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This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Nov. 10:
• Jimmy Graham had a weird day: An offensive PI penalty negated a game-winning touchdown, and he got felt up by the Joker.
• LeBron won't let his kids play football. Gotta wonder about football's long-term prosperity.
• We interrupt sports to bring the important news: The Foo Fighters' new record is out this week.
• Watch the Seahawks mascot land on a fan.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Clemson is having an uncharacteristic season on offense. The Tigers average just 5.4 yards per play (ninth in the ACC) and rank sixth in the conference by averaging 32.4 points per game. The slow start hasn’t drastically affected Clemson’s record, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is poised to push for another season of at least 10 wins.
A couple of factors are to blame for the drop in production on offense, but there’s potential for this unit to improve over the final three games with the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s return comes at a critical time for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. At 7-2 overall and 6-1 in conference play, Clemson is squarely in the mix to earn an appearance in the Orange Bowl – if Florida State makes the college football playoff. The Tigers made two previous appearances in the Orange Bowl under Swinney, but finishing 10-2 and earning a spot in one of the premier postseason games would be a huge accomplishment for a program replacing three offensive standouts in quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in 2014.
But there’s also another aspect to Watson’s return: the Nov. 29 showdown against South Carolina.
Clemson has not defeated the Gamecocks since 2008, but this would appear to be its best shot since the Gamecocks are struggling just to get bowl eligible.
Watson nearly guided Clemson to an upset win at Florida State and recorded 50 points in a win against North Carolina. The freshman also passed for 267 yards and two scores in an easy 41-0 win over NC State.
While this year’s offense isn’t as prolific as the units that led Clemson to 32 wins from 2011-13, that hasn’t derailed the Tigers from winning.
With Watson back in the lineup this week against Georgia Tech, it’s a good opportunity for this team to build momentum on offense before the bowl practices.
The true freshman has completed 75 of 112 passes for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in limited action this year. With Florida State’s Jameis Winston likely to enter the NFL Draft at the end of 2014, Watson should be the ACC’s top signal-caller in 2015. And Watson should be surrounded by plenty of talent, as running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott have emerged as key playmakers over the last few weeks.
Stoudt has kept the offense on track during Watson’s absence. However, there’s little doubt the true freshman is the better quarterback and has the skill-set to thrive in coordinator Chad Morris’ offense.
The Clemson coaching staff can be more aggressive in its passing game, as Watson averages 15.7 yards per completion, while Stoudt recorded just 10 yards per completion. Watson also averaged 10 yards per attempt, compared to 6.4 to Stoudt. The true freshman has a bigger arm, and his ability to stretch the field should help an offense that has six plays of 40 yards or more, which is a decrease from the 19 this team recorded last year.
Florida State is in full control of the Atlantic Division title this year, but Clemson still has plenty to play for over the last three weeks of the season. With Watson back under center this week, the Tigers have a chance to finish the year with momentum, including a good opportunity to beat their rival South Carolina and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl. And that’s not a bad way to finish 2014 with the amount of firepower that left Clemson for the NFL after the 2013 season.
A matchup of defending divisional champions will put a bow on Week 10 in the NFL when the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles face off on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Eagles (6-2) once again are positioned near the top of the NFC East, while the Panthers (3-5-1) are still within striking distance in a crowded, mediocre NFC South.
If Philadelphia wants to make it two straight division crowns under head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles will have to do so with a backup quarterback and without their defensive anchor. Meanwhile Carolina head coach Ron Rivera is trying to figure out what’s happened to his defense, which was among the league’s best last season.
Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Philadelphia -7
Three Things to Watch
|Carolina 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs CHI||W 31 - 24||Recap|
|10/12||@ CIN||37 - 37||Recap|
|10/19||@ GB||L 17 - 38||Recap|
|10/26||vs SEA||L 9 - 13||Recap|
|10/30||vs NO||L 10 - 28||Recap|
|11/10||@ PHI||L 21 - 45||Recap|
|11/16||vs ATL||L 17 - 19||Recap|
|11/30||@ MIN||L 13 - 31||Recap|
1. Sanchez’ Second Chance
Nick Foles is out for at least six weeks with a broken collarbone, meaning Mark Sanchez is getting his second chance. The fifth player taken in the 2009 draft, Sanchez was the Jets’ starting quarterback from 2009-12. Despite leading his team to consecutive AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons, Sanchez’ tenure with the Jets was rocky, to say the least. He posted a winning record (37-31, including playoffs) as the starter, but completed just 55 percent of his passes with 77 touchdowns compared to 72 interceptions. A combination of a shoulder injury (torn labrum) last August and the Jets drafting Geno Smith led to the end of Sanchez’ time in the Big Apple. He didn’t play a single game for the Jets last season and the team released him in March. A week later, he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia to back up Nick Foles, and Sanchez is now the starter with Foles sidelined. Last week against Houston in relief of Foles, Sanchez tossed two touchdown passes in the Eagles’ 31-21 win, but he also had two interceptions that allowed the Texans to stay in the game. Chip Kelly has had nothing but positive things to say about Sanchez since signing him and in the aftermath of Foles’ injury, but the only thing that really matters is what happens on the field. This is by the far the best supporting cast Sanchez has had as a pro, and Kelly’s offensive system is known to be quarterback-friendly. Everything appears to be in place for Sanchez to succeed. The question now is will he take full advantage of this second chance or just validate what was said about him near the end of his time with the Jets?
|Philadelphia 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs STL||W 34 - 28||Recap|
|10/12||vs NYG||W 27 - 0||Recap|
|10/26||@ ARI||L 20 - 24||Recap|
|11/2||@ HOU||W 31 - 21||Recap|
|11/10||vs CAR||W 45 - 21||Recap|
|11/16||@ GB||L 20 - 53||Recap|
|11/23||vs TEN||W 43 - 24||Recap|
|11/27||@ DAL||W 33 - 10||Recap|
2. Carolina’s (Lack of) Defense
The Panthers surprised pretty much everyone last season when they went 12-4 and won the NFC South. One of the big reasons for their success was a defense that ranked behind only the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in several categories. In 2013, Carolina’s defense was the second stingiest in terms of yards (301.3 ypg) and points (15.1 ppg) allowed and it was led by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. Unfortunately, what was a major strength last season has turned into a weakness. The Panthers gave up a total of 241 points last season, but have already allowed 236 in just nine games thus far. After starting the season 2-0, Carolina has gone 1-5-1, as the defense has given up 30.7 points per game during this ugly seven-game stretch. Run defense in particular has been a problem. Ron Rivera’s team was second in the league in stopping the run in 2013 (86.9 ypg), but enter tonight’s game ranked 26th (131.9 ypg). Each of the Panthers’ past four opponents has run for at least 105 yards. This is not a good trend considering the Eagles are eighth in the rushing offense (124.5 ypg) and are averaging 162 yards per game on the ground over their last four contests. Carolina relied heavily on its defense last season to not only keep the Panthers in games, but often times to win them. Success has been harder to come by this season, as the defense has regressed and the offense (19.7 ppg, 25th) hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. It’s been a rough go for Carolina’s defense lately, and things don’t figure to get any easier tonight against the league’s fourth-ranked offense.
3. Cam Gets Offensive?
Misery must love company, as both Carolina’s defense and offense have gone into a prolonged slump at the same time. As poorly as the defense has played over the last seven games (30.7 ppg allowed), it’s not like the offense has been lending a ton of support. The Panthers are averaging less than 20 points per game on the season and that’s only because they scored 68 points in back-to-back games in Weeks 5 and 6. They have managed 10 points or fewer three times, including in each of the past two games. A rash of injuries has impacted Carolina’s backfield all season, which has put even more pressure on Cam Newton and a practically brand-new group of pass-catchers. After showing a great deal of growth last season, Newton has hit a rough patch. His passing yards have gone down in each of the past four games, culminating with a career-worst performance last week at home against New Orleans when he completed just 10 of 28 passes (35.7 percent) for 151 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Newton has thrown a pick in each of his last five games and hasn’t tossed a touchdown pass since Week 7. Even with reliable tight end Greg Olsen and talented wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round pick, as Newton’s primary targets, he is averaging just 224.3 yards passing per game with eight touchdown passes. With an inconsistent running game (94.7 ypg, 26th) and a defense that’s been struggling, Carolina needs Newton to be at the top of his game. Perhaps tonight’s matchup against the Eagles will be just what Newton and the Panthers’ offense need to get going in the right direction.
Even though Philadelphia is without the services of Nick Foles, the Eagles play in an offensive system that's not dependent on the quarterback. Chip Kelly will come up with a game plan that should put Mark Sanchez in a position where he doesn't have to win the game by himself. I'm not so sure the same can be said for Cam Newton and Carolina. The Panthers have had trouble running the ball consistently alll season and this defense is not the same, stingy, physical unit it was in 2013. Philadelphia is 4-0 this season at Lincoln Financial Field and has won its last eight regular season home games. As long as Sanchez doesn't try to do too much himself and takes care of the football, the Eagles should soar at home tonight.
Prediction: Philadelphia 31, Carolina 20
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some fall on the sabermetric side of things, while others like to keep it simple and use the old eyeball test. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 10 of the NFL season.
The AFC North is the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 at any point in the season since the 1935 NFL Western Division.
The 8-1 Arizona Cardinals hold the NFL's best record for the first time after nine games since 1966. This is the first time since 1948 the Cardinals are 8-1 and just the third time in franchise history (1925, 1948, 2014).
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of the Lions’ 20-16 win against Miami. Detroit has scored the game-winning points inside of the two-minute mark of the fourth quarter to win in regulation in each of its past three games, becoming the first team to do so since the 1994 New York Giants.
Stafford, who passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns, has 19,953 career passing yards in 70 games, the most of any player in NFL history in his first 70 games. Dan Marino, who passed for 19,179 yards in his first 70 games, previously had the most of any player. Stafford’s 122 career touchdown passes are tied with Johnny Unitas for the fourth-most of any player through 70 career games.
The Chicago Bears are the second team in NFL history to allow 50+ points in consecutive games after surrendering 55 to Green Bay in Week 10 and 51 to New England in Week 8. The other was the Rochester Jeffersons in 1923. The 55 points scored by Green Bay tied the most points for the Packers in a game at Lambeau Field. The team record is 57.
Green Bay became the third team in NFL history to lead by 42 or more points at halftime (42-0). The Packers joined the 2009 Patriots (45 against Tennessee) and the 1983 Packers (42 against Tampa Bay).
Seattle became the first team in NFL history to have a running back rush for at least four touchdowns and a quarterback with more than 100 rushing yards in the same game after QB Russell Wilson ran for 107 yards and a score and RB Marshawn Lynch ran for 140 and a career-high four touchdowns in Seattle's 38-17 win over the New York Giants.
Russell Wilson joins Michael Vick (2004 and 2006) as the only quarterbacks with at least three 100-yard rushing games in a season in the Super Bowl era (since 1966).
Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 100 yards in the Cowboys’ 31-17 win against Jacksonville. Murray, who has nine 100-yard rushing games in 2014, is the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in nine of his team’s first 10 games to begin a season.
Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant became the first player with at least 150 receiving yards (158) and two touchdowns in the 11-game history of the NFL International Series in London. He has also scored a TD in 11 consecutive games against AFC opponents.
Joseph Randle's 40-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter was the first rushing touchdown by a Cowboys back not named DeMarco Murray.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 340 yards and five touchdowns in the Broncos’ 41-17 win at Oakland, extending his own NFL-record streak of consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes to 15 games. Manning has also thrown a touchdown pass in 48 consecutive games, surpassing Johnny Unitas (47) for the third-longest streak in NFL history. Manning’s first touchdown of the game was a 51-yard pass, marking his 44th career touchdown pass of at least 50 yards, eclipsing Brett Favre for the most such TD passes of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
Broncos tight end Julius Thomas had two touchdown catches and leads all NFL players with 12 TDs this season. He is the first tight end in NFL history with back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons.
New York Jets quarterback Michael Vick passed for 132 yards with two touchdowns and added 39 rushing yards in a 20-13 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vick now has 6,006 career rushing yards and is the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 6,000.
Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed his first field goal of the season in Week 10 after starting 17-of-17.
If the 2014-15 season is anything like the 2013-14 edition, we’re in luck.
Just think of all that transpired a year ago: Wichita State’s run for history, a fantastic freshman class led by Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, Syracuse’s hot start as an ACC member.
And then think of how all of that was flipped in the NCAA Tournament as Kentucky finally delivered on its title-contending promise only to be stopped by a seventh-seeded UConn team in the championship game.
Say this about 2014-15: There’s more where that came from. Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have superstar freshmen again. The ACC adds another powerhouse program in Louisville. And Wichita State should keep rolling.
The only question is what wild twists and turns this season will take down the stretch. We’re ready.
1. Duke’s Big Three
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones promised each other (and anybody else who would listen) in the summer before their senior years of high school that they’d take visits together and enroll at the same college. Ultimately, they settled on Duke, then started working on Justise Winslow. And the result is a college-aged “Big Three” that should give Mike Krzyzewski a reasonably good chance to capture his fifth national championship.
“We just wanted the best opportunity to win,” Okafor explains, and there’s no denying that their decisions created an ideal situation for lots and lots of wins.
Okafor, Jones and Winslow are all consensus top-15 national recruits who play different positions. Basically, they represent the nation’s top incoming point guard (Jones), the nation’s top incoming center (Okafor), and one of the nation’s top three incoming wings (Winslow), and they’re the main reasons why Duke should actually be better this season despite losing its best two players — Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood — early to the NBA Draft.
Who’s the best of the group?
That’s Okafor, for sure.
He’s a 6-11, wide-bodied big who makes up for what he lacks in athleticism with a unique skill set and understanding of the game. More than anybody else, he’s likely to go first overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, and it should surprise nobody if Okafor is a first-team All-American during what’s expected to be his lone year in college.
“We consider Jahlil Okafor as good a big man as there is in the country,” Krzyzewski says. “He’s had an amazing amount of experience playing for the United States and for a great high school program.”
And now he’ll play for a great college program.
“The great thing about all of the kids is that they want to share a spotlight and they want to be on a great team,” Krzyzewski adds. “They’re team-first guys — even though they have this excellent amount of individual talent.”
2. Kentucky’s Loaded Frontcourt
Have you counted the bodies yet?
Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are all back, and they’ll be joined in the frontcourt by freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s six future pros who are natural power forwards or centers, and so the obvious question is this: How will Calipari find proper minutes for all of them?
Answer: He won’t. Because it’s impossible. Granted, Poythress will be asked to play some small forward, and it’ll help if he’s successful. But even if he is, and if Lyles and Johnson start at power forward and center, that’ll still leave Cauley-Stein and Towns as big reserves, which would leave Lee, most likely, caught in a numbers game and completely buried on the bench even though he’d be the best and most athletic big at like 90 percent of the nation’s high-major programs.
“For the first time I’ve had players return that had their chance to put their names in the draft, so we’re in a unique situation where we have veterans now,” Calipari says. “I’m excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along well. So it’s all good.”
All good for now, of course.
But will it be all good when the games start?
That’s the biggest challenge facing Calipari this season.
3. Wichita State, Obviously
Gregg Marshall’s Shockers became the story of last college basketball season — and the nation’s most divisive team — while taking a perfect record into their Round of 32 game against Kentucky. As you know, the Wildcats won on that Sunday afternoon in St. Louis thanks to a flurry of 3-pointers and free throws in the second half. But Wichita State still finished 35–1 overall, and the Shockers are returning enough to roll through the Missouri Valley Conference again.
Fred VanVleet is back. So is Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
That means Wichita State returns its starting 1, 2 and 3 from that 35-win team, and now you know why Marshall decided to return for an eighth season at WSU despite the fact that Tennessee, Missouri, Wake Forest, California and basically every other power-conference school with an opening tried, either directly or indirectly, to lure him away from the MVC power he’s built. Put another way, Marshall’s stock won’t slip this season because he’ll win plenty thanks to the presence of VanVleet, Baker and Cotton. They combined to average 35.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 10.9 assists last season.
Bottom line, pencil the Shockers down for another 30 wins.
Then we’ll see if the school can keep Marshall for a ninth season.
4. KU’s quest for another Big 12 title
Bill Self has developed over the years into one of the surest things in college basketball, if not the surest, proof being that his Jayhawks have won at least a share of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles. So this season’s challenge is trying to win an 11th straight despite losing three starters — including the players who were picked first (Andrew Wiggins) and third (Joel Embiid) overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.
That sounds like a tall task. And it would be for most coaches.
But you’d be silly to bet against Self because A) he’s really, really good, B) he returns Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason from a 25-win team, and C) KU is once again enrolling a stellar recruiting class featuring Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Devonte’ Graham, the last of whom the Jayhawks added late after the point guard was released from his signed National Letter of Intent with Appalachian State.
“He’s good,” Self says. “He’s a true point guard.”
Assuming that’s true, KU will have something this season that it never had last season— i.e., a true point guard — to help create for Selden, Mason, Oubre and Ellis, and Self will have no shortage of interesting combinations at is disposal.
“We should be good 1 through 4,” Self says. “We have some talented guys.”
The most interesting piece will be in the middle.
He’s a 6-8 forward and physical specimen who projects as a future NBA Lottery pick, but Alexander is unproven defensively and hardly a shot-blocker/shot-alterer like Embiid. And that might be an issue (although Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson should alleviate some of those concerns). Either way, Self has an incredible roster featuring veterans and newcomers and no fewer than four future NBA Draft picks, and that, more than anything else, is the point here — that Kansas will be fantastic again and, probably, Big 12 champions again.
5. Montrezl Harrell’s Breakthrough
Every year, without exception, there are underclassmen who surprise college basketball fans when they announce they’re leaving college early, and then, also every year, also without exception, there are other underclassmen whose decision to remain in college a year longer than most anticipated doubles as a shocking development.
Which brings us to Montrezl Harrell.
“I was shocked that he came back,” says Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Harrell was a projected Lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He could be a millionaire right now. Instead, he’s still in Louisville, still enrolled and set to have the type of breakthrough season that could make him a first-team All-American and, perhaps, a top-five pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Physically and athletically, Harrell already checks every box because he’s a 6-8, 235-pound freak. So as long as he expands his offensive game, his decision to delay getting paid NBA money for a year should pay off and, of course, give Louisville a chance to compete at the top of the ACC in its first season in the ACC.
Did you realize that, by the way?
In a move motivated by football (duh!), Louisville has relocated to the Atlantic Coast Conference after spending one season in the American Athletic Conference after spending eight seasons in the Big East that were preceded by a stint in Conference USA. (The Cardinals sure do bounce around a lot, don’t they?) The byproduct from that development is that it’s safe to call the ACC the nation’s best basketball league thanks to the presence of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, NC State, Pittsburgh and, yes, Louisville. As for Pitino, well, he’d rather be in the old Big East still, frankly. But he knows those days are gone forever. So now he’s looking forward to coaching in some new spots.
“I’ve never coached at Duke or Virginia,” Pitino says. “So I’m excited about it. I really am.”
6. John Beilein’s Magic
Kentucky’s John Calipari has transitioned more prospects from high school to the NBA than any other college coach in recent years, and he really is on an unprecedented run. It’s amazing. But what’s equally impressive — and perhaps even more impressive — is how John Beilein has taken two prospects ranked outside of the top 75 of their high school classes and turned them into top-10 picks in consecutive years.
One is Trey Burke, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked ninth in the 2013 NBA Draft. The other is Nik Stauskas, who left Michigan after two seasons and was picked eighth in the 2014 NBA Draft. Both were Big Ten Players of the Year.
So what’s Beilein’s secret?
“We try to project whether a player is on the rise,” Beilein says, “or if he’s already where he’s gonna be (when we sign him).”
Let the record show the Michigan staff is great at those projections. They clearly saw something in Burke and Stauskas that nobody else saw, and the byproduct of that was the Wolverines averaging 27.6 wins per season in the past three years.
So why is this relevant this preseason? Because Beilein has yet another unheralded recruit positioned to possibly be a top-10 pick. His name is Caris LeVert. He’s a 6-7 guard who was ranked 215th in the Class of 2012. Now he’s on every NBA franchise’s radar and projected, by most right now, to be a Lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, provided LeVert makes himself available. Either way, most of the shots Stauskas took last season will be LeVert’s to shoot this season. That means he should average more than 15 points per game for a nationally relevant program and be in contention for All-American honors.
7. The re-emergence of Arkansas
One of the more unbelievable facts about college basketball (given the history of the program and resources available) is that Arkansas hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 1996. Did you realize that? The Razorbacks won the national title in 1994, lost in the title game in 1995, made the Sweet 16 in 1996, and they really haven’t escaped the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since then.
“I hear it every day, man. Every day — from like the elderly people,” says Bobby Portis, the Hogs’ 6-11 forward. “Because, you know, back in the 90’s, we were a powerhouse. But it’s kinda flipped. So now somebody says something about it every day.”
The good news is that Portis’ decision to return to Arkansas for his sophomore year (rather than declare for the NBA Draft after last season) gives the Razorbacks a legitimate chance to break through and end this streak. Portis averaged 12.3 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds last season, and his return ensured that coach Mike Anderson would have his top three scorers back. The others are Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls.
That trio doesn’t compare to the top three players at Kentucky, obviously. But they’re talented and good enough to lead Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and it should surprise nobody if the Hogs escape the opening weekend of that 68-team event for the first time in 19 seasons.
“Every year they talk about Kentucky and Florida and nobody else in the conference,” Portis says. “But maybe we can change that.”
8. North Carolina (on the basketball court)
UNC is one of the best and most accomplished programs in college basketball — proof being the 18 Final Fours and five NCAA Tournament titles. Beyond that, it’s the place Michael Jordan played, and the impact of those three years spent in Chapel Hill will probably last forever. And yet, all that said, the Tar Heels have been in the headlines recently more for off-the-court issues than on-the-court performance.
P.J. Hairston being ruled ineligible because of impermissible benefits dominated talk early last season. Meantime, that academic scandal is the story that keeps on giving, and who knows where that will ultimately lead? But it’s important to remember that the Tar Heels are still, you know, really good at basketball, and this season should serve as a reminder thanks to the return of Marcus Paige and enrollment of another heralded recruiting class featuring five-star prospects Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
“We are ecstatic that these three young men … decided to join our basketball family,” Williams says. “Each of them (is) talented, comes from a wonderful family and shares a common trait in that they have a tremendous desire for their teams to do well.”
Yes, that’s probably coach-speak on some level. But there’s no denying that the Tar Heels are equipped to have a team that does well and possibly advances to the Elite Eight for the third time in five seasons, if not farther. Navigating the ACC will be tough as usual thanks to Duke and Virginia — and the additions of Louisville (this year) and Pittsburgh (last year). But Paige, a 6-1 junior who averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists last season, could become the 17th consensus first-team All-American in UNC history this season, and, if he does, the guess here is that the discussion surrounding North Carolina will be more about hoops than fraudulent classes.
9. Sean Miller’s Emerging Monster
National championships are hard to come by for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament. One bad shooting night, you’re done. One freak injury to a key player, you’re done. One questionable foul, you’re done. So it’s possible to be great and never actually cut nets on the first Monday in April, and there are lots of great coaches who fall into that category.
Which brings us to Sean Miller.
He’s likely the biggest power (at a top-shelf program) working today who hasn’t yet won a national title. In fact, he’s never made a Final Four in 10 years as a head coach. But his time is probably coming — perhaps as soon as this season courtesy of a roster that is loaded to the point where at least two players (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson) project as future Lottery picks in the NBA Draft.
How’d this happen?
Miller has lured commitments from 11 five-star prospects in the past five classes, which is at least four more than every other program not called Kentucky. That’s why Arizona is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 despite the losses of its top two scorers from last season’s 33-win team (Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon), and it’s hard to imagine a scenario (barring injury) where Arizona doesn’t finish first or second in the Pac-12 for the fourth time in five years.
10. The Wide-Open Race to Make an All-America Team
College basketball is a sport where most of the top players turn pro every single year. So nobody was surprised, nor should they have been, when Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and lots more like them exited school after last season. That’s par for the so-called course.
Still, it’s worth noting that not a single first-team Associated Press All-American, second-team Associated Press All-American, or third-team Associated Press All-American is back in college for just the second time since 2003, and that means nobody seems like a sure-bet to collect first team honors at the end of this season. Which is fun, right?
Last year, around this time, pretty much every media outlet (including this magazine) had Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott and Russ Smith listed as preseason first-team All-Americans because they were awesome players who performed brilliantly at the college level in the year prior. But there are no can’t-leave-them-off guys entering this season, really. For instance, a reasonable person could pick Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet as the first-team point guard … or Duke’s Tyus Jones or West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, and it’s like that at every single position.
There’s nothing silly about selecting Marcus Paige (UNC), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Arizona), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) or any number of players. So, for the first time in a long time, literally every single position on every single postseason All-American team seems to be there for the taking, and it’ll be a blast watching players try to earn those spots.
Perhaps all five will come from the names listed above.
Either way, get ready.
The college basketball season is almost here.
Florida has found its quarterback of the future.
One week after “managing” his team to an improbable win over Georgia when he only attempted six passes, Treon Harris showed his playmaking ability in the Gators’ 34–10 win at Vanderbilt. The diminutive true freshman — Harris is listed at 5-11 — completed 13-of-21 passes for 215 yards while adding 49 yards and two scores on the ground.
Harris averaged 10.2 yards on his 21 passes against Vanderbilt and is now up to an SEC-high 11.2 yards per attempt for the season. The player he replaced, Jeff Driskel, ranks last in the league with only 5.0 yards per attempt.
“We have all the confidence in him moving forward,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after his team improved to 4–3 in the SEC. “The thing that strikes me is his maturity. He doesn’t get fazed. He’s been accurate in practice so that’s nothing that shocks me there. The maturity of carrying it to a game has been outstanding.”
The Florida coaching staff is doing its best to keep Driskel, the former starter, engaged in the offense. Driskel was on the field for five snaps Saturday night, netting 10 yards on four runs (most near the goal line) and badly misfiring on a short-passing attempting. But it’s clear this offense operates far more efficiently with Harris at quarterback. Maybe the offensive line has played better in the past two weeks — as Muschamp maintains — but it can’t be a coincidence that Florida has averaged 437 yards and 6.3 yards per play since the staff made the move at quarterback.
“He’s a special player,” says Gator All-America cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. “As a freshman just to come in and do whatever the coach asks, whether it’s handing the ball off six times or throwing the ball however many times he did today, he does it to a high level and that’s impressive for a freshman.”
For the first time since Jake Plummer was leading Arizona State to the Rose Bowl, it seems Arizona State is going to be a viable contender in the chase for national supremacy. And it’s not a fluke either.
There may not be many teams that can give up 62 points at home and still be considered a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff, but Arizona State has managed to rise from the ashes of that awful Thursday night performance against UCLA. Arizona State could have sunk in their malaise after that game, but instead the Sun Devils fired up wins at a ranked USC and returned home to score revenge against Stanford in a Pac-12 Championship Game rematch. Though the Trojans and Cardinal are no longer ranked, at the time it was vital for Arizona State to bounce back against respected opponents. The Stanford win more than anything helped Arizona State put behind them their disappointments over the past year, and they have not let up since.
Arizona State’s road win at Washington was nice, but winning a defensive battle with ranked Utah in overtime at home and following that up with an impressive victory at home against top 10 Notre Dame team has served as a nice statement to the College Football Playoff selection committee. The committee may have been withholding some judgments on Notre Dame the past two weeks, but that should change now. The committee will likely hammer Notre Dame with a second loss against a ranked team, but at the same time the committee may reward Arizona State for their effort. Arizona State started strong and managed to finish strong after losing the momentum. Regardless of what happens to Notre Dame, the selection committee should feel inclined to respect the full performance from Arizona State.
Few teams have shown the kind of balance Arizona State has this season. Despite playing through some quarterback injury concerns for Taylor Kelly, Arizona State has kept a balanced attack with the nation’s 26th best passing offense and the 44th best rushing offense. Maybe those numbers do not impress much, but put them together and that is one dependable and balanced offense that keeps defensive coordinators on their toes. The defense has also been resurgent since seeing UCLA score 62 points in Tempe in late September. Arizona State has held three of its past four opponents to fewer than 20 points, and it was the defense that helped set the tone to a big start against Notre Dame. Arizona State forced five turnovers, including two interceptions returned for a touchdown. This Arizona State team is hot as the sun. Can they keep the focus on the bigger prize at the end of the tunnel?
Arizona State still has a game with Arizona looming at the end of the season, and it is on the road. No game should be taken for granted by Arizona State, especially a rivalry game against the Wildcats. Keeping in mind how dangerous this Arizona team is capable of being, Arizona State will have its work cut out for it the rets of the way if the Sun Devils are intent on staying in the playoff picture. Arizona is the only team to defeat Oregon. If Arizona State can get by Arizona and avoid upset bids by Oregon State and Washington State, the Sun Devils will get their chance to upend the Ducks with a possible playoff spot on the line in addition to the Pac-12 trophy.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Ohio State’s stay in second place in the Big Ten pecking order did not last very long. After being dethroned as the class of the Big Ten in last season’s conference championship game by Michigan State, the Buckeyes had to wait until Nov. 8 to get back on top. Naturally, and perhaps fittingly, that opportunity to jump back on top of the Big Ten came at the expense of Michigan State.
For Urban Meyer, Saturday night’s win against Michigan State was his first against a top-15 team since being hired as Ohio State’s coach in 2012. With that proverbial monkey off the back of Meyer now, the focus shifts to getting to the Big Ten championship game. With a head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan State, Ohio State is two more wins away from clinching a return trip to Indianapolis as division champion. Ohio State is also now the team to beat in the Big Ten.
The success of Ohio State this season has been overshadowed by a Week 2 loss at home to Virginia Tech, but the Buckeyes have shown they are a far superior team than the one that took the field that night against the upset-minded Hokies. Sure, the Virginia Tech loss is not good, and looks worse as the season unfolds, but it is also important to remember the situation then and it should be put into perspective. J.T. Barrett was making just his second start for Ohio State, and it showed. Barrett had just taken over the starting job weeks before when Braxton Miller underwent season-ending surgery before it ever got started. Watching Barrett against Michigan State, you would have thought you were watching a completely different player. In reality, you were.
Barrett threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns against a Michigan State defense often referred to as the best in the Big Ten. Maybe the Spartans defense is lacking a no-fly zone this season, but to do what Barrett did on the road against Michigan State should open some eyes to what he and everyone else at Ohio State is doing. Ezekiel Elliott was a beast running the football (154 yards, two touchdowns) and Devin Smith showed off some wheels with 129 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Ohio State’s 49-37 victory in East Lansing was exactly the kind of victory the Buckeyes needed to re-enter the College Football Playoff discussion in the coming weeks, although it is still a crowded pool Ohio State is now swimming in with one-loss teams at TCU and Baylor in the Big 12, Oregon and Arizona State in the Pac-12, Alabama generating momentum in the SEC and undefeated teams at Mississippi State and Florida State. There may still be a chance for Ohio State to reach the playoff, but the only thing Urban Meyer’s team can focus on now is winning its first outright Big Ten championship since 2009.
Next up? A road trip to a surprisingly good Minnesota. Can the Buckeyes keep things rolling against a Gophers squad coming off a 51-14 win over Iowa?
-By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
This was a great weekend to have off if you are Nebraska. With Ohio State and Michigan State doing battle in the big Ten East, Minnesota and Iowa colliding in the west and Wisconsin on the road, this was a good weekend to sit back, relax and check out the rest of the conference. A bye week in November is always nice to have, especially when in the midst of a division race that has certainly heated up. For the Huskers, giving Heisman Trophy candidate running back Ameer Abdullah some extra time to heal up could not have come at a better time either.
Abdullah sprained his knee in Nebraska’s last game against Purdue. Bo Pelini said at the time there was no reason to believe he would have to sit his top offensive player for the big game this week against Wisconsin, and that was clearly some good news. Giving Abdullah an extra week not to worry about missing playing time can only help him and Nebraska as the Huskers look to make a run toward a return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. Nebraska has had a rash of bad luck in conference championship games under Pelini, but if Abdullah is healthy for the final games of the season this year could be different.
Nebraska’s only loss this season came on the road against Michigan State, but Nebraska has pretty much been a solid from September through mid-November in Big Ten play. The Huskers have won four conference games by double digits, and Abdullah has piled up big numbers to boost his Heisman profile. At 8-1 coming out of the bye week, these Huskers are looking to shrug aside a recent history of reaching nine wins as a ceiling all too often. With Nebraska currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West, the pressure is officially on for Nebraska to prove capable of reaching double-digit wins and making a case for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Though there is plenty of competition for the four playoff spots, the odds are still pretty decent a one–loss Big Ten champion would at least be in the conversation. Ohio State and Nebraska are the only two one-loss teams in the conference, and if things go well for Nebraska, the Huskers could have a chance to hand Ohio State a second straight conference championship game loss and make a case for the playoff in the process. There are three critical weeks before this can even become a realistic conversation worth having.
Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota are all tied for first place in the division, which makes the next few weeks especially intriguing. Nebraska travels to Wisconsin this week and hosts Minnesota next week before closing out the regular season at Iowa. Nebraska is going to need to be at full strength to go toe-to-toe in Madison against the Badgers in what should be a terrific showdown of the Big Ten’s top two running backs (Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin and Abdullah).
There is no question Nebraska is much more of a threat with Abdullah healthy. The extra week of rest could prove to be extremely valuable.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
For stretches of this season, Baylor didn’t look much like Baylor teams of recent vintage, and Bryce Petty didn’t resemble Bryce Petty.
This version of Art Briles’ squad was 7-1 but easy to dismiss in the College Football Playoff race.
On Saturday, Baylor achieved the most un-Baylor-like feat it could muster to put the Bears back into the playoff mix.
The Bears not only won a road game against a ranked team for the first time since 1991, they won in Norman for the first time in school history.
Baylor started Saturday ranked No. 12 but likely will be in striking distance of the playoff when the new rankings are released Tuesday after a 48-14 win over Oklahoma.
“This game, for me, was circled on the calendar,” Petty told the media. “I don't like to make that public, just because every game is a big game. At the same time, I really wanted to win this game, being at Norman. I didn't even know 37 straight losses to top 25 teams. All the stuff that we unraveled, that's big.”
The Bears needed this kind of feat to build legitimacy for the season. True, Baylor defeated TCU 61-58 thanks to a fourth quarter comeback Oct. 11. Otherwise, the Bears’ record entering Saturday didn’t have much meat to it.
Baylor’s non-conference schedule of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo is forgettable at best, and its loss came by two touchdowns at West Virginia.
More than that, Petty was hardly himself in October and into the first weekend of November. The Big 12 leader in passing efficiency in 2013 completed 47 percent of his passes during the four-game stretch entering Saturday.
That changed in the second quarter in Norman when Petty started to look like the quarterback who led Baylor to a conference title last season.
In the second and third quarters, Petty was 27-of-32 for 322 yards with a touchdown. He picked apart the Oklahoma defense with short completions for the most part, completing 18 consecutive passes at one point.
“It is sometimes good for people to be doubted,” Baylor coach Art Briles told the media. “He has gone through a little bit of that.”
A run game that struggled for most of the game was at least effective in short-yardage situations around the goal line for four scores inside the five-yard line. The hot streak gave Baylor 45 unanswered points to end the game.
How the selection committee views this potential turn in Baylor’s season is a mystery. The non-conference schedule could continue to be an anchor.
And even though Baylor’s first win in Norman is a landmark moment, the victory might not be resume-builder it would be in any other season. Oklahoma picked up its third loss of the season to fall to 3-3 in the Big 12.
Yet if the selection committee likes common opponents, consider that Baylor beat the Sooners by 34 on the road. Kansas State won in Norman, too, by 1. TCU beat Oklahoma by 4 in Fort Worth.
The most important victory, though, may have been a fourth quarter comeback against TCU. The Horned Frogs handed Kansas State its first loss in Big 12 play Saturday, putting Baylor, TCU and the Wildcats into a three-way tie for the conference lead.
Baylor will wrap up the season in Waco against Kansas State, and by then, the Bears could be in position to do the most un-Baylor-like thing of all: Compete for a national championship.
It goes without saying that Minnesota’s offense starts with running the football. David Cobb has already rushed for 1,200 yards this season and leads the team with eight rushing touchdowns. The Minnesota rushing attack has carried the Gophers to a 7-2 record heading into mid-November. It has been needed because the Minnesota passing game has struggled to take flight this season. The Big Ten’s worst passing offense has averaged just 140.2 yards per game this season, but against Iowa it appeared the Gophers finally found some rhythm throwing the football.
After a couple of struggles throwing the football against Purdue and Illinois, Minnesota was smart and accurate with the football against Iowa. Though still relying on the performance of the running game, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner completed 10 of his 13 pass attempts against the Hawkeyes for 138 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Leidner had thrown for six touchdowns all season entering the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale.
In the second quarter, Leidner connected with Donovahn Jones for a 44-yard touchdown strike to break a 7-7 tie. Midway through the quarter, Leidner threw the first of two red zone touchdown passes before halftime and Minnesota was on its way to a rout of visiting Iowa. This was not just Minnesota taking advantage of a poor pass defense either. The Hawkeyes entered the week ranked second in the Big Ten against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging just over 50 percent in completion percentage this season. Leidner completed 76.9 percent of his attempts, by far his most accurate performance this season.
If nothing else, Minnesota gained some confidence passing the football at just the right time. The final few games for Minnesota are still considered an uphill battle for a Minnesota team that is continuing to develop and mature. Next week Minnesota will host Ohio State, with the Buckeyes coming off a big road win at Michigan State. Ohio State is around the middle of the pack in the Big Ten against the pass. So is Nebraska, also still to come on Minnesota’s schedule. Wisconsin, Minnesota’s final opponent this season, Wisconsin, leads the Big Ten against the pass.
Minnesota is going to need to have a balanced attack in order to make a run in these final three games. If the Gophers can get the running game on track early and often, it will open things up for the passing game as well. With what Minnesota has to work with, that is not a terrible way to go. Mitch Leidner may not be a guy who will throw for 250 or 300 yards, but if he can be put in a situation to make some safe throws, Minnesota’s offense should have enough to make things a little more interesting these next few weeks.
This is Minnesota’s time to prove they belong in the Big Ten race. A superior TCU team humbled the Gophers earlier in the season, but Minnesota has matured a bit since that early season loss. Now lets see if the passing game has found its groove at the right time or if it was just a blip on the radar against Iowa.
- by Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
It’s always dangerous to throw out the word “luck” in sports. Are teams lucky, or do good teams make their own luck? Are teams unlucky, or do bad teams simply not make enough big plays at the right time?
Whatever your thoughts on this issue might be, you’d have to agree that Auburn has been quite fortunate since Gus Malzahan took over as its head coach. The Tigers have clearly been one of the elite programs in the past two years, but it’s undeniable the ball has bounced the right way in critical times. From the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” to the “Kick Six” miracles that helped Auburn reach the 2013 BCS National Championship Game to Laquon Treadwell’s fumble at the goal line in the thrilling win at Ole Miss two weeks ago, the football gods have been smiling on the Tigers.
That all changed Saturday afternoon, when Auburn had two unforced turnovers — one an a bad exchange between quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne inside the 5-yard line and the other on premature snap by center Reese Disumkes at the 28-yard line — in the final minutes of a stunning 41–38 loss at home to Texas A&M.
“We just didn’t get it done when we usually do,” Malzahn said after the game. “Like I sad, we aren’t going to blame anybody. That is just how it goes, and we will be better next time.”
The loss was a significant blow to Auburn’s chances of reaching the College Football Playoff, though it’s a bit early to eliminate the Tigers from the postseason picture. If chaos ensues in the final few weeks of the regular season, there is a possibility that a two-loss team could sneak into the four-team field. And you could argue that no two–loss team would have a more impressive resume than a 10–2 Auburn team that would claim wins at Kansas State, vs. LSU, at Ole Miss, at Georgia and at Alabama.
So Auburn, despite a crushing loss to a mediocre Texas A&M team, could still find a way into the national title hunt — with a little luck, of course.
Oregon crossed another hurdle in its quest to reach college football’s four-team playoff with a 51-27 victory over Utah on Saturday night. The win over the Utes clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship for coach Mark Helfrich’s team, and the Ducks have won five in a row since a 31-24 loss to Arizona in early October.
However, Saturday night’s win over Utah could be costly in the long run. Oregon doesn’t release much in the way of injury reports, but a couple key players left the game and were unable to return.
The biggest concern from Saturday night has to be the status of standout center Hroniss Grasu. The senior made his 50th consecutive start in Saturday night’s win over Utah and is one of the leaders for an offense that averages 46 points a game. Grasu left the game with a knee injury and was replaced by Doug Brenner.
In addition to Grasu, Oregon lost tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a serious leg injury, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu left with a toe injury, and defensive end DeForest Buckner left the locker room with ice on his knee.
Considering Oregon’s policy of not discussing injuries, it’s hard to know how long this team could be without Grasu or Buckner. Ekpre-Olomu commented after the game he expects to be ready for Colorado.
While the injuries against Utah are troublesome for Oregon, this team has a bye in Week 12, followed by games against Colorado and Oregon State. The Ducks should be able to beat the Buffaloes and Beavers without being at full strength.
However, it’s the Pac-12 Championship that should be of concern for Helfrich.
Arizona State has won five in a row, and its defense creates a lot of havoc around the line of scrimmage (73 tackles for a loss). And the Sun Devils certainly have no trouble scoring points, as coach Todd Graham’s offense averages 36.7 points per game.
Arizona State still has work to do in order to reach the conference championship, but the Sun Devils are a threat to Oregon’s playoff hopes if they meet in the Pac-12 title game – especially if the Ducks are at less than 100 percent in the injury department.
With the return of tackle Jake Fisher and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s continued play as the best quarterback in college football, Oregon has scored at least 42 points in each of its last five games.
The high-scoring offense has helped to mask some of the issues on defense, where the Ducks rank ninth in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play (5.7) and last in the conference in third-down defense.
Getting Fisher back was huge for the offense, but how much of a blow would it be to this team if Grasu was out for an extended period?
So far, the Ducks’ national title hopes have yet to be derailed by injury. And with a couple of weeks to get everyone at full strength before the Pac-12 title game, that’s a huge break for Helfrich’s team.
The NFL’s longest-running rivalry takes center stage tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Green Bay Packers on NBC. Both teams are coming out of their bye having lost their last game, but the Bears (3-5) are in a bigger funk than the Packers (5-3). Chicago has lost four of its past five games after getting bludgeoned by Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and rest of the Patriots 51-23 in Foxboro in Week 8. Green Bay also lost big, 44-23 in New Orleans, prior to going on bye, but had won its previous four games, including a 38-17 victory in Chicago back in Week 4.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Green Bay -7.5
Three Things to Watch
|Chicago 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||@ CAR||L 24 - 31||Recap|
|10/12||@ ATL||W 27 - 13||Recap|
|10/19||vs MIA||L 14 - 27||Recap|
|10/26||@ NE||L 23 - 51||Recap|
|11/9||@ GB||L 14 - 55||Recap|
|11/16||vs MIN||W 21 - 13||Recap|
|11/23||vs TB||W 21 - 13||Recap|
|11/27||@ DET||L 17 - 34||Recap|
1. Aaron Rodgers Bearing Down
This represents the 190th meeting in the regular season between Chicago and Green Bay. The Bears hold a slight 93-90-6 lead, but the Packers have dominated the proceedings with Aaron Rodgers under center. Since becoming Green Bay’s starting quarterback in 2008, Rodgers is 11-3 against Chicago, including a road win in the 2011 NFC Championship Game. The only game Rodgers has lost to the Bears since that 21-14 win on Jan. 23, 2011 was last season’s 27-20 defeat on “Monday Night Football” to close out Week 9. Rodgers started that game, but he didn’t finish it, as Chicago’s Shea McClellin sacked him on the first series, breaking his collarbone. Otherwise, Rodgers has owned the Bears, posting a 25:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 13 regular season games, while completing 69 percent of his passes and compiling a 105.0 passer rating. He was practically flawless (22-of-28, 302-4-0) in the 38-17 Week 4 win in Chicago, and it’s not like the Bears’ defense has gotten better since that game. Rodgers injured his hamstring two weeks ago in the loss to New Orleans, but he got the bye to recover and wasn’t limited at all in practice this week. This doesn’t bode well for Chicago, whose last win against Green Bay came in a game in which Rodgers was on the field for a total of seven plays.
|Green Bay 2014 Schedule|
|10/2||vs MIN||W 42 - 10||Recap|
|10/12||@ MIA||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|10/19||vs CAR||W 38 - 17||Recap|
|10/26||@ NO||L 23 - 44||Recap|
|11/9||vs CHI||W 55 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs PHI||W 53 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||@ MIN||W 24 - 21||Recap|
|11/30||vs NE||W 26 - 21||Recap|
2. Can Cutler Make the Lambeau Leap?
Aaron Rodgers’ success against the Bears has come, fair or not, at the expense of Jay Cutler. A 38-17 loss at Solider Field in Week 4 dropped Cutler’s career record, including playoffs, against the Packers to 1-10. His lone victory over Green Bay came back in the 2010 season and not surprisingly; Cutler’s numbers against the Packers haven’t been pretty. In 10 games with the Bears, Cutler has thrown more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (12) against Green Bay and is averaging exactly 200 yards passing per contest. If that’s not bad enough, the picture is even uglier when you look at how he has fared in three games at Lambeau Field: 0-3, 49-of-102 (48.0 percent), 571-2-10. Ouch. So far this season, Cutler is completing 67.2 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and eight picks. He has played pretty well (11 TDs, 3 INTs) on the road, where the Bears are 3-2, but Lambeau has always been a house of horrors for him. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact that the Packers are 33-5-1 at home since Week 10 of the 2009 season. The good news is that one of those losses (Nov. 4, 2013) was to the Bears. The bad news is that Josh McCown was the starting quarterback, as Cutler was out with a groin injury. A victory tonight would not only represent a breakthrough of sorts for Cutler, it also could set the tone for the second half of the season, as Chicago desperately needs a win to keep any playoff hopes alive.
3. Bears Get Defensive?
Entering this season expectations were high for Chicago’s offense, given its success last season and the quantity and quality of playmakers that were returning. To this point, it’s certainly fair to say that Marc Trestman’s offense has underachieved, but it’s not like the defense has done its job either. The Bears are 21st in the NFL in total defense (372.4 ypg) and 29th in scoring (27.8 ppg). They gave up 51 points to New England in their last game and have held one team (Atlanta) to fewer than 321 yards of offense. Coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit is relatively young and inexperienced, and the growing pains have been obvious, especially given the injuries on that side of the ball. All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman tore his triceps in Week 2 and is out for the season, as is defensive end Lamarr Houston, who tore his ACL celebrating a meaningless sack in the loss to the Patriots. Linebackers Lance Briggs (ribs) and Jonathan Bostic (back) also have missed significant time and other injuries in the secondary have resulted in a lot of lineup shuffling and several young players getting thrown into the fire earlier than expected. Briggs and Bostic are both expected to play tonight, which should help stabilize the middle of the defense and the back end should be close to full strength as well. The hope is that the combination of better health and the opportunity to work on some things during the bye will lead to better results for Tucker’s unit on the field. Some early returns would certainly be welcome tonight, especially considering the offense’s own struggles and Jay Cutler’s lack of success at Lambeau Field.
Both Chicago and Green Bay lost their last games headed into the bye, but there’s no debate when it comes to which team has been playing better. The Packers started October 3-0, while the Bears haven’t won in nearly a month. Green Bay has won 14 of its last 18 games coming right after a bye and the extra week also gave Aaron Rodgers’ ailing hamstring time to heal. Rodgers has simply owned his NFC North archrival and Jay Cutler has not enjoyed his previous visits to Lambeau Field to say the least. Stranger things have happened this season, but I think there’s just too much history in the Packers’ favor to expect any sort of breakthrough from Cutler and the Bears tonight.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, Chicago 24
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was simply flawless in Saturday’s win over Michigan State. The redshirt freshman finished with 300 passing yards and three scores and rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a matchup against one of the nation’s best defenses.
Barrett earned Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors for Week 11 due to his performance against the Spartans, which vaulted Ohio State back into contention for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff.
The Buckeyes lost to the Spartans in last year’s Big Ten Championship, and this season’s meeting was billed as a defacto East Division title game and a matchup between the two best teams in the conference.
The Spartans jumped out to a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter, but the Buckeyes never hit the panic button and rallied behind an offense that finished with just two punts. Barrett guided Ohio State back to a 28-21 lead at halftime, and the redshirt freshman helped the Buckeyes score 14 points unanswered midway through the second half, which gave coach Urban Meyer’s team a 42-24 lead and proved to be more than enough in a 49-37 victory for Ohio State.
Barrett had big shoes to fill in August with the season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Braxton Miller. After a slow start to the season, the redshirt freshman clearly looks like a rising star at quarterback and is someone who has mastered Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman’s system in a very short amount of time.
Defensive Player of the Week: Cedric Reed, DE, Texas
Reed led a standout defensive effort in Texas’ upset win over West Virginia. The Longhorns held the Mountaineers to a season-low 16 points and five yards per play on 90 attempts. Reed wreaked havoc on West Virginia’s offensive line, sacking quarterback Clint Trickett three times and recording four tackles for a loss. One of the senior’s sacks against Trickett resulted in a safety in the fourth quarter. Reed also chipped in 12 overall tackles and one forced fumble.
Coordinator of the Week: Phil Bennett, Baylor
Baylor’s offense scored 48 points in Saturday’s win over Oklahoma, but the defensive effort from the Bears was just as sharp. Coordinator Phil Bennett has significantly improved Baylor’s defense in recent years, as this unit led the Big 12 in fewest yards per play in 2013. Bennett had to replace a few standouts from last season, but the Bears haven’t suffered in production. In Saturday’s victory, the Sooners did not score a point after the first quarter, were limited to 5.1 yards per play and five out of the last six offensive possessions by Oklahoma never lasted more than 18 yards. Baylor will always have an explosive offense under coach Art Briles. However, it’s the improvement on defense that has the Bears squarely in the mix to earn a spot in the college football playoff.
Freshman of the Week: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
In his first career start, Falk kept coach Mike Leach’s high-powered offense on track by throwing for 471 yards and five scores in a 39-32 win over Oregon State. The redshirt freshman threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including an 18-yard toss to Dom Williams to give Washington State the lead for good against the Beavers. Falk had the difficult assignment of replacing injured starter Connor Halliday in last week’s game against USC, but the redshirt freshman clearly showed he was ready for the task by guiding the Cougars to their second Pac-12 victory of 2014. Falk’s 471 yards against Oregon State were the most by a Washington State quarterback in their first career start, and the former walk-on has a chance to solidify his place atop the depth chart for next season if he continues to play at a high level against Arizona State and Washington.
Week 10 should mark the return of one NFC East quarterback and the debut of a new starting signal-caller in the division. Whether it’s London or Green Bay, Athlon Sports has the QB injuries you need to know about.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
Probable – Hamstring
Rodgers was noticeably gimpy two weeks ago after injuring his hamstring in the loss to New Orleans. But the bye came at an ideal time for the Packers’ signal-caller, as he took some time off to recover. He was a full practice participant this week and is listed as Probable for tonight’s game. Rodgers said he was “fine” when asked about his hamstring earlier in the week and head coach Mike McCarthy also pronounced his QB “ready to go.” Rodgers has owned the Bears during his career, but it’s not like you’re ever sitting the 2011 MVP, right?
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (London)
Probable – Back
Romo was held out of last week’s game, and it looks like that decision may end up paying off. He survived the long plane ride to London and increased his practice activity as the week progressed, finishing things off with a full session on Friday. The fact that he is listed as Probable is a pretty strong signal Romo will play. While there are still plenty of questions regarding his effectiveness and if he’ll be out there the entire game, the coaching and training staff seem pretty confident in his readiness, so you should probably trust Romo too if he’s on your roster.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Dallas Cowboys (London)
Probable – Wrist
Bortles suffered a minor wrist injury last week, but he was able to finish the game. He was a full go in practice all week and is listed as Probable, so there’s no reason to not expect him to play. Starting him on your fantasy team, however, is an entirely different matter. While Bortles has shown some flashes of the talent and potential that made him the third player taken in May’s draft, he also leads the NFL in interceptions (13) despite the fact he’s played in just seven games. Even with six teams on bye, it’s still too early to seriously think about trusting Bortles as a QB2, let alone a QB1.
Already Ruled Out:
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles – Foles broke his collarbone last week and is expected to miss at least six weeks. Mark Sanchez stepped in for Foles against Houston, and threw a pair of touchdowns and interceptions, as the Eagles held on for the win. Now Sanchez gets a second chance at being a starter, beginning with a Monday night matchup against Carolina. There’s plenty to like about Sanchez’ situation, mainly as it relates to the playmakers around him and Chip Kelly’s offensive system, and he’s certainly worthy of QB2 consideration this week.
Both San Francisco and New Orleans have running backs who appear on the injury report for Week 10. Find out if any 49er or Saint ball carrier is in danger of missing today’s matchup and how the Buccaneers’ backfield is shaping up for their game against Atlanta.
Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas, RBs, New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers
Questionable – Shoulder; Out – Arm; Out – Rib/Shoulder
If you’re a Saints running back and your name is not Travaris Cadet, then you appear on this week’s injury report. When it comes to reading the tea leaves, the easy part is that Robinson and Thomas are both Out again, as neither practiced at all this week. That brings us to Ingram (right), who is Questionable because of a shoulder injury he suffered last week. He was limited in practice because of his shoulder, but that could have been more of a coaches’ decision stemming from the fact he carried the ball 30 times for 100 yards in the Saints’ victory last Thursday night. The expectation is that Ingram will play and he should get plenty of carries once again, as he’s averaging 136 yards rushing over his last two games. Ingram insists his shoulder injury isn’t serious and I have no problem taking him at his word. Ingram should be started without hesitation, while Cadet is a possible fill-in flex option, especially in PPR leagues.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints
Probable – Hip
Gore was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday, but was a full go on Friday. He’s listed as Probable, so there doesn’t appear to be any reason to not expect him to play today. What is concerning, however, is the fact that Gore’s workload and production have both been on the decline. After rushing for a combined 226 yards in Weeks 4 and 5, Gore has accumulated a total of 107 yards over his past three games. He’s also gone from at least 16 carries to 23 in the past two contests combined. Why the 49ers have somewhat abandoned the run is anyone’s guess and it’s not like backup Carlos Hyde has seen a huge increase in his touches either. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the fact that Gore is averaging less than 60 yards rushing per game and has scored a total of two touchdowns. If you want to employ him as a RB2, especially this week, I can’t really fault you, but Gore is probably safer as a flex option right now.
Doug Martin and Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Doubtful – Ankle; Questionable – Ankle
Once again, Martin did not practice at all this week, so even though he’s listed as Doubtful, there’s no reason to even consider starting him. Sims on the other hand still has yet to make his NFL debut and he remains limited in practice. He wasn’t activated last week, but he’s listed as Questionable and it’s sounding like third-round pick will get on the field today. That said, the Buccaneer back to focus on is Bobby Rainey, who should continue to handle the majority of the workload as Sims gets acclimated to the pro game. Rainey has been the Bucs’ most effective back to this point and he should be able to do some damage against a Falcons defense that’s giving up the most fantasy points to RBs. Those are two reasons why Rainey is a borderline RB1 (12-team leagues) in this week’s rankings.
Both Buffalo’s and Miami’s top running backs are Questionable for their Week 10 game, while Detroit’s backfield should be at full strength. Athlon Sports has the latest news on these injury situations to help get your fantasy team ready.
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins at Detroit Lions
Questionable – Shoulder
Miller injured his shoulder last week and it limited him during practice. He is expected to play, but don’t take his Questionable tag too lightly. Detroit’s defense has done a pretty good job against the run and Miller’s injury could lead to fewer touches if he does play. Keep a close eye on Miller’s status prior to kickoff (1 p.m. ET), but I would wait as long as possible before making a final decision. If Miller can’t go, backups Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams would share the work, but I wouldn’t turn to either as Miller’s replacement in your starting lineup.
Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Questionable – Groin
Jackson suffered a groin injury in Week 7 and was originally expected to be out at least a month. However, after returning to practice this week, it looked like Jackson was out to prove everyone wrong. Even though Jackson was back on the field, head coach Doug Marrone was pretty blunt when he said he didn’t think Jackson was ready to return quite yet. He is listed as Questionable for today’s game, but I would be surprised if Jackson wound up playing. With C.J. Spiller (broken collarbone) already on injured reserve, the Bills can ill afford to have Jackson come back too soon and re-aggravate his injury. Anthony Dixon will likely get the majority of the carries if Jackson is held out, while Bryce Brown also will get some touches. With six teams on bye, Dixon is probably in the RB2/flex conversation, but I wouldn’t take my chances with Brown unless you’re really hurting to fill out your lineup.
Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit Lions vs. Miami Dolphins
Probable – Ankle
Bush didn’t play in London two weeks ago because of an ankle injury, but he took full advantage of the bye to treat it. He was a full participant in practice each day and is listed as Probable. Bush’s numbers haven’t been all that great this season and while the hope is that he will be a different player from here out, the reality is that he’s not the only mouth that needs to be fed in the Lions’ backfield. Joique Bell is the designated lead back and remains the best fantasy option of the bunch, while Bush could wind up sharing touches with Theo Riddick. Bush’s primary appeal is due to the fact that he’s actively involved in the Lions’ passing game, but Riddick has shown a knack for doing the same thing and the offense also will get All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson back today. There are only so many targets and carries to split up, especially against a pretty good Miami defense, so Bush may not get enough opportunities to make much of an impact. Bush is still pretty safe as a flex option this week, but he’s a low-end RB2 so be sure to temper your expectations.
Even though there are just three late afternoon kickoffs in Week 10, there are plenty of key running back injuries to keep an eye on. Here are the ones you need to know about.
Montee Ball and Juwan Thompson, RBs, Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
Questionable – Groin; Probable – Knee
After not practicing at all the past four weeks, Ball (right) was back on the field, albeit in a limited capacity. He’s officially listed as Questionable, but it looks like there’s a good chance Ball will be activated today. Ronnie Hillman should still see the bulk of the work, however, as prior to last week’s game in New England, he had averaged 4.9 yards per carry over the previous three games. If anything, Ball’s potential return could impact Thompson’s usage. Thompson, who is Probable after practicing fully all week, had been getting some carries near the goal line and scored two touchdowns two weeks ago. He and Ball could end up sharing backup duties, which means Hillman is probably the only Bronco back to employ this week.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks vs. New York Giants
Probable – Calf
Lynch was added to the injury report this week after missing the first two days of practice because of a calf issue. He was a full go on Friday, however, and when head coach Pete Carroll was asked, he said Lynch was “ready to roll.” Lynch is listed as Probable, which backs up Carroll’s confidence in his readiness, so there doesn’t appear to be any reason for you to not start him. Lynch has topped 88 yards rushing just once this season, but he does have eight total touchdowns, including two last week. Lynch is definitely a must-start RB1 this week at home against a Giants defense that is giving up the fourth most fantasy points to opposing RBs.
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals vs. St. Louis Rams
Probable – Foot
The refrain should be pretty familiar by now. The coaches limit Ellington’s work in practice mainly to cut down the wear and tear on their workhorse. He’s been a mainstay on the injury report this season, but as usual, he’s listed as Probable and will be out there carrying the load once again. Ellington is averaging 109 yards from scrimmage per game this season and has pretty much sewed up his status as a top-10 fantasy RB from here out.
Already Ruled Out:
Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants – Jennings returned to practice this week, but he was just a limited participant on Thursday and Friday. He was considered a long shot to play as of Friday, so it should come as no surprise that Jennings did not accompany the team to Seattle. This means that Andre Williams and Peyton Hillis once again will handle the backfield duties this afternoon against the Seahawks. Neither was that effective on the ground Monday night against the Colts, combining for 42 yards on 16 carries, but Williams got three times as many carries (12) as Hillis (four). That probably won’t change today, but it doesn’t mean that a great deal should be expected out of Williams either. Not only has the rookie struggled to gain much ground (3.0 ypc), he’s facing a Seahawks defense that’s usually pretty tough at home and one that has done a good job against the run. Hopefully you’re eyeing Williams as a flex option and nothing more.
Week 10 marks the return of Calvin Johnson to the Lions’ starting lineup, but the outlook isn’t as promising for some other key wide receivers. Athlon Sports has the latest information on whether some teams will be without their top target today or not.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Questionable – Knee
Jackson cant’ seem to get over the hump. First hampered by a rib injury, Jackson appears on this week’s injury report with a knee issue. He didn’t practice at all on Wednesday, but increased his participation over the next two days, so even though he’s Questionable, it appears that Jackson will play. The bigger development, however, is the fact the Buccaneers are going back to Josh McCown as their starting quarterback. Jackson and Mike Glennon were really starting to click, so it will be interesting to see if the QB change ends up hurting Jackson fantasy-wise. The Bucs are playing the Falcons, so the matchup is certainly in Jackson’s favor, which is why he maintains his WR2 status.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions vs. Miami Dolphins
Probable - Ankle
If anyone needed a bye, it was Johnson and it looks like the extra time did him plenty of good. Forget Questionable, game-time decisions and all of that, Johnson practiced in full every day this week and is listed as Probable. The man known as Megatron will be back out there today and it should only be a matter of time before he’s producing like the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver he was drafted as. Johnson’s return will impact Golden Tate, but it shouldn’t make him fantasy irrelevant either. Matthew Stafford will be happy to get his No. 1 target back that’s for sure.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Questionable – Groin
A quartet of Bills wide receivers appear on the injury report this week, but Watkins is the only one worth paying close attention to. The first-round pick has posted back-to-back strong games, but he left practice early on Wednesday after aggravating a groin injury. He underwent an MRI, but the key here is that Watkins didn’t return to practice on Thursday or Friday. Watkins is officially listed as Questionable, but there is definitely reason to be concerned here. He will most likely be a game-time decision, but I wouldn’t keep my hopes up. Even if Watkins plays, he will most likely be limited by the injury.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks vs. New York Giants
Probable – Groin
Baldwin missed practice time earlier this week because of a groin injury, but he was able to increase his participation each passing day. He finished his prep work with a full session on Friday, which was enough to earn him a Probable designation. Baldwin is the Seahawks’ No. 1 target, but the production just hasn’t been there (11 rec., 99 yds.) over the last two weeks. The targets (14 total) have been, however, which is one reason why Baldwin still checks in as a top-25 fantasy option this week.
Marqise Lee and Cecil Shorts, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Dallas Cowboys (London)
Probable – Ankle; Probable – Hamstring
It should come as no surprise that multiple Jaguar wide receivers appear on this week’s injury report. Fortunately, it looks like Lee and Shorts are both in pretty good shape to play against the Cowboys, as they are listed as Probable. Shorts is the biggest question mark, as he didn’t practice at all on Thursday because of a hamstring issue. He was back on the field Friday and has said he fully intends to be out there. The Jaguars don’t lack for wide receivers, which makes it very hard to rely on any of them as a starting fantasy option. Couple that with a rookie QB (Blake Bortles), who has several more interceptions (13) compared to touchdowns (8). Unless you are desperate to fill out your lineup, any and all Jaguar wideouts, including big-play option Allen Hurns (16.1 ypr, 5 TDs) and top target Allen Robinson (43 rec.), should be viewed primarily as deeper league options.
New Orleans’ All-Pro tight end is ready to roll in Week 10, but the same can’t be said of Chicago’s big target. Athlon Sports gets you up to date on the key tight ends that appeared on this week’s injury report.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers
Probable – Shoulder
Graham was a full practice participant every day this week and unlike last week, he’s listed as Probable. This “upgrade” alone should pretty much remove any doubt from the equation. Graham has caught a touchdown pass in each of his past two games, so he’s looking more like his old self with each passing week. Rob Gronkowski is on bye, which is why Graham is our No. 1 TE this week, and he should have another productive day at the office against a 49ers defense that’s pretty banged up in the middle.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
Questionable – Ribs
Bennett just can’t seem to shake the injury bug. After dealing with a hamstring issue the past several weeks, Bennett injured his ribs during practice a few days ago. He didn’t practice at all on Friday, which is typically not a good sign, and is listed as Questionable. Head coach Marc Trestman didn’t sound overly optimistic when asked about his tight end’s availability, so it’s likely Bennett will wind up being a game-time decision. The Bears don’t play until tonight, which complicates matters some, especially considering Bennett’s role in the passing game and the fact he is a top-five fantasy TE. Bennett is a guy you definitely want in your lineup, but just keep in mind that if you wait until kickoff (8:30 p.m. ET) and he ends up not playing, your options will be limited to the likes of Bennett’s replacement, Dante Rosario, and Green Bay’s Andrew Quarless, because chances are neither Greg Olsen or Zach Ertz, who play Monday, are available. Are you willing to take a chance on Bennett not playing and be shut out at TE?
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills
Probable – Ribs
Kelce was a full go at practice this week, so even though he’s on the injury report all you need to worry about is the Probable designation. Kelce has been a top-10 fantasy TE for most of the season and it’s certainly how he should be treated this week with the aforementioned Gronkowski, as well as Antonio Gates and Dwayne Allen all on bye. Anthony Fasano will get his share of playing time, but the Chiefs employ enough two-tight end sets and also will make a point to get Kelce, their leading receiver, involved so it shouldn’t impact your decision about whether to start him or not.
Charles Clay, TE, Miami Dolphins at Detroit Lions
Probable – Knee
Clay missed some practice time, as he has pretty much every week this season, but he’s listed as Probable, so expect him to be out there today. Clay has been the epitome of an up-and-down player this season, as he’s gone from four catches in Week 7 to one the following week to five last week. He did catch a touchdown pass in two of the past three games, but if his cycle holds true, he’s due for a poor showing today. The point is, Clay has been hard to figure out and even more difficult to trust on a weekly basis this season, but once again the bye-week situation may leave you with no choice but to stick with him.
Eric Ebron, Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew, TEs, Detroit Lions vs. Miami Dolphins
Doubtful – Hamstring; Questionable – Ankle; Questionable – Foot
Unlike teammates Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson, the bye did not seem to benefit the Lions’ banged-up tight end trio that much. No one has been ruled out yet, but the best shot any of the three have of playing today is 50-50, if even that. Ebron is the least likely to suit up, based on his Doubtful tag. He and Pettigrew, who is Questionable, practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday. Fauria on the other hand, got in a little bit of work every day, so he’s the least Questionable of this group, for what that’s worth. The bottom line is this – with Johnson and Bush both expected back, there’s no reason to pay any Lion tight end much attention this week, if any of them even make it on the field.
Arizona State bolstered its playoff hopes with a huge 55-31 win over Notre Dame on Saturday.
The Sun Devils had plenty of help from their defense, but receiver Jaelen Strong made one of the best plays of the day with a touchdown grab in the first half.
Strong finished with five catches for 58 yards, and this first-half touchdown reception was his best grab of the day:
Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams had a huge performance in the Golden Gophers’ game against Iowa.
With Minnesota leading 14-7 midway through the second quarter, Williams made one of the catches of the year in the Big Ten. The tight end kept the foot in bounds and snagged a pass from quarterback Mitch Leidner.
Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight went airborne to gain critical yardage in the first half of Saturday’s game against Baylor.
Knight had the first down without the hurdle, but the jump over cornerback Terrell Burt gave the offense a few more yards.
Check out Knight’s awesome hurdle over a Baylor defender:
For the last few years, NASCAR fans have bemoaned the 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” tri-oval tracks for dominating the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s 10-race docket. “It favors the No. 48 team,” they say. “The tracks looks the same, things are boring, NASCAR needs a road course (it does), add another short track, revive North Wilkesboro, race at Eldora, blah, blah, blah …”
Which races have provided the best action in the 2014 Chase?
Chicagoland Speedway. Charlotte Motor Speedway. Texas Motor Speedway. All of the “cookie cutter” ilk.
Granted, the last two have been due to the post-race antics on pit road and in the garage. With scenes straight out of the WWE Attitude Era, the only thing missing has been Stone Cold’s monster truck driving over cars on pit road or Alan Gustafson landing The People’s Elbow on Paul Wolfe. While Talladega and Martinsville are often identified as the two tracks that would have the most impact in determining the 2014 Sprint Cup champion under the new elimination format, it’s been Kansas and Texas that ultimately will dictate who goes into Homestead for a shot at the title.
Speaking of Texas and shootings, after this weekend’s events they might want to find different trophies besides a lever action .30-.30 and a pair of Colt SAA .45s. Maybe nunchucks and a steel chair? With Jeff Gordon (and half of Hendrick Motorsports) taking on Brad Keselowski and his engine tuner, it ignited a firestorm of tweets, memes, and angry clenched-fist responses from the Nos. 24 and 2 townsfolk alike. Whatever your take on the matter, it’s a moot point as the series moves onto Phoenix for the final cutoff before next week’s final four matchup at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gentleman, to your corners …
I remember back in 1990 prior to the Pyroil 500k at Phoenix, ESPN did a promo for the race with Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin in an old west saloon, pounding beers and pointing guns at each other. While the first shots were fired back in Charlotte between Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, hostilities came to a crescendo in Fort Worth last Sunday. Will any of that spill over into this weekend’s penultimate race?
While I doubt you will see anything as deliberate as Gordon’s ambush on Clint Bowyer in 2012 (that nearly collected Keselowski in the process), I think you’ll see a little something from somebody with one race to go. NASCAR did set a precedent at Richmond in 2013 that it would take unilateral action if it deemed the outcome was being manipulated, but since there have been two rumbles in three weeks with no driver penalty, “Boys Have at It” appears to be alive and well — and accepted as fair play.
Who will be the ones to watch this weekend? To be honest, everyone still alive in the Chase. And a few that no longer are.
In February at Phoenix, Kevin Harvick had the field covered from the time they unloaded. He won every practice session, sat on the pole and by Happy Hour, the field had pretty much conceded the win to his No. 4 team. Harvick’s record at PIR is impressive to say the least: five wins, the most in the Cup Series (ever). He’s won three of the last five events here; the other finishes being second and 13th. He’s eighth in points right now, just six away from Gordon in the fourth and final cut off spot.
Speaking of Gordon, if we were using season-long cumulative points, he’d be headed for his fifth championship right now. Well, actually it’d be his sixth, since he would have won it in 2007, as well. No matter, since this is a new era and year one of elimination points racing, but this track should provide some solace. It was at Phoenix in 2011 that heralded his return to relevance after flying under the radar for a few seasons. Alan Gustafson has a win here with both Gordon and Martin, and with Rick Hendrick covering his fine from last weekend, has nothing to fret over. The No. 24 team finished fifth here in the spring, and if they can lead a lap early and manage that same sort of performance, it should be enough to get him onto Homestead, in spite of last week’s late race flat tire.
Joey Logano has been lights out since the Chase started. Currently tied for the lead, he would still be second behind Gordon if a season-long points standing was the order of the day. Logano and the Todd Gordon-led Team Penske No. 22 narrowly avoided disaster when it suffered a flat tire and spin with 29 laps to go last week. With the flurry of late restarts they rallied back to 12th – a championship-salvaging caliber performance if there ever was one. Since the Chase began, Logano has finished outside of the top 5 just twice – last Sunday and an 11th at Talladega. They finished fourth here in February, and if they don’t advance to Homestead it would be a very Peyton Manning-esque tank job — and a crying shame, as they have played this one to perfection. Logano won at Loudon, the second race of the Chase, which is also a one-mile flat track.
Speaking of tank jobs, Hamlin has become synonymous with them in the Chase since things fell apart at Phoenix for him back in 2010. To be fair, it wasn’t really Hamlin’s fault; a late race fuel strategy by then crew chief Mike Ford didn’t pay off, and it seems Hamlin has been trying to exorcise those demons ever since. Hamlin and the 11 bunch have gone about things dramatically different than Logano and the No. 22 team. Instead of top 5-ing the competition into the ground, they’ve done just enough to squeak by, and avoid the trouble that has plagued the Chase favorites in the Eliminator round. Eighth- and 10th-place runs at Martinsville and Texas has been enough to have them tied for the points lead heading into this weekend. His last two finishes here have been 28th and 19th. That won’t get the job done Sunday, but his previous runs of third, second and a win (2012) would do nicely.
Going to throw a nod to Dale Earnhardt Jr. here as well. The No. 88 was the only car capable of hanging with Harvick here in February and swept both Pocono races and won at Martinsville two weeks ago – flat tracks all three. Can Junior close out the year in style? He last won here during his six-win season of 2004.
The only reason Kenseth is in this grouping is because he’s fifth in points and only four get to go to Homestead. Somehow, he remains winless in 2014, yet has 20 top-10 finishes. His record at Phoenix lately has been “meh” at best with zero top 5s since 2007 (in a Gen-5 Roush Ford) and only one Top-10 finish in the last seven races. If there’s any irony to Brian France’s comments Tuesday that he has no problem if the eventual champion has no wins this year, it is that Kenseth’s 2003 championship campaign that helped serve as the catalyst to the Chase format to begin with. He’ll need to make something happen this weekend or hope for the worst for those in front of him – and behind him in points.
Chief among those contenders to Kenseth is his former Roush Fenway – and future JGR teammate – Carl Edwards. Proving that the only lame duck in this camp is the one sporting AFLAC on his uniform, Edwards is still in position to go out on top, having lost the 2011 title on a tie breaker. The No. 99 experienced the same struggles they have on the majority of downforce tracks this year, and were as low as 24th at point during the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Late-race pit strategy (keep throwing tires at it) and the frantic restarts saw them eek out a ninth-place run heading into one of Edwards best tracks. In 20 starts at PIR he has three poles – important since leading a lap still gets you one bonus point, and he’s just one point out of fourth at the moment. He has wins in 2010 and 2013, and was eighth here in the spring. Don’t expect any pit road foul-ups or bone head calls from crew chief Jimmy Fennig on the pit box – but a top-5 finish is still easier said than done.
If there’s one guy who should have been throwing leather at the end of the race Sunday it was Ryan Newman. He suffered a cut tire at the hands of Marcos Ambrose while having worked his way up as high as fifth late in the going, and ended up with a 15th-place finish. Then again, Ambrose laid out Casey Mears with a right hook at Richmond in May, so even with his formidable forehead, he probably played that one right.
Newman is a master at flat tracks, and stole a win at PIR in 2010 during a green-white-checker finish. In fact, Newman’s last four wins – Indy, Martinsville, Loudon and Phoenix – have all come on flat tracks. That has to count for something, and RCR has notched five wins here; four with Kevin Harvick, and one with Dale Earnhardt in that 1990 title showdown. You’d be hard pressed to find many who had Newman going this deep in the Chase. He led six laps here in February and finished seventh; he’s third in points with no wins, and only one top 5 until the Chase started. Not one to back down from a fight and known for being virtually impossible to pass, it’s a coin toss as to whether they’ll have the pure speed to hold off the competition Sunday.
Chase Hope Enders
Going to go out on a limb here and saying that Keselowski doesn’t make it into the next round. Not because his team isn’t fast or talented enough – I simply have a hard time believing that somebody will have an incident near him this weekend. Phoenix is fast, but guys seem to treat it like a short track lately. That frontstretch is awfully narrow with that inside pit wall, and if there is an accident can become a track blocker quickly. Oh yeah, after the events of the last few weeks he has a target on his back, as well.
Phoenix International Raceway Winner: Kevin Harvick
He took over for “The Intimidator” in The No. 3, but after last weekend at Texas, you can call the No. 4 driver “The Instigator.” Lighting the fuse by assisting Keselowski towards the angry mob at Texas, it was a bit of a chess move, acting as an antagonist to a driver that was already on probation, one point ahead of him in the standings, and has the one car that can match the No. 4 in pure speed virtually every weekend.
Don’t expect these guys to ride and wait for things to play out; they had the baddest horse in the field a few months ago here, and their driver simply dominates. The best place to avoid trouble here is out front, and if the pit crew can avoid any foul ups, Harvick won’t have to push anyone after the race; as in, under the bus as he has been known to do this year.
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