a final restart in a Nationwide Series race.
Team Penske, a ubiquitous presence in practically all forms of racing, employs Blaney and has so much belief in him that they crammed his 2014 season full of races across three divisions and are loaning him out to Wood Brothers Racing for a partial Cup Series season in 2015.
Are you a blue-collar worker with dirt under your nails and might have rooted for a black No. 3 car back in the day? Corey LaJoie is your driver.
Richard Petty Motorsports holds contractual rights to LaJoie, but didn’t bend over backwards for him until recently, placing him into four Nationwide Series races with fellow Ford team Biagi-DenBeste Racing. Up until that, LaJoie went at it alone, essentially acting as his own crew chief in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, where he ran neck-and-neck with Kyle Larson in 2012, scoring more victories (five) than Larson (two), but falling short in the title battle.
LaJoie’s outspoken nature could prove polarizing in the Dale Earnhardt sense or entertaining in the Clint Bowyer sense; however, he has enough talent — he’s a bit of a chameleon, an aggressive driver with a high Race IQ while also an ace equipment and tire conservationist — to back up whatever statements he chooses to make. And despite having family ties to the sport — father Randy is a two-time Nationwide Series champion — LaJoie created much of his heightened prospect status with his work ethic, a relatable trait to even the most old-school of NASCAR fans.
Do you seldom watch racing, choosing only to watch the Daytona 500, the finale at Homestead and the occasional driver appearance on a late-night talk show? Darrell Wallace is your driver.
This isn’t a knock on Wallace, who became the first African-American winner in NASCAR’s three major divisions in 50 years with his Truck Series triumph at Martinsville last season. This season in the Truck Series, he has already tripled his 2013 win total and has an outside shot at the series title with three races remaining. He’s got driving chops.
He also oozes star power, reaching to both African Americans and millennials. To the latter group, Wallace is inherently relatable, displaying a style not familiar with the Wrangler-wearing crowd and poise beyond his years that today’s kids should aim to emulate. Already firmly entrenched at Joe Gibbs Racing and with manufacturer Toyota, Wallace’s ticket is already punched for the big time. Becoming a personality that transcends the sport of racing is only a matter of when. He’ll be playing egg roulette with Jimmy Fallon in no time.
Do you root for the Cinderella team every year during March Madness? Chris Buescher is your driver.
There isn’t a single driver among the next batch of NASCAR stars that has transformed themselves more than Buescher, a rookie for Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series. Once a wild-driving kid in Legend Cars, Buescher’s aggressiveness, once enrolled in the Roush School of Driving Like Matt Kenseth Does, balanced out and he emerged as a textbook racecar driver, one who conserves equipment yet finds unmatched speed. This resulted in an ARCA Series championship in 2012. That season he became the first driver in series history to complete every lap of competition during a calendar year while also winning four races, tying for the season’s most.
Buescher is already a Nationwide Series race winner and, with the organization promoting Trevor Bayne to the seat of its new No. 6 team in 2015, is in the on-deck circle once a Cup ride opens up at Roush Fenway. He might be an underdog, though, if he remains at Roush, which has lacked title-worthy pop the last three years. Buescher is a quiet kid, one who might not attract a large number of fans or the ritziest of sponsors. Fans that do latch on to Buescher will be a part of group cheering on something special and when one of his seasons breaks the right way, they’ll have a plum seat on the bandwagon ride to the top.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak is not interested in celebrating any checkpoints or milestones in his rebuilding of the program. The Utes clearly are making progress as Krystkowiak enters his fourth season, but he’s not declaring the project ahead of schedule.
“We’re in the middle of the process, showing steady improvement,” Krystkowiak says.
That’s his only gauge of where the Utes are, having gone from 3–15 in Pac-12 play in his first season to 5–13 and then 9–9 (with a bunch of close losses) last year. The growth was sufficient for the school to award Krystkowiak a new five-year contract, and his recruiting success suggests that the upward trend will continue in 2014-15 and beyond.
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The best illustration of how far the Utes have come may be reflected in junior forward Jordan Loveridge’s role this season. After averaging 36.3 minutes in Pac-12 games last season, Loveridge will have much more help up front, which means he’s unlikely to play nearly as many minutes.
Much is expected from Kyle Kuzma, who should create matchup issues. Another freshman, Brekkott Chapman, also is multidimensional, and junior college transfer Chris Reyes also should help.
Loveridge led the Utes with 7.0 rebounds per game, and Krystkowiak is seeking a better effort on the boards from his entire team. In conference games, the Utes ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding, grabbing only 68.4 percent of their opponents’ misses. That deficiency hurt them at the end of some tight games, but it could fixed by the Utes having bigger players at every position in 2014-15.
During a summer workout, Krystkowiak was thrilled to look at one end of the court and see six quality big men doing drills, a sign that Utah would have much more depth up front.
Dallin Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen are steady, solid players who complement one another at center. Olsen joined Loveridge on the Pac-12 all-star team, coached by Krystkowiak, that toured China. The Utes continued to upgrade their athletic ability by signing Austrian 7-footer Jakob Poeltl.
When he arrived at Utah, Krystkowiak’s recruiting was designed mainly to fill the roster. His staff now can be much more selective in targeting players, and the results are impressive. The Utes will be able to put different lineups on the court and take advantage of certain matchups.
Utah Utes Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-12, 9-9 Pac-12
Last NCAA Tournament: 2009
Coach: Larry Krystkowiak (42-55 at Utah, 17-36 Pac-12)
Pac-12 Projection: Fifth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Delon Wright was a great discovery for Utah as a junior college transfer, and his decision to stay in school for his senior season rather than enter the NBA was a big boost to the Utes. Wright took over at point guard and finished second in the Pac-12 in steals (2.5 spg), third in field-goal shooting (.561) and fourth in assists (5.3 apg), while leading the Utes in scoring (15.5 ppg) and ranking second in rebounding (6.8 rpg).
Wright and his teammates must perform better in the clutch. Dakarai Tucker took a pass from Loveridge and hit a clinching 3-pointer against Washington in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament, but strong finishes were rare for the Utes. They had fewer turnovers than their opponents, but the Utes’ mistakes seem to come at the worst times.
Some combination of Brandon Taylor, Kenneth Ogbe and Tucker will fill the other backcourt roles, while freshman Isaiah Wright also may provide some relief for Delon Wright, who averaged 36.4 minutes per game.
Utah’s 21–12 overall record in 2013-14 was deceiving, and so were some of their statistics, because of a very weak non-conference schedule that included only one road game. The level of competition will be upgraded considerably, with a home game vs. Wichita State, plus matchups against Kansas (in Kansas City) and UNLV on a “neutral court” in Las Vegas.
Krystkowiak hopes that those games will serve as good preparation for Pac-12 play, and that the experience of having competed in so many close battles last year will translate to greater success in pressure situations.
Too many times in 2013-14, the Utes came down the stretch “and were kind of looking over our shoulder, wondering if it’s going to happen again,” Krystkowiak says.
Judging strictly by conference play, the Utes statistically performed better than a .500 team in the Pac-12. With some better finishes, the Utes should be able to continue their climb in the Pac-12 and contend for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Freshman forwards Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman bring versatility to the frontcourt. Kuzma can execute low-post moves, handle the ball and rebound at both ends of the court. Forward Chris Reyes, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Saint Mary’s, should help with his rebounding ability. Austrian center Jakob Poeltl is a skilled 7-footer with good fundamentals.
When Steve Alford was chosen to replace longtime coach Ben Howland in April 2013, the hire didn’t exactly have UCLA fans jumping for joy. Howland, after all, had taken the Bruins to three straight Final Fours in the past decade and was fresh off a Pac-12 regular-season title. Alford, meanwhile, had reached the Sweet 16 just once as a coach — 14 years prior, with upstart Southwest Missouri State.
But when the dust had settled somewhat and Alford’s first UCLA team actually took the court, winning soothed most of those concerns. His players quickly bought in, and despite a rather uninspiring run through a less-than-intimidating non-conference schedule, the Bruins’ up-tempo, high-powered offense quickly became a force to be reckoned with in March, when it mattered most.
After dropping its worst game of the season to Washington State in the regular-season finale, UCLA burned through the Pac-12 Tournament like it had something to prove, pulling off a fantastic, last-minute victory over Arizona in the title game. That momentum carried the Bruins all the way to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.
Alford will have to do some serious remodeling to repeat those results during the 2014-15 season, with four of five starters and his top bench option gone. But with a top-flight recruiting class coming in and some talent already in place, Alford might be in position to prove his doubters wrong again in Year 2.
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Twins Travis and David Wear never quite provided the post presence that UCLA needed to be taken seriously down low, and despite high expectations, one-time top recruit Tony Parker has yet to pan out as the Bruins might’ve hoped.
But after a year of dealing with a paper-thin frontcourt, Alford and his staff made it a point to get bigger and stronger down low. UCLA added four frontcourt players in this year’s recruiting class, highlighted by five-star forward Kevon Looney, and should finally have the versatility to play inside and out.
“You’ve got to be able to adjust to what you have,” Alford says. “Now, we have a lot more size. Going into this year, our hope is that we can play out of the post and still play at a high tempo.”
That should mean a very different-looking offense and, likely, an increased role for Parker, whom Alford says he’s counting on to make the most significant improvement of any player on the roster.
Whoever it is filling the void, though, UCLA will have to find some way to replace the rebounding prowess of point forward Kyle Anderson and wing Jordan Adams, who combined for almost half the Bruins’ rebounding output last season.
UCLA Bruins Facts & Figures
Last season: 28-9, 12-6 Pac-12
Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Coach: Steve Alford (28-9 at UCLA, 12-6 Pac-12
Pac-12 Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Losing Anderson, Adams, and enigmatic one-and-done Zach LaVine — all three of whom were first-round NBA Draft picks — could make for an insurmountable blow to UCLA’s backcourt, especially after Alford and his staff missed out on getting guard help in this year’s recruiting class.
But Alford has the utmost confidence in his son, Bryce, to take over Anderson’s spot at point guard, repeatedly referring to him “a coach on the floor” this offseason. And in redshirt freshman Isaac Hamilton, who sat out last season, UCLA will have a consummate five-star talent to play next to him and take on some of the scoring load.
The pair of young guards will have Norman Powell to lean on, at least. The senior guard exploded offensively toward the end of last season, averaging 14 points per game during the postseason.
Losing its talented core from last season will probably hurt UCLA early on in 2014-15, as it tries to find the same rhythm it harnessed during last year’s postseason run. The Bruins will also have a tougher road to travel, with a beefed-up non-conference schedule that includes Kentucky and Gonzaga. But assuming Alford follows through on his promise to adjust to a very different roster, UCLA should have the talent to be a player in the Pac-12 again this season. Unseating a top contender like Arizona might be too much to ask, but if Hamilton and Looney come through on their five-star potential, and the younger Alford can keep UCLA’s up-tempo offense on track, then the Bruins could make a splash come March.
Without much size last season, Steve Alford made it a point to shore up the frontcourt with his first full recruiting haul, adding an impressive four-man class, all of whom stand 6-9 or taller. The gem among them should be Kevon Looney, a five-star talent who dominates the boards. Seven-footer Thomas Welsh and versatile forward Jonah Bolden should help bolster depth, while Gyorgy Goloman will take time to develop.
Those trends figure to continue in 2014-15 with Arizona challenging to end the league’s Final Four drought dating back to UCLA in 2008. The Bruins are rebuilding, but they’re rarely without the talent to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Shakeups have occurred in this league in recent seasons, but perhaps one of the most surprising developments has been the rise of the two newest members.
Colorado and Utah figured to contribute little to the basketball product of the Pac-12 when they joined in 2011. This season, they could be two of the league's better teams.
Instead, Colorado under Tad Boyle is enjoying its most successful period in program history. Utah has reached the Final Four in its past but has been an afterthought for most of the last decade or so. After winning six total games as recently 2011-12, the Utes are poised to complete a quick rise that could end in the NCAA Tournament this season.
Arizona’s place as the league’s prohibitive favorite along with the emerging programs at Colorado, Utah and Stanford may be the top storylines in a league in a state of flux. Cal, Washington State and Oregon State have new coaches. Oregon and Arizona State have personnel losses that will make returns to the NCAA Tournament difficult.
Previews of every Pac-12 team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
Pac-12 2014-15 Preseason Picks
1. Arizona (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Final Four
Sean Miller has his usual surplus of talent. He might get an upgrade going from Nick Johnson to Stanley Johnson.
2. Colorado (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
Always-underrated Buffs return four starters, including one of league’s better big men in Josh Scott.
3. Stanford (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
Johnny Dawkins got the Cardinal back in the NCAAs. He has enough talent to go again.
4. UCLA (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
NBA early exits cost the Bruins three players and knocked them down a few rungs, but they won’t fall far.
5. Utah (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
Larry Krystkowiak can coach, and he welcomes back four starters to what could be the league’s most improved team.
Postseason projection: NIT
To really flourish, new coach Cuonzo Martin needs to get more out of guard Jabari Bird than his predecessor.
Postseason projection: NIT
The Ducks were gutted by scandal, transfers and graduation. Just four players return. Who are these guys?
Postseason projection: NIT
Andy Enfield has recruited well with his two classes, but he’s a year away from noticeable results.
The talent is down. Attendance is down. The unthinkable is happening: Lorenzo Romar is on the hot seat.
10. Arizona State
The Sun Devils had four players transfer out and another leave early for the NBA. That’s not the look of a winner.
11. Oregon State
New coach Wayne Tinkle doesn’t have any presidential connections. He’ll need help from someone.
12. Washington State
Ernie Kent takes on the toughest job in the Pac-12. He may wonder why he left the broadcast booth.
2014-15 Pac-12 Superlatives
Player of the Year: Stanley Johnson, Arizona
The five-star swingman can score from anywhere on the court. His arrival at Arizona further solidifies the Wildcats’ trend as a recruiting powerhouse.
Best Defensive Player: David Kravish, Cal
Cal is hoping Kravish becomes a more well-rounded offensive threat, but for now, he’s a standout interior defender. He averaged 7.7 rebounds a year ago.
Most Underrated Player: DaVonte Lacy, Washington State
Who finished second in the Pac-12 in scoring last season? Unless you were following closely, you may have missed that it was Lacy, who averaged 19.4 points.
Newcomer of the Year: Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Johnson follows Aaron Gordon as a star California prospect to head to Arizona — and probably go one-and-done.
Top coach: Sean Miller, Arizona (full Pac-12 coach rankings)
G Delon Wright, Utah
G Chasson Randle, Stanford
F Brandon Ashley, Arizona
F Stanley Johnson, Arizona
F Josh Scott, Colorado
G Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington
G Askia Booker, Colorado
G Joseph Young, Oregon
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson , Arizona
F Anthony Brown, Stanford
G T.J. McConnell, Arizona
G DaVonté Lacy, Washington State
G Norman Powell, UCLA
F Kevon Looney, UCLA
F David Kravish, Cal
The first rankings by the College Football Playoff selection committee followed the mainstream sentiment with three SEC West teams in the top four.
The only mild surprise was the three teams included. Auburn debuted at No. 3 despite a single loss to Mississippi State on the road on Oct. 18. Ole Miss landed at No. 4 on the strength of a win over Alabama on Oct. 4.
Here’s how the first top 25 shook out, followed by our observations.
|College Football Playoff Rankings: Oct. 28|
|1. Mississippi State||10. Notre Dame||18. Oklahoma|
|2. Florida State||11. Georgia||19. LSU|
|3. Auburn||12. Arizona||20. West Virginia|
|4. Ole Miss||13. Baylor||21. Clemson|
|5. Oregon||14. Arizona State||22. UCLA|
|6. Alabama||15. Nebraska||23. East Carolina|
|7. TCU||16. Ohio State||24. Duke|
|8. Michigan State||17. Utah||25. Louisville|
|9. Kansas State|
Auburn at No. 3.
The Tigers ended up as the highest-ranked one-loss team ahead of Alabama, Ole Miss and Oregon. The selection committee put significant weight on the Tigers’ 20-14 road win over Kansas State, a team the selection committee ranked ninth. Auburn’s only loss is on the road to No. 1 Mississippi State 38-23
Ole Miss at No. 4
The selection committee showed it wouldn’t follow the lead of the polls by ranking Ole Miss at No. 4, two spots ahead of Alabama. Both polls, which have no role in the playoff process, ranked Alabama No. 3. The AP had Ole Miss at No. 7, the coaches had the Rebels even lower at No. 9. Ole Miss defeated Alabama 23-17 on Oct. 4.
Who Shouldn’t Worry:
The committee placed Oregon at No. 5 despite a loss to Arizona, a team ranked 12th. Committee chair Jeff Long cited a win over Michigan State at home and UCLA on the road as contributing to a strong “body of work” in his interview on ESPN. In interviews with reporters, Long also noted the injury to starting left tackle Jake Fisher in the loss to Arizona. Fisher is now healthy. The Ducks control their own path to the Playoff as the three SEC teams start to weed themselves out.
No reason for the Crimson Tide to worry about being No. 6. The Tide still have two of the top three teams on their schedule, both at home. If the committee liked the head-to-head win for Ole Miss over Alabama, it will love a Tide team with wins over Mississippi State and Auburn.
Who Should be Pleasantly Surprised
TCU and Kansas State
The pair of Big 12 teams that were nowhere to be found in preseason top 15, but both landed in the top 10. The Horned Frogs and Wildcats have wins over Oklahoma and narrow losses to fellow one loss teams (Baylor for TCU, Auburn for Kansas State).
Who Should Worry:
We don’t know what would be considered a major climb from the first playoff poll to the final one, but Ohio State could present an interesting test. The Buckeyes, who lost at home to 4-4 Virginia Tech, started at No. 16. Entering Tuesday, Ohio State knew it needed to beat No. 8 Michigan State for a shot at the playoff. Now, the Buckeyes have to wonder if even that will be enough.
The Irish were ranked sixth in the AP poll but 10th in the playoff poll due to the lack of significant wins. A good showing in a loss in Tallahassee wasn’t enough to move up any further.
East Carolina and Marshall appeared to be the clubhouse leaders for the Group of 5 spot in the New Year’s bowls, but Marshall probably needs one-loss East Carolina to lose again ... at least. Marshall was unranked while ECU landed at No. 23. The Thundering Herd has one of the weakest schedules in the country while East Carolina beat Virginia Tech and North Carolina and lost to South Carolina.
If the Season Ended Today:
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Ole Miss
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Auburn
Other bowls (projected)
Cotton: No. 7 TCU vs. No. 10 Notre Dame
Fiesta: No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 9 Kansas State
Orange: No. 21 Clemson^ vs. No. 6 Alabama
Peach: No. 23 East Carolina* vs. No. 8 Michigan State
*automatic Group of 5 bid
^automatic ACC bid to Orange Bowl
The race to claim one of college football’s four playoff spots is officially in the home stretch. Week 10 is the first Saturday in November, leaving little time for teams to solidify their case as a playoff contender.
The playoff committee releases its first set of rankings on Tuesday, Oct. 28, but there will be plenty of changes over the next month.
Consider this: There are 16 one-loss teams from the Power 5 conferences. Over the next six weeks, 11 games are scheduled where both teams currently have one loss. And that doesn’t count showdowns between Mississippi State and Alabama and Ole Miss versus Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Needless to say, much of college football’s rankings and playoff picture is going to be shaped by what happens in November.
With nine weeks in the books, let’s rank the top 15 one-loss teams heading into the first weekend in November. Keep in mind: These rankings reflect what has happened on the field so far and no projection into future weeks.
Ranking College Football’s One-Loss Teams
1. Ole Miss
Pick a team from the SEC as the No. 1 spot in this list. The case for Alabama is strong, as the Crimson Tide may end up as the best team in the SEC by the end of the year. But that’s a month away, and Ole Miss defeated Alabama 23-17 in Oxford on Oct. 4. The strength of coach Hugh Freeze’s team is a defense allowing just 4.4 yards per play. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche was lost for the year due to an ankle injury, but the defense should remain one of the best in the SEC. With an elite defense, Ole Miss doesn’t necessarily need an explosive offense. However, the Rebels need better production from their ground attack (3.9 ypc) and turnover-free play from quarterback Bo Wallace.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Auburn (Nov. 1)
Games Remaining Against Undefeated Teams: Mississippi State (Nov. 29)
As mentioned above, a compelling case can be made the Crimson Tide is college football’s best one-loss team. The Rebels get the nod over Alabama – for now - since they won the head-to-head matchup. Since losing 23-17 to Ole Miss, Alabama has rebounded by winning three games in a row, including a 59-0 blowout over Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide average 218.6 rushing yards per game, and receiver Amari Cooper has grabbed 71 catches for 1,132 yards. And here’s an interesting stat in Lane Kiffin’s first season calling the plays in Tuscaloosa: Alabama’s offense leads the SEC by averaging 6.96 yards per play. As usual in Tuscaloosa, the defense is strong. Alabama is holding opponents to 4.5 yards per play and 14 points per game. Pass defense is the Crimson Tide’s biggest concern, but this team will have a chance to climb in the playoff poll with remaining matchups against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Auburn (Nov. 29)
Games Remaining Against Undefeated Teams: Mississippi State (Nov. 15)
Auburn’s ranking here demonstrates just how crowded the SEC West is in 2014. The Tigers rank No. 4 in the latest Associated Press poll, yet rank as the third-best one-loss team. Similar to last season, Auburn is winning games with its offense. The Tigers average 6.91 yards per play and 39.3 points per game. The defense has improved since last year, but there’s plenty of work to do on this side of the ball. Auburn needs better play from its secondary (eight touchdowns allowed in SEC play) and a better pass rush (12 sacks). A daunting schedule is still ahead for the Tigers over the next few weeks, starting with a road trip to Ole Miss this Saturday, followed by a home date against Texas A&M and then road dates at Georgia and Alabama to finish SEC play.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Ole Miss (Nov. 1), at Georgia (Nov. 15), at Alabama (Nov. 29)
If Oregon is going to reach college football’s playoff, it will have to do so on the strength of its offense. The Ducks lead all Power 5 teams by averaging 7.5 yards per play and average 45.5 points per game. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman, and he’s surrounded by a talented group of weapons, along with an offensive line that has benefitted from the return of tackle Jake Fisher. Defensively, Oregon is allowing 5.7 yards per play and ranks last in the Pac-12 in opponent third-down conversions. The Ducks also rank 10th in the Pac-12 against the run, and opposing quarterbacks are completing 62.8 percent of their passes. The remaining schedule for Oregon features a home date against Stanford this Saturday, followed by a road trip against a dangerous Utah team on Nov. 8.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Utah (Nov. 8)
5. Michigan State
The Spartans are the favorite to win the Big Ten, but their position within the rankings could be determined on where Oregon falls at the end of the year. If the Ducks make the playoff, a one-loss Big Ten champion would have to be in the conversation for a spot among the top four. However, if Oregon stumbles to 9-3 and doesn’t win the North, how would the committee view Michigan State? The Spartans have won six in a row and are on bye before a huge showdown against Ohio State on Nov. 8. Pat Narduzzi’s defense isn’t as dominant as it was in 2013, but Michigan State is averaging 40.8 points per game in Big Ten play.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Ohio State (Nov. 8)
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish came up just short in their upset bid against Florida State, but an 11-1 final record would give Brian Kelly’s team a chance to make the four-team playoff. Notre Dame has played six Power 5 opponents this season and still has games remaining against Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC. Quarterback Everett Golson’s return has been huge for the offense, and the Fighting Irish are holding opponents to just 19.1 points a game.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
The Bulldogs are quietly flying under the radar at 6-1, and coach Mark Richt’s team has the inside track to win the SEC East. Georgia has won its last two games (Arkansas and Missouri) without running back Todd Gurley, but true freshman Nick Chubb has 345 yards and three touchdowns in his absence. Quarterback Hutson Mason has tossed only three picks in SEC play and has been efficient in his last two games (32 of 45). The defense seems to be improving with each snap under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, limiting opponents to 20 points a game and just 4.7 yards per play. Georgia plays rival Florida in Jacksonville this Saturday, with a Nov. 15 home date against Auburn its toughest remaining game this year.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Auburn (Nov. 15)
8. Kansas State
The only blemish on K-State’s resume so far this year is a 20-14 loss to Auburn. The Wildcats knocked off Oklahoma in Norman on Oct. 18 and will have a chance to play their way into the playoff conversation with remaining games - all on the road - against TCU, West Virginia and Baylor. Coach Bill Snyder’s team is holding opponents to 19.3 points a game, while the offense is tied for seventh nationally in third-down conversions and has lost only six turnovers. Quarterback Jake Waters has not thrown an interception since Sept. 18.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at TCU (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 6)
The Bears’ playoff hopes took a hit in Morgantown with a 41-27 loss to West Virginia. But with only one defeat so far, Baylor still has time to play its way back into the playoff discussion. The Bears play at Oklahoma on Nov. 8 and host Kansas State on Dec. 6. The offense is averaging 49 points a game, but the primary concern for coach Art Briles is the line, which has recently lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Baylor also ranks last in the Big 12 in red zone defense.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Kansas State (Dec. 6)
Much like the Ole Miss-Alabama debate, we have to give the nod to Baylor over TCU since the Bears won on Oct. 11. However, the Horned Frogs are one of the nation’s most-improved teams and can take a step forward in the Big 12 title hunt with a win over West Virginia this Saturday. Quarterback Trevone Boykin has thrived under first-year coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, throwing for 21 touchdowns to only three interceptions. As expected under coach Gary Patterson, TCU is strong on defense. The Horned Frogs are allowing only 4.9 yards per play and lead the Big 12 in third-down defense.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Kansas State (Nov. 8)
11. Ohio State
Urban Meyer’s team was dealt a significant setback in August, as quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the year due to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has filled in admirably for Miller, throwing for 1,689 yards and 21 scores while rushing for 458 yards and six touchdowns. Considering Barrett’s development over the last few weeks, the outcome of the Ohio State-Virginia Tech game would likely be much different if it was played in Week 10. Through seven games, the Buckeyes have showed slight improvement on defense, holding opponents to 20.7 points a game and 4.6 yards per play. While there is plenty of optimism about Ohio State, strength of schedule isn’t on its side. The Buckeyes have wins over Navy, Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State – a combined 23-23.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Michigan State (Nov. 8)
Arizona probably has the best conference win of any Pac-12 team, defeating Oregon 31-24 in Eugene on Oct. 2. But outside of that win, the Wildcats have played a relatively soft schedule and will be tested by a November schedule with trips to UCLA and Utah, along with home games against Washington and Arizona State. Arizona’s offense averages 40.6 points per game behind redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, but the defense ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 (No. 8) in points allowed per game in conference play (33.5).
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Utah (Nov. 22), Arizona State (Nov. 28)
13. Arizona State
Arizona State has won five of its six games by at least 14 points, with its only loss coming to UCLA (62-27) without quarterback Taylor Kelly. The senior is back in the lineup, and led the Sun Devils to a win over Washington last Saturday, but backup Mike Bercovici is a capable option if Kelly is sidelined again this year. A rebuilt defense was coach Todd Graham’s biggest concern this season. So far, Arizona State's defense has been inconsistent, allowing 62 points to UCLA and 34 to USC but holding Stanford and Washington to just 20 combined points.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: Utah (Nov. 1), Notre Dame (Nov. 8), at Arizona (Nov. 28)
The Utes are quietly one of the nation’s most-impressive teams through Week 9. Utah’s only loss was a one-point decision to Washington State, and coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is coming off a huge win over USC. The identity of Whittingham’s team is clear this season, as the rushing attack – led by Devontae Booker – ranks third in the Pac-12. The defense ranks second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 21.6 points per game and is first in sacks (35).
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: at Arizona State (Nov. 1), Oregon (Nov. 8), Arizona (Nov. 22)
The November slate will determine whether or not Nebraska wins the Big Ten West or loses four games for the sixth consecutive season. The Cornhuskers travel to Wisconsin and Iowa - arguably their biggest competition in the West Division - and host Minnesota. Running back Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation’s best, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong is still developing in his first full season as the starter. Nebraska is holding opponents to 20.5 points per game in Big Ten play.
Games Remaining Against One-Loss Teams: None
Years before Bruce Pearl took the Auburn job, the coach had already secured the approval of the most important face of Tigers basketball.
Pearl was midway through his tenure at Tennessee, and he had the Volunteers humming. The program's return to relevance in the SEC and the national stage was enough to draw the attention of Charles Barkley.
The Hall of Famer and Auburn legend reached out to Pearl and left the coach a voicemail.
“You don’t need to call me back,” Pearl recalls Barkley saying. “I know you don’t know me, but I’ve watched you coach. I like how hard your kids play. I like the swagger. It seems like you’re passionate. I just want to let you know I’m a fan.”
Pearl took this as the ultimate compliment. At the time, when he had Tennessee in the same stratosphere as Florida and Kentucky, Pearl had no way of knowing that this was a sign of his future in coaching.
Still, he followed Barkley’s request and went about his day.
“I did not call him back,” Pearl says. “I saved the message. It was special.”
Pearl and Barkley have crossed paths more often in recent months, since Pearl began a twofold resurrection process — that of his coaching career and that of Barkley’s alma mater.
Three years after he was fired at Tennessee and slapped with an NCAA penalty that essentially made him unhirable in the college ranks, Pearl has returned to the SEC, where he’ll try to accomplish what no one has been able to do for more than a decade. He’s looking to make Auburn relevant in basketball, not just in wins and losses but also to the school’s fan base.
“If anyone can do it, he has what it takes to do it,” says Tom Davis, the former Iowa coach who was the first to give Pearl a job in basketball at Boston College.
Indeed, Auburn has good reason to believe it scored a coup by hiring a coach with Pearl’s track record. Tennessee reached the NCAA Tournament all six seasons under Pearl, three times won at least a share of the SEC title, and advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010. He had opportunities to make the jump to higher-profile programs — Indiana was reportedly interested before hiring Kelvin Sampson — but he found a home in Knoxville. He had no plans to leave Tennessee.
What happened next is well documented. A cookout at his home with high school junior recruits led to a lie to the NCAA, which eventually led to his dismissal at Tennessee. Slapped with a three-year show-cause — which among other things bans a coach from recruiting — Pearl was basically unemployable by any other college.
Pearl embarked on a broadcasting career at ESPN and SiriusXM and served as a vice president for marketing for a wholesale grocery distribution company in Knoxville. He knew he wanted back on the sidelines but figured his next job would have to wait until the ’15-16 season at the earliest since his show-cause wasn’t scheduled to expire until Aug. 23. What school would hire a coach who couldn’t recruit for the first five months on the job?
How about a school that averaged 4.8 SEC wins in the previous five seasons and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003?
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs fired Tony Barbee, the coach he hired in 2010, hours after the Tigers bowed out of the 2014 SEC Tournament with an 18-point loss to South Carolina. Shortly after, Jacobs began his pursuit of the popular, but potentially toxic, former Tennessee head coach.
Jacobs admits he had reservations about Pearl before speaking with former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton among other references. Jacobs then met with Pearl in Bristol, Conn., where Pearl was serving as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
“He was remorseful and repentant (about his NCAA transgressions),” Jacobs says. “I was as thorough as I had been with anyone because of the history. I was convinced he was the right guy at the right time for Auburn.”
The timing, though, wasn’t perfect.
Rather than using energy to fight and appeal the show-cause, Auburn and Pearl devised plans to navigate the sanctions for the first five months of his tenure as required by the show-cause order. When recruits visited Auburn on official or unofficial visits, Pearl left campus or left town altogether to avoid any possibility of violating his show-cause. Instead of meeting with Pearl, recruits met football coach Gus Malzahn in addition to the Tigers’ assistant basketball coaches.
When Pearl hit the road for speaking or booster engagements, a compliance officer accompanied him in case a prospect would be present. Although he was barred from any contact with recruits or in-person evaluation or prospects, Pearl was not barred from evaluating prospects on film or keeping in contact with his assistants on the recruiting trail.
When his staff was on the road evaluating prospects, Pearl kept in touch every few days for updates. Pearl brought in Tony Jones, who coached with him dating back to his Milwaukee days, and former Auburn great Chuck Person. Jones served his own show-cause for a year before coaching two seasons at Alcoa (Tenn.) High School outside of Knoxville.
Pearl’s son, Steven, also was listed as a full-time assistant to help in recruiting before moving into an off-court role after the show-cause expired. In other words, Pearl has filled his staff with people who know him and know the terrain of the SEC.
Recruiting limitations, though, didn’t mean Pearl could take the summer off. The NCAA now allows basketball coaches to work with players up to two hours a day and eight hours a week during the summer. Pearl took full advantage of this time.
“Him not being able to recruit doesn’t necessarily lessen his workload,” Jones says. “He’s got a head start on Xs and Os.”
The time away from recruiting also gave Pearl time to do what he does best (aside from coaching) — build enthusiasm for a program.
For all of Auburn’s passion for football, Tiger fans have good reason to be apathetic about the basketball product. Auburn has had nine losing seasons in the last 11 years — quite the feat considering how light non-conference schedules can make even a .500 record attainable for a major-conference program.
Barbee was not able to capitalize on the opening of a new $92 million arena and was fired after an 18–50 SEC record in four seasons.
Attendance dropped nearly seven percent during Barbee’s final season at Auburn, according to AL.com. Auburn’s average home crowd of 5,823 ranked 13th in the SEC and was the worst since Auburn’s new arena opened in 2010.
“Auburn wanted more than just a guy that blows a whistle in a gym,” Pearl says. “They wanted somebody who would reenergize and educate a fan base about what college basketball can look like.”
Pearl sets lofty goals. He wants to have more home sellouts than 75 percent of the teams in the SEC. Auburn didn’t sell out a home game all of last year and may not be improved on the court in terms of wins and losses. Pearl returns only two players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season. He is filling the gaps with two graduate transfers (guards K.C. Ross-Miller from New Mexico State and Antoine Mason from Niagara) and the top junior college prospect in the country (forward Cinmeon Bowers).
The 2015 class, though, is where Pearl will make a major impact. He has four four-star commitments, according to the 247 Composite. The class is ranked 10th nationally and second in the SEC, behind only Texas A&M.
Pearl is essentially selling an experience, selling the up-tempo style of play and aggressive defense, selling the future and selling himself until tangible progress can be made. Jacobs has called him a “one-man marketing machine.” Pearl has visited students on campus, visited classrooms, visited dining halls and assisted with fundraisers.
“I try not to say no,” Pearl says. “I’d say five nights out of seven I’m somewhere visiting.”
That’s what the dean of admissions at Boston College saw when he recommended Pearl to then-coach Tom Davis in the late 1970s for a similar role — drumming up interest in a program.
“It was his ability to coordinate and get people to join him,” Davis says. “He had students painting signs and posters, knocking on dorm room doors, getting fans to dress up in costumes.”
But it’s another trait that may help Pearl rebuild at Auburn. Davis gave Pearl his first full-time coaching job and brought his protege to Iowa as an assistant in the late '80s. After a heated recruiting battle over Deon Thomas, Pearl reported Illinois to the NCAA for violations in 1989. The incident and the stigma of reporting another program likely cost Pearl a shot at more high-profile jobs. He settled for a head-coaching gig at Division II Southern Indiana, where he went 231–46 and won one national title in nine seasons.
“He’s a tough-minded guy,” Davis says. “He’s got mental toughness, which you need to bounce back.”
The reclamation project Pearl is now singularly focused on is the one at Auburn, where he says all the resources are in place for a turnaround.
The arena is new. The facilities are on par with other programs in the league. And while the SEC produced three teams in the Sweet 16 in 2014, the league’s pecking order after Kentucky and Florida is wide open.
“If I don’t get this done, it’s on me,” Pearl says. “It’s not on Auburn.”
Kentucky and Florida are the clear giants in this league while everyone else is just trying to claw their way into that second tier. The Wildcats and Gators finished last season in the Final Four, but Kentucky didn’t look the part of a title contender until the SEC Tournament.
There were signs of the rest of the SEC pulling out of its doldrums, though. Tennessee went 11-7 in the league but advanced from the First Four to the Sweet 16. Arkansas swept the season series with Kentucky, LSU and South Carolina both defeated the Wildcats at home, and Georgia finished 12-6 in the league.
The question is if any of those programs can maintain that momentum. LSU and Arkansas are under pressure to end NCAA Tournament droughts while Tennessee will be in a rebuilding year under first-year coach Donnie Tyndall.
Aside from Kentucky and Florida, though, the main storyline in the SEC may be the return of Bruce Pearl. He’s taking over one of the toughest jobs in the conference at Auburn, and progress is sure to be slow in Year One. But he’s a proven winner in this league. Sooner rather than later, he could have the Tigers in rare position to challenge for an NCAA bid.
Previews of every SEC team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
SEC 2014-15 Preseason Picks
1. Kentucky (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA champion
The return of the Harrison twins and the arrival of another elite recruiting class makes Kentucky the easy choice in the SEC.
2. Florida (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Elite Eight
Michael Frazier II, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker are the next wave of Gator stars.
3. Arkansas (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
There’s no excuse for this Arkansas team not to make the NCAA Tournament. Mike Anderson has the right pieces in place.
4. LSU (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
Johnny Jones has stocked his roster with high-level talent; it’s now time to breakthrough with an NCAA Tournament bid.
Postseason projection: NIT
The Dawgs boast one of the league’s top backcourts but remain very thin on the front line.
6. Texas A&M
Postseason projection: NIT
The Billy Kennedy era has not gone as planned, but the Aggies have a roster that’s could enough to flirt with an NCAA Tournament bid.
7. Ole Miss
Postseason projection: NIT
Sideshow Marshall has moved on — which might not be a bad thing. The Rebels will lean on Jarvis Summers and some quality young bigs.
Postseason projection: NIT
Guards Levi Randolph and Ricky Tarrant (transfer from Tulane) and forward Shannon Hale form a solid nucleus in Tuscaloosa.
Frank Haith bolted for the more secure waters of Tulsa — and left new Mizzou boss Kim Anderson with a rebuilding project.
Kevin Stallings will surround talented big man Damian Jones with three freshmen on the perimeter.
Donnie Tyndall’s rebuilt roster will be strong on the perimeter but woefully thin in the paint.
Bruce Pearl’s first Auburn team will feature two of the league’s best scorers — KT Harrell and Niagara transfer Antoine Mason.
13. South Carolina
Sindarius Thornwell is a top-level talent, but the Gamecocks still lack the talent to make a big move in the SEC.
14. Mississippi State
Rick Ray continues to recruit well, but this program is at least a year way from thinking about the postseason.
2014 SEC Superlatives
Player of the Year: Jordan Mickey, LSU
LSU expects Mickey to take a more active role in the offense with Johnny O’Bryant III gone. He’s already a defensive force, joining Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in LSU’s 100-block club.
Best Defensive Player: Josh Richardson, Tennessee
Richardson will go from being a lockdown defender on a Sweet 16 team to the focal point of the team. He’s the Vols’ only returning starter and the only player who has scored more than 10 points in a league game.
Most Underrated Player: Josh Gray, LSU
Gray won’t be the most highly touted new face in the league or even the most highly touted transfer. But he will be the point guard of a potential NCAA Tournament team. Arriving from Texas Tech via junior college, Gray takes over for Anthony Hickey after averaging 33.8 points per game in JUCO.
Newcomer of the Year: Karl Towns, Kentucky
Kentucky will have a crowd in the frontcourt, but Towns is a likely pick to be a regular. The 6-11 forward is a potential top-five draft pick who can do a little bit of everything.
Top Coach: John Calipari (full SEC coach rankings)
G Michael Frazier II, Florida
G Charles Mann, Georgia
G Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
F Jordan Mickey, LSU
F Bobby Portis, Arkansas
G Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
F Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
F Chris Walker, Florida
C Karl Towns, Kentucky
C Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
G Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss
G Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
G Josh Richardson, Tennessee
F Jarell Martin, LSU
F Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
The NBA season begins tonight when the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs tip off at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. Simultaneously the New Orleans Pelicans, starring Anthony Davis — the best young player in the game, and a potential MVP candidate — will take on the rookie-rich Orlando Magic.
Here's a guide to the best games of the week. Let’s take a look at how we see things unfolding from there.
Eastern Conference Predictions
1. Chicago Bulls, 61-21
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t take anything lightly. Whether the Bulls are title contenders might be up for debate, but there’s little question that Chicago will be disciplined, driven, studied-up and talented enough to collect tons of wins as a well-oiled machine in the regular season.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers, 60-24
The Cavs have plenty of questions to answer about experience, rim protection and rotation issues. But there’s arguably more offensive firepower on this squad than any other in league history. Most teams will watch Cleveland sprint past them.
3. Washington Wizards, 54-28
Paul Pierce joins the nasty young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal to make for a daunting Eastern foe, now as capable of breaking down your will with head games as they are with pure speed. Add in the biggest, meanest front court rotation in the conference, and you’ve got a team that nobody wants to deal with.
4. Toronto Raptors, 53-29
The Raptors, low key, have built perhaps the deepest rotation in basketball. Led by Kyle Lowry, and Team USA guard DeMar DeRozan, Toronto also has two youngsters — in big man Jonas Valanciunas and former Slam Dunk Contest champion Terrence Ross — who are both ready to take the jump.
5. Charlotte Hornets, 51-32
6. Atlanta Hawks, 43-41
7. Miami Heat, 39-43
8. New York Knicks, 39-43
The phrase “playoff team” is made somewhat misleading by the huge discrepancy in competitive quality between the Eastern and Western conferences. But the Knicks, who now have some much-longed-for direction under new executive Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher, will now technically fit that bill.
9. Brooklyn Nets, 38-44
10. Detroit Pistons, 36-46
11. Milwaukee Bucks, 28-54
12. Orlando Magic, 27-55
The crown for most watchable Eastern Conference losers goes to the Magic. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is a visionary passer, while his first-year associate Aaron Gordon is a couple of months of development away from being one of the game’s most exciting aerial acrobats.
13. Indiana Pacers, 28-54
14. Boston Celtics, 21-60
15. Philadelphia 76ers, 14-68
Western Conference Predictions
1. San Antonio Spurs, 61-22
The Spurs, like the Bulls, are simply run too well not to gallop easily through the regular season. Don’t expect a motivational hangover after their triumphant, era-destroying championship takedown of the Miami Heat. Gregg Popovich and Co. simply don’t do “lowering the bar.”
2. Los Angeles Clippers, 59-25
In their second year under coach Doc Rivers, title expectations are an undeniable part of today’s Clippers. We know we’ll get MVP-worthy seasons from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but if DeAndre Jordan can make the jump offensively — in addition to his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy — it will make L.A. scary to everyone.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder, 55-28
The Thunder start the season with injuries to not only reigning MVP Kevin Durant, but also to guards Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow and Jeremy Lamb. They’ll hobble a bit at first, but there’s too much winning continuity (and too much Russell Westbrook) for them to ever fall too far in the standings.
4. Memphis Grizzlies, 53-29
The Grizzlies won 50 games last year, despite a 23-game absence from their best player Marc Gasol. Expect them to fight to a slightly better record as they rest Gasol and Zach Randolph more and face an improved conference.
5. Golden State Warriors, 52-30
New coach Steve Kerr is implementing smart new strategies in Oakland, including giving Andrew Bogut more range in the offense and turning Andre Iguodala into the indisputable best Sixth Man in the league — a move that also gets the most out of the shaky Harrison Barnes, who will start in Iggy’s place.
6. Houston Rockets, 51-31
The Rockets lost depth over the summer, but they also added some very needed defensive edge on the perimeter by acquiring Trevor Ariza from the Wizards. They should take only a small step back from last year’s 54-win run.
7. Dallas Mavericks, 49-34
8. Phoenix Suns, 48-35
9. New Orleans Pelicans, 44-38
10. Portland Trailblazers, 43-37
Portland was shockingly healthy last year, running out their integral starting five for all but 12 games of the season. They also won a number of coin-toss games, making clutch shots deep. Expect both patterns to slow a bit and for the Blazers to regress to the mean as they just miss the postseason.
11. Denver Nuggets, 38-44
12. Sacramento Kings, 37-46
13. Los Angeles Lakers 32-51
14. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
15. Utah Jazz 28-60
Most Improved Player: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond showed good stuff with Team USA over the summer, and he’ll thrive to Dwight Howard-esque levels of paint-owning under the tutelage of new coach Stan Van Gundy.
Sixth Man of the Year: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
So long as coach Kerr sticks to his decision to bring Mr. Iguodala off the bench, he’s a lock for these honors. Many don’t know it — since Andre’s impact happens so much in the non-box-score margins — but this man is one of the best players in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Dwight Howard’s been written off as a weak-willed, fart-loving nincompoop, and the basketball world is all the worse for it. Superman’s 2014-15 return to unspeakable dominance of the restricted area, however, will be undeniable.
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker gets to the rim with the authority of a veteran, and easily finds space for his shots away from the basket too. He has that rare, hard-to-explain quality best dubbed as “getting a lot of buckets.” He’ll be ahead of his class for at least a season.
Coach of the Year: Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Juggling the many members of the Raptors’ ensemble is tough, complex work, and Casey will get his respect this year creating the best possible monster out of Toronto’s diverse crew.
MVP: Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
With LeBron James set to coast on limited minutes in Cleveland and Kevin Durant out with a Jones fracture, this honor opens up for last year’s third-highest vote-getter to grab the cup.
Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
Chicago Bulls vs. (8) New York Knicks
Bulls in five.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Miami Heat
This dramatically rich showdown will revolve around Cleveland’s inability to stop Chris Bosh on the block — assuming he gets back to his backdown ways in 2014-15. But even exploiting that hole won’t be enough for the Heat to take down this juggernaut.
Cavaliers in six.
(3) Washington Wizards vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
Wizards in five.
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Charlotte Hornets
The Raptors have too many earholes for new Hornet Lance Stephenson to get his spittle into.
Raptors in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (4) Toronto Raptors
Bulls in five.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Washington Wizards
The Wizards’ bruising big men will again bring the Cavs’ weak interior into question, but LeBron should be able to revive his inside game enough to push things Cleveland’s way.
Cavaliers in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
This could be the series of the year. But expect the Bulls to finally take LeBron’s cake as Derrick Rose has, in Pau Gasol, his first teammate who can bear more of the offensive burden and open up the floor for Chicago.
Bulls in seven.
Western Conference Playoff Predictions
San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Phoenix Suns
Spurs in five.
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Clippers in six.
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Houston Rockets
A healthy Thunder team will still struggle to get to Dwight Howard’s rim, but they ultimately have too much shooting and open-court brilliance for Houston to handle.
Rockets in six.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Grizzlies are always the bridesmaids, never the brides. Were they the other conference, they might make the Finals. But here they’ll fall to one of the best teams in basketball.
Warriors in six.
San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors lost a frenzied, thrilling six-game series to the Spurs in 2013. The young, über-talented team won’t let it happen again, and will have enough to send the champs home packing.
Warriors in six
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Thunder in six.
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Thunder aren’t letting their title window close like this. Westbrook and Durant will turn it up to an unmatchable level to make sure of it.
Thunder in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Peak Derrick Rose was never equalized by anyone as well as he was by Russell Westbrook. And as ferocious a defender as Jimmy Butler is, he can’t pack a punch tough enough to knock out Durant.
Thunder in six.
— John Wilmes
Johnny Jones entered his second season in Baton Rouge with a once-dormant fanbase buzzing at the return of All-SEC junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III and the addition of coveted in-state recruit Jarell Martin, a McDonald’s All-American in 2013.
Add in high-flying freshman Jordan Mickey in the post with diminutive guards Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer manning the outside, many pundits pegged 2013 as the year the Tigers would return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence.
But shoddy road defense coupled with the expected growing pains for its freshman duo limited the Tigers as they limped to a 9–9 record in a mediocre SEC, including a 2–7 mark on the road.
A marquee 87–82 home win against eventual national runner-up Kentucky gave fans parched for success a quick glimpse of what Jones’ team could have been, but a second round exit in the NIT showed the Tigers’ shortcomings.
Jones heads into 2014 without O’Bryant, who was selected by the Bucks in the second round of the NBA Draft and Hickey, a three-year starter at point guard who transferred to Oklahoma State after being suspended several times during Jones’ first two seasons.
The LSU edition is one of dozens available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere now.
Without O’Bryant bullying in the paint, Jones speculates many teams will deploy defenses tailored to stopping his sophomore duo of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin.
Martin had his progress hindered by an early season ankle injury, but he rebounded to become a consistent force at both power forward and on the wing. Twelve of his 18 double-figure scoring games came down the stretch in the SEC and he garnered a spot alongside Mickey on the All-SEC Freshman Team. Mickey became only the second player in LSU history to block 100 shots in a season — joining Shaquille O’Neal. With O’Bryant no longer around, Mickey will be a much larger part of the Tigers’ offense as a sophomore.
Jones added 7-1 freshman Elbert Robinson III, who has trimmed to a svelte 288 pounds after playing at 300 in high school. He looks to be a promising addition inside to take attention away from Mickey and Martin.
LSU Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 20-14, 9-9 SEC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2009
Coach: Johnny Jones (39-26 overall at LSU, 18-18 SEC)
SEC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 64
With Hickey out of the fold, Jones will turn to two transfers to stabilize the perimeter and complement his potent inside game. Josh Gray, who averaged 33.8 points per game in 2013 at Odessa (Texas) College after starting his career at Texas Tech, appears to be Hickey’s heir apparent at point guard.
“Josh has the ability to create off the dribble, score from outside, and he can get to the rim because of his ball handling skills,” Jones says. “He would certainly be the quarterback for our team. I was very impressed with his ability to lead his team (at Odessa), and I think he can bring those same qualities to our program.”
Alongside Gray is UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby, who practiced with the Tigers last season. Hornsby made quite the impression on Jones, who called the son of legendary jazz musician Bruce Hornsby the hardest worker he’d ever been around in 30 years. Hornsby, a bruising 210-pounder, fits into Jones’ style as a wing.
“He just happens to be bigger and stronger than what we’ve had at that position the last few years,” Jones says. “He’s one of those guys that can really elevate, get in the paint area and score. Great catch-and-shoot guy off ball screens as well.”
Sophomore Tim Quarterman, a lanky 6-6 guard who served as Hickey’s backup last season, returns as one of the team’s best full court defenders. Freshmen Aaron Epps and Jalyn Patterson will also jockey for time.
LSU was clearly a disappointment last season, but the Tigers still boast one of the most talented rosters in the league. The frontcourt features two emerging stars in Mickey and Martin, and the backcourt has been bolstered by the two veteran transfers. There is, however, a lack of proven depth.
Jones, who played for Dale Brown at LSU in the early 1980s, has recruited very well in his two years at his alma mater — the No. 1 player in the Class of 2015, Ben Simmons, has committed to LSU — but the Tigers have yet to break the .500 mark in the SEC during his tenure. That needs to change if LSU hopes to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008-09.
Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby will anchor the Tigers’ scoring on the perimeter, replacing two veteran guards who had been in Johnny Jones’ system for two years. Elbert Robinson III and Brian Bridgewater will provide support inside while freshmen Jalyn Patterson and Aaron Epps will contend for playing time in the backcourt.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for October 28:
• Jimmy Fallon can get anybody to do anything. He got Charles Barkley, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Tweedy to play Charades.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The SEC West intra-division carnage continued this past weekend as Ole Miss fell to LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday night.
The loss dropped the Rebels five spots to No. 8 in the Legends Poll. And their consolation prize? Auburn comes to town next week.
Rival Mississippi State passed another test at Kentucky this weekend, 38-24, and retained its No. 1 ranking.
No. 2 Florida State was idle.
Third-ranked Alabama picked up two first-place votes, gaining ground on both Mississippi State and Florida State, following its win at Tennessee.
Auburn and Oregon rounded out the top 5.
No. 6 Michigan State knocked off archival Michigan and moved up two spots.
Notre Dame remained at No. 7, followed by Ole Miss.
|1||Mississippi State (10)||7-0||101||1|
|2||Florida State (1)||7-0||86||2|
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. ET. Typically the quietest of the four major sports’ deadline days, it’s possible that the biggest deal that will be made this season has already occurred. Seattle sent wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Jets for a conditional 2015 draft pick on Oct. 18. While the complete ramifications of this deal are still to be determined, in-season trades involving Pro Bowl-caliber players are the exception rather than the norm in today’s NFL.
This lack of perceived blockbuster trades, however, does not prevent any fan or knowledgeable follower of the sport from playing armchair general manager. To that end, here are some NFL trades we would love to see happen, but fully acknowledge the reality that these proposals will never come to fruition. Again, the point of this exercise is to have some fun at the expense of ignoring things such as current health, contracts, teams’ salary cap situations, roster makeup and, most importantly, what it would take to acquire these players in the first place.
Ndamukong Suh to Dallas
Of all the ideas proposed here, this one may actually make the most sense. For starters, Suh will be a free agent after this season and he’s already expressed an interest in playing elsewhere. While Dallas doesn’t appear to be the city atop his wish list (New York), do you think Suh would say no to a chance to play for the most recognized franchise in the NFL and one that, just like the Lions, is sitting at 6-2 atop its division?
For the Cowboys this makes total sense, as Suh is an All-Pro defensive tackle that would give Rod Marinelli’s defense the impact player it is sorely missing. Dallas’ success thus far is largely a byproduct of a clock-chewing, run-heavy offense that has kept a patchwork defense from getting too exposed. The Cowboys lack star power and playmakers on defense and Suh would fit both bills. A defensive tackle, Suh has 3.5 sacks while Dallas' entire defense has nine in eight games. This also would give Suh eight games to showcase his abilities to potential suitors around the league, including one particular owner who has very deep pockets and also serves as the general manager.
Vincent Jackson to New England
Tampa Bay is 1-6, pretty much already eliminating the Buccaneers from playoff contention even with nine games left. Again, not knowing what New England would be willing to give up to acquire a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver like Jackson, it’s certainly fun to picture him with the Patriots, no? After stumbling some out of the gates, Bill Belichick’s team has won four in a row and is considered a pretty safe bet to win its 11th AFC East title in the last 12 seasons.
However, in New England the goal isn’t just to win division crowns. And for these Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, Tom Brady sure could use an established vertical threat like Jackson. Right now the closest thing Brady has is Brandon LaFell, who is averaging 15.4 yards per catch. But LaFell has never caught more than 49 passes in a season while Jackson has five 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, along with 448 career receptions and 54 touchdowns. Jackson is averaging 17.2 yards per catch in his career and his best seasons came when he was in San Diego and had Philip Rivers as his quarterback. You don’t think Jackson and Brady couldn’t do some damage together?
Jay Cutler to Tennessee
Chicago signed Cutler to a seven-year, $126 million contract extension in January. So clearly money is a big factor when it comes to Cutler changing teams anytime soon. But for the moment, let’s say that contract doesn’t exist. Cutler first made a name for himself when he earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2005 as a senior at Vanderbilt. After three seasons in Denver, Cutler was traded to Chicago and has had his shares of highs and lows in both uniforms.
Despite Cutler’s struggles, there’s no denying his athletic ability and strong arm, tools that Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt would probably love to get his hands on. In his first season leading the Titans, Whisenhunt has used three different quarterbacks – Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and this past Sunday rookie Zach Mettenberger – and of this trio only Mettenberger seems to have a realistic shot of an extended stay with the team. Prior to coming to Tennessee, Whisenhunt served as San Diego’s offensive coordinator. In one season, he helped Philip Rivers go from a turnover-prone (NFL-high 22 in 2012) quarterback to a Pro Bowl signal-caller (4,478-32-11) on a playoff team. Cutler’s no stranger to Nashville and Whisenhunt’s got a pretty good track record when it comes to coaching signal-callers. Would this duo be a hit in Music City? There’s only one way to find out.
C.J. Spiller to Indianapolis
Spiller broke his collarbone a week ago and won’t be eligible to return until Week 16, but for the sake of this argument, he’s completely healthy and still playing. The No. 9 overall pick of the 2010 draft, Spiller rushed for 1,244 yards two seasons ago, but has really yet to live up to the hype surrounding him after a record-setting collegiate career at Clemson. Spiller has breakaway speed and more than enough athleticism to make him a legitimate big-play threat, but he’s also been nicked up by various injuries throughout his career.
For whatever reason, it just hasn’t completely worked out in Buffalo, so perhaps a change of scenery would do the pending free agent some good. Enter Indianapolis, a team that could desperately use a change-of-pace running back like Spiller. Trent Richardson has been better in his first full season with the Colts, but he certainly hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status (No. 3 overall, 2012), and as productive as Ahmad Bradshaw has been (8 total TDs), he doesn’t possess the speed and explosiveness that Spiller does. Andrew Luck is already one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Just imagine how much more dangerous Luck and Indianapolis’ offense could be if it were to add a versatile, all-purpose dynamo like Spiller.
Johnny Manziel to Houston
To this point, Manziel’s playing time during his rookie season has consisted of one token appearance on a trick play where he caught a pass, which was nullified by a penalty. For better or worse, head coach Mike Pettine seems committed to sticking with Brian Hoyer as his quarterback. That means, for our purposes, that Manziel is available for relocation.
There are several teams out there that need a quarterback and as appealing as some of those options are for different reasons (Johnny Football in the Silver and Black!), the one that makes the most sense is Houston. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback for the Texans and no one knows if former New England backup Ryan Mallett or fourth-round pick Tom Savage are either. Bill O’Brien has had some pretty good success with quarterbacks during his coaching career, including some guy named Tom Brady, so why not make Manziel his newest project. Manziel’s already enjoyed a fair amount of success in Texas, why can’t history repeat itself? And how ironic would it be if Manziel were to accomplish this with the Texans instead of the Cowboys?
And one more to chew on…
Robert Griffin III to Philadelphia
So do I have your attention now? RG3 has yet to get back on the field since dislocating his ankle in Week 2, but it’s also safe to say that the honeymoon is over for the second pick of the 2012 draft. Since winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and leading Washington to the NFC East title his first season, Griffin has gone 4-11 as a starter with more turnovers (17 total) than touchdowns (16). Rookie head coach Jay Gruden has yet to fully endorse Griffin as his quarterback, so why not speculate where he could wind up should he become available?
After taking the NFL by storm in his first season, Chip Kelly’s Eagles have not been near as productive on offense to this point. Some of this can be attributed to the erratic play of Nick Foles. In his first full season as the starter, Foles has already thrown more interceptions (nine) in seven games than the two picks he had in 13 contests last season. Foles doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the dual-threat quarterbacks that ran Kelly’s offense so successfully at Oregon. While everyone has already opined about Marcus Mariota reuniting with Kelly in the NFL next season, the reality is that the Eagles probably won’t be positioned high enough in the draft to take a guy who is among this season’s leading Heisman Trophy contenders.
That’s where Griffin comes in. RG3 didn’t play for Kelly in college, but he did excel in a similar offensive system at Baylor, one that let him fully showcase his throwing and running abilities. As a rookie in the NFL, Griffin also was highly successful running an offense that used a lot of zone-read option looks, as evidenced by his 815 yards rushing to go along with 3,200 yards passing. Griffin hasn’t been the same quarterback since tearing the ACL and LCL in his right knee for a second time in the Jan. 2013 playoff loss to Seattle. While he may never be as dynamic and explosive as he was in his prime at Baylor and as a rookie; one can’t help but wonder how Griffin would fare running Kelly’s offense, a system that on paper appears to be tailor-made for RG3’s skill set. Besides, it’s not like the Eagles and Redskins haven’t “traded” players recently, right? At least this time, Kelly probably wouldn’t have to worry about this ex-Redskin not being a team player.
Week 9 may represent the halfway point of the NFL season, but in fantasy football it’s where things really start to get interesting. For starters, the fantasy playoffs are creeping closer with every passing week, which means every game is critical. Add to this the fact that six teams are on bye in Weeks 9 and 10 and it’s shaping up to be one busy week of moves and maneuvers.
Roster depth and management skills will certainly be put to the test this week not only because of injuries but also due to the fact that guys like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Forté, Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and many others are not available.
Athlon Sports is here to help you sort through some of the potential free agent options. The players listed in our weekly fantasy football waiver wire may be one-week adds, some may be worth holding on to all season long and some are of the “sleeper” variety that you may simply want to keep an eye on.
Teams on bye: Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Tennessee
Week 8 Recap: Carson Palmer threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona’s come-from-behind win against Philadelphia. Both of Palmer’s touchdown passes were 75 yards or longer, with the game-winner to John Brown coming with 1:21 left in the game. Palmer has appealing matchups (at Dallas, St. Louis) on tap for those who have bye-week issues to deal with.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton has been mentioned in this space before, but with 12 teams on bye over the next two weeks, quarterback help may be a little harder to come by. While his numbers are down compared to last season, Dalton is still a top-20 fantasy QB in terms of points and he’s got pretty decent matchups the next two weeks – home against Jacksonville and Cleveland. Dalton also should get All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green back pretty soon, perhaps as early as this week. Remember, of the 19 QBs currently ahead of Dalton in fantasy points, eight of them will be going on bye in the next two weeks.
Michael Vick, New York Jets
Geno Smith was awful, to say the least, on Sunday against the Bills. Before getting pulled, Smith had more interceptions (three) than completions (two). Vick took over and while his numbers left much to be desired (18-of-36, 153 yards, INT, 49.9 passer rating), he led the team in rushing (69 yards on eight carries) and got the Jets to within a touchdown at halftime. Vick also lost two fumbles, but Rex Ryan has already named Vick as his starter for this week’s game in Kansas City. So with several sure-fire fantasy starting QBs (Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler) on bye, you have to at least consider Vick over some of the other fill-in options, right? For example, are you really going to rely on rookies Derek Carr (at SEA), Blake Bortles (at CIN) or even Teddy Bridgewater (vs. WAS)?
Other possible fill-in options*: Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill
Week 8 Recap: Denard Robinson posted his second straight 100-yard rushing game (16 att., 108 yds.), as one of the few bright spots for the Jaguars. Robinson fared considerably better than either Tre Mason (7 att., 32 yds.), Anthony Dixon (22 att., 44 yds.) or Bryce Brown (7 att., 15 yds.), who struggled to get anything going on Sunday.
Travaris Cadet and Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Ingram (right) was highlighted in this space last week and that was before he gashed Green Bay for 172 yards (7.2 ypc) and a touchdown. If Ingram is still available, he should be added immediately. Cadet meanwhile could prove to be a sneaky pickup, as Pierre Thomas (shoulder) is out for at least another game or two and the short turnaround for Thursday’s game against Carolina doesn’t appear to benefit Khiry Robinson’s (foot) injury situation. Cadet got just one carry (7 yards) Sunday night, but he was targeted five times, finishing with four catches for 40 yards. With so many running backs on bye, Cadet could be an intriguing flex fill-in option, especially in PPR leagues.
Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard left yesterday’s win over Baltimore with a hip injury. Bernard is pretty banged up right now so even if he doesn’t miss any time, he may see a decrease in his touches. To that end, Hill’s 10 carries Sunday were only the second time he had topped double digits this season (15 in Week 2). He’s averaging less than four yards per carry, but does have three rushing touchdowns. Hill’s numbers should go up with more opportunities, which is certainly possible given Bernard’s growing list of bumps and bruises.
Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin hurt his ankle in the third quarter of Sunday’s overtime loss to Minnesota, adding yet another bump in the second-year player’s road. Even when he’s managed to stay on the field, Martin has been ineffective at best, averaging less than three yards per carry with one touchdown. Rainey figures to be next man up, as he’s leading the team in rushing with 287 yards (4.6 ypc) and is third in receptions (22). Sims, however, is the potential wild card. The Buccaneers’ third-round pick, Sims fractured his ankle during the preseason and has been out since. He returned to practice last week and with Martin’s uncertain status, Sims could get some touches sooner rather than later. Described as a Matt Forté clone when he was drafted, Sims was touted coming out of West Virginia (started collegiate career at Houston) for his pass-catching ability. If anything, Sims is worth a stash, especially if your league has an injured reserve (IR) slot.
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
Carolina hosts New Orleans on Thursday and for the first time in a while, the Panthers may have a crowded backfield. Williams, who has missed all but two games because of ankle injuries, is expected to return to action this week. This muddies the outlook for Stewart, who missed three games because of a sprained knee but has rushed for 129 yards since his Week 7 return. Carolina loves to run the ball and would prefer to have its backs carry the load rather than quarterback Cam Newton. Even though Stewart and Williams figure to split the carries (as long as the other doesn’t get hurt again), they still could provide RB2/flex-worthy production, especially considering the Panthers’ upcoming matchups (NO, at PHI).
Other possible fill-in options*: Andre Williams, Darren McFadden, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Carlos Hyde
Week 8 Recap: Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks with six catches for 61 yards while Jermaine Kearse was limited to just two grabs for 15 yards. Mike Evans paced the Buccaneers with 78 yards on four receptions, while Jarvis Landry caught three balls for 23 yards.
John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
A third-round pick from Division II Pittsburg State, Brown leads the Cardinals with four touchdown receptions, which is as many as Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have combined. On Sunday, Brown caught five passes for 119 yards, including the game-winning, 75-yard touchdown strike from Carson Palmer, to help Arizona get by Philadelphia on Sunday. Even with Fitzgerald and Floyd around, Brown has averaged seven targets and 67.7 yards receiving over the last three games. The big-play ability is clearly there, as well as a developing chemistry between the young Cardinal wideout and his quarterback. With a steady diet of targets, Brown could develop into a second-half fantasy surprise.
Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown is an absolute stud, and Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller (see below) have to be accounted for, but Bryant has made quite the first impression as a rookie. Held out of the first six games because of a preseason hamstring injury, Bryant now has three touchdowns in his first two career games. Two of those came on Sunday, as Bryant (5-83-2) played a big part in Ben Roethlisberger’s record-setting (522, 6 TDs) performance against Indianapolis. Wheaton has struggled to produce consistently, which helped open the door for Bryant to get involved right away. The speedy fourth-round pick from Clemson has already shown what he brings to the table, and it’s highly likely there’s more big plays to come.
Donte Moncrief, Indianapolis Colts
Reggie Wayne missed Sunday’s game because of an elbow injury and it’s possible he could be out again this week. Hakeem Nicks got the start in place of Wayne, but it was Moncrief who shined with more playing time. The Colts’ third-round pick, Moncrief’s contributions were minimal to start, but he busted out in a big way on Sunday. He was targeted a team-high 12 times, catching seven of those for 113 yards and a touchdown. Even when Wayne returns, Moncrief could replace Nicks as Indianapolis’ No. 3 wide receiver, as the rookie boasts more big-play ability and athleticism than the veteran. And being the third wideout in the league’s most pass-happy offense is not exactly the worst situation to be in fantasy-wise.
Other possible fill-in options*: Brandon LaFell, Odell Beckham Jr., Andre Holmes, Cecil Shorts, Dwayne Bowe, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones
Week 8 Recap: Charles Clay followed up the best game of the season with his worst effort – one catch for one yard.
Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
The wily old veteran had a nice outing on Sunday – season-high 112 yards with a touchdown. While he may not be as productive as in years past, Miller is still one of Ben Roethlisberger’s most trusted targets. And the more looks Miller gets, the better his numbers have been. In the three games where’s he gotten at least seven targets, Miller has averaged seven receptions for 77.3 yards and both of his touchdowns. He’s still a top-10 fantasy TE, which is an asset that will be in short supply these next two weeks with so many teams on bye.
Other possible fill-in options*: Larry Donnell, Austin Seferian- Jenkins, Jace Amaro, Coby Fleener
Week 8 Recap: Indianapolis’ DST did recover two fumbles and blocked a poorly executed punt by Ben Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, the Colts also gave up 522 yards passing and six touchdowns to Big Ben, as the Steelers piled up 639 total yards and put up 51 points (43 allowed by the DST) on Sunday.
The Bengals’ DST has been a fantasy disappointment in many ways (total of -1 points in Weeks 5 and 6 combined), but there’s still plenty of time for this unit to redeem itself. For starters, this DST did post double-digit fantasy points in each of the first three weeks and has forced four turnovers over the last two games. Then there’s the matter of this week’s matchup with Jacksonville. The Jaguars are giving up the most fantasy points (17 per game) to opposing DSTs, including 30 on Sunday to the Dolphins. Blake Bortles leads the NFL in interceptions (12) even though he’s played in just six games and he has had four of them returned for touchdowns. Forget bye-week fill-in, I could make an argument that the Bengals are a must-start DST this week.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs had a sack party Sunday against the Rams, bringing Austin Davis down seven times. They also picked off one pass and got a 99-yard kickoff return from Knile Davis to finish with 21 fantasy points, tied for second behind Miami (30 pts). For the season, the Chiefs are tied for fourth in the NFL with 24 sacks and with a few more turnovers (5 total) would be a more productive fantasy DST. The good news is that next up is a Jets team that coughed it up six times (4 INTs, 2 fumbles) and gave up four sacks to the Bills on Sunday. After the Jets, Kansas City draws Buffalo in Week 10. Given the Bills’ backfield woes, the Chiefs’ DST may be worth keeping around for a few weeks.
Other possible fill-in options*: Baltimore, Arizona, Miami, Cleveland
Scoring is based on Athlon Sports default scoring which is 6 points for all TDs, .5 points per reception and 1 point PER 25 yards passing, 10 yards rushing/receiving and 40 return yards.
*Players owned in less than 70% of Yahoo! leagues.
College football’s playoff committee will release its first set of rankings on Tuesday, Oct. 28. After months of intrigue and waiting, this release should give the college football world some insight into what the committee values in its first season.
Each week, Athlon Sports hopes to replicate the playoff committee’s work by asking some of college football’s top media members to vote on their top eight teams. This poll will attempt to project how the playoff picture stacks up after each week until the end of the year.
Bobby Bowden (@TheBobbyBowden), Legends Poll
Gene Stallings, (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Don Nehlen (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Zac Ellis (@ZacEllis), Sports Illustrated
David Fox (@DavidFox615), Athlon Sports
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis), Fox Sports
Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey), SBNation.com
Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB), SportsonEarth.com
Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello), Campus Insiders
Brad Crawford (@BCrawfordSDS), SaturdayDownSouth.com
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247), Eersports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
Adam Powell (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch) Athlon Sports
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Post-Week 9 Playoff Projection
Takeaways From Expert Poll Results
* Mississippi State and Florida State are the clear frontrunners in this week’s playoff vote. The Seminoles are 42 points ahead of No. 3 Alabama.
* Mississippi State received 17 first-place votes to just four to Florida State.
* Alabama received three second-place votes and received 107 total points. That’s a significant advantage in comparison to Ole Miss – the team the Crimson Tide lost to earlier this year.
* Oregon rejoins the top four after dropping out following a loss to Arizona.
* Five SEC teams received votes, with four of those programs ranking inside of the top six.
* Mississippi State and Florida State did not rank lower than third in this week’s poll.
Group of 5 Rankings
One team from the Group of 5 conferences - American Athletic, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt - will play in one of college football's premier (New Year's Bowls) each season.
1. East Carolina
Despite a sluggish showing against UConn, the Pirates remain in the driver’s seat for the Group of 5 spot. East Carolina defeated the Huskies 31-21 last Thursday and play three of its next five games on the road. The Pirates play at Temple on Saturday, followed by a date at Cincinnati on Nov. 13.
The Thundering Herd used 21 unanswered points in the second half to defeat FAU 35-16 on Saturday. Marshall is on bye this Saturday and ends the year with matchups against Southern Miss, Rice, UAB and Western Kentucky. Expect the Thundering Herd to be a double-digit favorite in all four of their remaining games.
3. Boise State
Colorado State might be the hottest team in the Mountain West, but let’s give Boise State an edge for the No. 3 spot in the Group 5 of rankings due to its head-to-head victory on Sept. 6. The Broncos won their third consecutive game by defeating BYU 55-30 on Friday night and have a bye this Saturday before taking on New Mexico on Nov. 8.
4. Colorado State
The Rams have not lost since their Sept. 6 trip to Boise State, and coach Jim McElwain’s team is on the cusp of being ranked in the Associated Press poll (No. 26 – 29 votes). Colorado State plays at San Jose State this Saturday, followed by games against Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force to close out 2014. The Rams need a little help to reach the Mountain West title game, as a Week 2 loss to Boise State is the tiebreaker for the top spot in the Mountain Division.
Key Games With Playoff Implications in Week 9
Florida State at Louisville
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Remember Florida State’s last trip to Louisville? The Cardinals won 26-20 in 2002. The chess match between the Seminoles’ offense and Louisville’s defense should be an intriguing affair. The Cardinals also seem to be finding their stride on offense, especially with a healthy Michael Dyer at running back and DeVante Parker at receiver.
East Carolina at Temple
Noon ET, ESPNEWS
Can the Owls slow down East Carolina’s high-powered offense? Temple has allowed only seven passing touchdowns this year, but its offense has lost 17 turnovers.
Duke at Pittsburgh
Noon ET, ESPNU
Are the Blue Devils the frontrunner in the Coastal Division? Pittsburgh needs to win this one to stay alive in the division after struggling with turnovers against Georgia Tech last week.
North Carolina at Miami
12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Believe it or not, North Carolina controls its destiny in the Coastal Division.
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville)
3:30 p.m. ET
The Bulldogs hope to add to the Gators’ misery with a win in the annual neutral site matchup in Jacksonville. Georgia also hopes to add running back Todd Gurley back into the mix after he missed the last two games due to a suspension.
TCU at West Virginia
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2
The Big 12’s newest members meet in a critical matchup for positioning within the conference. The Mountaineers and Horned Frogs are a combined 12-3 after finishing 8-16 last year.
Auburn at Ole Miss
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ole Miss’ rush defense was pounded by LSU for 264 yards in last week’s loss. This defense will be pressured again on the ground by Auburn’s offense (281 yards per game) and won’t have standout linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (fractured ankle). Is it possible this game is an elimination match for playoff hopes?
Arkansas at Mississippi State
7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
With a matchup against Arkansas, followed by a home date against Tennessee-Martin on Nov. 8, Mississippi State should be 9-0 headed into a Nov. 15 road trip to Alabama.
Notre Dame at Navy
8 p.m. ET, CBS
The Fighting Irish won by just four points last season, but Brian Kelly’s team should benefit from having two weeks to prepare for the Midshipmen.
Oklahoma State at Kansas State
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Wildcats emerging as favorite in wide-open Big 12 race? Oklahoma State has lost its last two games by a combined score of 76-19.
Arizona at UCLA
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
An elimination game in the Pac-12 South? Expect plenty of points between two offenses averaging over 35 points a game.
Utah at Arizona State
11 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
The Utes nearly knocked off Arizona State (20-19) last season but it won’t be easy going into Tempe and winning on Saturday night. A rebuilt Sun Devils’ defense has allowed only 20 points over the last two games.
With nine weeks in the books, college football’s bowl and national title picture is starting to clear. The playoff committee will release its first projection on Tuesday this week, which should give fans, coaches and players a better idea of what the committee values heading into the final full month of the season.
The new playoff format has added a new layer of intrigue, as four teams – instead of two – will have a shot at the national championship once the bowl pairings are announced in early December.
With nine weeks are in the books, it’s never too early to start looking at what the bowl picture might hold for each conference and team this year. The post-Week 9 bowl projections are a mixture between picks for the next few weeks, how things would look if the season ended today, and the results from the first nine weeks of action. Expect several changes over the next few weeks.
Teams just missing the projections: ULM, Texas State, Oregon State, Akron, USF, Arkansas, San Jose State and California. Remember: It’s only Week 9. Several changes are coming, and it’s impossible to project all of the wins and losses the rest of the way considering how much changes week-to-week in college football.
College Football's Post-Week 9 Bowl Projections
|New Orleans||Dec. 20||Sun Belt vs.|
| UL Lafayette vs.|
|New Mexico||Dec. 20||C-USA vs.|
|Las Vegas||Dec. 20||Mountain West vs.|
| Boise State vs.|
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 20||MAC vs. |
| Bowling Green vs.|
|Camellia||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Central Michigan vs.|
|Miami Beach||Dec. 22||American vs.|
|Boca Raton||Dec. 23||C-USA vs. |
| UAB vs.|
|Poinsettia||Dec. 23||Mountain West vs.|
| Colorado State vs.|
|Bahamas||Dec. 24||C-USA vs. |
| Marshall vs.|
|Hawaii||Dec. 24||C-USA vs. |
| MTSU vs.|
San Diego State
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs. |
| Rutgers vs.|
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| Virginia Tech vs.|
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||ACC vs. |
| Boston College vs.|
|Military||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Virginia vs.|
|Sun||Dec. 27||ACC vs. |
| North Carolina vs.|
|Independence||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Pittsburgh vs.|
|Pinstripe||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Georgia Tech vs.|
|Holiday||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs.|
| Wisconsin vs.|
|Liberty||Dec. 29||SEC vs.|
| Tennessee vs.|
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 29||ACC vs.|
| Duke vs.|
|Texas||Dec. 29||Big 12 vs.|
|Music City||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Iowa vs.|
|Belk||Dec. 30||ACC vs.|
| Louisville vs.|
|San Francisco||Dec. 30||Big Ten vs.|
|Outback||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs.|
|Citrus||Jan. 1||Big Ten/ACC vs.|
| Ohio State vs.|
|Armed Forces||Jan. 2||American vs.|
| Houston vs.|
|Taxslayer||Jan. 2||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Miami vs.|
|Alamo||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Baylor vs.|
|Cactus||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Stanford vs.|
|Birmingham||Jan. 3||American vs.|
| Memphis vs.|
|GoDaddy||Jan. 4||MAC vs.|
| Toledo vs.|
|New Year's Bowls|
|Peach||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| East Carolina vs.|
|Fiesta||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Kansas State vs.|
|Orange||Dec. 31||ACC vs.|
| Clemson vs.|
|Cotton||Jan. 1||At-large vs.|
|Related: Projecting the Playoff Teams After Week 9|
| Florida State vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
|National Title||Jan. 12||Semifinal Winner vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
* Indicates an at-large selection. Conference not projected to have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill the conference alignment.
Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of Pac-12 football action:
59: Arizona school record for points in a Pac-12 game
The Wildcats scored 59 points behind five touchdown strikes from Anu Solomon in an easy win over Washington State. That tied a school record for points in a conference game — which first occurred in 2008 against, you guessed it, Washington State. Arizona’s all-time single-game scoring record is 74 points (1921) and the Pac-12’s all-time scoring record for a league game was USC’s 74-0 win over Cal in 1930.
192.18: Marcus Mariota's passer rating
Mariota is leading the nation in passing efficiency with a 192.18 rating after torching Cal for 326 yards and five touchdowns. Russell Wilson owns the single-season NCAA record with a 191.78 mark in 2011 when he led Wisconsin to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid. Mariota’s current pace would be a new NCAA record should he maintain his high level of play. His current 170.85 career passer rating mark is No. 2 all-time behind only Sam Bradford (175.62).
8,625: Career passing yards for Mariota
He isn’t just one of the most efficient players in NCAA, Pac-12 or Oregon history, he is now the most productive passer in school history. Bill Musgrave has been the school’s all-time leading passer since departing Eugene in 1990. He had 8,343 career passing yards in 39 games. Mariota has 8,625 passing yards in 34 games.
5-7: Washington State’s record when Connor Halliday throws for 400 yards
The Cougars quarterback threw for 489 yards and four touchdowns on 79 attempts in the loss to Arizona. It was the sixth time he has topped 400 yards passing this season and the 12th time in his career. The problem is that reaching this benchmark hasn’t translated into wins. The Cougs are 2-4 this season in six such games and 5-7 overall during Halliday’s four-year career. Washington State is 4-8 when he throws at least 60 passes in a game.
Listen to the Week 9 recap podcast:
20-9: Road record of Pac-12 teams in league games
Oregon (Cal), Arizona (Washington State), Arizona State (Washington) and UCLA (Colorado) each won its Pac-12 road game in Week 9. Stanford (Oregon State) and Utah (USC) were the only two home teams to hold serve. That brings the road teams' record to 20-9 in conference play this season.
15: Consecutive USC losses when trailing entering the fourth quarter
According to ESPN, the Trojans lost their 15th straight game when entering the fourth quarter behind. USC scored with 10:18 left in the game to take a lead but Travis Wilson led his Utes down the field on an 11-play, 73-yard touchdown march that ended with the quarterback throwing the game-winning pass with only eight seconds left.
Nov. 6, 2010: Last time two ranked teams played in Rice-Eccles Stadium
No. 4 TCU beat No. 6 Utah 47-7 in Salt Lake City on November 6, 2010. It was the last time two ranked opponents have met in Rice-Eccles Stadium until No. 20 USC lost to No. 19 Utah this past weekend.
10-0: David Shaw’s record after a loss
In three and a half years as the head coach at Stanford, David Shaw is 39-10 overall. He has yet to lose back-to-back games as the Cardinal head coach. Even in his toughest season to date, Shaw’s squad bounced back from an ugly loss to Arizona State in Week 8 to topple Oregon State with relative ease, 38-14. More importantly, Shaw's offense showed signs of life with 438 yards and 38 points.
75: Yards on Arizona State’s final drive
Taylor Kelly returned to the starting lineup and had to deal with nasty winds and poor overall conditions against Washington in Seattle. With 7:14 left in a tie game, Kelly marched his squad 75 yards on nine plays over 4:14 of game time to score the game-winning touchdown. Kelly completed all three of his passes for 36 yards, including the game-winning TD strike to Gary Chambers, and ran the ball once for 12 yards.
23: Touches Shaq Thompson got on offense
A depleted Huskies offense turned to a linebacker for help. Shaq Thompson, who has scored five total touchdowns this season, led the Huskies with 98 yards rushing on 21 carries while catching two passes for 15 yards.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first rankings today, and no one really knows what to expect.
Will the selection committee’s top 25 be a carbon copy of the AP or coaches polls? Will it be wildly different?
How much change will we see from week to week as the committee goes through its made-for-TV rankings process every Tuesday?
How will the committee of 12 — the 13th member, Archie Manning, took a leave due to medical reasons — justify the teams in and out of the top four from week to week?
Indeed, this is a new era, but how much of a break the playoff will be from the BCS remains to be seen. Maybe we’ll find out Tuesday night. Maybe we’ll find out on selection Sunday on Dec. 7.
Either way, these are among the most heady issues the committee must face starting this week.
Dilemmas the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will Face
The SEC West question
The architects of the playoff have been clear that no limits will be placed on the amount of teams a conference can send to the playoff. That may be put to the test immediately within one division. In three of the last four weeks, three SEC West teams have been ranked in the top four of the Associated Press poll. Whether that’s an indication of what the selection committee might do isn’t clear. What’s certain is that the SEC West has the most playoff contenders of any conference as a whole in Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. That field will be narrowed to two or one in the final month of the season, but the SEC West may put immediate pressure on the committee to set some sort of precedent on league representation in the Football Four.
The case for Oregon
We’re told one of the advantages here is that a committee of 12 experts will be able to better gauge teams impacted by injury. There’s no better example than Oregon. With left tackle Jake Fisher, the Ducks defeated Michigan State, UCLA and Washington by an average of 18.7 points per game. Without their starting tackle, the Ducks lost at home to Arizona and survived a scare on the road against Washington State. Of the top playoff contenders, Oregon’s loss to Arizona is one of the worst losses. Will the committee overlook this glaring flaw on the resume as long as the Ducks continue to look like a contender when its offensive line is intact?
The case for Ohio State
Again, one of the advantages of the committee is that it’s supposed to recognize when a team improves as the season goes along. Look no further than Ohio State, whose lone loss to Virginia Tech looks worse with each passing week. The Buckeyes faced Virginia Tech in the second week of the season when J.T. Barrett, pressed into starting duty only 10 days before the season, was making his second career start. Since that loss, Barrett has looked more and more like an elite Big Ten quarterback, and Ohio State rolled over its subsequent four opponents. If Ohio State can defeat Michigan State on Nov. 8 and wins the Big Ten, the Buckeyes may have a playoff-worthy resume provided that loss to 4-4 Virginia Tech doesn’t become an albatross.
The head-to-head question
Ole Miss suffered its first loss of the season Saturday and dropped to No. 7 in the AP poll. That’s four spots behind Alabama, a team the Rebels beat 23-17 on Oct. 7. The reasons for the Tide to be ranked ahead of Ole Miss are reasonable — the Tide lost a close game in Oxford, defeated a Big 12 contender on a neutral field (West Virginia) and showed dominance on both sides of the ball in wins over Texas A&M and Florida. But one school of thought will maintain that as long as both have one loss apiece, Ole Miss should have an edge over Alabama in the rankings. The same dilemma could arise if Mississippi State and Auburn each end up with one loss — the Bulldogs defeated Auburn 38-23 on Oct. 4, but the Tigers may end up with a better resume with wins over Kansas State, South Carolina and potentially Georgia compared to Mississippi State’s East wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The rematch question
The seeding of the final playoff pairings could present a handful of rematches from the Iron Bowl to the Egg Bowl to Michigan State-Oregon to any other SEC West matchup. Will the committee artfully try to avoid rematches in the semifinals?
Marshall or East Carolina?
Remember: The playoff selection committee isn’t just seeding the semifinals; it’s also filling the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta bowls. One of those spots is guaranteed to go to the highest ranked team in the so-called Group of Five (the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt). The two most likely teams right now to fill that slot are East Carolina and Marshall. East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech and North Carolina but lost by 10 to South Carolina.
Ten years. That’s how long since the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash, near Martinsville, which took the lives of 10 innocent victims. Among them were owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, and brother John; nieces Kimberly and Jennifer, engine builder Randy Dorton, Hendrick GM Jeff Turner, a DuPont executive and three pilots, two of which were at the controls. It was a tragedy that devastated the four-car organization, whose driver Jimmie Johnson won the race without knowing the darkness that unfolded in the hills behind the racetrack.
Thirteen years. That’s how long since NASCAR’s biggest draw of the last generation, Dale Earnhardt Sr., had something go so terribly wrong on the last lap of the Daytona 500. As the No. 3 headed toward the wall, a sport lost its leader, the man whose legend — both on the track and after his death — led to NASCAR’s unprecedented growth. But most importantly, a family, including a son crowned the successor to the throne, lost a patriarch.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports when that fateful crash occurred. But he didn’t need to be. Human tragedy, while occurring at different times and in different places, has a way of bonding people forever, fusing them in ways few common experiences ever can.
“The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering,” Earnhardt said. “On other anniversaries, you really don’t have to remember or reflect as much. But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the 10th, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge. You do. You want to. There’s a part of you that loves to celebrate these people’s lives. But there’s the other half of you that can’t forget the loss.
“Losing my dad was difficult. I can’t imagine that loss that he (Hendrick) went through, his family went through, the whole organization. All those people at one time. It just has to be unbelievable to have to deal with that.”
Sunday was a day of great joy for HMS, as it should have been. Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon led a 1-2 finish for the company and the former quickly led a raucous celebration. The team was drinking in Victory Lane, talking over kegstands and party planning shortly after the checkered flag flew.
But underneath it all, the excitement and their success story were subtle remembrances of who was lost. Hats were worn backwards in Victory Lane, just like Ricky used to do. All who interviewed paused for a second, changed their tone, and paid their respects. After all, tragedy allows us to heal but never forget.
“Martinsville is a high conversation at our company,” said Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte. “We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard.
“I’m blessed to have a great family with two healthy children. Those are the lessons that people that work for Rick learn. The great things he does very few people write about because they’re hard to write about, they’re hard to understand.”
Everyone understood on Sunday. And as an HMS car entered Victory Lane, every fan at Martinsville Speedway stood up and cheered — no matter what team they rooted for.
This sport doesn’t work any other way.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Earnhardt erases bad Chase memories
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2014 Chase has been difficult. In his last season paired with crew chief Steve Letarte and entering the playoffs with three victories, it seemed like the stars were aligned for a championship run. Just three races ago, the No. 88 team entered in as a title favorite. But a blown tire,while leading started a three-week nightmare that included a broken shifter, another wreck, and getting kicked out of the playoffs far too early. Without the postseason reset, this team would be third in points; instead, it’s currently sitting outside the top 10.
Winning Martinsville, a place Earnhardt has openly targeted for years, helped heal that wound. At age 40, he finally broke through by earning a Grandfather clock — one of the sport’s most coveted trophies. It was some masterful driving down the stretch, charging from fifth with five laps to go after giving up the lead for fresh tires.
“It wasn’t hard to make,” Letarte said of the call. “But it was nerve-wracking to watch.”
Luckily for him, Earnhardt took less than two laps to push his way back to the front. Rolling by Tony Stewart, who took a chance on old tires, the No. 88 breezed to victory over Gordon. It was a good moment for NASCAR, as team orders never came into play; a victory here would have given the No. 24 team an automatic ticket to the Final Four in Homestead.
“He was fast enough all day that he could run us down if the race continued,” claimed Earnhardt. “I would have been pissed.”
Instead, he’ll wind up 2014 with four victories, his most in a decade, and feel pleased about all the success he’s had this season … as he should be.
SECOND GEAR: Kevin Harvick is maaaad
Kevin Harvick, perhaps the most dominant car up front this season, saw his title hopes turn desperate at Martinsville. It was fellow Chaser Matt Kenseth who caused the crisis, wheel-hopping into Turn 1 and inciting a wreck that turned the No. 4 car into a pile of mush. Harvick lost 40 laps despite virtually half of Stewart-Haas Racing working on the car. A 33rd-place finish left him eighth in points, 28 behind fourth-place Kenseth and a virtual lock to miss the Chase unless the team can win at Texas or Phoenix.
“(Kenseth) will not win this championship,” said Harvick afterward. “I can promise you that.”
Even crew chief Rodney Childers talked a little trash after the race, venting frustration on a season that’s been this type of roller coaster for the No. 4 bunch. If it had any luck at all — and fewer self-induced mistakes — the team would be sitting with eight, potentially nine victories this season.
Instead, it’s a crew in desperation mode once again, causing an anger Kenseth claimed he understood.
“I don't blame (Harvick) for feeling that way, honestly," he said. "It was a mistake — he was an innocent bystander and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I totally understand how he feels and I totally understand why he would say that. I totally get it. He knows it was a mistake, too, but that doesn't really help him. I don't really blame him.”
The only question for Kenseth is whether that blame from Harvick turns into outright revenge, the type that will keep the No. 20 car on the sidelines for Homestead.
THIRD GEAR: Hello, Newman
What do Earnhardt and Ryan Newman have in common? The number four. Earnhardt has four victories and is eliminated from title contention. Newman? After a third at Martinsville, he has four top-5 finishes this season but is second in points and could be your champion after Homestead.
“It’s played to our advantage the entire time as far as not having a win, not having bonus points,” he said about the new format. “Even if you’re eight of 12 or 16, you’re still getting caught up, making free points that they’re giving you to be tied to the next bracket.”
That means Newman, who was tied for the lowest seed entering the playoffs, is riding consistency all the way to a title shot. With five straight finishes of eighth or better, the team is on a roll, positioned well enough to advance even if it doesn’t win a race. It would be NASCAR’s title nightmare: a winless driver with less than 50 laps led all season taking the championship. But it’s one small step closer to reality.
FOURTH GEAR: Keselowski digs another hole
Joining Harvick in the desperation department is Brad Keselowski, who’s used to it after winning Talladega in order to advance. This time, it was a broken gear that left the No. 2 team scrambling, causing a sudden slowdown on track and a wreck that involved Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears and Carl Edwards, among others.
“It’s not the day we want by any means, but the guys did a great job,” Keselowski said. “They put a gear in this car in 28 laps at Martinsville, that’s pretty phenomenal but it was just unfortunate the way the day played out.”
Past experience should help Keselowski, and Team Penske has been the strongest organization across the board during this postseason. But walking the plank once is hard enough. Twice? That’s going to be a very tough task; keep in mind he has no career wins at Texas or Phoenix.
Martinsville, with 15 caution flags over 105 laps, had its share of wrecks, including two red flags. But it also featured consistent, hard racing, 24 lead changes, and easily one of the most exciting finishes all season. Why the sport doesn’t drop a 1.5-mile oval, or at least a race from one in favor of another short track — think Iowa — is beyond me. … Underdog David Ragan snuck away with a 10th-place finish, using old tires and pit strategy to pull through. In a decade of competition, it’s the first top-10 result for his Front Row Motorsports team outside of Daytona and Talladega. … Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers had an on-track feud in which both drivers spun the other out and then played the blame game before NASCAR put a stop to it all. Vickers has a history of losing it at Martinsville, including a crazy series of incidents in the fall of 2011. But rewinding the tape shows it’s Kahne who appeared to be the culprit. With both drivers having little at stake, the rest of the season it’s possible their bad blood will resurface at Phoenix.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
The NBA season is here. Well, tomorrow it will be, anyway — and we’re here to guide you through the year’s most exciting appetizer contests.
Houston Rockets @ Los Angeles Lakers - Tuesday, October 28, 10:30 PM ET, TNT
There’ll be no shortage of grudges at play when the Rockets stroll into Tinseltown tomorrow night. Kobe Bryant — the subject of much recent scrutiny — and Dwight Howard never got along as fellow Lakers, and many fans of the purple-and-gold took it as a sign of their franchise turning the page and starting over when Howard took his talents to Texas. Bryant has always been one to make statement performances, and he never got the chance to do so against Howard last season, when he missed all but six games with injury.
Now, Kobe’s back, and he’s got Rockets castoff Jeremy Lin as his backcourt partner. The two should be looking for redemptive blood on opening night.
Chicago Bulls @ New York Knicks - Wednesday, October 29, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN
The basketball world, outside of New York, all wanted to see Carmelo Anthony leave the Knicks to fight for titles with the Bulls in Chicago this summer. He didn’t.
But with the resurgence of point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls look like a fiery team on a mission nonetheless. They’ll roll into Madison Square Garden with their trademark intensity Wednesday, eager to show Anthony and the new-look Knicks (now managed by Phil Jackson and coached by Derek Fisher) just what he walked away from.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ Los Angeles Clippers - Thursday, October 30, 10:30 PM ET, TNT
Perhaps the most exciting series of the 2014 postseason took place between these two teams. With both the Clippers and Thunder (maybe the two most stylistically thrilling teams in basketball) facing the fork in the road between championship contention and mere playoff relevance, the stakes never felt higher.
Behind the overwhelming combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder won that series four games to two. But after Durant was sidelined for up to two months with a Jones fracture this month, the Clippers may have an edge in the standings on OKC through the winter. Not if the ferocious Westbrook has his way, though — Thursday marks the beginning of the mercurial guard’s compelling quest to prove his winning skills without the world’s best scorer next to him.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Chicago Bulls - Friday, October 31, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN
And we arrive at the main event. LeBron James’ home city team versus Rose’s. The two titans of the East square off in Chicago for what many see as a preview of the 2015 Conference Finals.
The Bulls have consistently held the league’s most impenetrable defense since coach Tom Thibodeau came to town in 2010. But Cleveland’s offense — featuring James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a slew of deadly shooters — just might be the best the NBA has seen this millenium. Tune in Friday to see who gives first in this epic, season-long tug of war.
— John Wilmes
By Saturday, the release of the first College Football Playoff top 25 may feel like an afterthought.
True, the playoff is one of the defining features of the season, but the first weekend of November is a clear indication of the other major storyline for 2014 — unpredictability.
On Nov. 1, teams like TCU, West Virginia, Utah and Arizona State will be playing in games relevant to conference title chases, if not the playoff.
Remember, this is a week in which Stanford-Oregon is a featured game, and games like TCU-West Virginia and Utah-Arizona State are nearly as important.
The SEC West, as usual, is a centerpiece of attention, too, as Ole Miss tries to recover from its first loss of the season while Auburn attempts to solidify its spot among the top contenders in its division.
The Week Ahead: Oct. 30-Nov. 1
All times Eastern. All games Saturday, unless noted.
Florida State at Louisville
When and where: Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... Florida State is on upset alert. Despite being 7-0, the Seminoles rarely have looked like the dominant team they were a year ago. This could be a chance for FSU to flex its muscles or it could be a tricky game against one of the top defenses in the country. Louisville is second in yards allowed per play and first in total defense. The Cardinals have allowed more than 100 rushing yards twice all season and more than 200 passing yards three times.
Vegas says: Florida State by 6
Listen to the Week 9 recap podcast:
Auburn at Ole Miss
When and where: 7 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... this may be a crossroads for both teams in the SEC West. Auburn responded to its 38-23 loss to Mississippi State with a 42-35 win over South Carolina. The Tigers’ offense is clicking after they rushed for a season-high 395 yards against South Carolina. Ole Miss, meanwhile, may have its season hanging in the balance after a 10-7 loss to LSU. The Rebels have a handful of injuries (linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil) and shades of internal dissension between quarterback Bo Wallace and coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels may need to take care that a banner season doesn’t crumble in short order.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 2 1/2
TCU at West Virginia
When and where: 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
We’re watching because... no two teams improved more since the end of last season. Big 12 newcomers TCU and West Virginia both went 4-8 a year ago and now will play in a game that will factor in the league title race. Besides, given these two offenses, this matchup could be a shootout. TCU is the only team in the country averaging more than 50 points per game, while West Virginia has quietly put together a balanced offense ranked in the top four in the Big 12 in both rushing and passing.
Vegas says: TCU by 5 1/2
Stanford at Oregon
When and where: 7:30 p.m., FOX
We’re watching because... the matchup of the year in the Pac-12 now has Stanford playing the role of spoiler. Stanford has all but dropped out of the playoff race, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinal can’t give Oregon trouble. Stanford has won the last two meetings and still has a dominant and physical defense that can give the Ducks fits. The only question is if Kevin Hogan and the embattled Stanford offense can keep up.
Vegas says: Oregon by 9 1/2
Utah at Arizona State
When and where: 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1
We’re watching because... two of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 will meet for at least a share of the lead in the South. Arizona State has overcome the loss of nine starters on defense since last season and an injury to starting quarterback Taylor Kelly (who returned last week) to beat USC, Stanford and Washington. Utah has been living on the edge in Pac-12 play with each league game decided by less than touchdown. Utah’s game-winning scores in the last three wins have come with 34 seconds left, 8 seconds left and in double overtime.
Vegas says: Arizona State by 5
Talk Back on U-verse Game of the Week
Each week, AT&T U-verse and Athlon Sports will host a live interactive experience for an SEC game in which two greats from each school will take fan questions live throughout the game.
This week, former Kentucky coach Rich Brooks and former Missouri quarterback James Franklin will join Athlon Sports’ Braden Gall at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for the fun.
Visit att.com/talkback during Kentucky-Missouri to watch the game with us.
Kentucky at Missouri
When and where: 4 p.m., SEC Network
We’re watching because... Missouri has quietly kept itself alive in the SEC East race. Given the way the season has gone, though, that might not be a good omen for the Tigers. Either way, Missouri is 3-1 in the league but needs Georgia to falter to return to the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers also need more from quarterback Maty Mauk, who is completing less than 40 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and five interceptions in SEC play.
Vegas says: Missouri by 6 1/2
Numbers and statistics are a huge part of college football. Every Sunday, reading updated box scores and stats is like Christmas for fans and media members. Some stats like total offense and total defense are overrated but each help paint a picture for a team or particular game.
Whether the stats are historic, advanced or just an observation from a box score, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of Atlantic Coast Conference football action:
Miami running back Duke Johnson ran for 249 yards in a 30-6 win over Virginia Tech. That is the first time a Hurricane running back surpassed 200 yards since Willis McGahee's 205 against Virginia Tech on Dec. 7, 2002. Johnson became just the fourth player in school history to run for 200+ yards.
While Johnson was running all over the Hokies, Virginia Tech needed nearly the entire 60 minutes to extend its streak of games without being shut out. A 14-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-10 with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter extended VT's streak to 251 games without being shutout.
Georgia Tech played its first game in the state of Pennsylvania since 1931 and posted its first-ever win in the Keystone State after a 56-28 rout of Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech set a Heinz Field record for points by an opponent, besting Rutgers' old mark of 54 (Oct. 25, 2008). It was the Yellow Jackets' first game at Pitt since 1920 when they suffered a three-year losing streak to the host Panthers (1918, 1919, 1920).
Pittsburgh's six lost fumbles tied the most by a Georgia Tech opponent. The Panthers' five lost fumbles in the first quarter tied the FBS record for most in a single quarter.
When Georgia Tech rushed for 465 yards in the win against a Pitt team allowing 112 yards per game on the ground the Yellow Jackets recorded the seventh-best team rushing total in a game between ACC teams in league history and the 11th-highest total by an ACC team overall.
North Carolina scored a 28-27 win over Virginia, marking just the second time in series history that the Tar Heels defeated Virginia by a single point. The only other one-point win in the series for UNC came in 1927 when it won 14-13 in the first-ever game played in Kenan Stadium.
The 24 points Virginia scored in the first half against UNC tied a season high (Oct. 4 vs. Pittsburgh), but the 21 points allowed by the Cavaliers also tied a season high (Aug. 30 vs. UCLA). This was the first time an opponent trailed UVa after three quarters but rallied to win since Maryland did so in 2010.
Clemson posted a 16-6 victory against Syracuse, scoring just one touchdown in the win. It was the first time since 2009 that the Tigers won a game scoring only one touchdown. They defeated Boston College 25-7 on six Richard Jackson field goals and a C.J. Spiller punt return for a touchdown.
Boston College posted a 23-17 win against Wake Forest, holding the Demon Deacons to 19 yards on the ground. In the Eagles' five wins this season they have outgained their opponents on the ground 1,715-153, a differential of 1,562 yards.
Boston College limited Wake Forest to just six yards of total offense in the first half. The Demon Deacons ran 19 plays to get those six yards — nine through the air and minus-3 on the ground. They finished with 261 yards.
- Corby A. Yarbrough
@Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
All of the offseason’s hullabaloo about the landing spots of free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other ubiquitous, TV-friendly stars was tempered by a nagging reminder: None of the league’s buzziest names won the most recent NBA title. That claim belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, and their 23-year-old Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard, like all Spurs, got through the regular season without turning too many heads. He missed 16 games despite being largely healthy, and averaged less than 30 minutes per contest. Coach Gregg Popovich and Co. are chiefly concerned with bodily maintenance before they reach the playoffs, going deep into the bench and relying on team efforts as they preserve top talent more than they exploit it.
It’s a principles-first program that works — the team has been a title contender every year since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. But now Leonard, the most valuable piece of San Antonio’s future, wants to be paid like a centerpiece. And why wouldn’t he? The relentless, lengthy, hugely skilled forward went toe-to-toe with LeBron two summers in a row and came out shining. He’s every bit the superstar.
But talks about a new Leonard deal, between his agent Brian Elfus and Spurs’ general manager R.C. Buford, have not gained traction, as reported by NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement by the first of November, Leonard will become a restricted free agent in July 2015. The Spurs will be able to match any offer other teams give him, so it’s not as if Leonard’s exodus is a foregone conclusion. Far from it.
But if San Antonio wanted to give him max money, wouldn’t they have paid up already? There’s a ton of merit to the team’s no-star ethos, but when Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retire within a few years, they’ll need a new leader. Will Leonard not be the man for that job?
— John Wilmes
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox recap all of Week 9's action in college football. This week's edition features a healthy SEC West playoff debate (things get heated), wide open races in the Pac-12 South, Big Ten West and ACC Coastal and some impressive numbers in the Big 12. The fellas also give you their playoff poll as well.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for October 27:
• J.J. Watt called out Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger for taking selfies. Who knew Watt was such a Schiano Man?
• Rex Ryan says Geno Smith will be a good quarterback some day. Too bad Rex won't be there to see it.
• Interesting stat: Steve Nash is tied with Michael Jordan all time in points produced per possession.
• Chucky would coach again, but only for the Raiders. Wait, what?
• So the guy from Staind apparently botched the national anthem. I haven't had the heart to watch it yet, but here it is.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]