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A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jets (8-7) at Dolphins (5-10)
After all that boasting from Rex Ryan, the Jets must beat the Fins, plus hope for losses from the Bengals and Titans, as well as the Raiders or Broncos, just to punch their ticket to the postseason as a Wild Card berth.
Jets by 1
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (12-3)
Tom Brady is being overshadowed by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees; but don’t forget about the Pats QB when the weather gets cold.
Patriots by 11
Titans (8-7) at Texans (10-5)
Houston has a problem following back-to-back losses to the Panthers and Colts. Tennessee is hoping for a miraculous postseason berth; the Titans must win, the Bengals must lose and the other dominoes must fall just right.
Titans by 2
Colts (2-13) at Jaguars (4-11)
Easy there, Indy. Slow down. Fool one team, shame on the NFL; fool two teams, shame on you; fool three teams and blow your chance to draft Peyton Manning’s heir apparent, Stanford signal-caller Andrew Luck, at No. 1 overall.
Jaguars by 2
Redskins (5-10) at Eagles (7-8)
An 8–8 season is not what Andy Reid had in mind, but a 4–0 “fourth quarter” of the season may just save the big man’s job.
Eagles by 8
Bears (7-8) at Vikings (3-12)
It’s a race to the bottom in the NFC North — which is the black-and-blue division again, after high-profile, season-ending injuries to Adrian Peterson, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte.
Bears by 2
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (12-3)
Cam Newton’s rookie season is not over and neither is Drew Brees’ record-breaking year. These two should put on an aerial show.
Saints by 7
49ers (12-3) at Rams (2-13)
St. Loser is still in contention for the No. 1 pick. San Fran will clinch a first-round bye with a win or a loss by New Orleans.
49ers by 9
Lions (10-5) at Packers (14-1)
Green Bay better rest its starters, because odds are Ndamukong Suh and Detroit’s dirty defense are angry following their Turkey Day meltdown.
Packers by 5
Ravens (11-4) at Bengals (9-6)
A Baltimore win earns Ray Lewis and Co. the AFC North title, while also securing a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. Meanwhile, Cincy controls its own destiny and is in must-win mode. But the Bengals could still make the playoffs with a loss — if both the Jets plus either the Broncos or Raiders lose.
Bengals by 1
Steelers (11-4) at Browns (4-11)
The health of the battle-tested Steelers — Big Ben in particular — heading into the playoffs is more important than a win at Cleveland.
Steelers by 6
Chiefs (6-9) at Broncos (8-7)
The Broncos will stampede into the playoffs with a win over Denver’s opening day starter and Kansas City’s current leader Kyle Orton. Otherwise, Tim Tebow will need the Al Davis-inspired Raiders to lose.
Broncos by 3
Seahawks (7-8) at Cardinals (7-8)
A birdfight between two also-rans building momentum for next season. What else is on?
Cardinals by 1
Chargers (7-8) at Raiders (8-7)
Al Davis’ spirit looms large over the Black Hole as coach Hue Jackson predicts the Raiders will “find a way” to make the playoffs in honor of their owner, who passed away earlier this year. A win plus a Denver loss or tie; or a win plus a loss by both the Bengals and Titans; or a win plus a Bengals loss and Jets win will do the trick. Either way, Oakland must win.
Raiders by 2
Buccaneers (4-11) at Falcons (9-6)
The Young Bucs look to lose their 10th straight; the Dirty Birds will help them do just that.
Falcons by 12
Cowboys (8-7) at Giants (8-7)
This Sunday night fight is a winner-take-all playoff play-in for the NFC East title belt. After injuring his throwing hand in a throwaway loss to the Eagles, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo must avoid a hard-hitting Big Blue Wrecking Crew pass rush led by sack artists Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Giants by 4
Last week: 11-5 // Season: 162-78
Rahcel Uchitel, the first woman to come out and admit that she was Tiger Woods mistress has let the world know that she is pregnant.
But don't worry Tiger, as far as we know, you're not the baby daddy.
Uchitel was the girl who set Tiger Woods personal (and golf) life into a downard spiral that ended up costing him his wife, millions of dollars in endorsements, and the ability to win golf tournaments.
When Uchitel revealed texts that Tiger Woods had allegedly sent to her, they revelaed a guy who was trying to keep his mistress on the hook, by telling her exactly what she wanted to hear:
"I know it's brutal on you that you can't be with me all the time," he texted Rachel Uchitel in one e-mail.
"I get it. It f-----g kills me, too. I finally found someone I connect with."
In a line that had to really get to Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren, the golfer wrote Uchitel is "someone I have never found like this. Not even at home."
Uchitel later went on the Today Show with Dr. Drew, saying she suffered from a "love addiction," which probably just gave a lot of other guys the notion that they, too, had a shot with her.
There were rumors that Woods had given her $10 million in hush money, that she later returned because she wanted to go on shows like Celebrity Apprentice and thought should could make more money by building a career off being Tiger Woods' mistress instead of walking away with the ten million.
I guess that's sort of an oops.
by Josh Kipnis
Google his name, and a fictional soap opera character is all you will find. Click on his bio on NBA.com and you will find they haven’t even bothered writing one. Ever heard of Norris Benjamin Cole? Didn’t think so.
The Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics last night, 115-107. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade each scored over 20 points, but it was Miami’s rookie sensation, Norris Cole, who stole the show.
The Celtics were without Paul Pierce for a second straight game and it seemed as though they would not have nearly enough offensive firepower to compete with the most elite team in the league. Boston trailed by as much as twenty at one point.
Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen refused to concede, catching fire early in the fourth. They trimmed the lead down to three with one minute remaining in the game. Doc Rivers called a timeout to discuss the ensuing Heat possession.
In a situation like this one, Rivers had to pick his poison. Which of the Big 3 do you want taking the final shot? James, Wade, and Bosh had already combined to score 68 points.
LeBron held the ball on the left elbow, jab stepping and looking as if he was about to throw up his signature fade away. The shot clock struck four and in the corner of his eye was Cole at the top of the key, practically begging for the ball. Cole caught the pass and pump faked a three, sending Rondo off balance, allowing the rookie to take a dribble inside the arc and drill the open jumper with 2.3 on the shot clock (gotta love the much-needed milliseconds on the shot clock). Who is this guy?
Norris Cole was the 28th overall pick in this year’s draft. The pick belonged to the Chicago Bulls, but they traded his rights to the T-Wolves who then dealt him to the Heat. The 6 foot 2 inch, 23 year old was the Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year his senior season at Cleveland State.
Cole was absolutely sensational in Miami’s home opener. He was 8 of 16 in the field with 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. 14 of his 20 came in the 4th quarter. In the final three minutes, he scored 9 straight points.
“You grow up and live for moments like that,” Cole said after the game. Cole was then asked if this would be a common theme in the future. “It’s only my second game; I don’t know what normal is.”
I can tell you what isn’t normal, a rookie receiving MVP chants in his second NBA game.
With 9.3 seconds left, Cole approached the free throw line. “MVP! MVP! MVP!” It wasn’t for James, Wade, or Bosh; it was for the rookie whose talents somehow landed in South Beach.
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Both Washington and Baylor ended long bowl droughts in 2010 and both kept the positive momentum going in 2011. Baylor lost 38-14 to Illinois in the Texas Bowl last year after not seeing postseason play since 1994. The Huskies topped Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl last season in its first bowl game since 2002.
Much of the credit for each turn around belongs to two rising stars in the coaching profession. In his fourth season in Waco, Art Briles, with a little help from Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, has Baylor in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-1992 — which is also the last time the Bears won a bowl. He carries a five-game winning streak into the Alamodome.
Steve Sarkisian is in only his third season in Seattle, and while he doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy winner under his belt, he has restored Husky Pride to the Pacific Northwest. He capped his season with his third win in three tries over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. With two great offensive minds on the sidelines coaching two rosters loaded with offensive skill talent, the 2011 Alamo Bowl figures to feature plenty of fireworks.
WHEN BAYLOR HAS THE BALL:
It’s all about Griffin III. Or more specifically, how does Washington stop him? The reigning Heisman winner led the nation in points responsible for at 22.7 points per game, could set an NCAA single-season record as the most efficient passer in history if he can maintain his 192.31 passer rating and finished No. 2 nationally in total offense at 386.8 yards per game. He is a nasty combination of agility, speed, poise, leadership and accuracy.
Unfortunately for a Husky defense that ranked 94th overall at 426.3 yards allowed per game and 99th in scoring at 33.3 points per game, the Bears are not simply a one-man show. Tailback Terrance Ganaway finished No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing at over 112.0 yards per game. Wide receiver Kendall Wright caught at least six passes in every game this year and finished No. 2 nationally at 131.0 yards per game. And fellow wide receiver Terrance Williams has scored in seven straight games.
Sarkisian and his defensive staff will have their hands full trying to stop one of the nation’s most dynamic and balanced offensive attacks. Griffin might be the only one who can stop Griffin as his focus — his parents are apparently currently interviewing NFL agents — might be the only thing standing in the way of the school’s second 10-win season in program history.
WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL:
The good news for Washington is that their best defense might actually be on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Chris Polk give the Huskies a 1-2 punch on offense that should be effective enough to keep RG3 on the bench. Baylor didn’t stop anyone this fall either, ranking 114th in total defense at 477.5 yards per game and 109th in scoring defense at 35.7 points per game.
Price, a sophomore, started his first season as the starter with six consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes before an injured left knee forced him to miss some snaps in losses to USC and Oregon State late in the season. Back healthy for the Apple Cup, Price threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns — bringing his season to a school-record 29 for the year. Look for him to spread the football around to a host of elite pass-catchers in senior Jermaine Kearse (42 rec., 501 yards, 6 TD), freshman Kasen Williams (33 rec., 408 yards, 6 TD) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (36 rec., 479 yards, 6 TD).
As good as the passing game should be for Washington, it will be star tailback Polk who has the ability to slow the game down and keep RG3 on the bench. Polk rushed for his third consecutive 1,100-yard season and has scored 24 times over the last two seasons. His ability to get tough yards between the tackles, get to the edge when needed and catch passes on third downs makes him arguably the most important offensive piece in this game. Baylor allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game this season and getting Polk rolling early and often gives the Huskies their best chance to win.
Give Washington the distinct advantage on special teams. Kicker Erik Folk missed four of his total 63 kicks all season and punter Kiel Rasp led the Pac-12 in punting (45.1 ypp). Meanwhile, Baylor kicker Aaron Jones missed seven of his 16 field goal attempts and three extra points this year. Baylor also finished 114th nationally in punting and has struggled in the return game.
If the Huskies want to beat the Heisman Trophy winner, they have to win the special teams battle and keep Griffin III on the sideline. A productive and versatile Chris Polk will do just that. Both of these teams average more than 31 points per game and both defenses have struggled to stop anyone so it should be a high scoring duel on the Riverwalk. This said, it will be virtually impossible to beat Griffin III in what should be his final game in a Bears uniform and one final chance at the school’s first bowl win in 20 years.
Baylor 42, Washington 34
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Texas A&M (6–6) vs. Northwestern (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 12 noon ET
Location: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
Texas A&M is arguably the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. A consensus top 15 team in the preseason, the Aggies went 4–5 in the Big 12 — their final year in the league — due to their inability to protect a lead. A&M held a double-digit lead in five of its six losses, including halftime leads of 20–3 vs. Oklahoma State and 34–17 vs. Arkansas in back-to-back games early in the season. Mike Sherman was dismissed after going 25–25 in his four seasons in College Station and has been replaced by former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who was recently hired to be the head coach at Fresno State, will serve as the Aggies’ interim coach in the bowl game.
Northwestern suffered through a five-game losing streak — including a defeat at Army — earlier this season but bounced back to win four straight and is headed to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. The Wildcats only beat one team with a winning record (Nebraska, on the road), but they have some quality pieces on offense, and they improved on defense as the season progressed.
WHEN TEXAS A&M HAS THE BALL:
The Aggies had plenty of issues this season — scoring points was not one of them. They currently rank 11th in the nation in scoring (39.6 ppg) thanks to their ability to move the ball on the ground (208.1 ypg) and through the air (287.9 ypg). Ryan Tannehill, in his first full season as the starter, has thrown for 3,415 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions (12 of which came in the Aggies’ six losses). Tannehill has three receivers — Ryan Swope, Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu — who caught at least 45 passes.
The A&M rushing attack will not, however, be at full strength. Christine Michael, who averaged just under 100 yards rushing per game, was sidelined in early November with a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Gray, who has five 100-yard games on his 2011 resume, is questionable with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go, sophomore Ben Malena will get the bulk of the carries.
Northwestern has struggled to stop the run and the pass for the majority of the 2011 season. The Wildcats gave up 30 points or more in six of their nine games against BCS opponents. It will be a surprise if A&M doesn’t score at least 35 points.
WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE BALL:
When healthy, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has been among the most dynamic playmakers in the Big Ten in the past two seasons. He isn’t as much of a running threat post-Achilles injury, but Persa is still able to tuck it and run. Where he really hurts a defense is with his accuracy; he has led the nation in completion percentage in two straight seasons, 73.5 percent in ‘10 and 74.3 percent this season. The Cats don’t have a ton of big-time playmakers on offense, but they do have a solid corps of pass-catchers who can move the chains.
The leading rusher is quarterback/receiver/super back Kain Colter, who has 660 yards and five scores on 79 attempts. He saw significant action at quarterback early in the season when Persa was making his way back from his Achilles injury.
Don’t expect to see Northwestern running the ball out of conventional alignments too often. The Wildcats’ tailbacks are average at best, and stopping the run is something the A&M defense does well. Northwestern will lean on Persa to make plays in the passing game.
Texas A&M senior kicker Randy Bullock leads the nation with 25 field goals (in 29 attempts), and he has made 10-of-12 from 40-49 yards and 1-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. He is a big weapon. Northwestern, on the other hand, has only made six field goals all season. Sophomore Jeff Budzien is 6-of-10, with a long of 47 yards.
Texas A&M was arguably the nation’s biggest underachiever in 2011. You have to question this team’s motivation, but there are some key seniors who would love to go out with a win in their final game. Northwestern will be scrappy, as usual, but the Wildcats will have a tough time slowing down the Aggies’ offense.
Texas A&M 37, Northwestern 28
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Date: Dec. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
The 23rd annual Insight Bowl will feature two teams that limped into the postseason. Iowa lost three of its last five, including the season finale against new rival Nebraska. However, the Hawkeyes own a three-game bowl winning streak after a win in this game over Missouri 27-24 last season.
Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, rolled through the first six weeks of the season unblemished before dropping three of its last six and two of its last three. An embarrassing 44-10 loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma State to cap the season further illustrated how far the Sooners have fallen. Like Iowa, however, the Crimson and Cream are riding a mini two-game bowl winning streak, including a dominating 48-20 Fiesta Bowl win over UConn last year.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL:
Bob Stoops’ defense has struggled to stop anything in the second half of the season, and his beleaguered unit will be tested by Kirk Ferentz’ offensive triplets. Quarterback James Vandenberg played efficient football in his first season as the starter, finishing with 26 total touchdowns and only six interceptions. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt produced one of the great receiving campaigns in Iowa history and now holds nearly every major school receiving record. He caught 78 passes for 1,269 yards — which included eight 100-yard efforts — and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Coker was expected to be the focal point of the offense for this bowl, but he was suspended due to a violation of team rules. He led the Big Ten in rushing attempts (281) and finished second in the league in rushing (115.3 ypg). Unfortunately though, somehow Iowa finished last in the league in rushing as Coker accounted for 80.7% of Iowa’s rushing offense this fall. Without Coker, it's anybody's guess who the Hawkeyes will turn to at running back. Freshmen Jordan Canzeri and DeAndre Johnson figure to get a bulk of carries, but don't count out junior Jason White.
The Hawkeye offensive line will be the key to success in Tempe. They couldn’t get a consistent push in the ground game all season and finished 74th in the nation in sacks allowed (2.2 sacks per game). Protecting Vandenberg and clearing space for one of the inexperienced backs will be the only way Iowa tops Oklahoma.
The good news for Ferentz has been the play of Oklahoma on defense of late. The Sooners defensive woes started on October 22 when they inexplicably lost to Texas Tech 41-38 at home. Before that game Oklahoma was allowing 116 yards rushing per game, 201 yards passing per game and only 15.8 points per game. They were leading the Big 12 in total and scoring defense. Since the loss to the Red Raiders, Oklahoma has allowed nearly 30 points per game, 286 yards passing and 163 yards rushing per game. They finished the year 3-3 in the final six and are nowhere near the BCS national title game.
WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL:
This was going to be a rebuilding year for Iowa on defense and it showed. They allowed 44 in a loss to Iowa State, 31 in a win over Northwestern, 37 in a loss to Michigan State and 22 in a loss to Minnesota. It certainly wasn’t a vintage Ferentz defense as Iowa finished last in the league in pass defense and no better than seventh in rushing, scoring, total and pass efficiency defense.
This means that Landry Jones and the Sooners offense — still sans Ryan Broyles — should be able to get back on track. The third-year starter at quarterback threw for 4,302 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. However, he managed only 506 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions over the final two weeks. The loss of Broyles has had a marked impact on the OU offense and it will fall to Kenny Stills, DeJuan Miller and a host of talented skill players to play better if the Sooners expect to win.
The football will certainly get passed around the offense. Aside from a receiving corps that is trying to find its stride after losing the most prolific receiver in NCAA history, running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay should all expect to see time in the backfield. This group has been trying to make up for the loss of Dominique Whaley — who had 627 yards and nine scores through the first six weeks of the season before being lost for the year to injury. Freshman Brandon Williams is also out, after transferring to Texas A&M.
Jones had plenty of talent to work with, both in the backfield and on the edge, so there is no reason why names like Stills and Finch cannot become dependable options in Sun Devil Stadium.
Oklahoma’s freshman kicker Mike Hunnicutt connected on 20-of-23 field goal attempts, including his last nine. Iowa’s Michael Meyer began the season by making 11-of-13 field goal tries before missing five of his last seven. Neither team should have a distinct advantage in the third phase of the game as both have been uninspiringly dependable in the punting game and both have struggled in the return game.
Even without Broyles and Whaley, this Oklahoma offense possesses enough firepower to score plenty of points on the Hawks. Will Vandenberg and the Iowa offense be able to take advantage of a besieged Sooner defense remains to be seen. If so, Iowa will keep this game close and make Stoops work for his third straight bowl win. If the Black and Old Gold offensive line fails to stand up to Frank Alexander and company, it could be a long day for Iowa fans.
Oklahoma 34, Iowa 24
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Utah Utes (7-5, 4-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
Date: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
The more things change the more they stay the same for Utah fans. In year one of Pac-12 play, Kyle Whittingham was able to extend his consecutive bowl streak to nine seasons — including two BCS bowl wins. The Utes have gone 7-1 over that span, but lost its last postseason game to Boise State 26-3 in the Las Vegas Bowl last season.
The Yellow Jackets are making their even more impressive 15th straight bowl appearance. Unfortunately, however, Georgia Tech has not capped a season with a bowl win in seven tries. Their last postseason win was 51-14 Champs Sports Bowl win over Syracuse in 2004. Tech lost to Air Force 14-7 last winter in the Independence Bowl.
Despite choking against Colorado in the season finale, the Utes won four of the last five to earn itself a trip to El Paso. The Jackets, on the other hand, started hot at 6-0 before struggling to a 2-4 second half finish, including a 31-17 drubbing at the hands of rival Georgia in the season finale.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL:
Tailback John White IV certainly proved he belonged in the Pac-12 in 2011. He led the league in attempts with 290 carries, finished second in the conference with 1,404 yards and his 14 touchdowns were good for third in the league. He left the Colorado game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. He appears to be healthy for the bowl game and will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Utes offensive attack.
It is a good thing Utah can run the ball with White, because Jordan Wynn’s replacement has struggled to complete passes. Junior college transfer Jon Hays finished 12th in Pac-12 in passer efficiency, throwing only nine touchdowns and 140.7 yards per game since taking over for Wynn. This team finished last in the league in total offense (308.7 ypg) and passing offense (171.6 ypg).
The good news is this is one of Paul Johnson’s worst defense since taking over in Atlanta. Georgia Tech finished 70th against the run (162.9 ypg) and 60th in scoring defense nationally (25.8 ppg).
WHEN GEORGIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
While Utah’s strength on offense matches-up nicely with Tech’s weakness on defense, quite the opposite will be true when the Yellow Jackets offense takes the field. The Johnson triple-option attack once again led the ACC in rushing, ranking third nationally by churning out 316.8 yards per game on the ground. Five different players topped the 400-yard mark and three went over 600. The Utes finished seventh in the nation in rushing defense (97.0 ypg), allowing the opposition to top 152 yards rushing only once (185, Washington). Georgia Tech rushed for 44 touchdowns this fall while Utah allowed a paltry six rushing scores. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
However, quarterback Tevin Washington is the fuel that makes the Tech engine purr. And he will need to be needed to complete passes to beat the stingy Ute defense. Over the first six games, he threw for 1,052 yards with ten touchdowns and only two interceptions. Tech was 6-0. Washington totaled 463 yards passing, never completed more than six passes in any game, topped the 100-yard mark once and posted a hideous 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tech went 2-4. He will have to be better through the air if Tech expects to snap its bowl losing streak.
Tech kicker Justin Moore missed only four of his 66 total kicks this season (9-of-12 FG, 53-of-53 XP). Utah kicker Coleman Peterson had been equally impressive, knocking through 17 of his 21 attempts — until the final weekend of play. He went 0-for-3 in the three-point loss to Colorado and will be looking for redemption in El Paso.
This is an extremely interesting match-up of strengths and weaknesses. Both quarterbacks have struggled to move the football in the air while both teams have excelled at pounding the football down the opposition’s throat. The biggest difference will be the Ute’s ability to slow the triple-option and force Washington to beat them with his arm. Meanwhile, Tech has allowed 99 points in its last three games and won’t have enough on defense to slow White IV. Whittingham’s bunch barely outlasts Johnson’s squad in a game that should easily feature more than 100 running plays.
Utah 24, Georgia Tech 20
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Music City Bowl
Wake Forest (6–6) vs. Mississippi State (6–6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Location: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Mississippi State is making its first trip to the Music City Bowl, leaving only Florida, South Carolina and LSU as the only SEC teams that have not spent the holidays in Nashville. The Bulldogs are saying all the right things, but this team no doubt expected to be in a bowl game in a warmer climate. Last year, MSU went 9–4 overall and capped off its season with a 52–14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. This fall, however, the Bulldogs had to win three of their final five games just to reach six wins and qualify for postseason play.
Wake Forest is back in a bowl game after a two-year hiatus, but the Demon Deacons aren’t exactly making the trip to Nashville with a ton of momentum. Wake won four of its first five games — highlighted by a 35–30 victory over Florida State — but managed only two more wins the rest of the way, at Duke and at home vs. Maryland. The season ended on a disappointing note when Vanderbilt dominated the Deacs, 41–7, in Winston-Salem. Jim Grobe’s club has a lot to prove as it prepares to play another team from the SEC.
WHEN WAKE FOREST HAS THE BALL:
The Deacons were dramatically improved on offense in 2011, thanks in large part to the emergence of Tanner Price at quarterback. The sophomore threw for 2,803 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions (and three of those came in one game). Price has two reliable targets in wideout Chris Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 yards receiving, and slot receiver Michael Campanaro (63 receptions). Wake was rather ordinary in the running game, ranking 96th in the nation. Josh Harris began the season as the No. 1 back, but he has missed significant time due to a hamstring injury. Brandon Pendergrass emerged as a reliable alternative and rushed for 750 yards on a 4.5-yard average.
The Deacs will have to be sharp to move the ball on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs only allowed two teams to score more than 24 points — Auburn scored 41 in September and Arkansas rolled up 44 in mid-November. Wake will do its best to move the ball on the ground, but Price will have to make some plays in the passing game.
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE BALL:
Mississippi State’s struggles this year are due mostly to its poor play on offense. Chris Relf emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC last season, but he did not have a productive senior season. Tyler Russell was given an opportunity to take over on several occasions but was never able to seize control of the position.
Dan Mullen has no issues with his No. 1 tailback. Vick Ballard was terrific as a senior, rushing for 1,009 yards and eight TDs on 179 attempts. And with Wake struggling to stop the run — the Deacs gave up an average of 220.8 yards in their final five games, including 297 vs. Vanderbilt — expect to see heavy doses of Ballard and LaDarius Perkins, a nice option as a change-of-pace back.
MSU does feature some playmakers at the wide receiver position — most notably Chad Bumphis — but it was difficult for this group to be much of a factor due to the inconsistent play from the quarterbacks.
MSU kicker Derek DePasquale was solid from close range (9-of-11 from inside 40 yards) but made only 2-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. Perkins averaged 23.3 yards on his 15 kickoff returns, and both Bumphis and Johnthan Banks each returned a punt for a touchdown.
Wake Forest doesn’t pose too much of a threat in the return game, though Camanero did return a punt 50 yards for a score. As a team, the Deacs only averaged 19.9 yards on kick returns. Placekicker Jimmy Newman made 16-of-20 attempts, only one longer than 40 yards.
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, a team that went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State. The key for the Bulldogs is Ballard; if the senior tailback can get it going early, Wake could have a tough time slowing down the MSU offense.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
By Mitch Light
Champs Sports Bowl — Florida State vs. Notre Dame
These two tradition-rich programs were among the bigger disappointments in 2011. Florida State had significant injuries (most notably to quarterback E.J. Manuel), while Notre Dame’s biggest issue was its inability to protect the football. The Irish ranked 116th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.08 per game).
Notre Dame 31, Florida State 30
Alamo Bowl — Washington vs. Baylor
This figures to be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. Both quarterbacks — Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Washington’s Keith Price — are very talented and both defenses are suspect.
Baylor 41, Washington 34
Armed Forces Bowl — BYU vs. Tulsa
BYU won nine games but only beat one team (Utah State) that currently has a winning record. All of Tulsa’s four losses came to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at one point — Oklahoma, O-State, Boise State, Houston.
Tulsa 30, BYU 20
Pinstripe Bowl — Rutgers vs. Iowa State
Iowa State is the only team in the nation that played 11 BCS conference teams in the regular season. The Cyclones went 5–6 in those 11 games, with two of the wins coming in overtime, vs. Iowa and Oklahoma State.
Rutgers 24, Iowa State 20
Music City Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
Insight Bowl — Iowa vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will be coaching against his alma mater for the first time. His team will be more talented; just not sure how motivated the Sooners will be after their late-season struggles.
Oklahoma 28, Iowa 24
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas — Texas A&M vs. Northwestern
Texas A&M is likely the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. The Aggies lost two games in OT and three others by three points or less. Northwestern can be dangerous on offense, but the Cats’ defense will have problems with the A&M attack.
Texas A&M 38, Northwestern 24
Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech vs. Utah
Georgia Tech is 0–3 in bowl games under Paul Johnson and has scored a total of 24 points in those three losses. There’s pressure on the ’11 Jackets to prove that the option attack can be successful when the opponent has a month to prepare.
Georgia Tech 24, Utah 23
Liberty Bowl — Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati
This game features two of the most underrated tailbacks in the nation, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy (1,136 yards on an SEC-best 6.2-yard average) and Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead (1,110 yards).
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 23
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Illinois vs. UCLA
These two teams have a combined 13 losses and both head coaches have been fired. This is why some people believe there are too many bowls.
UCLA 24, Illinois 17
Chick-fil-A Bowl — Virginia vs. Auburn
Auburn will take the field without Gus Malzahn calling the plays for the first time since 2008. Maybe it’s not as big of a loss as we think: The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and currently rank 104th in the nation in total offense.
Virginia 21, Auburn 17
TicketCity Bowl — Houston vs. Penn State
Penn State has not played a Conference USA team since it hosted Southern Miss in November 2001. The Nittany Lions won that game, 38–20, and should win this one as well due to their outstanding play on defense.
Penn State 31, Houston 20
Capital One Bowl — Nebraska vs. South Carolina
South Carolina is flying under the national radar — pretty surprising for a Steve Spurrier team — but the Gamecocks have won 10 games and bring the nation’s fourth-ranked defense to Orlando. This should be an entertaining matchup.
South Carolina 17, Nebraska 13
Outback Bowl — Michigan State vs. Georgia
Georgia won 10 games this season, but has only defeated two teams with a winning record — Auburn (7–5) and Georgia Tech (8–4). Michigan State is known for its defense, but the Spartans averaged 38.6 points in their last five games.
Georgia 28, Michigan State 20
Gator Bowl — Florida vs. Ohio State
It’s the Urban Meyer Bowl. Florida (6–6 overall) needs to win this game to avoid its first losing season since 1979, when Charley Pell’s first Gator team went 0–10–1. Ohio State, also 6–6, hasn’t had a losing season since 1988.
Ohio State 20, Florida 16
GoDaddy.com Bowl — Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois
Times are good at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves went 8–0 in the Sun Belt Conference and somehow convinced Gus Malzahn to take over as the head coach after Hugh Freeze bolted for Ole Miss after one season.
Arkansas State 37, Northern Illinois 34
BBVA Compass Bowl — Pittsburgh vs. SMU
Times are tough at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are returning to the BBVA Compass Bowl — despite their objections — and they are doing so without a head coach. Todd Graham left after only one season to take over at Arizona State, forcing to Pitt to undergo its third coaching search in the past 12 months.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24
Cotton Bowl — Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Arkansas averaged 41.8 points in its 10 wins and 15.5 points in its two losses — at Alabama and at LSU, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. Kansas State ranks 74th in total defense and 71st in scoring defense.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 23
Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon
Two of the nation’s best and most-balanced offenses — both Wisconsin and Oregon average over 200 yards per game rushing and passing — will be on display at the Rose Bowl. This game features some serious star power, as well, with each team featuring an All-America-caliber running back (UW’s Montee Ball and UO’s LaMichael James) and dynamic playmakers at the quarterback position (Russell Wilson and Darron Thomas).
Oregon 34, Wisconsin 31
Sugar Bowl — Virginia Tech vs. Michigan
Brady Hoke did a tremendous job in his first season at Michigan. On the surface, a three-game improvement in the win column (both overall and in the league) is impressive, but when you dive into the numbers you really get an indication of how much better Michigan was in 2011. Last year, the Wolverines were outgained by an average of 1.4 yards per game in Big Ten play. In ’11, they were statistically dominant in the league, outgaining their opponents by an average of 130.7 yards per game. That is a staggering improvement in one season.
Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21
Orange Bowl — Clemson vs. West Virginia
Clemson, which won an ACC title for the first time since 1991, averaged 39.4 points in its 10 wins and 14.3 points in its four losses. The Tigers rebounded from a late-season swoon — they lost three of the final four regular-season games — and pounded Virginia Tech, 38–10, in the ACC Championship Game. This is an explosive offensive team that can be very difficult to stop once it gets rolling.
Clemson 38, West Virginia 20
Fiesta Bowl — Oklahoma State vs. Stanford
Oklahoma State will react in one of two ways: The Cowboys, feeling snubbed by the BCS, play with a chip on their shoulder to prove that they, not Alabama, deserved a shot at LSU in the national title game. Or, the Pokes, feeling jilted by the BCS, are lethargic and fail to recapture the magic that made them one of the most entertaining teams throughout the 2011 season. My guess: The former.
Oklahoma State 34, Stanford 27
BCS National Championship — LSU vs. Alabama
The two SEC West superpowers meet in a winner-take-all rematch for the national title. LSU won the first fight, 9–6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa, but the Tigers weren’t necessarily the better team. Yes, they won the game, but the better team doesn’t always win. Alabama hasn’t faced quite as difficult of a schedule as LSU, but the Crimson Tide’s numbers on defense are scary good; they are giving up less than 200 yards per game (60 yards fewer than the No. 2 team, LSU) and only 3.4 yards per play. The offense has been more than good enough to win every game that wasn’t against LSU and did a decent job moving the ball against the Tigers (295 total yards) in its only loss.
Alabama 20, LSU 17
‘Tis the season for year-end awards in the NFL. This year, there are more players deserving of recognition than trophies to hand out. These are the select few Athlon Sports believes to be award-worthy:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
There’s no need for a “Discount Double-Check” on this one; Rodgers has posted historically efficient and prolific stats — completing 68.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,643 yards, a career-best 45 TDs and a career-low six INTs for a 122.5 passer rating, which if maintained, would break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 121.1 in 2004. The Super Bowl XLV MVP has also led the Packers to a 14–1 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The leader of the Big Easy band has been putting on a show this year. With one more gig on the regular season schedule, Brees has already broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record — throwing for 5,087 yards, 41 TDs and 13 INTs.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
In just his second season, JPP has become one of the most-feared pass-rushers and playmakers in the NFL. The 6'5", 278-pound athletic freak has 81 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one safety and one block of a potential game-winning field goal.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The Heisman Trophy-winning BCS national champion out of Auburn has taken the NFL by storm since going No. 1 overall in the draft — passing for 3,893 yards, 20 TDs and 16 INTs, and rushing for 674 yards and 14 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Denver edge-rusher Von Miller also deserves consideration. But Peterson takes the prize after posting 60 tackles, two INTs, one sack and an NFL record-tying four punt return TDs — including a walk-off game-winner.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
The oft-injured signal-caller threw for 4,518 yards, 36 TDs and 14 INTs, while leading the Lions to their first playoff berth since 1999 — starting 15 games, compared to the 13 starts he totaled over his first two seasons.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshake controversy and Thanksgiving loss to older bro, John, aside, Harbaugh’s first year with the 49ers has been solid gold. San Francisco is 12–3 this year — its first winning season since 2002.
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Athlon Sports predicted the Georgia Bulldogs would win the East in 2011, and we got absolutely hammered by South Carolina fans. We understood why. We were out on a limb. The Gamecocks were the reigning Eastern Division champs with the best running back in the nation and a stellar defensive line returning.
However, one major aspect of our Dawgs-to-Atlanta prediction was the schedule. Now, South Carolina didn’t have to play Alabama or LSU either in 2011, but Georgia didn’t have to make that trip to Fayetteville to play Arkansas. South Carolina did – and got housed, in effect, giving the SEC East to Mark Richt and Georgia in the process.
I don’t think much will change in 2012. The SEC released its first 14-team schedule in history this morning. With Missouri and Texas A&M adding more intrigue to what is already the most powerful conference in football, the announcement made for some anxious moments.
So what conclusions can we draw about the potential outcome of the 2012 season? Since the SEC will be going for its seventh straight BCS national championship, the schedules that were released today just might have a small impact on the national landscape next fall:
Related: Very Early 2012 Athlon Sports Top 25
Beasts of the…West?
As I mentioned, South Carolina and Georgia were the picks in the East in 2011 because neither had to face Alabama or LSU. With those two teams still likely atop the West once again in 2012 — and Arkansas an easy pick to be the top challenger to those two — who has the good fortune to miss all three? Georgia misses all three (again) with Auburn (Nov. 10) and Ole Miss (Nov. 3) as its crossover games. Ole Miss should be picked last, and Auburn is replacing both coordinators after a poor showing this season and should be picked no higher than fourth in the West. It will be hard to take the first-team All-SEC quarterback and his defending SEC East champion Bulldogs off the top slot in the 2012 preseason.
Vanderbilt also misses all three of the Western powers. The Dores, too, get Ole Miss (Nov. 10) and Auburn (Oct. 20) in the crossover contests, and that is why Athlon Sports preseason magazine could pick Vandy ahead of Tennessee in the East for the first time since 1976.
Can The Razorbacks Unseat the Champs?
Entering 2012, Alabama and LSU will have claimed three of the last five BCS National Championships. And the two national powers combined to defeat Arkansas by an average of 24 points in 2011. So can Tyler Wilson and Bobby Petrino wedge their way into the SEC West title race? Certainly, they will be the clear challenger to the Tigers and Tide — especially with Knile Davis returning from injury. But most importantly, the schedule sends both LSU and Alabama on the road to face Arkansas. The Hogs also get lowly Kentucky and South Carolina in their crossover games. All of their four road games are winnable considering how the Hogs played the last time they visited the Gamecocks: at Texas A&M (Sept. 29), Auburn (Oct. 6), South Carolina (Nov. 10) and Mississippi State (Nov. 17).
Where Hogs fans will be watching some of these games, however, is still yet to be determined. The LSU game has been played in Little Rock in the past, and the site of the season finale has yet to be deteremined. Arkansas will play five games in Fayetteville and two in Little Rock. Either way, the schedule sets up for 2012 to be the year Arkansas finally challenges the balance of power in the West.
South Carolina Will Not Win the East
The good news is that the Gamecocks get key divisional swing games against Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee at home. However, their crossover opponents are possibly the toughest in the entire conference: At LSU (Oct. 3) and Arkansas at home (Nov. 10). Additionally, trips to Florida and Vanderbilt won’t be easy either. With this schedule the Gamecocks cannot be considered the favorite to win the East in 2012. A trip to Kentucky (Oct. 29) is the only guaranteed win on the ’12 Gamecock schedule — though don't forget that South Carolina lost to UK in its last trip to Lexington.
Welcome to the SEC, Texas A&M
Texas A&M averaged 39.3 points in conference play in 2011 with big wins over Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor. They scored 50 in a loss to Kansas State and 31 in an overtime loss to Missouri. Anyone think Kevin Sumlin is excited about having to face Florida and Arkansas to start SEC play? Or how about three consecutive road games on three consecutive weekends against Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama with a home test against LSU as the appetizer to the road trip? This is probably the toughest SEC schedule of any of the 14 teams. Best of luck, Aggies.
Missouri’s Split Stats
The Tigers, much like the Aggies, didn’t get any favors either. But at least Mike Slive gave Truman the Tiger a chance to be competitive. At least, early on. Four of the first five SEC games in Mizzou history will be played at home, with a visit to South Carolina (Sept. 22) the only road test before November. In fact, Gary Pinkel was given a great opportunity to make an early statement and swing the balance of power in the East with division favorite Georgia coming to Missouri to start the SEC Era in Columbia. You can bet that atmosphere will be electric.
However, the Tigers’ maiden voyage through SEC play will finish with three of the toughest venues in all of college football: At Florida (Nov. 3), at Tennessee (Nov. 10) and at Texas A&M (Nov. 24). None should be picked to challenge for the league title, but all three have massive home-field advantages — unlike most stadiums the Tigers are accustomed to in the Big 12. Dealing with 100,000-seat atmospheres after slugging it out in the SEC for the first time could prove extremely difficult.
Alabama Gets No Road Favors
If you are trying to pick out the subtle difference between LSU and Alabama — and who to pick to win the West next year — look no further than the road games for the Tide. The road slate for Alabama is brutal. The SEC opener at Arkansas (Sept. 15) will seriously test a revamped Nick Saban defense. Trips to Missouri (Oct. 13) and Tennessee (Oct. 20) will also feature two of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. And then there is that little visit to the Bayou and LSU late in the year (Nov. 3). Alabama’s totally reworked defense (which is still loaded with elite talent) and a Trent Richardson-less offense will have to defeat three of the top five teams in the league on the road if it expects a return trip to the BCS title game. The only comfort is a relatively easy slate of home action. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn all visit the Capstone and all will be picked fourth or worse in the West.
Colonel Reb Is Crying
How about this for a road slate in 2012 for Ole Miss: At Alabama (Sept. 29), at Arkansas (Oct. 27), at Georgia (Nov. 3) and at LSU (Nov. 17). In case you missed it, those are likely to be the best four teams in the conference in 2012. Well, at least they have never lost a party in The Grove.
Ranking the SEC Schedules (from easiest to toughest):
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Face Ole Miss and Auburn in crossover and play only three true road games in weaker East.
2. Vanderbilt Commodores
Face Ole Miss and Auburn in crossover with Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee at home.
3. Mississippi State Bulldogs
LSU and Bama are losses anyway and both on the road, but five of other six are winnable games.
4. Arkansas Razorbacks
Plays managable road slate; gets Bama and LSU at home and Kentucky in crossover.
5. Missouri Tigers
Four of first five are at home with winnable road trips to Tennessee and Texas A&M.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
No LSU or Arkansas in crossover helps with Florida and Mizzou at home.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Brutal road slate – at LSU, Arkansas and Missouri — with a much easier home schedule.
8. Kentucky Wildcats
At Hogs and Mississippi State at home in crossover. Trips to Mizzou, Florida and Tennessee.
9. Florida Gators
At Texas A&M and LSU at home is tough crossover. But only three true road games
10. Auburn Tigers
Toughest games at home and trip to Bama. Winnable road games at Ole Miss, Vandy and Mississippi State.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
LSU (road) and Arkansas (home) in crossover, with trips to Florida and Vandy in division.
12. LSU Tigers
Florida (road) and South Carolina (home) is a tough crossover. Visits A&M, Auburn and Arkansas as well.
13. Ole Miss Rebels
Hmmm: At Bama, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at LSU?
14. Texas A&M Aggies
Will play five of the top seven teams in the league — and Auburn, Mississippi State.
2012 SEC Conference Schedules:
Sept. 15: at Arkansas
Sept. 29: OLE MISS
Oct. 13: at Missouri
Oct. 20: at Tennessee
Oct. 27: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Nov. 3: at LSU
Nov. 10: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 24: AUBURN
Sept. 15: ALABAMA
Sept. 29: vs. Texas A&M
Oct. 6: at Auburn
Oct. 13: KENTUCKY
Oct. 27: OLE MISS
Nov. 10: at South Carolina
Nov. 17: at Mississippi State
Nov. 24: LSU
Sept. 8: at Mississippi State
Sept. 22: LSU
Oct. 6: ARKANSAS
Oct. 13: at Ole Miss
Oct. 20: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 10: GEORGIA
Nov. 24: at Alabama
Sept. 8: at Texas A&M
Sept. 15: at Tennessee
Sept. 22: KENTUCKY
Oct. 6: LSU
Oct. 13: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 27: vs. Georgia (Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: MISSOURI
Sept. 8: at Missouri
Sept. 22: VANDERBILT
Sept. 29: TENNESSEE
Oct. 6: at South Carolina
Oct. 20: at Kentucky
Oct. 27: vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: OLE MISS
Nov. 10: at Auburn
Sept. 22: at Florida
Sept. 29: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 6: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 13: at Arkansas
Oct. 20: GEORGIA
Oct. 27: at Missouri
Nov. 3: VANDERBILT
Nov. 24: at Tennessee
Sept. 22: at Auburn
Oct. 6: at Florida
Oct. 13: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 20: at Texas A&M
Nov. 3: ALABAMA
Nov. 10: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Nov. 17: OLE MISS
Nov. 24: at Arkansas
Sept. 29: at Alabama
Oct. 6: TEXAS A&M
Oct. 13: AUBURN
Oct. 27: at Arkansas
Nov. 3: at Georgia
Nov. 10: VANDERBILT
Nov. 17: at LSU
Nov. 24: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 8: AUBURN
Oct. 6: at Kentucky
Oct. 13: TENNESSEE
Oct. 27: at Alabama
Nov. 3: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 10: at LSU
Nov. 17: ARKANSAS
Nov. 24: at Ole Miss
Sept. 8: GEORGIA
Sept. 22: at South Carolina
Oct. 6: VANDERBILT
Oct. 13: ALABAMA
Oct. 27: KENTUCKY
Nov. 3: at Florida
Nov. 10: at Tennessee
Nov. 24: at Texas A&M
Aug. 30: at Vanderbilt
Sept. 22: MISSOURI
Sept. 29: at Kentucky
Oct. 6: GEORGIA
Oct. 13: at LSU
Oct. 20: at Florida
Oct. 27: TENNESSEE
Nov. 10: ARKANSAS
Sept. 15: FLORIDA
Sept. 29: at Georgia
Oct. 13: at Mississippi State
Oct. 20: ALABAMA
Oct. 27: at South Carolina
Nov. 10: MISSOURI
Nov. 17: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 24: KENTUCKY
Sept. 8: FLORIDA
Sept. 29: vs. Arkansas
Oct. 6: at Ole Miss
Oct. 20: LSU
Oct. 27: at Auburn
Nov. 3: at Mississippi State
Nov. 10: at Alabama
Nov. 24: MISSOURI
Aug. 30: SOUTH CAROLINA
Sept. 22: at Georgia
Oct. 6: at Missouri
Oct. 13: FLORIDA
Oct. 20: AUBURN
Nov. 3: at Kentucky
Nov. 10: at Ole Miss
Nov. 17: TENNESSEE
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Champs Sports Bowl
Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)
Date: Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
In terms of name value, this bowl should be one of the most-anticipated non-BCS bowl matchups this season.
Notre Dame and Florida State both began the year with preseason top 10 hopes, but both teams struggled to meet expectations.
The Seminoles opened the year 2-0, but suffered a handful of key injuries in a 23-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. After losing to the Sooners, Florida State lost its next two games (Clemson and Wake Forest), before winning six out of the final seven contests.
With 16 starters returning and the second season under coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was expected to improve off its 8-5 record from 2009. The Irish seemed to have trouble getting out of their own way, especially early in the season. Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the season opener against South Florida and its defense collapsed in the final seconds of a 35-31 loss to Michigan. Although the Irish won eight out their next 10 games, the 0-2 start turned any BCS bowl hopes into a longshot.
These two teams have played six times, with Florida State owning a 4-2 edge in the series. The Seminoles and Irish met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with Florida State winning 31-26.
Considering both teams return most of its core next season, this game could be a springboard for another run at a top-10 finish in 2012.
WHEN FLORIDA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Injuries have affected the Seminoles’ offense in 2011, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior missed one game and was limited in others due to a shoulder injury suffered against Oklahoma. Manuel finished the year with 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns, but should be closer to 100 percent for the matchup against Notre Dame.
Not only has Manuel battled injuries most of the year, but his receiving corps has also been banged up. The injuries and youth prevented the Florida State passing attack from finding its rhythm most of the year. Freshman Rashad Greene leads the team with 33 receptions, while Rodney Smith ranks first with 527 receiving yards. Kenny Shaw, Bert Reed and Christian Green are all key contributors and each has at least 25 receptions this year. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another young weapon for Manuel, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked 34th nationally in pass defense, but much of their success on defense starts up front. The Irish averaged only 1.7 sacks a game, but there are a handful of potential gamechangers up front. Freshman Aaron Lynch finished second on the team with four sacks and also recorded one forced fumble. Linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the best in the college football and he collected 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles this year.
The Achilles’ heel for the Florida State offense this season has been the offensive line and rushing attack. The Seminoles ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense and averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. The offensive line also gave up 36 sacks – the worst total in the ACC.
Freshman Devonta Freeman leads the team with 531 yards and eight rushing scores. Jermaine Thomas ranked second on the team with 279 rushing yards, but has been ruled academically ineligible for this game. Freeman will see the bulk of the carries, but James Wilder and Ty Jones will also figure into the mix.
The Irish defense ranks 58th nationally against the run, but considering Florida State’s struggles in the trenches, they should be able to win this matchup.
Although the Seminoles don’t want to ignore their rushing game, they need to spread the field and take advantage of their speed and depth in the receiving corps.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL:
Just like Florida State, the Irish have dealt with question marks on offense for most of 2011.
Inconsistency at quarterback has prevented the Irish from finding their rhythm, as three players have taken snaps under center. Tommy Rees is expected to start the bowl game, but he was benched during the regular season finale at Stanford and tossed four picks over his final four games. Andrew Hendrix has thrown only 29 passes this season, but thanks to his mobility, gives Notre Dame’s offense a different look. Don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks see time.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have produced solid numbers this year. Floyd caught 95 yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert chipped in 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Cierre Wood became the first Irish back since Darius Walker in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns. With Jonas Gray out due to a torn ACL, receiver Theo Riddick may see more touches out of the backfield to spell Wood.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been solid all year, but it will be tested by Florida State’s defensive front. The Seminoles recorded 36 sacks this year, led by Brandon Jenkins (seven) and Bjoern Werner (six).
Considering the Irish’s struggles with turnovers, getting pressure on Rees or Hendrix is going to be crucial for Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles rank 19th nationally in pass defense, so passing opportunities for Rees will be limited.
Although Florida State is allowing only 81.8 yards per game on the ground, Notre Dame has to try to establish its rushing attack and limit the pressure on Rees.
The edge in this department goes to Florida State.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins was a Groza finalist after connecting on 20 of 25 field goals. He nailed 6 of 9 attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Shawn Powell was one of the best in the nation this year, averaging 47 yards per punt and placing 21 inside of the 20.
The Seminoles are in great shape on returns, as Greg Reid is averaging 11.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a touchdown. Reid, Karlos Williams and Lamarcus Joyner will see time on kickoffs, with each averaging over 24 yards per return.
Notre Dame isn’t as strong as Florida State on special teams, but this isn’t a complete weakness either.
Kicker David Ruffer has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year, while punter Ben Turk is averaging 40.2 yards per punt.
Freshman George Atkinson III has ignited the Irish kickoff returns this season, averaging 27.4 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Notre Dame has struggled to get anything going on punt returns, which could open the door for Michael Floyd to see more time in this department.
The defenses should control the tempo of this game, which should make points at a premium.
Although Florida State hasn’t been perfect in the turnover department, it has been better than Notre Dame. Expect the Seminoles’ defense to force a few turnovers, putting their offense in short-field situations.
Notre Dame’s edge in the front seven will harass EJ Manuel, but the Seminoles’ offense will do just enough to win.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 20
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 3:20 p.m. ET
Location: Yankee Stadium, New York City, N.Y.
The second annual Pinstripe Bowl will feature two teams that have never met on the college gridiron. Both Iowa State and Rutgers missed out on a postseason experience in 2010 but have returned to the bowl scene in 2011. Iowa State, who is 3-7 all-time in bowl games, beat Minnesota 14-13 in the 2009 Insight Bowl its last trip to a bowl while Rutgers topped UCF 45-23 in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl the last time the Knights went to the postseason. The Knights have won four straight bowl appearances and are 4-2 all-time — with five of those showing coming under current head coach Greg Schiano.
However, both teams enter the bowl season on the skids. The Cyclones lost its final two games of the regular season to Oklahoma and Kansas State after the monumental home upset of Oklahoma State. Rutgers, who will play its second game at Yankee Stadium this year, got inexplicably blown out by UConn 40-22 in the final regular season contest.
In the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, Syracuse topped Kansas State 36-34 in one of the most exciting (and unfortunate) games of the bowl season last winter. With two of the worst offenses in the postseason, last year’s offensive fireworks are highly unlikely.
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Steele Jantz began the season as a cult hero in Ames after a triple-overtime thriller over Iowa in which he threw four touchdowns. But in the process of another stellar win over UConn, Jantz sprained his foot and was never the same — turning the ball over five times in the next three games. With Jantz struggling, coach Paul Rhoads turned to redshirt freshman Jared Barnett. The dual-threat won his first three starts including the miracle upset of Oklahoma State in which he accounted for 376 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and three total touchdowns.
Barnett rushed for 348 yards in his five starts and brings the ability to move the ball on the ground as well as through the air. He is responsible for leading the two best offensive performances of the season for Iowa State (568 yards against Oklahoma State and 512 against Texas Tech). Combined with the team's leading rusher, James White (701 yards, 8 TD), the Cyclones will undoubtedly look to take advantage of the Big East’s worst rush defense. At over 180 yards per game on the ground, this is easily the strength of the Iowa State attack.
That said, Iowa State finished last in the Big 12 in passing efficiency and will have to complete passes against the Knights’ conference leading pass defense if it expects to win. Rutgers has allowed a stingy, Big East-best 18.8 points per game in 2011.
WHEN RUTGERS HAS THE BALL:
To say that running the football was a struggle for the Knights in 2011 would be an understatement. As a team, Rutgers rushed for five total yards or less on four different occasions this season and miraculously won two of those games. Schiano will turn to a number of players to attempt to improve on the -9 total yards rushing Rutgers posted in the season finale loss to UConn. The good news? Iowa State is ranked 100th nationally at over 195 yards allowed per game. Look for a heavy dose of Jawan Jamison, who rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts in the 20-3 win over Cincinnati on November 19.
While Rutgers has struggled on offense all season (and Iowa State the same on defense), one player who has proven his talent is Knights’ wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The physically superior star athlete finished sixth in the nation at over nine catches per game (109 for the season) and will be a nightmare match-up for any Cyclone. Look for whoever is under center, be it sophomore Chas Dodd or freshman Gary Nova, to get the ball to No. 6 early and often.
Neither team will have much of an advantage in the third phase of the game. Both struggle to return or cover punts while both teams are solid in the kickoff return game. Although, Iowa State may have a slight advantage when it lines up for field goals. Cyclone kicker Zach Guyer only missed 25% of his attempts (9 of 12 FGM) this season where Rutgers’ San San Te missed 10 field goal kicks (18 of 28 FGM).
Don’t expect a bunch of beautifully executed big plays on offense in this one. At least three quarterbacks figure to see the field and points should be a premium. This feels like a sloppy affair with Rutgers winning behind one big play from the best player on either team: Mohamed Sanu.
Rutgers 17, Iowa State 14
by Mark Ross
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Date: Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Former conference foes will meet up once again when BYU and Tulsa face off on Dec. 30 at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas. From 1996-99 the two schools were in the WAC together and this game represents the eighth time they will play each other.
BYU is finishing its first season as a FBS Independent and come into this game having won eight of its nine and have scored 41 points or more in its last three contests. Tulsa had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Houston in its final game of the regular season and during that streak averaged 42 points per game. So by all accounts, there should be plenty of offensive firepower on display, fittingly, at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.
This is the seventh straight year BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to a postseason appearance in his seven years at the helm. The Cougars are 4-2 in bowl games under Mendenhall, including last year’s 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This is the second straight bowl appearance for Tulsa, who defeated Hawaii 62-35 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane’s first under head coach Bill Blakenship, who took over the reigns from Todd Graham this season. Tulsa also has won the last three bowl games it has played in, averaging 56.6 points per game during this streak.
BYU comes into this game with one more win than Tulsa, but of the Cougars’ nine wins only one of them was against a team that is playing in a bowl. The Cougars went 1-3 against bowl teams this season, defeating Utah State (who is playing in the Potato Bowl), while losing to TCU (Poinsettia), Texas (Holiday), and Utah (Sun).
On the other hand, Tulsa played six bowl teams and went 2-4 against them with all four of their losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time — Boise State (playing in the Las Vegas Bowl), Houston (TicketCity), Oklahoma (Insight) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta). So at least on paper, Tulsa has played the much more difficult schedule.
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL:
BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Riley Nelson. Nelson, a junior, assumed the starting role from sophomore Jake Heaps halfway through the season and hasn’t relinquished it since. Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes on the season for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Nelson suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, forcing him to the following week’s game. He returned for the Cougars’ season finale against Hawaii and set career highs for pass attempts (37), completions (25) and yards (363) to go along with three touchdowns in BYU’s 41-20 win on the road.
Nelson appears healthy and primed to take advantage of a Tulsa defense that’s given up an average of 289.3 passing yards per game. That ranks the Golden Hurricane 118th out 120 FBS schools in the nation.
Overall, BYU’s offense is averaging 410.8 yards per game. Of that total, 165.8 yards per game are gained on the ground. The Cougars’ rushing attack is more of a committee with five different players having more than 200 yards on the season, including Nelson, who has rushed for 376 yards.
The leading rusher is senior running back J.J. Di Luigi who has 546 yards and three touchdowns. Di Luigi has combined with sophomore Michael Alisa to rush for 1,001 yards and six scores. Senior running back Brian Kariya leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Much like the ground game, the Cougars’ aerial attack is fairly balanced as well with nine different players having at least 11 receptions and 10 with at least one touchdown reception.
BYU’s leading pass catcher is sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 821 yards. Hoffman also has seven touchdowns, second to freshman wideout Ross Apo’s nine. Four different Cougar tight ends have caught touchdowns as well, further evidence of BYU’s tendency to spread the ball around.
The Cougars’ offensive line has done a good job of keeping the quarterback as they are tied for 25th in the country for fewest sacks allowed with just 14 on the season. The line will need to maintain this consistency against Tulsa’s defense, which is averaging two sacks per game, and especially since Nelson is just over a month removed from sustaining those lung and rib injuries.
Someone BYU’s offense should keep a close eye on is Tulsa linebacker Curnelius Arnick. The senior is a tackling machine as his 91 solo tackles were the third highest total in the nation and his 142 total stops were tied for fifth. Not surprisingly, Arnick was named first team All-Conference USA.
WHEN TULSA HAS THE BALL:
Tulsa has the 24th-ranked offense in the country when it comes to total offense, averaging more than 450 yards per game. It’s a fairly balanced attack, one that averages 204.6 yards rushing and 249.8 yards passing per contest.
The Golden Hurricane attack is led by senior quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne has started 37 consecutive games and is 23-14 as the Golden Hurricane’s starter. The 2010 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kinne currently ranks second in Tulsa history in total offense and touchdown passes and is third in passing yards.
This season Kinne, a second team all-conference selection, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kinne, like BYU’s Nelson, is also a capable runner, having gained more than 400 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Kinne is one of three Tulsa playmakers with 108 or more carries this season. The team’s leading rusher is sophomore Ja’Terian Douglas, who has 884 yards on just 108 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average leads the entire nation.
Trey Watts leads the team with 147 carries and is second in rushing yards with 843 yards. Together Douglas, Watts and Kinne have combined for 2,132 rushing yards, which is more than BYU has as a team (1,990). And that number doesn’t include junior running back Alex Singleton, who has 279 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
Just like BYU, Tulsa likes to spread the ball around. Fourteen different Tulsa players have caught at least one pass this season and the team’s leading receiver is a running back. Junior H-back Willie Carter has nearly five times as many receptions (61) as he does carries (13) this season. He finished sixth in Conference USA in receiving yards (868) and he also caught seven touchdowns. Watts also has caught three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Junior wide receiver Bryan Burnham leads the way with eight touchdown receptions and is second on the team in catches (50) and yards (737). Tight end Clay Sears also is a popular target for Kinne and comes into this game with 35 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns.
BYU’s defense comes into this game ranked No. 17 in the nation, surrendering less than 317 yards per game. The Cougars have given up less than 119 yards on the ground and 200 yards through the air on average.
This season BYU has faced two other teams that are averaging close to Tulsa’s 454.4 yards per game in TCU (443.9) and Utah State (458.7). The Cougars went 1-1 in those games, defeating Utah State 27-24 and losing to TCU 38-28. The interesting thing is that they actually gave up more yards to the Aggies (406) than they did to the Horned Frogs (283), but in both games they held the opponent to less than their season averages. It remains to be seen if they can do the same thing to the Golden Hurricane.
Neither BYU’s nor Tulsa’s special teams units stand out, statistically speaking. BYU has returned one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown, while Tulsa has one special teams touchdown on a 94-yard kickoff return by Watts.
Tulsaappears to have the edge when it comes to placekicking with first team All-Conference USA kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior was the conference’s most accurate kicker, missing just two of his 17 field goal attempts, and made all three of his attempts from 50 yards and longer. On the other side, BYU’s Justin Sorensen made all 45 of his PAT attempts, but only 14 of 24 field goal attempts.
BYU comes into this game with more wins, but Tulsa played a more difficult schedule, both non-conference and as a Conference USA member, than the Independent Cougars. BYU’s defense has played well and has the statistics to support this; including giving up just over 20 points per game, but containing Tulsa’s potent offense will be a difficult task.
On the other hand, BYU’s offense has been productive in its own right and its overall numbers (410.8 yards and 30.6 points per game) aren’t too far behind those of Tulsa.
The difference lies with the defenses. Tulsa’s defense comes into this game surrendering more than 420 yards and nearly 28 points per game, and is the third-worst in the nation when it comes to defending the pass.
It is fair to say that Tulsa comes from a conference known for offenses which, along with its own offensive philosophy and production, could explain some of its defensive numbers. But the flip side of that is other than Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa hasn’t played any teams known for their defense, either. So the real question is this — is BYU’s defense more likely to slow down Tulsa’s offense or can the Cougars feast on the Golden Hurricane’s defense?
In the end, I think it will be a little of both as BYU will gain plenty of yards and points on the board on offense, while the defense will slow down Tulsa just enough and come up with a big play of its own in the fourth quarter to help seal a close, hard-fought victory.
BYU 34, Tulsa 31
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
National Signing Day 2012 is just over one month away.
With 11 of the top 20 players in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 — and exactly one-third of the entire list — still left uncommitted, the furious finish to the 2012 recruiting cycle could be one of the more memorable in history.
There is still plenty of room for upward (and downward) movement for many of the top classes in the nation. Teams like Clemson and USC always seem to finish with a flurry of success, so these team rankings are merely markers at the three-quarter poll. And with so much talent still left on the board, there will be plenty of late Christmas presents this season.
"I think one team to really keep an eye on is Ohio State. They’ve already jumped from outside the top 20 to inside the top five in the team rankings and I think there’s a chance they could climb higher," 247Sports.com national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons told Athlon Sports. "It’s a perfect storm in a lot of ways having a home-run hire like Urban Meyer who also has good ties in a talent-rich state like Florida. Meyer always closed strong at Florida; I expect this year to be no different."
"On the west coast, UCLA has a chance to hit it out of the park down the stretch," Simmons continued. "Jim Mora has hired an all-star recruiting staff, and the Bruins have built some real momentum. The best recruiters from Washington, Arizona State and SMU are all in Westwood now, and prospects in California have taken notice."
However, it appears one team may stick atop the ’12 team recruiting rankings.
Note: Team rankings by Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPNU and 247Sports.com in parentheses. AC100: Top 100 prospect by Athlon Sports, National Recruit: Top 300 prospect by Athlon Sports
1. Texas Longhorns (Rivals: 1, Scout: 1, ESPN: 1, 247: 2)
Total Commitments: 25
AC100: 6, National Recruits: 14
No team gets the recruiting train rolling quicker and more effectively than Texas. No team has more Athlon Consensus 100 commitments and national recruits than the Horns. Three of the top 25 players nationally, including tailback Jonathan Gray (AC100 No. 7), and the nation’s No. 3-rated quarterback, Connor Brewer (AC100 No. 64), make this another stacked collection for Mack Brown. With the recent struggles on offense for Texas, it should come as good news that this group is heavy on offensive skill talents. Three elite wideouts, the aforementioned Brewer and Gray and four versatile “athletes” add some play-making spark to the Burnt Orange roster that desperately needs some juice on offense.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (Rivals: 2, Scout: 2, ESPN: 3, 247: 1)
Total Commitments: 24
AC100: 6, National Recruits: 13
No team has more Top-100 commitments than the Crimson Tide (tied with Texas). A recent defection from AC100 star tailback T.J. Yeldon (No. 61) pushed the Tide into the No. 2 slot on this list. Few teams could withstand the loss of talent the Tide will be experiencing from its linebacking corps and secondary, but Nick Saban has totally restocked the cupboard. Four of his six AC100 verbals will play in the back seven of the defense, including the nation’s No. 2 and No. 7 defensive backs in Eddie Williams (No. 12) and Geno Smith (No. 42). This five-man linebacking class is one of the best in the nation.
3. Michigan Wolverines (Rivals: 3, Scout: 3, ESPN: 6, 247: 3)
Total Commitments: 24
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 9
Brady Hoke’s first season on the recruiting trail for the Maize and Blue has to be considered a massive success thus far. He has attacked the line of scrimmage, as 10 of his 24 commitments look to be headed to the trenches — a place where Rich Rodriguez lost ground to the rest of the Big Ten. This group is led by the top two players in this class, offensive lineman Kyle Kalis (No. 44) and Erik Magnuson (No. 86). Four linebackers and four defensive backs shore up the back seven of the defense in a class clearly focused on the line of scrimmage and the defense. Only six of his 24 verbals will touch the football on the next level.
4. Florida Gators (Rivals: 4, Scout: 6, ESPN: 4, 247: 7)
Total Commitments: 18
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
This is not a vintage star-studded Urban Meyer-type class, but Will Muschamp has proven in short order that he will, at least, maintain the Gators' dominance on the recruiting trail. A very balanced group is led by the offensive line of scrimmage as the top three players in this class will play along the offensive line in some capacity. D.J. Humphries (No. 17) and Jessamen Dunker (No. 43) are two of the top-rated blockers in the nation, and America’s No. 1 tight end, Kent Taylor (No. 80), should help solidify a major area of weakness for Florida of late. Nationally recruited lineman Omari “Dante” Phillips (No. 138) could land along the O-Line as well, further bolstering the struggling offensive line. At 6’3 and 220 pounds, nationally rated tailback Matt Jones (No. 109) could also put a serious jolt into the running game as well.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes (Rivals: 6, Scout: 5, ESPN: 10, 247: 5)
Total Commitments: 19
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 8
Few coaches have ever had the instant impact on the recruiting trail like Urban Meyer has on Ohio State. This class was outside of the Top 25 when he took over as the head coach in Columbus. After stealing AC100 talents Adolphus Washington (No. 23), Tommy Schutt (No. 52) and Se’Von Pittman (No. 93) out from underneath Big Ten rivals Penn State and Michigan State, he landed a gem in defensive end Noah Spence, the nation’s No. 3-rated player. All four of these AC100 prospects will play along the defensive line as Meyer attempts to recreate those stellar Gator D-Lines up north. Spence may be the best pass rusher in the nation. With a few more slots left to fill and plenty of talent ripe for the picking, don’t be surprised if Meyer pulls another upset or two before NSD.
6. Florida State Seminoles (Rivals: 7, Scout: 12, ESPN: 2, 247: 8)
Total Commitments: 15
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 9
Jimbo Fisher claims four of the top 30 players in the nation, including prep football’s top quarterback prospect in Jameis Winston (No. 10) and the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit in end Mario Edwards. This isn’t a very deep class at the moment other than along the defensive line, where Fisher boasts one of college football’s top incoming classes. Edwards, with ends Chris Casher (No. 29) and Dante Fowler Jr. (No. 30), gives an already ferocious front seven three of the top five defensive end prospects in the nation. Sprinkle in one of the most complete running backs in the nation, Mario Pender (No. 35), and the Noles are looking at yet another top-ten class.
7. LSU Tigers (Rivals: 5, Scout: 5, ESPN: 14, 247: 4)
Total Commitments: 22
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
There seems to be some discrepancy when trying to evaluate the Bayou Bengals’ haul for 2012. Prior to Gunner Kiel announcing on Tuesday in favor of LSU, Rivals already saw this group as a top-five class, while ESPN barely had them ranked in the top 15. Scout immediately bumped the Tigers from No. 7 to No. 5, 247Sports moved LSU from No. 9 to No. 4 and Athlon jumped LSU one spot from eighth to seventh. The nation's No. 2 quarterback bolsters and already potent Tiger class as Kiel attempts to follow in former Hoosier State product Matt Mauck's footsteps. Their ten national recruits are among the most in the nation; however, only four land in the top 200. Yet, there are few weak spots in Les Miles' ’12 haul. The offensive line class is deep and talented, headlined by Vadal Alexander (No. 107) who just missed landing in the AC100. The No. 2 player in this group is Patrick Peterson’s little brother Avery Johnson (No. 67). The talented wide receiver will be joined on offense by three stellar skill talents each hailing from Breaux Bridge High School: Lamar Louis, Travin Dural and Kavahra Holmes.
8. Oklahoma Sooners (Rivals: 8, Scout: 10, ESPN: 9, 247: 4)
Total Commitments: 18
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 8
The focus of this group is obvious: Restock the offense with talented skill players and provide some protection. Four of the six top-rated players in this class, including both AC100 talents — running back Alex Ross (No. 60) and wideout Durron Neal (No. 62) — will play either running back or wide receiver. The loss of Ryan Broyles clearly hurt this offense, but Bob Stoops should have plenty of firepower on the outside in the form of arguably the best pass-catching class in the nation. In addition to Neal, receivers Derrick Woods and Sterling Shepard are nationally ranked, while 2011 AC100 talent Trey Metoyer will finally arrive on campus after a year of prep school. A pair of talented tight ends also should make Landry Jones’ job, should he return for his final season, easier in 2012 than it was post-Broyles this fall.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Rivals: 17, Scout: 9, ESPN: 12, 247: 10)
Total Commitments: 16
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 8
Only Alabama and Texas have more AC100 recruits committed than Brian Kelly. And again he is making serious headway on the defensive side of the ball. After one of the nastiest defensive line classes in history last cycle, Kelly once again has reeled in a talented group along the line. AC100 tackles Jarron Jones (No. 32) and Sheldon Day (No. 94) fortify the interior, while AC100 defensive backs Ronald Darby (No. 51) and Tee Shepard (No. 55) strengthen the back end of the Irish defense. A solid trio of receivers headlined by Deontay Greenberry (No. 92) will help fill the void left by a strong departing class of pass catchers.
10. Clemson Tigers (Rivals: 10, Scout: 11, ESPN: 5, 247: 11)
Total Commitments: 20
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
After an outstanding linebacking and offensive skill class a year ago, Dabo Swinney filled in the gaps with plenty of line of scrimmage help in 2012. Five outstanding blockers — three of whom are nationally ranked — will help solidify the front line on offense while five defensive linemen — led by AC100 talent Carlos Watkins (No. 91) — bolster an always potent D-Line. While ten of the 20 future Tigers will play in the trenches, the secondary isn’t without skill. The top-rated prospect in the class is standout DB Travis Blanks (No. 33), who leads a secondary class that could be as large as five should the “athletes” land on defense. Jim Kelly’s nephew, quarterback Chad Kelly (No. 103), barely missed the AC100, and wideout Germone Hopper (No. 69) merely adds to the embarrassment of riches in what is already one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
11. Texas A&M Aggies (Rivals: 9, Scout: 4, ESPN: 8, 247: 6)
Total Commitments: 23
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 5
This class does not have the star power of some of the other top classes, but it more than makes up for it in quantity and balance. This class claims two top 100 and only three top 200 recruits, but it has depth at nearly every position. Five defensive backs, five offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, four wide receivers and two elite ball carriers (one of whom will be under center) give new head coach Kevin Sumlin plenty to work with next fall. Tailback Trey Williams (No. 41) and dual-threat quarterback Matt Davis (No. 88) are the gems of the class. Davis is already enrolled at College Station.
12. Miami Hurricanes (Rivals: 11, Scout: 8, ESPN: 11, 247: 12)
Total Commitments: 28
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 7
Al Golden has put together one of the largest and deepest classes in the nation for 2012. No team ranked in the top 15 has as many commitments as the Canes’ 28. This group is headlined by a pair of elite offensive playmakers in tailback Randy “Duke” Johnson (No. 49) and wide receiver Angelo Jean-Louis (No. 76). These two top an offensive skill class that will feature three quarterbacks, five wide receivers, two tailbacks and a tight end. The defense wasn’t ignored by any stretch, as this outfit includes four linebackers, five defensive backs and four defensive ends — including AC100 talent Jelani Hamilton (No. 84).
13. Auburn Tigers (Rivals: 12, Scout: 15, ESPN: 13, 247: 17)
Total Commitments: 16
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 9
Losing AC100 talent Yeldon to Bama certainly didn’t help, but Gene Chizik still has an outstanding group of incoming freshman slated to join his roster on NSD. The class isn’t incredibly deep, but each position is represented equally, adding depth to a roster that is very young at nearly every spot on the field. Quarterback Zeke Pike (No. 82), receiver Ricardo Louis (No. 87) and tight end Ricky Parks (No. 89) are the top-rated players in this class, and all three should help whoever is the new offensive coordinator on the Plains.
14. Georgia Bulldogs (Rivals: 19, Scout: --, ESPN: 7, 247: 16)
Total Commitments: 15
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 5
There is only one team in the nation with two of the top ten recruits currently committed, and that team is the Dawgs. Mark Richt has only 15 verbal pledges, but he has the nation’s No. 1 running back in Keith Marshall (No. 6) and country’s No. 3 blocker in John Theus (No. 8) ready to sign in February. The defensive line is stacked with elite prospects as well. AC100 talent Jonathan Taylor (No. 36) could play either side of the ball, and nationally ranked John Atkins and Leonard Floyd bolster an already loaded D-Line in Athens. With the depth of the 2011 class, and the star quality of this smaller group, Richt's Dawgs could be the class of the SEC East for the next few years.
15. USC Trojans (Rivals: 15, Scout: --, ESPN: 18, 247: --)
Total Commitments: 11
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 7
The Trojans get knocked by the computers due to the lack of total numbers in this small but very talented group. Seven of the 11 total commitments (four of whom have already signed) are ranked nationally, giving USC arguably the best “quality” of any team in the nation. With a few more upsets (Arik Armstead, Shaq Thompson, Eddie Goldman for example), Lane Kiffin could find himself in the top ten. This group is currently led by linebacker Jabari Ruffin (No. 47) and offensive lineman Jordan Simmons (No. 54).
16. Tennessee Volunteers (21 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
17. South Carolina Gamecocks (20 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
18. Oregon Ducks (17 total, 0 AC100, 4 National)
19. Virginia Cavaliers (25 total, 1 AC100, 4 National)
20. Virginia Tech Hokies (27 total, 0 AC100, 3 National)
21. Texas Tech Red Raiders (23 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
22. Cal Golden Bears (14 total, 2 AC100, 5 National)
23. Arkansas Razorbacks (22 total, 0 AC100, 0 National)
24. Stanford Cardinal (15 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
25. TCU Horned Frogs (19 total, 1 AC100, 3 Naitonal)
Surprise, surprise. Tim Tebow's followers want to bring down HBO after an atheist made a blasphemous joke about the annointed Denver quarterback. Tebow, who is devoutly religious (he has a knack for putting Bible scripture on his eye black) has been a polarizing figure since he came to the NFL is at the center of another debate surrounding his combination of poor quarterbacking skills and Hall of Fame-worthy worship skills.
On one hand, he's not a great traditional quarterback. He's not great at throwing or doing the things you'd expect a quarterback to do, but he somehow manages to win games (his defense and kicker help a lot, too), so that makes the pundits mad that they can't explain his success. On the other, his fervent religiousness has made him a poster child for lots of Christians who have insinuated that God is pulling for the Broncos now that Tebow is behind the helm, and that makes everyone else mad.
So when Bill Maher tweeted "Wow, Jesus just f---- #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler "Hey, Buffalo's killing them" it really made Tebow's Christian followers very, very angry. Maher, who is a devout atheist and star of his documentary "Religulous" probably couldn't be more pleased to tweak the religious right with a single tweet.
Was the tweet in bad taste? It depends on which side of the Tim Tebow fence you fall on. But regardless, there are calls to boycott HBO, which broadcasts Bill Maher's "Real Time" show.
But, as usual, the outraged have missed the point. Maher is a devout and vocal atheist. Do you really expect anything else from him? And if you hate what he says so much, you're only bringing attention to him and his show by calling for boycott's of it. Guess what all this controversy and furor is going to do for Maher's ratings when his show returns in January? They're going to be higher than ever because people are going to tune in to see what he's going to say next.
And what do you really care what he says about Tim Tebow? If you don't like his show, don't watch it. Or, if you really want to do Bill a favor, picket it. Start a petition and get the word out about what a horrible and controversial show Maher does. Because there's a pretty good chance if Christians are boycotting his show, it's win-win for Bill. He gets tons of free publicity without losing any of his audience.
There's really not much that needs to be said about this video titled Don Cherry's Piano Desk. It is what it is -- Genius. For those of you who don't know who Don Cherry is, he's Canada's answer to Glenn Beck. He's a loudmouth red neck who says a lot of wacky stuff on Hockey Night in Canada. But since he's Canadian, he's way more more loveable than Beck.
And plus, he has that sweet piano desk. Who wouldn't want that?
With the recent state of politics, there seems to be a parallel between the major players in the Republican and Democratic parties and some major figures in the sports world. So we made a list comparing them. We're just hoping that before our economy crashes and we're all left jobless and homeless that the politicians realize that we need them to be held to a higher standard than we hold a guy who gets a bucket of Gatorade dumped on him when he's successful.
Newt Gingrich is Rex Ryan
How They're Similar: Sure, both of them are fat (clearly) but they both also have egos that match their enormous size. And they both also have sketchy/disgusting sexual histories, with Gingrich reportedly ditching his cancer-ridden wife while she was on her deathbed, and Rex filming foot fetish videos with his wife. We're pretty sure Newt's is worse, but forcing us to envision whatever it is Rex Ryan does to his wife's feet is a really close second.
Newt Gingrich Quote: "I have enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it. I am now a famous person. I represent real power."
Rex Ryan Quote: "We're going to win the Super Bowl."
Rick Perry is Les Miles
How They're Similar: Have you ever heard what comes out of Rick Perry's mouth when he's trying to explain...well, anything? Have you ever watched Les Miles try and answer a straight forward question during an LSU press conference? It's like these guys are sharing the same mouth. And while both have been successful with big programs (Perry with the state of Texas, Miles with LSU), they both do their best work when there's no microphone around.
Rick Perry Quote: "Oops."
Les Miles Quote: "I can only tell you that the only fit to me for those players on this campus is extremely good."
Michele Bachmann is The Runaway Cart
How They're Similar: I'm not sure which one is crazier. On one hand you've got Michele Bachmann, who said an FDA-approved vaccine is making people retarded, Democrats are responsible for the flu, and gave us her insane eyes on the Newsweek cover. And on the other hand you've got that runaway cart that mowed down lots of people at Cowboys' Stadium. Let's call it a draw.
Michele Bachmann Quote: "If we took away the minimum wage, we could potentially, virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs on any level."
Runaway Cart Quote: "I'm a runaway cart! No one's driving me! I'm mowing people down!"
Ron Paul is Bill Snyder
How They're Similar: Both Ron Paul and Kansas State's football coach Bill Snyder are crazy old guys who say and do things that fly in the face of convention. For example, Ron Paul will say that a young man without health insurance should die (not the most politically savvy thing to say), and Snyder once tried to hypnotize himself to compress a full night's sleep into a one-hour trance. But guess what, there's a bit of truth on what these old codgers are going on about. Paul (who says a lot of common sense stuff between his libertarian black and white view of the world) is currently leading the Republican polls in Iowa and Snyder was just named the Sporting News' Coach of the Year after turning around the Kansas State football program. Take that non-crazy young people.
Ron Paul Quote: “With politicians like these, who needs terrorists?”
Bill Snyder Quote: "We practice in the rain. We ought to be able to play better in the rain."
Herman Cain is The Penn State Football Program
How They're Similar: Oh, ya know, that whole thing where they both tried to cover up decades-long sex scandals and then dropped out of sight while meakly proclaiming their innocence.
Mitt Romney is Bill Belichick
How They're Similar: Mitt made hundreds of millions in business while using cut throat practices of sending jobs overseas, while Belichick won three Super Bowls, routinely ran up the score on his opponents and was caught cheating in the Spygate scandal. And, yet, for as ruthless as both of them have been, they both have the personality of lukewarm water when someone is asking them questions in front of a camera. I'm not sure what's worse, getting stuck talking to Mitt Romney at a party, or having him send your job to the Philippines.
Mitt Romney Quote: "Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings, my friend."
Bill Belichick Quote: “We’re playing for 60 minutes, I don’t give a [expletive] what the score is.”
Rick Santorum is Tim Tebow
How They're Similar: Both of these guys are super religious, and they each have an interesting phenomenon named after them (Tim has "Tebowing" and if you don't know what "Santorum" is, go ahead and google it). But they're also similar in that we have no idea why we're still hearing so much about either one of them. Tebow is a 4th-rate quarterback and Santorum is the guy who will finish 6th in the Republican primaries. (In addition, this time next year, they will both be known as "Remember that guy?")
Rick Santorum Quote: "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts."
Tim Tebow Quote: "As iron sharpens iron, men sharpen men."
Barack Obama is Ryan Leaf
How They're Similar: So much promise, so much hope. And then when it came to game time, they both threw more balls to the opposing team than they did to their own.
Barack Obama Quote: "I will close Guantanamo Bay."
Ryan Leaf Quote: "I'm looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego.''
Joe Biden is Dana Holgorsen
How They're Similar: It's mostly the hair.
Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I've never been able to get into cricket. Not only do the matches take weeks, but when something does happen, it's basically just a piece of wood falling off a stick. It's rare for their to be a diving catch or a bone-crushing collision.
And there's tea breaks. Don't get me wrong, I like tea as much as the next guy, but should you stop a sporting event to sip something that grandmothers drink before bed?
Or maybe it's more civilized. Either way, this video of a camerman crashing his segway is pretty enjoyable. If this happened more often, I might spend some time to understand cricket.
Drew Brees is now the king of the NFL's quarterback mountain after passing Dan Marino for most passing yards in a single season. And Brees has one game left to increase his record even more.
And while the Saints demolished the Falcons on Monday Night football to clinch the NFC South division title, the story of the night was Brees. He's had arguably one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of all time.
Arguably because this is an NFL based around passing much more than it was in Marino's time. But those who point to that as a way of taking away from what Brees did are way off base, because defenses are infinitely more complex now than they were 20 years ago.
In a show of class, Dan Marino (who you know is not happy about his record getting broken) tweeted, "Great job by such a special player."
But there's also something different about Brees record now. In the past, football records didn't really matter all that much. The rushing record was the sexy one, but after that, not a lot of people gave much thought to NFL records. It was baseball's immortal stats that really held the public's attention.
But with the steroid scandal that permeated through that sport over the last 15 years, no one knew what to think of baseball's record book. Every feat had a dark cloud of questions hanging over it. And now, with Barry Bonds who everyone almost guarantees took steroids, holding his sport's most hallowed record, it has lessened not only the home run record, but all the others as well.
And Drew Brees is the exact opposite of Barry Bonds. A super nice guy who does tons of charity work and has never been labeled a prima donna. He's the perfect player to own one of the NFL's most important records and should help turn around the public's interest in NFL's highest achievements.
And Brees breaking of the record was dramatic, as he did it on his last throw of the game. Brees edged him by 3 yards and now has 5,087 yards to Marino's 5,084. Brees is also the first player in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in more than one season, havig thrown for 5,069 in 2008.
And as if that wasn't enough, Brees' four touchdown passes against the Falcons brought him to ninth on the all-time touchdown list with with 276, passing Joe Montana (273) and Vinny Testaverde (276).
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The 2012 preseason college football top 25 is already starting to take shape. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has decided to return for another season, making the Trojans one of the early favorites to win the national title next season. Athlon has already released a very early top 25 for 2012, but as expected, underclassmen entering the NFL Draft will have a major impact on how the next release of the poll looks in mid-January.
Here some key players to watch as the underclassmen deadline approaches on Jan. 15, 2012 and how it could impact the national title race next season:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball put together a monster junior campaign, rushing for 1,759 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 20 receptions for 255 yards and six scores. Ball is regarded as a likely second-round pick if he declares for the draft.
If Ball leaves: Wisconsin always seems to crank out productive running backs, so losing Ball isn’t going to completely shut down the rushing attack. James White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but compiled only 683 yards and six scores in 2011. White will get first crack at replacing Ball, but Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis will also figure into the mix.
If Ball stays: Wisconsin is losing quarterback Russell Wilson and will have to replace the right side of the line. However, if Ball returns, it would give the Badgers a workhorse at running back and someone who can carry the offense until a new quarterback settles into the position. Also, with Ohio State’s bowl ban next season, Wisconsin is the early frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu garnered the Heisman hype, but Claiborne might be the better cover corner. He picked off a team-high six passes and broke up six others. Claiborne also recorded 46 tackles.
If Claiborne leaves: Even if Claiborne leaves for the NFL, the LSU secondary will remain one of the best in college football. Mathieu will likely earn All-American honors in the preseason, while safeties Eric Reid, Craig Loston and Tharold Simon are all solid contributors. Losing Claiborne is a big blow, but the LSU defense will remain strong.
If Claiborne stays: It’s early to etch this in stone, but if Claiborne stays, LSU should have the best defensive backfield in the nation. Claiborne and Mathieu should be one of the top cornerback tandems, while the safety position remains in good shape with Loston, Reid and Simon returning.
Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor
Griffin raised the bar at Baylor, leading the Bears to their first nine-win season since 1986. He passed for 3,998 yards and 36 scores, while adding 644 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Griffin claimed the school’s first Heisman trophy and earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If Griffin leaves: Thanks to coach Art Briles, Baylor is in a better position to absorb the loss of any player. The Bears have earned back-to-back bowl bids, and Griffin’s successor will have talent to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Nick Florence will likely get the call to start if Griffin departs, but Bryce Petty will also get a chance to compete. If Griffin leaves, Baylor won’t start 2012 in the preseason top 25.
If Griffin stays: If Griffin returns, Baylor should begin the year in many preseason top 25 rankings. The Bears were ranked No. 21 in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. Repeating as Heisman winner won’t be easy, but Griffin will have a chance, especially with Baylor expected to compete for a finish in the top four or five of the Big 12. The offense will miss dynamic receiver Kendall Wright, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson is a good trio to build around.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Even after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, James led the nation with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game. He finished with 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with posting an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. James also earned first-team All-Pac-12 conference honors.
If James leaves: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that James is leaving. What else can he really accomplish? Although he has yet to win a Heisman or national title, James has recorded 746 carries in his career and there’s only so much workload a running back can handle in his career. The Ducks are in great shape at running back, with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson returning. The Ducks will miss James’ explosiveness, but the offense shouldn’t drop off too much.
If James stays: If James makes the surprising decision to stick around in Eugene, Oregon’s offense will be one of the best in college football. He will also earn preseason first-team All-America honors and should be one of the frontrunners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery’s 2011 production didn’t live up to the preseason hype. He caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine scores in 2010, but watched his production slump to 45 receptions for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. The dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia significantly contributed to Jeffery’s decrease in catches this season.
If Jeffery leaves: The Gamecocks have talent in the receiving corps, but there’s no go-to guy like Jeffery waiting in the wings. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones would have to pickup more slack for quarterback Connor Shaw. If Jeffery departs, expect South Carolina to lean even more on running back Marcus Lattimore to carry the offense.
If Jeffery stays: Give Shaw and Jeffery an offseason to work and this connection should be much better in 2012. If he returns, Jeffery could begin next season on many first-team All-SEC ballots. The Gamecocks will be in contention for the SEC East title next season and getting Jeffery back will be a huge boost to those championship hopes.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last season, Jones had a disappointing 2011 campaign. He threw 4,302 yards and only 28 touchdowns, while tossing 14 picks. Also, he did not throw a touchdown pass in the final three regular season games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners began 2011 as one of the top picks to win the national title. However, a 9-3 record was a major disappointment for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
If Jones leaves: With Matt Barkley’s decision to stick around at USC, Jones has to be moving up the quarterback draft boards for NFL scouts. Will that be enough to convince him to leave early? Blake Bell saw limited action for Oklahoma this season and would be the early frontrunner to replace Jones. The Sooners are the very early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012, but without Jones, they could lose their grip on the top spot.
If Jones stays: Considering how poorly Jones performed over the final three regular season games, there’s a strong chance he returns for 2012. If he comes back, the Sooners should be the early favorite to win the Big 12. However, Jones can’t do it all alone and needs receivers other than Kenny Stills to step up next year.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is one of college football's most physical cover corners. He earned first-team All-American honors by the FWAA and recorded 26 tackles and nine passes broken up this year.
If Kirkpatrick leaves: The Alabama secondary is already getting hit hard by departures, as safety Mark Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will expire their eligibility at the end of the year. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are already going to be dealing with some key losses in this group next year, so Kirkpatrick's departure will only add more concern for coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Assuming Kirkpatrick is gone, Dee Milliner and John Fulton will have to take on a bigger role in the defensive backfield.
If Kirkpatrick stays: Kirkpatrick is considered a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft and will be among the first 15 picks off the board. Considering where Kirkpatrick is expected to go, it will be a major surprise if he returns in 2012. However, if he returns to Tuscaloosa, Kirkpatrick will be a lock for preseason All-American honors and help to keep Alabama's secondary among the best in the nation.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington (Declared for draft on Jan. 2)
Polk has quietly been one of the most impressive running backs in college football over the last three seasons. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, totaling 3,902 yards and 25 rushing scores during that span. Polk has also caught 77 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns in his career.
If Polk leaves: Polk is believed to be 50-50 on whether to return to school or enter the NFL Draft. Losing Polk would be a blow to a Washington team that is poised to contend for a spot in the top 25 next season. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey combined for 451 yards and two scores this season and would get first crack at replacing Polk. Deontae Cooper is another name to watch, but has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries.
If Polk stays: The Huskies are poised to crack the top 25 next season – if Polk sticks around. The offense will be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with quarterback Keith Price and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returning. If Polk returns, he should be a lock for first-team All-Pac-12 honors and deserves preseason All-American honors.
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Richardson was the workhorse for the Alabama offense in 2011, rushing for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also added 27 receptions for 327 yards and three scores and finished third in Heisman voting.
If Richardson leaves: Losing Richardson would be a huge setback for the Alabama offense, but not something unexpected. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler combined for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and would be forced to take on a bigger role in 2012. Dee Hart missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL, but his return will add a speedy, change of pace option into the backfield. If Richardson leaves as expected, look for quarterback AJ McCarron to carry more of the offense next year.
If Richardson stays: The chances of Richardson returning are very, very small. The junior is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and other than winning a Heisman, doesn’t have much left to accomplish. Just like other running backs considering making the jump, there’s only so much wear and tear and carries they can make in their career. If Richardson decides to stay, it will be a boost to Alabama’s national title hopes next season. The Crimson Tide would have one of the top backfields in college football, and Richardson would begin the year as a preseason first-team All-American running back.
David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
In his first full season as Virginia Tech’s No. 1 back, Wilson rushed for 1,627 yards and nine scores. He also added 21 receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown. With a new quarterback (Logan Thomas) starting this year, the Hokies leaned heavily on Wilson early in the year. He was named the 2011 ACC Player of the Year.
If Wilson leaves: There’s a strong chance Wilson enters the NFL Draft, and the backfield depth (or lack thereof) behind him is a little scary. Tony Gregory has 129 yards in two seasons and would figure to get the first opportunity to win the No. 1 running back spot. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes will also figure into the mix, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen. Quarterback Logan Thomas played better as the year progressed and if Wilson leaves, he will become the focal point of the offense.
If Wilson stays: Virginia Tech has claimed the Coastal Division title four out of the last five years and should be the favorite in 2012. And Wilson returning would certainly solidify the Hokies place atop the division. There’s very little proven depth behind Wilson, so his return would boost Virginia Tech’s offense and chances of playing for the national title next year.
Five More Names to Watch
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama - Hightower is one of the leaders for Alabama's defense, especially helping to get everyone aligned and in position before the snap. He led the team with 81 tackles and collected 9.5 tackles for a loss. Hightower will be a first-round pick if he decides to leave early and his departure would be a huge blow for Alabama's defense.
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech - Hosley earned second-team All-ACC honors this year, after collecting 59 tackles and picking off three passes. He also helped Virginia Tech rank first in the conference pass efficiency defense. Hosley will likely go in the first round if he declares for the 2012 NFL Draft. He declared for the NFL Draft after the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State - Jenkins has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in college football over the last two years, registering 20.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss. Although Bjoern Werner has emerged as a solid defensive linemen for Florida State, Jenkins will be a big loss if he declares.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama - Jones is one of the most valuable and versatile linemen in the nation. He announced his intentions to return to Alabama in late December and could move to center next season.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College - The 2011 Butkus Award winner is the heart and soul of the Boston College defense. Kuechly is a lock for first-team All-American honors should he return to the Eagles in 2012.
Other Underclassmen that Could Declare for the 2012 NFL Draft
Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
Robert Lester, S, Alabama
Ronnell Lewis, DE, Oklahoma
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Already Declared for 2012 NFL Draft
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
Marcus Forston, DT, Miami
Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest
Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Terrell Manning, LB, NC State
Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina
Nick Perry, DE, USC
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Chris Polk, RB, Washington
Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida
Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
Brandon Washington, OG/OT, Miami
Returning to College in 2012
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Texas (7–5) vs. California (7–5)
Date: Dec. 28, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Will the Holiday Bowl be Mack Brown’s last game as head coach at Texas? Following back-to-back mediocre seasons, the additional pressure of the ESPN Longhorn Network venture and no near- or long-term solution at quarterback, Brown retirement rumors have been swirling around burnt orange country lately.
Those rumors are not true, however, according to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. “Anything you are hearing, absolutely nothing about it is true,” Dodds told The Associated Press. “I’ve never seen him more energized and excited about the future.”
The 60-year-old former BCS national champ has a 2–1 record in the Holiday Bowl since taking over at Texas in 1998 — defeating Washington, 47–43, in 2001; losing to Washington State, 28–20, in 2003; and taking down Arizona State, 52–34, in 2007.
On the other side, Jeff Tedford is 1–1 in the Holiday Bowl since arriving at Cal in 2002 — falling to Texas Tech, 45–31, in Aaron Rodgers’ last collegiate game in 2004 and dominating Texas A&M, 45–10, in 2006.
WHEN TEXAS HAS THE BALL:
Neither Case McCoy (1,034 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs) nor David Ash (937 yards, 3 TDs, 8 INTs) will make anyone forget about Vince Young or Colt McCoy — a pair of UT gunslingers who spoiled the fan base during their unbelievable BCS bowl-laden seven-year reign. The Horns have the nation’s 85th-ranked passing offense and, as a team, have thrown more INTs (15) than TDs (14) this season.
Texas’ most dangerous playmakers are true freshmen. Running back Malcolm Brown (707 yards, 5 TDs) is the team’s leading rusher. But turf toe tackled Brown late in the season, causing the frosh to miss three of the final five games and limiting him to just 72 yards in the two games he did play. Receiver Jaxon Shipley — Jordan’s little brother — also missed three of the last five contests with a knee injury. But he bounced back with a four-catch, 121-yard effort in a loss to Baylor in the season finale and should be good to go in the bowl.
Cal has the 36th-ranked rush defense, allowing 130.33 yards per game and 16 rush TDs this season. Texas’ ground attack — led by Brown, Joe Bergeron (454 yards, 5 TDs), Fozzy Whittaker (386 yards, 6 TDs), D.J. Monroe (326 yards) and Cody Johnson (5 TDs) — could give the Golden Bears trouble. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks and end Trevor Guyton lead a Cal defense that held three Pac-12 opponents to 10 or fewer points.
WHEN CALIFORNIA HAS THE BALL:
Tedford is known for his quarterbacks but the offensive guru also keeps a top-flight running back on his roster at all times. Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) follows in the fleet footsteps of Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch.
The one-two punch of Sofele and C.J. Anderson (343 yards, 8 TDs) may have a tough time running against Texas’ 11th-ranked rush defense, which allows just 103.67 yards per game. First-year UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is one of the top young assistants in the game and his stop-unit will be counted on to carry the Longhorns. Take away Texas’ three blowout losses — to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor — and Diaz’s defense allowed an average of only 15.3 points in their nine other games.
But Texas was susceptible to the pass — O-State, OU and Baylor were the nation’s second-, fourth- and fifth-best passing offenses. First-team All-Pac-12 receiver Keenan Allen (1,261 yards, 6 TDs) could be the X-factor. If quarterback Zach Maynard (2,802 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs) can find Allen and Marvin Jones (758 yards, 3 TDs) down the field, the Bears could claw the Horns’ defense and scratch out a win in the Holiday Bowl.
Texas’ neon-Nike’d kicker and punter Justin Tucker has been a hero all season long and was carried off the field following his 40-yard game-winning boot to beat Texas A&M as time expired in the Aggies’ final Big 12 game before joining the SEC. Tucker is 17-of-20 on field goals, with a long of 52. If the game comes down to a kick, the wild child senior has proven capable of coming through in the clutch.
Cal punter Bryan Anger is the best in the west, with a 44.6-yard average and 18-of-46 punts dropping inside the 20-yard-line. With field position being crucial to Texas’ plodding offense, Anger’s ability to flip the field could make him the MVP.
Texas’ stingy, swarming defense keeps the Longhorns in the game until the end, putting Tucker in position to nail another game-winning field goal. Brown will end 2011 with a win. The question is whether or not the Holiday Bowl will be his last victory wearing burnt orange and leading Longhorn Nation?
Texas 26, California 24
by Nathan Rush
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Toledo (8–4) vs. Air Force (7–5)
Date: Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: RFK Stadium, Washington D.C.
High-flying Toledo heads to the nation’s capital with one of the most explosive offenses in college football. The Rockets, however, will not have their (former) coach, Tim Beckman, who was hired last week to replace Ron Zook at Illinois. The man in charge now is 32-year-old Matt Campbell, who was promoted to the top job after a successful two-year run as UT’s offensive coordinator. Campbell will lead a confident Toledo team that has won seven of its past eight games. The Rockets tied for the MAC West title with a 7–1 record but lost the tie-breaker to Northern Illinois. Toledo lost earlier in the year at Ohio State by five points and would have defeated Syracuse if not for a botched call on an extra point.
Air Force is back in a bowl game for the fifth straight year, but the 2011 season was a bit of a disappointment for the Falcons. Expected to be a factor in the Mountain West, AFA went 3–4 in league play to finish alone in fifth place. The Falcons won seven games but did not defeat a team that ended the season with a winning record. Their best win was over rival Navy, which went 5–7. The main issue for Troy Calhoun’s team has been on defense. Air Force can’t stop the run (113th in the nation) and have trouble generating big plays (118th in tackles for a loss and 93rd in sacks).
WHEN TOLEDO HAS THE BALL:
The Rockets averaged 42.3 points per game for the season (first in the MAC and eighth in the nation) and an incredible 52.8 over the final six games. The offense is balanced; Toledo is one of only two teams (Nevada is the other) that averaged over 220 yards rushing and over 270 yards passing. The Rockets played two quarterbacks for much of the season — juniors Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin — but Owens got all of the snaps in the final two games while Dantin recovered from a concussion. Both are available for the bowl game.
Adonis Thomas leads the rushing attack. He ran for 963 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing three full games and the majority of another with a broken arm. He averaged 162 yards in his final four games
As mentioned, Toledo can beat you through the air or on the ground, but expect to see a heavy dose of the ground game against an Air Force defense that was torched for 348 yards rushing in its season-finale against Colorado State and 259 the week before vs. UNLV.
WHEN AIR FORCE HAS THE BALL:
As expected, Air Force does most of its damage on the ground. The Falcons rank second in the nation in rushing (320.3 ypg) and 113th in passing (138.5 ypg). Quarterback Tim Jefferson was relatively efficient throwing the ball (60.1 percent, 12 TDs, six INTs), but that is simply not a big part of the team’s attack. Only twice this season was Jefferson asked to throw the ball more than 16 times, and, not surprisingly, the Falcons lost both of those games.
Jefferson was solid on the ground (492 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns), but the Falcons were led by halfback Asher Clark, who ran for 1,134 yards and six touchdowns, and fullback Mike DeWitt, who added 543 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Toledo’s defense was strong against the run in 2011, allowing only 123.2 yards per game, but the option figures to pose a big challenge.
Toledo’s kickers, Ryan Casano and Jeremiah Detmer, combined to make 15-of-18 field goal attempts. Casano made all 10 of his tries from inside 40 yards while Detmer was 3-of-3 from 40 and beyond. Air Force, too, was solid in the kicking game, with junior Parker Herrington connecting on 15-of-18. Neither team does anything that stands out in the return game.
Air Force has won two straight bowl games, beating a pass-first team in Houston in 2009 and a run-based option team in Georgia Tech in ’10. Toledo might not be as talented as either the ’09 Houston Cougars or ’10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but the Rockets’ balance on offense will be too much for the Falcons to stop.
Toledo 35, Air Force 27
Here’s something you’ve probably heard before: New York is the greatest city in the world.
Depending on whether or not you can name the five boroughs in between bites of your hero (no, not your hoagie, grinder or submarine), that’s a statement you likely whole-heartedly agree with or reject completely.
Of course, no New Yorker can verify their claim of urban supremacy. Most of us have never been to Paris or Rome or grabbed a bite at In ‘N Out Burger, one of the few meals that, allegedly, can’t be matched in the City. (And let’s be real, there is only one City.) And oh, sure, we hear Pittsburgh is a nice place to live. But…Pittsburgh over New York? Next you’ll be telling me I should grab a Morton’s rib-eye over a Peter Luger porterhouse, or that deep dish is better than neopolitan. And you’ll be wrong, of course. Because everything is better in New York. Including our sports teams.
Except for one.
I mean, a lot of our sports teams are bad. The Jets and Giants are about to go head-to-head in the MetLife-Who-Sucks-Less Bowl, Fred Wilpon is probably cashing a welfare check as we speak, and yeah, sure, the Rangers haven’t done much since the ’94 Cup, but that’s hockey. It doesn’t really count.
There’s only one franchise – correction: one team – that we’ll admit isn’t as good as everyone else’s. It’s the one that plays in the Greatest Arena in the World (wink, wink) and that’s gone through a bit of a 38-year rough patch lately.
This may come as a surprise, but New York sports fans harbor a bit of a superiority complex. The Yankees have always been The Best, a symbol of sports royalty, the team of the decade, most successful franchise of the century. (Thank you, Bob Costas.) Yet, World Series titles wouldn’t become a Bronx birthright until King George issued his doctrine saying so. Now, perennial ticker-tape parades are the 21stcentury equivalent of Manifest Destiny. Except manifesting destiny involves less Native American genocide and more hanging Chuck Finley breaking balls.
Once Jesus Steinbrenner’s sermon became gospel, it began to trickle down to the rest of the New York sports teams and their fan bases. The idea of an “all or nothing” philosophy jived with New Yorkers, who already believed they were better than everyone else. It only made sense that their sports teams should be too.
As this insanity began to infect the rest of the city (most notably following 9/11, when the ‘Team of Destiny’ HAD TO win the World Series), the Knicks were god-awful. And they continued to be god-awful throughout the decade. As the pressure of ‘all or nothing’ continued to grip the Yankees, the Jets and Giants moved in the right direction. The Jets’ hiring of Eric Mangini and their subsequent free agency/Brett Favre binge was viewed as a masterstroke at the time. Then Rex and San-chize stole the town before they got lambasted for not stealing the country.
The Giants won a Super Bowl and now endure a chorus of boos every time they show signs of not being the best team in football.
Yet the Knicks were left in the dust. After all, the Knicks have always been a conundrum, never quite as ‘storied’ as we liked to believe. They haven’t won a title since the Nixon Administration. The best players in franchise history are probably Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. Neither would make MJ’s knee’s quake, and both were on that pre-Watergate title team.
But the last decade? Roll out the caution tape.
Nothing to see here, people. Just eight coaching changes, one winning season (last year) and $11.6 million in punitive damages, none of which went to Jerome James. Move along.
So for the last five years, Knicks fans have been harboring delusions of grandeur. We believed with every fabric of our being that the Knicks would have a chance to contend As Soon as Isiah Was Gone. And then, when he was and we weren’t, we believed that we DESERVED a winner, and that that winner would come real soon, and that it would come in the form of some salary cap and logic bending messiah that magically transformed a decade old doormat into a fucking minx rug.
We believed LeBron would come for no other reason than he COULD. He could be the guy to finally put New York back on top! This is NEW YORK after all…So, uh, why not?
(Perhaps because his second best teammate would have been Toney Douglas or some overpaid/overhyped/underinsured/injury-prone amalgam of Joe Johnson, Amare, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh, you Famous Original Ray’s-gobbling buffoon.)
Of course, we never let logic get in the way. Even if LeBron didn’t end up in Miami, there was no reason to believe the Knicks were next on his list. (The guy didn’t even mention the ‘Bockers when he rattled off his list of suitors during The Decision.That’s true. Check the tape.)
So we moved on. Soon, we were SO SURE Chris Paul or Dwight Howard would “revive B-Ball in the Big Apple,” even as some salary cap expert from ESPN or FoxSports or SI rolled out column after column outlining how excruciatingly unlikely this was. Um, maybe if Jimmy Dolan decides to unload Amare OR Chris Paul decides he wants to take (INSERT DOUBLE DIGIT NUMBER HERE) million dollars less to play in New York…
So there’s a chance!
Eventually, reality hit us in the face like an errant pass from Stephon Marbury. With Chris Paul cursed with a We-All-Know-It’s-Coming ACL injury in Los Angeles and Dwight Howard more likely to ball in Brooklyn than Manhattan, our dreams of a Big Apple Big Three have evaporated. In its stead is a Big Two-Point-Five, or a Big Two or perhaps something less – depending on where you stand on Tyson Chandler, Carmelo’s defense and how many games Amare has left before his knees implode.
We’ve absorbed this pretty rosy reality fairly quietly, as far as New Yorkers go.
Have any of your Knicks fans friends been crowing lately? Did SportsCenter cover the Tyson Chandler press conference for more than 3.2 seconds? Who’s being talked about on WFAN right now: Carmelo Anthony or Eli Manning?
Somehow, given our decade of pain, Knicks fans really aren’t THAT excited/enthusiastic/confident about this year’s Knicks team.You see, we could have sworn we were getting a Ferrari for Christmas. So that Audi parked in the driveway doesn’t look too hot by comparison.
But that makes absolutely no sense. It’s still a fucking Audi. We’ve been through ten years of sports fan hell that we wouldn’t wish on anyone outside of Boston. Now, finally, we emerge with the best frontcourt in the league and a true contender…and we’re sitting in the corner, twiddling our thumbs and being complacent!?
Who cares if the Knicks were supposed to get LeBron? They didn’t. They also didn’t get Chris Paul, and they’re not snatching Dwight Howard unless Dwight is willing to sign for the veteran minimum.
The Steinbrenner Doctrine states that winning a championship is the goal in any given year, implying that not winning a championship constitutes a failure. So in order to not be viewed as a “failure,” any team that adheres to The Doctrine must win a championship EVERY YEAR.
The only way to not be bitterly disappointing is to be dynastic. That perspective is unrealistic enough for an efficiently run franchise with bottomless pockets. It’s an absolute pipe dream for the Knicks.
Sure, the Knicks’ dynastic dreams were thwarted. But those dreams were self-defeating in the first place.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re a Knicks fan, and you’re not unfathomably, incredibly, undeniably excited for the next few months of basketball, then head to Peter Luger and go choke on a piece of the Best Steak in the World. Because, with or without Gilbert Arenas or Baron Davis or whatever other half-corpse Mike D’Antoni pull out of his casket to play point, this is far and away the best team the Knicks have fielded in a long, long time. Sure, they’re not going to win a title, but so what? That’s not the goal.
The Knicks will be decent. They will be fun to watch. At least there will be hope of something more than a low playoff seed and a first-round exit. And what exactly is the problem with hope, a commodity Knicks fans haven’t exactly had in spades and that T’Wolves fans would kill – no, actually – David Kahn for?
Eddy Curry was The Guy as recently as four years ago. Shawne Williams and Jared Jeffries were our Men in the Middle in 2010. Shouldn’t the idea of the Knicks being a contender – even if they’re not THE contender – be enough?
Heck, it should be more than enough. It should be the best thing that’s happened…since, well, New York.
So go down to DiFara’s, grab a few slices, and start yelling from the rooftop of your favorite skyscraper. It’s time to get excited again. The Knicks are back, baby, and better than we ever could have expect them to be.