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Beware of bid thieves.
For weeks, basketball fans been watching the NCAA Tournament bubble, hoping their teams can win the games they should and maybe score an upset or two.
But an NCAA Tournament bid isn’t always in the hands of the bubble teams. In just about every season, a team that has no business playing in the Big Dance will make a run at a conference title by grabbing an automatic bid at the 11th hour.
These are those teams, the spoilers. Bubble teams should watch with trepidation.
Bid thieves are not teams already on the bubble that could play its way in like Nebraska, Minnesota or a host of teams in the SEC. Instead, these are teams that are conference tournament champions or bust.
They are either major conference teams capable of making a run in the league tournaments or they are teams in leagues that would be receive only one bid if the regular season champion wins out.
For example, if any team other than Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley tournament, the MVC will be a two-bid league and one bubble team will be out of luck. The same is true if a team like Georgia wins the SEC Tournament or Utah wins the Pac-12.
Here are the teams that could spoil the next two weeks for bubble teams.
The Broncos this season returned five starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament, but they need the Mountain West Tournament to return. Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic still give Boise State the backcourt to make the Broncos contenders. If Boise State can put together a consistent defensive effort for a weekend, the Broncos can play the role of spoiler.
The Bulldogs have shocked the SEC Tournament before, albeit under strange circumstances. In 2008, Georgia won the SEC Tournament by winning two games in one day at Georgia Tech after a tornado damaged the Georgia Dome. The SEC Tournament is back in Atlanta, and this year’s Georgia team is much better than the last-place team that won in 2008. If someone knocks off Florida, a Georgia team that’s 10-6 in the SEC would have as good a chance to win as any team.
Eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention thanks to an eight-game losing streak in January, Illinois is starting to heat up. The backcourt of Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams led Illinois to three consecutive wins over Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State in the last two weeks. And don’t doubt a John Groce team in a tournament setting: This is a coach who has a Maui Invitational title, a Sweet 16 appearance and an upset of Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament on his ledger.
Green Bay will be one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the field, but what if the Phoenix lose in the Horizon League Tournament? Green Bay doesn’t have a great at-large profile at No. 51 in the RPI and a strength of schedule barely inside the top 150. Still, given the state of the bubble, the selection committee might look favorably on a 24-5 team that beat Virginia and lost by three to Wisconsin. Why Milwaukee as the spoiler for Green Bay instead of Horizon No. 2 Cleveland State? Milwaukee defeated Green Bay 73-63 on the road and lost in overtime in the first meeting. With Jordan Aaron back from suspension, Milwaukee will be more dangerous than a typical No. 5 seed in the Horizon.
If Wichita State wins the league tournament, the Missouri Valley will be a one-bid league. The Shockers have shown few signs of weakness in league play, so any upset would be a long shot. Indiana State is the No. 2 seed in the Arch Madness and the consensus No. 2 team. Still, the Sycamores are limping into the postseason with three consecutive loses, including a 71-69 loss to third-place Northern Iowa. The Panthers won five of their last six.
The Rebels aren’t nearly the complete team they were last season when they won the SEC Tournament. But this team still has Marshall Henderson chucking 3-pointers against an SEC full of teams susceptible to losing games they shouldn’t.
Gonzaga and BYU both could be at-large bids out of the West Coast Conference, making San Francisco the team with the most to gain in the league tournament. Portland is the only team to defeat both Gonzaga and BYU this season, but San Francisco has been the more consistent team during the season. The Dons enter the WCC Tournament on a hot streak with five consecutive wins.
Bubble teams in the Big East already want nothing to do with Seton Hall. The Pirates have six conference wins this season, four of which coming on regular season sweeps of Georgetown and Xavier. Seton Hall also defeated Providence on the road in overtime on Dec. 31. The Pirates might not be able to win the Big East Tournament, but they might not have to in order to knock teams out of the NCAA field.
The Big 12 was a grind this season, especially during the month or so when Texas Tech was of the toughest outs in the bottom tier of the league. The Red Raiders defeated Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and took Kansas to the buzzer this season. This is a well-coached team under Tubby Smith with an under-appreciated forward in Jaye Crockett, and few teams in the Big 12 should be considered invincible.
The Runnin’ Rebels have a roster that should be better than 19-10 and needing the Mountain West Tournament to get into the field. This has been a disappointing season, but the Rebels have homecourt advantage. The Mountain West is not a strong conference this season, so the tournament isn’t the grind it was a year ago. If UNLV can beat New Mexico or San Diego State, the Rebels can win in Vegas.
Larry Krystkowiak should be a Pac-12 coach of the year candidate as Utah approaches the 20-win mark and flirts with a winning conference record in his third season. Keep in mind, this is a program that won six games total in 2011-12. The Utes have one of the stronger defensive teams in the league and a duo of Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright that has kept them competitive all year. Utah has defeated UCLA, Colorado and Arizona State this season and took Oregon, the Buffaloes and Arizona to overtime.
Like Texas Tech, West Virginia enjoyed a few weeks as one of the more dangerous teams in the Big 12. The Mountaineers defeated Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Iowa State during a five-game stretch from Jan. 28-Feb. 10. The Mountaineers’ backcourt of Juwan Staten and Eron Harris can keep up with anyone in the league.
Clemson and Georgia are set to meet in the season opener for both teams next season (Aug. 30), but the Tigers will be shorthanded for the meeting in Athens.
Coach Dabo Swinney announced in his pre-spring press conference four players are suspended for that game due to a violation of team rules. Guard David Beasley, tackle Shaq Anthony, cornerback Garry Peters and defensive end Corey Crawford will all miss the non-conference matchup against Georgia.
And these aren’t minor losses for Clemson. Peters recorded 28 tackles last season, Anthony and Beasley combined for 11 starts on the offensive line, while Crawford registered 52 tackles and three sacks in 2013.
While the suspensions are bad news for Swinney and the Tigers, this team has all offseason to prepare for that game without the four players.
David Beasley, Shaq Anthony, Garry Peters and Corey Crawford will miss the opener against UGA. "Violation of team rule."— Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace) March 4, 2014
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 29: Harris English
Born: July 23, 1989, Valdosta, Ga. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,201,167 (27th) | World Ranking: 36
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Harris English was only the third amateur ever to win on the Web.com Tour, and in his rookie year on the PGA Tour in 2012, he made 22 of 27 cuts. He continued to improve in 2013, notching his first win in Memphis and then adding another win at Mayakoba late in the year (part of the wrap-around 2014 schedule). He has length off the tee and the ability to do some things better than anyone on Tour, leading in smash factor (finding the middle of the face) and putts from 15-25 feet. Those two are a pretty powerful combination, and why as I write this I think his 36th world ranking is the lowest he will be for some time.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - T15
PGA Championship - T61
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - n/a
British Open - T15 (2013)
PGA Championship - T61 (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 1
Missed Cuts: 0
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
A rule proposal limiting how fast offenses can snap the ball has received plenty of criticism from coaches. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez has been one of the outspoken coaches against the rule, which forces teams to wait 10 seconds on the play clock before they can snap the ball.
And recently, Rodriguez and the Arizona staff took to the video world to continue their criticism of the potential rule change. Check out this video, which features some clips from the movie Speed (we hope you didn’t watch Speed 2 though), as well as Rodriguez getting his point across about the 10-second rule.
If you ask Carlos Rodriguez why there are more Cuban players entering the major leagues than ever before, his answer is quick, humorous and right on time.
“There are 68 million reasons,” he says.
Rodriguez, Tampa Bay’s director of Latin American scouting, is referring to the six-year, $68 million contract the White Sox bestowed in late October upon first baseman Jose Abreu. It was the largest deal in club history, and it serves as the latest example of how eager MLB clubs are to collect the talent on the island that sits 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The Sox hope Abreu joins the collection of recent defectors who have made significant contributions to major-league teams in the past couple years. Aroldis Chapman and his 100-mph fastball have transformed the Reds’ bullpen. Yoenis Cespedes is a power-hitting fixture in the middle of the Oakland lineup. And who can forget the performance last year of Yasiel Puig, who energized the Dodgers with his power, aggressiveness and flamboyant personality? Those three aren’t the only Cuban players in the bigs right now. In fact, Abreu joins Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the White Sox roster. But his arrival in the United States demonstrates just how much teams covet players from Cuba and how those performers want to find a way to reach the U.S. to play ball at the highest level.
“When there is an economic incentive and an opportunity cost of not coming over, the risk-reward is higher,” Rodriguez says. “People are finding more creative ways of getting out, and there is a bigger network of people helping out.”
For decades, Cuban players have made significant contributions to MLB teams, dating back to Minnie Minoso from 1949-63 (and a couple P.R. stunt appearances later on) but also including Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva. Because of dictator Fidel Castro’s edict that no one could leave the island without permission, many great players — particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s — never reached the majors. Two of the most famous are Omar Linares and German Mesa, who were considered All-Star quality talents who couldn’t escape Castro’s clutches.
There was always something of a mythical status accorded the Cuban player, who could be viewed during certain international competitions but rarely seen in his natural habitat. Because of that legend, Cuban players might be held in higher esteem than their counterparts from other Latin American countries.
That has helped MLB teams develop considerable affection for players from the island — and vice versa. Last summer, even the Phillies, for whom big-money foreign players have been anathema, signed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a six-year, $50 million deal. Although the money figure has dropped due to Gonzalez’s injury problems, the Phillies expect the righty to be a part of their rotation in 2014. With each subsequent player, the money seems to grow. Chapman received $30.25 million from the Reds. The A’s bestowed $36 mil on Cespedes, and Puig’s contract is worth $42 million. After never giving an international player a contract of more than $2 million, the Phillies went all in for Gonzalez. A couple months later, Abreu’s deal rocked the majors.
“Any time Cuban players made it to the U.S. as veterans from their professional league, there was always an interest in signing them,” Cardinals assistant GM Michael Girsch says. “It was a trickle in previous years, but now it has opened up, and we’re signing them.”
The flow could increase considerably in coming years, thanks to a variety of factors. One is the growing number of people trying to broker deals to sneak ballplayers off the island to safe nations. These “brokers” (some call them smugglers; others refer to them as traffickers) hold onto the men until agents sign deals to represent the players and bring them to the U.S., where they can be evaluated. The brokers make money, and there may even be some funds heading back to Cuban officials who conveniently look elsewhere as players are leaving the island.
“Are they letting it happen?” asks Cincinnati senior director of scouting Chris Buckley. “Maybe some money is going back to the Cuban government. We’ve heard all types of things. It’s a little suspicious.”
In order to make that cash flow more official, Cuba announced in late September that it would allow players to sign with other countries’ professional leagues. That was strictly prohibited under Fidel Castro, but his brother Raul, has a different view of the impact of big-dollar contracts on the socialist experience, especially if some of that dough makes its way to Havana. There are some issues to be worked out with the U.S. regarding tax dollars’ flowing back to Cuba, a transaction that would be in violation of America’s strict ban on commercial dealings with Cuba. That is something of a technicality, and it would be surprising if some system weren’t created to overcome the issue.
“People are trying to get a piece of the pie,” Rodriguez says. “Before, maybe the money wasn’t as big an incentive.”
Anybody who watched Puig play during the 2013 season shouldn’t have been surprised at all by his hard-driving style. That’s how they play ball in Cuba. “The Cuban players are traditionally known as ultra-aggressive and playing very hard,” Rodriguez says. “They are intimidating and brash and play an alpha style of baseball. They are definitely very brash and confident. They feel that if they can compete in Cuba, they can play anywhere in the world.”
The young outfielder tried to stretch singles into doubles, went after every fly ball with abandon and could be fooled — sometimes badly — by off-speed pitches. It didn’t matter to Puig if he failed; he was going to keep moving forward at 100 mph, sliding into home after a walk-off dinger and refusing to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who went before him, as Puig did when he snubbed former Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez.
There’s an old saying that explains why Dominican players are such free swingers: “You don’t walk off the island.” In other words, playing small ball isn’t going to get you noticed. That’s no different in Cuba, even though it’s tougher to get off that island than it is to reach the majors from the D.R.
When Cuba competes in international competitions, it does so to win. That’s a by-product of Castro’s desire to prove to the world that his country’s socialism produces greatness, the old Soviet-style system of rewards for performance and a bunker mentality of sorts that comes from being isolated from much of the world.
“The Cuban hitters go up there swinging,” Buckley says. “The pitchers are very aggressive and have no problems throwing at a hitter. Of course, let’s see how that translates to big-league play.”
Before that can be considered, the player has to become eligible to play. First, he has to escape the island and the close scrutiny of the government. The breakaways aren’t quite as dramatic as they once were, but it still isn’t easy. Recruiters and other intermediaries bring players to other countries, usually Mexico or a Caribbean land, to establish residency. And there are always concerns among those who leave about how family members who remain in Cuba will be treated. The next step is obtaining clearance from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Because the U.S. has an embargo in place against Cuba, the defecting players are almost looked at as “products” of the island. The OFAC — a Division of the Department of the Treasury — “…administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes...” It isn’t a particularly onerous process, but it does take some time. The final hurdle is say-so from Major League Baseball. Once all of that is taken care of, it’s time to find out if the guy can play.
“When they are cleared, we can evaluate them in a more controlled setting,” Rodriguez says. “We can see them take batting practice and do other things.”
Those assessments are vital with Cuban players. Yes, they fare well in international competition. And the stars stand out in domestic leagues, too. Making the jump to the majors isn’t as easy as getting from the island to the United States. After all the wrangling that goes into defecting and getting signed, there is the small issue of whether the player in question is any good. It may be beneficial to stage formal workouts for the prospects, but determining whether they can play still requires some faith, rather than an analysis of considerable amounts of data. No matter how highly touted the level of competition in the Cuban leagues might be, it still isn’t close to big-league quality.
“Some of the pitching there is at the high (class) A ball or Double-A levels,” Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin says. “Only occasionally do they run into quality pitching.
“We talk about how hitting is down in the major leagues because there are so many pitchers with power arms. The players coming over here from Cuba and Japan are in for rude awakenings, because they will be seeing quality pitching every day. It’s a big adjustment. Players like Puig and Cespedes are very talented guys, but you have to be careful.”
The good thing about acquiring a Cuban player is that the relative cost is low. Those who saw the contract the White Sox gave to Abreu might laugh at that statement, but it’s true. Yes, the money can be high, but there are no other penalties. Teams don’t lose draft picks for signing Cuban players. And they don’t have to surrender top prospects as they do when making deadline trades. So, there is nothing on top of the contracts — which can be admittedly high — when it comes to importing Cuban talent. For instance, when the Reds acquired pitcher Mat Latos from the Padres after the 2011 season, they had to part with righty Edinson Volquez and three top minor leaguers. “That’s a high cost,” Buckley says. Chapman’s six-year, $30.25 million contract wasn’t cheap, but that was the flamethrower’s only price.
“When you sign someone like Chapman, it’s just money, a lot of money, but we’re in the business of evaluating talent,” Buckley says. “We should be able to tell.”
When a player makes it through the clearinghouse process, is deemed talented enough to warrant a major-league contract and actually proves he can play, there is still one final component that can make the transition from Cuba to MLB daunting. Because the island is so backward, the U.S. lifestyle can be a huge shock. Just walking into a supermarket can be a transformative experience.
Putting these naïve players into a professional setting, with all of the outside influences and media attention, can create some serious problems.
“They have to learn the laws and our way of life,” Rodriguez says. “You have to have people monitoring what they do 24/7. Most of the players who come over here never drove a car before. It’s a real adjustment period.
“They have to learn everything — how to deal with fans and media and even how to order food.”
That they can learn. Skills like throwing 100-mph cheese and hitting for power and average aren’t so easily acquired.
And are worth the price.
—Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!
Crunch time is here.
Conference tournaments are starting this week in 13 league. But with most of those tournaments featuring a winner-take-all for an NCAA bid, the bubble watch is taking place in the final week of the regular season for the major conferences.
The Big East, Atlantic 10 and Pac-12 have perhaps the most important bubble games of the week while other teams are simply trying to work on some resume maintenance, as you might call it.
Here are the key midweek games and a look at the field and bubble teams for the rest of the week.
Key Games with NCAA Tournament Implications This Week
Iowa State at Baylor (Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2)
The Bears have probably recovered from their 2-8 start in Big 12 play with wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. A game against Iowa State, coming off a loss to Kansas State on Saturday, is another chance to build the resume.
Creighton at Georgetown (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Bluejays are looking to recover from a loss to Xavier on Saturday, but this game is more important for Georgetown. The Hoyas are on a 1-3 slide, with all three losses on the road. If John Thompson III’s team is going to make it to the field, beating Creighton or Villanova would be a good start.
Marquette at Providence (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Buzz Williams’ team is on the fringes despite a disastrous start to the season. The Eagles may need to beat Providence and St. John’s, otherwise, it’s Big East Tournament or bust. The Friars have their own work to do to prove they can beat someone other than DePaul, Butler and Seton Hall.
Florida State at Boston College (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
The Seminoles may be a long shot, but they need to win this game to set up the really important game against struggling Syracuse to end the season.
Arizona State at Oregon (Tuesday, 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Sun Devils and Ducks have similar RPI and strength of schedule rankings, but Arizona State has the strong resume with six top 50 wins. Oregon, meanwhile, is looking to build momentum after its best of the season at UCLA on Saturday.
Louisville at SMU (Wednesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Mustangs may be safe as long as they don’t lose early in the American Tournament. SMU finishes with Louisville at home and Memphis on the road.
Nebraska at Indiana (Wednesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
A 60-49 loss to Illinois a week ago puts more pressure on Nebraska to win its final two games in Bloomington and at home against Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have quietly pulled themselves together in February with back-to-back wins over Iowa and Ohio State, but a home loss to a bubble team is not a great way to get attention.
Ole Miss at Arkansas (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN3.com)
The Razorbacks may be in the field with seven wins in the last eight games. They just need to avoid the home upset to Marshall Henderson and the Rebels.
Texas A&M at Missouri (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN3.com)
With road losses to Alabama and Georgia in the last two weeks, Missouri needs this game to set up a meaningful matchup at Tennessee on Saturday.
Colorado at Stanford (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
The Buffaloes are 6-6 without Spencer Dinwiddie and finish with road trips to the Bay Area schools, both of which are in NCAA at-large contention. A huge opportunity for Tad Boyle’s team.
Dayton at Saint Louis (Wednesday, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Flyers are still in contention after Saturday’s win over UMass. Finishing against a slumping Saint Louis team on the road and at home against Richmond will be critical for a team just barely in the RPI top 50.
St. Joseph’s at George Washington (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Comcast SportsNet)
The Colonials have slumped against NCAA contenders in the last month with losses to Dayton, VCU, UMass and Saint Louis. St. Joe’s, meanwhile, is on a six-game winning streak.
Arizona at Oregon State (Wednesday, 11 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Wildcats will look to protect their No. 1 seed with a trip to the Oregon schools this week. Both of Arizona’s losses this season have come on the road.
Utah at Cal (Wednesday, 11 p.m., ESPNU)
Cal is 3-4 since the win over Arizona on Feb. 1. The Bears finish with two tough but winnable home games against Utah and Colorado.
Villanova at Xavier (Thursday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Musketeers followed up an upset of Creighton on Saturday by losing its second game of the season to Seton Hall. And that’s why Xavier is on the bubble.
Iowa at Michigan State (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Whose fortunes are sinking faster? Iowa has lost three of four, and Michigan State is 4-6 since starting 18-1 overall.
NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch
Feeling good: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia
Bubble in: Pittsburgh
Bubble out: None
Feeling good: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis
Bubble in: SMU
Bubble out: None
Atlantic 10 (6)
Feeling good: Saint Louis, UMass, VCU
Bubble in: Dayton, George Washington, St. Joseph’s
Bubble out: Richmond
Big 12 (7)
Feeling good: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
Bubble in: Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Bubble out: West Virginia
Big East (3)
Feeling good: Creighton, Villanova
Bubble in: Xavier
Bubble out: Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's
Big Ten (6)
Feeling good: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Bubble in: Minnesota
Bubble out: Indiana, Nebraska
Mountain West (2)
Feeling good: New Mexico, San Diego State
Bubble in: None
Bubble out: Boise State
Feeling good: Arizona, UCLA
Bubble in: Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford
Bubble out: None
Feeling good: Florida, Kentucky
Bubble in: Arkansas, Missouri
Bubble out: LSU, Tennessee
West Coast (2)
Feeling good: None
Bubble in: BYU, Gonzaga
Bubble out: None
Favorites in one-bid leagues (22)
America East: Vermont
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast
Big Sky: Weber State
Big South: High Point
Big West: UC Irvine
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Horizon: Green Bay
MEAC: North Carolina Central
Missouri Valley: Wichita State*
Northeast: Robert Morris
Ohio Valley: Belmont
Patriot: Boston University
Southland: Stephen F. Austin
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: Georgia State
SWAC: Texas Southern
WAC: New Mexico State
*Wichita State would be an at-large if the Shockers lose in the MVC tournament
Kurt Busch has a busy Memorial Day weekend planned. The 2004 NASCAR Cup champ announced on Tuesday that he will attempt “The Double” by running IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, May 25.
“I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series,” Busch said. “It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.
“It’s literally a dream come true. To go to the famous Brickyard with the iconic Andretti name, it doesn’t get much cooler or better than that.”
Busch, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, will pilot an Andretti Autosport Honda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Andretti fields full-time IndyCar efforts for Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz.
His NASCAR manufacturer, General Motors, had to sign off on his racing for another car company.
Busch will be the first driver to attempt the feat since 2004, when Robby Gordon ran both races. Gordon, John Andretti and Busch’s NASCAR co-owner, Tony Stewart, are the only three drivers to have pulled “The Double.” Stewart, who in 2001 finished sixth at Indianapolis and third in Charlotte, is the only driver to have completed all 1,100 miles.
“It’s great having Tony as the co-owner of my NASCAR team as, in the weeks leading up to the month of May, it gives me a chance to talk with him about his personal experiences with “The Double” — to anticipate what’s next and have things checked off the list so that I’m mentally and physically prepared for the challenge,” said Busch.
Although Busch, who has 24 career Cup victories including the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, has yet to start an IndyCar event, he obtained his license in the series last year when an Indy 500 bid first became a possibility.
While sponsorship has not been announced for the IndyCar ride, Busch is dedicating the effort to members of the U.S. military. His girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, which supports injured troops and military families.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 4.
• It's already March 4, but here's a look back at February's lovely ladies of sport, including some Polar Bear Plunge hotties.
• At the other end of the spectrum, this 10-year-old Knicks fan doesn't like what he sees.
• Dirk Nowitzki did a more than passable Arnold Schwarzenegger impression on the Dan Patrick Show. Of course, the accent gives him a built-in advantage.
• The NFL might test 43-yard extra points. Not so routine now, is it?
• Late to this party, but there's a widget to do to your name what John Travolta did to Idina Menzel's name at the Oscars.
• Snowed in? Time to kill? Going on Nancy Grace later? You can watch the Oscar Pistorius trial streaming live.
• Watch a soccer coach take a beverage to the mouth.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 30: Jimmy Walker
Born: Jan. 16, 1979, Oklahoma City, Okla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,117,571 (30th) | World Ranking: 25
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Jimmy Walker has improved his position on the PGA Tour money list every year since 2008, until finally breaking into the top 30 in 2013. Starting the season off in 2014 with a win at the Frys.com, his first on Tour, and following that up with wins at the Sony and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am certainly bodes well for the transplanted Texan for the rest of the year. It also validates what Butch Harmon told me a year ago when he first started working with Jimmy — that Walker had the potential to be one of the best in the world.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - Cut
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - T52 (2001)
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T21 (2012)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 1
Missed Cuts: 4
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
Kentucky entered the season hoping to be in rare company. The idea of the top recruiting class in the history of college basketball challenging 40-0 always seemed far fetched.
But at the start of the season Kentucky certainly appeared much closer to winning 30-plus games during the regular season than losing 10.
Instead, Kentucky is trying to avoid another kind of company — from preseason No. 1 to unranked. After losing twice last week to Arkansas and most embarrassingly to SEC bottom feeder South Carolina, Kentucky was ranked 25th in this week’s Associated Press poll, 22 points from falling out completely.
Kentucky, which finishes the regular season at No. 1 Florida on Saturday, may be the first AP preseason No. 1 team to spend a week out of the polls since Indiana did it in 1979-80.
With an 11-5 record in a weak SEC, the Wildcats already are one of the most disappointing preseason No. 1 teams in recent decades. It’s rare for a preseason No. 1 team to spend any amount of time outside of the top five, much less the majority of the season.
On Dec. 2, Kentucky was ranked third in the nation before a 67-62 loss to Baylor dropped the Wildcats to 11th. Kentucky lost again to North Carolina on Dec. 14, so even defeating Louisville to end 2013 could’t give Kentucky a push back into the top 10
Altogether, Kentucky has been ranked no higher than No. 11 since Dec. 2.
It’s worth noting Kentucky was not a dubious pick as a No. 1 team. Athlon Sports ranked Kentucky No. 1, but Athlon was not alone by any means.
Perhaps the most disappointing preseason No. 1 in the last 10 years was 2004-05 Kansas. The Jayhawks that season returned seniors Wayne Simien and Keith Langford but finished 23-7 overall and 12-4 in the Big 12 before losing to No. 14 seed Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
If there’s hope for Kentucky, it could look toward 2000-01 Arizona, which lost eight games during the regular season, slipped to 24th in the AP poll but rebounded to reach the national title game.
What kind of precedent is Kentucky setting, here’s how all the preseason No. 1 teams fared since Indiana flopped in 1979-80.
|How AP Preseason No. 1 Teams Fared since 1979-80|
|Preseason No. 1 Team||Final Record||Lowest Rank||NCAA Tournament|
|13-14 Kentucky||21-8||No. 25||--|
|12-13 Indiana||29-7||No. 7||Sweet 16|
|11-12 North Carolina||32-6||No. 8||Elite Eight|
|10-11 Duke||32-5||No. 5||Sweet 16|
|09-10 Kansas||33-3||No. 3||Second round|
|08-09 North Carolina||34-4||No. 5||National champion|
|07-08 North Carolina||36-3||No. 5||Final Four|
|06-07 Florida||35-5||No. 7||National champion|
|05-06 Duke||32-4||No. 3||Sweet 16|
|04-05 Kansas||23-7||No. 12||First round|
|03-04 UConn||33-6||No. 9||National champion|
|02-03 Arizona||28-4||No. 4||Final Four|
|01-02 Duke||31-4||No. 3||Sweet 16|
|00-01 Arizona||28-8||No. 21||National runner up|
|99-00 UConn||25-10||No. 24||Second round|
|98-99 Duke||37-2||No. 4||National runner up|
|97-98 Arizona||30-5||No. 8||Elite Eight|
|96-97 Cincinnati||26-8||No. 12||Second round|
|95-96 Kentucky||34-2||No. 5||National champion|
|94-95 Arkansas||32-7||No. 12||National runner up|
|93-94 North Carolina||28-7||No. 5||Second round|
|92-93 Michigan||31-5||No. 7||National runner up|
|91-92 Duke||34-2||No. 1||National champion|
|90-91 UNLV||34-1||No. 1||Final Four|
|89-90 UNLV||35-5||No. 14||National champion|
|88-89 Duke||28-8||No. 14||Final Four|
|87-88 Syracuse||30-8||No. 17||Elite Eight|
|86-87 North Carolina||32-4||No. 5||Elite Eight|
|85-86 Georgia Tech||27-7||No. 7||Sweet 16|
|84-85 Georgetown||35-3||No. 2||National runner up|
|83-84 North Carolina||28-3||No. 2||Sweet 16|
|82-83 Virginia||29-5||No. 7||Elite Eight|
|81-82 North Carolina||32-2||No. 2||National champion|
|80-81 Kentucky||22-6||No. 11||Second round|
|79-80 Indiana||21-8||NR||Sweet 16|
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
1. Matt Leinart, USC (2003-05)
Stats: 10,693 yds, 99 TDs, 23 INTs, 64.8%, 9 rush TDs
Leinart won two national titles and played for a third in three years starting at powerhouse USC under Pete Carroll. He finished in the top six of Heisman voting in all three seasons, winning the award in 2004, finishing sixth in '03 and third in '05. He also earned AP Player of the Year, Manning, Walter Camp, Unitas and consensus All-American honors during his remarkable Heisman campaign. He capped the season with arguably the second-best performance by a quarterback in a national title game by dissecting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He threw for 332 yards and a championship game-record five touchdowns in the most lopsided win in series history. Leinart owns the career conference record with 36 consecutive games with a touchdown pass and his 99 TD passes were a league record until Matt Barkley came along. He also is just one of three players in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in three seasons (Derek Anderson, Andrew Walter).
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford (2009-11)
Stats: 9,430 yds, 82 TDs, 22 INTs, 67.0%, 957 yds, 7 TDs
Pete Carroll has always said that if he could design a quarterback from scratch that it would have the physical tools of Palmer. After two middle-of-the-pack seasons as the starter in L.A., Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, Unitas Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2002. That year, Palmer threw for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading USC to a conference championship and Orange Bowl win over Iowa. He is No. 2 all-time in league history in total offense (11,621) and yards passing (11,818). His 72 touchdown passes rank 10th all-time in Pac-12 history and he is one of nine players to throw for at least 2,500 yards in three seasons. Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
4. Aaron Rodgers, Cal (2003-04)
Stats: 5,469 yds, 43 TDs, 13 INTs, 63.8%, 336 yds, 8 TDs
Clearly one of the greatest players to ever come through the league, Rodgers led Cal back to relevance, finishing 18-8 in two years as the starter and posting 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1991. He scored 51 times in just 25 games with only 13 interceptions, finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2004, led the NCAA in completion percentage (66.1) and yards-per-attempt in his final season (8.1). Rodgers was a first-round pick of the Packers in the 2005 NFL Draft and is widely considered the best active quarterback on the planet today.
5. Joey Harrington, Oregon (1998-01)
Stats: 6,911 yds, 59 TDs, 23 INTs, 55.2%, 210 yds, 18 TDs
He will always be remembered as the guy on the Times Square billboard and as the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. However, during his three-year run at Oregon, few players were ever as productive and successful as Harrington. He went 25-3 as a starter, including an 11-win Pac-10 championship and the program's first-ever BCS bowl appearance and win. He was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He accounted for 63 total touchdowns in his final two seasons in Eugene.
6. Cade McNown, UCLA (1995-99)
Stats: 10,708 yds, 68 TDs, 41 INTs, 55.2%, 577 yds, 16 TDs
Although small in stature, McNown was one of the league's biggest stars early in the BCS Era. He nearly led his team to the inaugural BCS title game in '98 and helped UCLA claim its last outright conference championship. He earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm honors and was a consensus All-American. He is third all-time with 11,285 total yards of offense and was the 12th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
7. Matt Barkley, USC (2009-12)
Stats: 12,327 yds, 116 TDs, 48 INTs, 64.1%, 6 rush TDs
When it comes to records, no one stands above Barkley. He is the all-time leader by a wide margin in Pac-12 history as the only player with 12,000 yards as well as 100 touchdown passes. He also is the only player in league history with four seasons of at least 2,500 yards passing and set the Pac-12 single-season record with 39 touchdown strikes in 2011. Amidst heavy NCAA sanctions, Barkley started 47 games, winning 34 of them. He also opened and closed his collegiate career with bowl appearances in the only two bowl-eligible seasons while he was a Trojan. His 10-win, record-breaking junior season is arguably the best season by a Pac-12 quarterback in history.
8. Marcus Mariota, Oregon (2012-present)
Stats: 6,342 yds, 63 TDs, 10 INTs, 65.8%, 1,467 yds, 14 TDs
It's only been two seasons but Mariota has already established himself as one of the league's greats. He set a freshman NCAA record by completing 68.5 percent of his passes and set a Pac-12 freshman record with 32 touchdown passes. Mariota set the league record for most consecutive passes without an interception (353) and should own every major Oregon statistical record by the end of his junior season. He is 23-3 as a starter and has accounted for 77 total touchdowns and nearly 8,000 yards of total offense — and he isn't even an upperclassman yet.
9. Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington (1997-00)
Stats: 5,501 yds, 31 TDs, 28 INTs, 54.9%, 1,374 yds, 20 TDs
He was the Huskies' first true freshman to ever start at quarterback when he took the reins from injured Brock Huard in 1997. By his junior year under a new coaching staff, Tuiasosopo earned the starting nod at QB in Seattle. He eventually led Washington back to the Rose Bowl as Pac-10 champions in 2000. He was named Offensive Player of the Year, finished eighth in the Heisman voting and Rose Bowl MVP in his final season. Tui was taken in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft.
10. Darron Thomas, Oregon (2008-11)
Stats: 5,910 yds, 66 TDs, 17 INTs, 719 yds, 9 TDs
A slightly less talented version of Mariota, Thomas helped lead Oregon to its only BCS National Championship Game and undefeated regular season in 2010. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 2,700 yards passing and 30 touchdowns in the only two seasons he started. Thomas won two Pac-12 titles and went 24-3 in his two seasons under center. He did everything he could in his the title game, throwing for 363 yards in the three-point loss to Auburn. Had Oregon won, he would undoubtedly be the most important Duck of the BCS Era.
Just missed the cut:
11. Dennis Dixon, Oregon (2004-07)
Stats: 5,129 yds, 38 TDs, 21 INTs, 63.9%, 1,208 yds, 12 TDs
After a stellar first season running Mike Bellotti's offense as a junior, Dixon began his final season with high hopes. And after eight wins in nine games, the Heisman frontrunner's knee buckled just two weeks after initially injuring his knee against Arizona State. Dixon earned All-Pac-10 recognition twice and was a finalist for many national awards but couldn't finish his final season. In just over nine games, he had accumulated 2,136 yards passing and 20 TDs on 67.7 percent passing and just four interceptions along with 583 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on the ground. He was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year despite the injury.
12. Andrew Walter, Arizona State (2001-04)
Stats: 10,617 yds, 85 TDs, 36 INTs, 54.9%
When he left school, the case could be made that Walter was the most productive signal-caller in the Pac-12's long and storied history. His 85 touchdowns were an all-time record and he had thrown for more yards in a game than anyone in history (536). He is one of only three players in history to have three 3,000-yard passing seasons and threw for at least 24 touchdowns in each of those seasons. In the conference record books, he is currently eighth all-time in passing yards and tied for third all-time in touchdown passes. He played in 48 games and as a senior (2004) helped lead ASU to nine wins for the first time since 1997.
13. Brett Hundley, UCLA (2012-present)
Stats: 6,811 yds, 53 TDs, 20 INTs, 66.7%, 1,103 yds, 20 TDs
With the possible exception of Mariota, few players have stepped onto the national scene with more gusto than Hundley. He has nearly 8,000 yards of total offense in his first two seasons on the field. He enters his junior year with a shot to break nearly every UCLA record should he continue his torrid pace. He's already led the Bruins to 19 wins, two bowl berths and a South Division title.
14. Akili Smith, Oregon (1997-98)
Stats: 5,148 yds, 45 TDs, 15 INTs, 56.6%, 367 yds, 6 TDs
He only played two seasons in big-time college football but his '98 campaign was one of the Pac-12's best. He won Offensive Player of the Year by throwing for 3,763 yards and 32 touchdowns against only eight interceptions while scoring four times on the ground. He was the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
15. Jason Gesser, Washington State (1999-02)
Stats: 8,830 yds, 70 TDs, 39 INTs, 54.7%, 177 yds, 4 TDs
Earning his way into the lineup as a sophomore, Gesser posted back-to-back seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing and exactly 28 total touchdowns for the Cougars. He won 10 games in both of those seasons, leading Wazzu to its last Rose Bowl appearance and winning Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior.
Best of the rest:
16. Jake Locker, Washington (2007-10)
Stats: 7,639 yds, 53 TDs, 35 INTs, 54.0%, 1,939 yds, 29 TDs
17. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (2011-present)
Stats: 6,705 yds, 57 TDs, 21 INTs, 64.6%, 1,148 yds, 10 TDs
18. Mark Sanchez, USC (2006-08)
Stats: 3,965 yds, 41 TDs, 16 INTs, 64.3%, 33 yds, 4 TDs
19. Cody Pickett, Washington (1999-03)
Stats: 9,916 yds, 53 TDs, 42 INTs, 57.7%, 11 rush TDs
20. Drew Olson, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 8,532 yds, 67 TDs, 32 INTs, 57.8%, 2 rush TD
21. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State (1998-01)
Stats: 9,375 yds, 52 TDs, 29 INTs, 50.3%, 4 rush TDs
22. Nick Foles, Arizona (2009-11)
Stats: 9,986 yds, 67 TDs, 33 INTs, 4 rush TDs
23. Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State (2005-08)
Stats: 10,491 yds, 85 TDs, 35 INTs, 61.0%, 2 rush TDs
24. Derek Anderson, Oregon State (2001-04)
Stats: 11,249 yds, 79 TDs, 57 INTs, 50.7%, 8 rush TDs
25. Sean Mannion, Oregon State (2011-present)
Stats: 10,436 yds, 68 TDs, 46 INTs, 65.3%, Rush TD
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly likely welcomed the turn of the calendar this New Year.
The calendar year began with his team getting trucked in the national title game by Alabama, continued with his star quarterback getting suspended in the spring and ended with a lackluster four-loss season that both began and ended with a sputter. The Irish began the season 3-2 with disappointing losses to fellow bluebloods Michigan and Oklahoma. After four solid wins, the Irish ended the year losing two out of three with a bad loss at Pitt and yet another painful defeat at the hands of rival Stanford.
A nine-win season is a solid year for most programs but Kelly has raised expectation levels after his run at perfection two seasons ago. However, competing for national championships is what coaching at Notre Dame is all about. Quarterback Everett Golson returns to the team after his semester-long hiatus and one of the most gifted rosters in the nation — the 10th-best roster in the nation to be exact — should take the field with a goal of landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
And Kelly will do so with two new coordinators.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: April 12
|Sept. 20||Bye Week|
|Oct. 25||Bye Week|
Three Things to Watch in Notre Dame's 2014 Spring Practice
Welcome back, Everett
Near the end of the 2012 run to the BCS national title game, Everett Golson was developing into a future star under center for Brian Kelly. In fact, one could argue he was the only player who didn't look like he quit against Alabama. But after missing an entire season due to academic problems, Golson returns to the practice field this spring in his customary red jersey. Tommy Rees wasn't bad, considering the hand Kelly was dealt by Golson, but quarterback was clearly an issue on this team a year ago. Golson has the talent to be a special player and he gives Kelly what he desperately craves at quarterback — mobility. The signal caller spent two months working with QB guru George Whitfield but questions still exist about Golson's ability to step right back into the swing of things. Is Golson rusty? Is he focused off the field? How much has the year off set him back? This month of practice is a great chance for Golson to prove his fantastic freshman campaign was no fluke and earn his way back into the starting lineup.
Rebuilding the front seven
Brian Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have their work cut out for them up front on the defensive side of the ball. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III departing for the NFL has literally left a 635-pound gapping void along the defensive line. Additionally, the linebacking corps will lose the top two tacklers on the team in Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese as well as Prince Shembo's 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Finding star power and developing experience up front will be critical if Notre Dame is going to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and a host of other names have elite upside and are ready to make plays as Kelly has recruited extremely well on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. Look for VanGorder, a specialist at developing linebackers, to settle on a rotation up front this spring.
Replace Zack Martin
The Irish were great at protecting the quarterback a year ago, ranking second nationally with just eight sacks allowed, due in large part to the play of their stud left tackle Zack Martin. However, this unit ranked just 80th nationally running the football and filling holes at left tackle and left guard (Chris Watt) will be difficult. The surest way to help Golson ease his way back into play-making form will be to develop a running game and find protection for his blindside. The good news is Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock return plenty of talent returning up front in the form of tackle Ronnie Stanley (13 starts), center Nick Martin (11) and guards Christian Lombard (7) and Steve Elmer (4). And there are highly touted recruits from the last few classes lined-up to earn a starting spot. With plenty of capable ballcarriers in the backfield and the return of a star at quarterback, creating running lanes and protecting the passer should be the focus of the new offensive hierarchy in South Bend.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Notre Dame once again has a nasty schedule to face in 2014 with potentially seven preseason top 25 teams and 11 potential bowl teams on the slate this coming fall. Navigating that schedule to 11 wins — likely what it takes to reach the playoffs — will be extremely difficult while breaking in a new supporting staff under Kelly. That said, this is one of the best collections of talent in the nation and the Golson returns to lead the offense after a year off. The early part of the schedule is manageable as the Irish could easily be 4-0 heading into a home game with Stanford, but the final two months will feature the reigning BCS champs, the reigning Pac-12 champs, road games at Pac-12 South frontrunners USC and Arizona State and two home dates with ACC contenders North Carolina and Louisville. This team has the talent to compete for a playoff spot, but the Irish will have to win critical rivalry games amid a brutal final two months to put itself into postseason contention.
While many teams are fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament from the bubble, another key part of the bracket is still being determined.
A No. 1 seed carries with it not just prestige, but also a decisive advantage history wise to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. A No. 1 seed has never lost its first game and has more often won the national title (18 times) than it failed to reach the Sweet 16 (13).
As many as 10 teams could be in the running for one of the four No. 1 seeds. Some teams would have to collapse to lose a spot on the top line (Arizona, Florida and Wichita State) while others may need a major break to get to that top spot (Wisconsin, Michigan).
|NCAA Tournament No. 1 Seed Staff Predictions|
Here’s a look at how the race for the No. 1 seeds is playing out:
Arizona (27-2, 14-2 Pac-12)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Arizona is No. 1 by the RPI, KenPom and Sagarin. The Wildcats are 10-1 against the RPI top 50 and faced a schedule ranked sixth in the country. Arizona’s resume includes four RPI top 25 wins away from Tucson against Duke in Madison Square Garden and Michigan, San Diego State and UCLA on the road. Neither of Arizona’s losses should harm the resume (No. 28 Arizona State and No. 53 Cal, both on the road).
The case against a No. 1 seed: Not much. The selection committee has shown it will taken into account a late-season change in personnel, such as the season-ending injury to Brandon Ashley. However, Arizona has won four in a row without him. Arizona likely would have to lose to Oregon State and lose its first game in the Pac-12 tournament to fall off the top line. Arizona may be closer to claiming the overall No. 1 seed than falling to a No. 2.
Duke (23-6, 12-4 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Blue Devils are ranked eighth in the RPI and third in KenPom. Duke has three top 26 wins, including Syracuse, Virginia, Michigan and UCLA. The Blue Devils have ample opportunities for more high-profile wins with North Carolina to end the regular season plus potential matchups with Syracuse and/or Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Home-cooking. Duke has only two RPI top 100 wins away from Cameron Indoor Stadium (at Pittsburgh, UCLA in Madison Square Garden). Of course, all that can change in Greensboro.
Florida (27-2, 16-0 SEC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Florida has dominated the SEC and may be the first team to go 18-0 in league history (other teams have gone 16-0 with a shorter schedule). The Gators’ only losses came early in the season on the road with a shorthanded roster against Wisconsin and Connecticut, the latter on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The SEC. Florida may have to lose to South Carolina on Tuesday and lose its first game in the SEC Tournament to slip to a No. 2. Both would qualify as bad losses.
Kansas (22-7, 13-3 Big 12)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Kansas played the toughest schedule in the country with 19 games against RPI top 50 teams. The team that played the No. 2 schedule (Wisconsin) faced 11 top 50 teams. The Jayhawks took their losses early in the season, but they may end up the regular season and tournament champion of the top conference in the RPI.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Seven losses is a lot for a No. 1 seed. In the last 10 seasons, only 2011-12 Michigan State was a No. 1 seed with seven losses. Like Kansas, the Spartans played the toughest schedule in the country that season. An eighth loss for this year’s Kansas team, though, may push the Jayhawks to a No. 2. Worth keeping in mind: Kansas has shut down star freshma Joel Embiid (back) for the last two games of the regular season.
Michigan (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Wolverines have a two-game lead in the Big Ten, rank ninth in the RPI and have eight top 50 wins.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Like Kansas, Michigan has seven losses, two of which are Charlotte and Indiana. Kansas may have a better shot at a No. 1 seed with eight losses than Michigan would if it wins out.
Syracuse (26-3, 13-3 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Syracuse started 25-0, defeating teams like Villanova, Duke and North Carolina along the way. The seven RPI top 50 wins for Syracuse is more than anyone else in the ACC.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Everything that happened since the 25-0 start. A home loss to a Boston College team ranked 177th in RPI would be toxic for most teams vying for a No. 1 seed. Road losses to Duke and Virginia, both in the top three in KenPom and in the top 10 in the RPI, aren’t deal breakers. But Syracuse has hardly looked like a team that’s has lost its last game before Selection Sunday.
Villanova (26-3, 14-2 Big East)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Wildcats built plenty of clout in the Battle 4 Atlantis, defeating Kansas and Iowa. Those wins contributed to a No. 4 ranking in the RPI despite ranking 26th in strength of schedule, but not as much as no losses outside of the top 10.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Creighton. The Bluejays swept Villanova by a combined 49 points. A 4-3 record against the RPI top 50 may not be No. 1 seed material unless Villanova can atone for its regular season losses to Creighton in the Big East Tournament.
Virginia (25-5, 16-1 ACC)
The case for a No. 1 seed: The Cavaliers opened a three-game lead in the ACC by defeating Syracuse on Saturday. Virginia’s only loss since the New Year is by four on the road against Duke. Tempo-free analytics love the efficient Cavaliers as they rank second in KenPom.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The unbalanced ACC schedule and non-conference losses. The Cavaliers will play Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina once apiece before the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers also lost in the non-conference schedule to Tennessee and Green Bay, both on the road. Winning the ACC Tournament is a must.
Wichita State (31-0, 18-0 Missouri Valley)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Have you heard? Wichita State is 31-0 and will be favored to get to 34-0 in the Missouri Valley Tournament. Banishing an undefeated team to a No. 2 seed, no matter the strength of schedule, would be a bold call. The Shockers are sixth in the RPI.
The case against a No. 1 seed: Wichita State’s strength of schedule is ranked 100th by the RPI. The Shockers’ best win — on the road against Saint Louis — might not look as impressive after the Billikens lost to Duquesne at home last week. At most, Wichita State will get to Selection Sunday with only three wins over teams with NCAA at-large credentials (BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee).
Wisconsin (24-5, 11-5 Big Ten)
The case for a No. 1 seed: Wisconsin’s wins over Florida and Virginia are even more impressive than they were back in November and December. After a cold streak early in the Big Ten schedule, the Badgers have reeled off seven consecutive wins. Despite those losses, Wisconsin is fifth in the RPI and second in strength of schedule.
The case against a No. 1 seed: The Badgers’ midseason slump included losses to Indiana and Northwestern, the latter at home. The five losses puts Wisconsin at second in the Big Ten despite a head-to-head win over Michigan. Another in the Big Ten Tournament might be needed.
One thing you can say about Kevin Harvick: he’s a quick learner. Thirteen years ago, in the midst of NASCAR mourning its national tragedy, he won in just the third Cup start of his career. Replacing Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 wasn’t easy, but he made it seem like a breeze, beating Jeff Gordon — in his prime — by a nose at Atlanta.
It was all so seamless, turning an earthquake of a change into little more than a small tremor while the rest of his team cried tears of healing all around. It should come as no surprise, then, that in just his second race of a new program, the second team of his Cup career, Harvick was already visiting Victory Lane. And, just like in 2001, while everyone else appears to be adjusting to the change — the pit crew still needs name tags — the driver is the one having the most fun, acting like it’s all another day at the office.
“I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work,” he said. “I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony. I feel like we've had a great relationship in the past. He's driven my Nationwide cars. I feel like as we go through situations, I've learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know.”
Stewart sure is. His new team, a complete rebuild with the shop’s recent expansion, took just two races to lock itself into the Chase, beating defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Harvick’s former RCR program, and two entire manufacturers (Ford & Toyota) in the process. That’s impressive, considering there’s so much to worry about within the walls of Stewart-Haas Racing. With four “Type A” personalities in Stewart, Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, a blowup could happen at virtually any moment.
But Sunday, as “Through The Gears” will illustrate, was a prime example of what can happen when they don’t.
FIRST GEAR: Harvick hauls the mail out west
Three wins in the last four Phoenix races. 224 laps led. It seems like Phoenix has become “Harvick’s House” the same manner that Jimmie Johnson owns Dover or Darrell Waltrip once mastered Bristol. But the biggest distinction between this win over the others is Harvick’s input on setup — or lack thereof. It seems the driver wasn’t even needed on this one despite his previous success on Phoenix’s one-mile oval. Crew chief Rodney Childers, a rising head wrench in the Cup garage, had the mechanical side well under control, to the point the No. 4 car was two-tenths of a second faster than the field virtually all weekend long.
“We’ve been to three tests and two races now,” Childers said Sunday. “I don’t think I’ve asked him one time how he wanted a car set up yet. It’s our job. He doesn’t need to be worried about that. He needs to get in the car and drive as fast as he can, not have to worry about it.”
To have that type of trust within the driver-crew chief dynamic this early in a working relationship can only mean good things. It also frees Harvick up to be the leader co-owner Stewart expected on the competition side. With Busch, Patrick, and even Stewart himself struggling (he was markedly short with reporters on Friday, a sign that healing leg is still pesky) the pressure of keeping the program successful falls squarely on the No. 4. The other trio will have to build off the confidence Harvick exudes, a trickle-down effect that’s needed for the rest of the program. Chances are that doesn’t happen without Harvick and Childers, clearly in some type of honeymoon phase.
“For me it's been adrenaline and confidence that we can do this,” Childers said. “Really just feeds off of that every day. Working 17, 18 hours on some days, I go home, I don't even feel tired. The adrenaline will wear off at some point but hopefully we can keep it going.”
SECOND GEAR: A changing of the guard at Ford?
For years, Roush Fenway Racing didn’t just lead the Blue Oval crowd, it was the dictator of anything Ford. To get any engines, chassis or information from that manufacturer you had to sell your soul to RFR, then watch as Jack Roush’s organization still ran circles around you anyway.
But that era, which lasted almost a decade, appears to be ending. Penske Racing has come out swinging in 2014, its two-car program starting the season with three top-5 finishes in four attempts. Compare that to Roush Fenway, whose three-car team has yet to run higher than seventh and seems a step below its counterparts in handling. RFR is being outgunned in laps led (89-17), poles (Keselowski won at Phoenix) and even in social media relevancy (Twitter? Carl Edwards? Still not a match).
On a serious note, Penske’s Phoenix performance incorporated the type of teamwork and symmetry RFR won’t have with two drivers entering a contract year. Edwards and Greg Biffle have yet to sign new deals; until that happens, the specter of uncertainty hangs over a program that’s been a step below what both have been expecting the last two seasons. And Cup sophomore Ricky Stenhouse jr.? Despite a strong Daytona run, he’s yet to live up to expectations and was woeful Sunday until a free pass late helped him salvage an 18th-place finish.
“We needed to qualify better,” said Edwards, the Phoenix race’s 2013 winner, who could only muster an eighth after starting 23rd. “We did it to ourselves.”
So far this season, Penske doesn’t have to play that blame game. That’s why it’s already a step ahead.
THIRD GEAR: Rehashing repaving
Chances are, if you weren’t a Kevin Harvick fan, the racing at Phoenix left much to be desired. Since a 2012 repave, this track in the desert has dried up in terms of side-by-side competition up front: three of its last four events have come packaged with less than 15 lead changes. Passing has been difficult, if not impossible, as teams deal with tires that don’t fall off, causing too much parity as the top-20 cars run around with nearly the same lap time. How can a driver pass another when both are running the same speed for an entire green-flag run with little hope of gaining an advantage?
It’s an issue not uncommon to Phoenix, unfortunately; Michigan, Darlington, even Pocono (although initial racing was good) fell victim to the dangers of new asphalt. There has to be a way NASCAR can accelerate the aging process, whether jokingly adding a speedbump in Turn 4, doing a crappy job of smoothing it out… whatever it takes. Some of these racetracks, at the rate they’re going, will take a decade to produce solid racing again and race fans simply won’t pay for a seat that long. You can only produce boredom, so many times until …
FOURTH GEAR: Gordon’s great start
Team Hendrick is on Cloud Nine with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the point standings while defending champ Jimmie Johnson has two top-six finishes. (Johnson claimed the No. 48 team was “unprepared” after Phoenix, running a step behind the others with 2014 rules. Geez, if these results are how he does while a step off the pace, God help us all when he and crew chief Chad Knaus start swinging for the fences again). Clearly, the 48/88 tandem will not only be in the Chase but should be considered title contenders.
“Hold on a sec,” says a little voice sitting at the other end of the Hendrick shop. It’s hard to hear, since no one has talked about Jeff Gordon this season other than paired with the word “retirement.” (The four-time champ, turning age 43 this season, alluded to hanging up the driving shoes if he won it all this year). Whether he is serious about retirement or not, the title part may not be out of the question. Gordon has started the year with two top-5 finishes, the first time he’s done so since 1997 and sits third in Cup Series points. Add in the Pepsi Test Drive II, an act of commercial brilliance and “old man Gordon” has learned a whole bag of new tricks.
NASCAR’s rookie class had a second straight rough week. Kyle Larson, after a strong qualifying effort, was the only one to even finish on the lead lap (20th). Daytona’s polesitter Austin Dillon (24th) was never a factor, and among the others, Justin Allgaier triggered the only major wreck of the day by spinning out… Danica Patrick was an innocent victim there, sustaining damage and later wrecking again with a flat tire. Despite a good car, where she slowly moved through traffic early, a second straight race with misfortune left her 39th in the season standings… Kurt Busch, whose Daytona late-race spin where no caution was thrown, had his engine go south at Phoenix. It’s not exactly what Gene Haas envisioned paying for — two races, two runs outside the top 20 for the former Cup Series champ. “Just a word to the 41 crew,” Busch said on the radio. “Appreciate the work, but you've got the driver who was the worst luck. Terrible luck.” … Another candidate in the “woe is me” category? Michael Waltrip Racing, still reeling from Richmond-gate has yet to score a top-10 finish this season. Drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers are both outside the top 20 in Cup points.
The Honda Classic was Rory McIlroy's to lose, and lose it he did, stumbling to a final-round 4-over 74 to fall into a four-man playoff won by Russell Henley with a two-putt birdie on the first playoff hole. McIlroy narrowly missed his first PGA tour win in 18 months when an eagle putt on the 72nd hole slid past the cup, but he regained a heavy dose of confidence in navigating the tricky Jack Nicklaus-designed PGA National, home to the touted "Bear Trap," the stretch of holes from 15 to 17 that claimed more victims on a difficult final day. Here are some key numbers from the weekend's action.
1 Henley was the only player in the four-man playoff to birdie the first playoff hole, converting a routine two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th.
4 Henley becomes the fourth player under 25 with multiple wins, joining McIlroy (6) and Harris English and Patrick Reed (two apiece).
3 Henley was three shots behind McIlroy after a bogey at 10, and a double at 15 seemed to end his chances, but he took advantage of McIlroy's repeated stumbles down the stretch.
13 Holes that Tiger Woods completed on Sunday before withdrawing with back pain. It marked the sixth withdrawal of Tiger's career and raises questions about his health heading to Augusta.
0 Tournaments that Woods has finished in two starts this season. He missed the Saturday cut at the Farmers after a 79 before his withdrawal at the Honda.
When Oregon’s season hit a critical point, the Ducks leaned on a fifth-year senior who has been around the block.
Mike Moser, a veteran who has played for UCLA and UNLV, kept the Ducks in NCAA Tournament contention with back-to-back double doubles during the weekend.
Moser had 12 points and 20 rebounds in an 87-83 overtime win over UCLA on Thursday and followed that with 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 78-63 win over USC to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
As Oregon has recovered from a 2-8 swoon from Jan. 5-Feb. 8, Moser has been the leader. He’s scored at least 20 points in three of the last four games, and of his five double-doubles this season, two came last week.
Photo courtesy of Eric Evans/GoDucks.com.
Athlon Sports Weekly College Basketball Awards
National Player of the Week: Mike Moser, Oregon
The well-travelled Moser is playing his best basketball as an Oregon Duck at the right time of the year. Moser, who played one season at UCLA and two at UNLV before opting to spend his final year of eligibility in Eugene, scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Ducks to a 78–62 win at USC. Moser is averaging 17.6 during Oregon’s current five-game winning streak.
National Freshman of the Week: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Arizona has answered any questions left by the void of Brandon Ashley in recent weeks. A major reason has been the play of Aaron Gordon, the freshman defensive whiz who is becoming a more consistent contributor in the offensive end. In routs of Stanford and Cal, Gordon totaled 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Gordon also contributed 15 rebounds against the Cardinal.
Under-the-Radar Player of the Week: Bryant Mbamalu, Louisiana-Lafayette
Mbamalu was spectacular in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 102–76 win over South Alabama. The senior guard scored 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds (both season highs) to lead UL-Lafayette to its 10th Sun Belt win of the season.
Other Standout Performances of the Week:
Antonio Barton, Tennessee
After scoring a total of six points (and missing all eight 3-point attempts) in his previous two games, Barton had season highs in both scoring (21 points) and assists (six) to lead Tennessee to an easy 76–38 win over Vanderbilt. The fifth-year senior, a transfer from Memphis, hit 7-of-11 from the field, including 5-of-7 beyond the 3-point arc.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Finney-Smith broke out of an extended scoring slump by averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds to help Florida improve to 16–0 in the SEC. The transfer from Virginia Tech scored 19 points — including a huge 3-pointer in the final minute — to lead the Gators in a 57–54 win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. Then, on Saturday, he scored 16 points in a 79–61 win over LSU that clinched the SEC title for Florida.
Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
Oklahoma completed a season sweep over rival Texas with a 77–65 win in Norman. Cousins, a sophomore guard, led the way with a career-high 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field. Since missing all eight shots against Oklahoma State two weeks ago, Cousins has converted 17-of-31 from the field.
Tyler Haws, BYU
Haws continues to score at a high level as his BYU Cougars are making a late charge at a possible at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The junior guard scored 25 points in Saturday’s win at San Diego. Haws, who leads the West Coast Conference with a 23.4-point average, has scored in double figures in every game this season.
Justin Martin, Xavier
Martin rebounded from a subpar effort (three points, three rebounds) in a win over St. John’s on Tuesday by scoring 19 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in Xavier’s huge 75–69 win over Creighton in Cincinnati. It was the first career double-double for the junior forward from Indianapolis.
Brenton Williams, South Carolina
Williams poured in a game-high 24 points to lead South Carolina to a surprising 72–67 win over Kentucky — easily the biggest victory of the Frank Martin era in Columbia. Williams only hit four field goals but connected on 15-of-16 from the foul line — including four following the two technicals that led to John Calipari’s ejection.
Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara
Brownridge scored a career-high 38 points and added seven rebounds, three assists and two steals as Santa Clara posted an 86–78 win at Pepperdine. A freshman guard from Aurora, Ill., hit 12-of-22 from the field, including 7-of-9 from the 3-point line.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart overcame a slow start (one point in the first half) to lead Oklahoma State to its biggest win of the season — a 72–65 victory over Big 12 champion Kansas. The sophomore guard scored 20 points in the second half to help the Cowboys rally from a 10-point deficit. In the final 10 minutes, he hit 4-of-4 from the field and had three assists and zero turnovers.
K.J. McDaniels, Clemson
McDaniels, one of the nation’s most underrated players, had perhaps the best game of his junior season. He scored 26 points and had 14 rebounds and six blocks to key the Tigers’ 77–73 double-overtime win over Maryland. The Birmingham, Ala., native is averaging 16.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.
West Virginia’s entrance to the Big 12 hasn’t gone according to plan. The Mountaineers started 5-0 in 2012 and seemed to have all of the momentum on their side. But since that 5-0 start, Dana Holgorsen’s team is just 6-14 in its last 20 games. Holgorsen is starting to feel a little heat, and a schedule that features non-conference games against Alabama and Maryland, along with road trips to Oklahoma State and Texas won’t provide any breaks.
Despite the disappointing 4-8 mark last year, West Virginia has reasons for optimism entering 2014. Holgorsen’s offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, but will a quarterback emerge? On defense, improvement was noticeable last season. However, injuries wreaked havoc and forced the Mountaineers to dip deeper into the depth chart for replacements. The injuries hurt the starting lineup last year, but West Virginia has more depth and talent on defense entering 2014.
This is a crucial spring for Holgorsen. West Virginia was a few plays away from getting to a bowl last year. Can the Mountaineers find the right solutions as they enter their third season of Big 12 action?
West Virginia Mountaineers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Spring Practice Opens: March 2
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in West Virginia’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. The quarterbacks: Considering Dana Holgorsen’s background, it was surprising to see West Virginia’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in points scored last season. The Mountaineers averaged 26.3 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2013, which isn’t awful, but certainly not up to the level most expected from this unit. Three quarterbacks received snaps last year, and Holgorsen enters spring practice with plenty of uncertainty. Clint Trickett led the team with 1,605 passing yards, but he will miss spring practice due to shoulder surgery. Ford Childress transferred, leaving Paul Millard (1,122 yards, 6 TDs) and junior college recruit Skyler Howard as the frontrunners for the starting job. Incoming freshman William Crest could work his way into the mix in the fall. Can Millard seize the job with Trickett sidelined? Or will Howard make an impression? Junior college recruits are hit or miss, so it’s not guaranteed that Howard can make an immediate impact. If West Virginia finds stability here, the offense will easily improve on last year’s numbers.
2. Developing a pecking order at running back: Holgorsen would prefer his offense to lean on the pass, but West Virginia has one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12. Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell is an intriguing option after sitting out last year due to NCAA rules. Shell rushed for 641 yards with the Panthers in 2012. Dreamius Smith rushed for 494 yards and five touchdowns last season and opened spring practice at No. 1 on the depth chart. Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison are back after combining for 240 yards in 2013, while Andrew Buie rejoins the team after a year absence. There’s no shortage of options here. Will Shell emerge as the go-to back? Or will Smith and Shell end up sharing carries?
3. Breaking in three new starters on the line: Neither of the above storylines will have much of an impact on the 2014 season if West Virginia struggles to find replacements for three starters on the line. Tackles Nick Kindler and Curtis Feight and center Pat Eger have expired their eligibility, leaving guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski as the only returning starters. Spain and Glowinski should be a solid pairing at guard, but can the Mountaineers find some clarity at the other positions? Tyler Orlosky is the early frontrunner at center after starting three games last season. Sophomore Adam Pankey opened spring practice holding the No. 1 spot at left tackle, while junior Marquis Lucas is slated to start at right tackle. However, Holgorsen added competition from the recruiting trail in the form of junior college recruits Justin Scott and Sylvester Townes, and redshirts Marcell Lazard and Tyler Tezeno will factor into the mix. There’s plenty of competition and options here for line coach Ron Crook. Can he exit spring feeling confident about the three vacated positions from 2013?
4. Coaching staff tweaks on defense: The Mountaineers were hit with a surprising departure in early February when defensive coordinator Keith Patterson bolted Morgantown for Arizona State. Holgorsen had to act quickly to replace Patterson with spring practice approaching, and long-time assistant Tony Gibson will call the plays in 2014. Gibson is known as an excellent recruiter but has never been a defensive coordinator. Damon Cogdell was hired to coach the defensive line from Miramar High School, but the key addition on Holgorsen’s staff was former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley. With Gibson calling the defensive signals for the first time, having a veteran like Bradley will help with developing the gameplan, as well as making in-game adjustments.
5. Finding replacements on the defensive line: Each unit on West Virginia’s defense has holes to fill, but the line needs to replace end Will Clarke and nose tackle Shaq Rowell. Clarke was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last year, while Rowell recorded 47 tackles and was a key cog as the team’s 3-4 nose tackle position. Sophomore Christian Brown played in four games due to injuries in 2013 and is slated to replace Rowell at nose tackle. Kyle Rose should be one of the leaders up front as he started 11 games last season and recorded 49 tackles. Senior Dontrill Hyman opened spring practice as the No. 1 end opposite of Rose, but West Virginia needs to find more depth here. Freshman Davonte James is a name to watch this spring, while redshirt freshman Jon Lewis and sophomore Noble Nwachukwu will be looking to carve out a bigger role in the line rotation this year. Cogdell’s first spring in Morgantown will be busy with an unsettled depth chart in the trenches.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
If you trust recruiting rankings, West Virginia has the No. 6 roster in the Big 12 for 2014. So while the roster may have some inexperience, there is some talent available for Holgorsen and his staff. Going 4-8 is always going to put a coach on the hot seat, but Holgorsen deserves some time to navigate West Virginia through the conference transition. On the surface, four wins last year was a significant disappointment. However, the Mountaineers lost in overtime to Texas and Iowa State. A couple of breaks in a different direction and West Virginia is 6-6 and playing in a bowl. Improvement should be noticeable in 2014. But a non-conference schedule featuring games against Alabama and Maryland doesn’t allow any margin for error.
BYU went 8-5 for a second straight season last fall, but the Cougars followed two different scripts to get there. In 2012, the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense, both in yards and points allowed, led the way in a season that culminated with a victory over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Last season, the offense carried the load, as the Cougars finished 10th in the country in rushing and 15th in total offense and went 8-4 in the regular season, including a convincing victory over then-No. 15 Texas in Provo, Utah. However, the season ended with a loss as BYU couldn’t get past Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Even with that setback, Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to at least seven victories in each of the past eight seasons and a bowl game in all nine he’s been in charge. The Cougars return plenty of experience this season with a total of 14 starters on both sides of the ball, but also lost some key personnel that will need to be replaced if they want to maintain their recent level of success.
BYU Cougars 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: March 29
Three Things to Watch in BYU’s 2014 Spring Practice
|Nov. 22||Savannah State|
1. Taysom Hill’s progression as a passer. There’s no quarterback controversy in Provo, Utah. Hill, a junior, is the unquestioned starter and leader of BYU’s offense. One of the most dynamic dual threats in the country, Hill finished among the top 25 rushers in FBS with 1,344 yards on the ground. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns, but there’s still plenty of room for growth in this area. Hill completed less than 54 percent of his passes on the season and also tossed 14 interceptions. On four different occasions last season, Hill completed fewer than half of his pass attempts in a game and, not surprisingly, the Cougars went just 1-3 in those contests. Hill and talented junior running back Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards rushing in 2013) form a potent one-two punch on the ground, but the offense needs the passing game to keep defenses honest. Entering his second full season as the starter, it’s up to Hill to take that next step in his development as a quarterback or otherwise opposing defenses may focus their efforts on keeping him in the pocket instead of letting him beat them with his legs. Mendenhall and his staff also will have to figure out who is going to backup Hill since Ammon Olsen, who saw action in four games last season, announced in January he was transferring to Southern Utah University. With just one scholarship quarterback (Billy Green) and a group of walk-ons left to compete for the No. 2 job, this spring could prove critical as it relates to the future of the quarterback position.
2. Identifying reliable targets. The foundation of BYU’s offense is pretty well set with Hill and Williams in the backfield and all five starters returning along the line. But that’s where the stability ends, however, as the Cougars saw their top three wide receivers graduate, including all-time leading pass-catcher Cody Hoffman. The returning leading receiver is junior Mitch Mathews, who caught 23 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns last season. He is expected to team with senior Ross Apo (14-204-3) to serve as two of Hill’s primary targets, but some others will need to step up as well. Help could be on the way in the form of UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie (44-612-7 last season for the Miners) and junior college transfers Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz. Kurtz has a leg up on the other two, as he will participate in spring practice with Leslie and Blackmon coming in the summer. With only four scholarship wideouts participating in the spring, Kurtz could end up seeing plenty of starter reps and solidify his position on the depth chart by the time fall camp rolls around. Whatever happens between now and the season opener on Aug. 29, this much is certain – BYU’s receiving corps will feature plenty of new faces.
3. Starting over at linebacker. As much production and experience BYU lost at wide receiver it pales in comparison to the rebuilding job Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell ahead of them when it comes to their linebacking corps. Besides losing playmaker Kyle Van Noy (17.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INTs) to graduation, the Cougars also bid farewell to fellow starters Uani Unga and Tyler Beck. This trio was responsible for nearly a quarter of the team’s total tackles last season and about 35 percent of all stops made behind the line of scrimmage. Senior Alani Fua is back to lead the group, but the other returnees at the position made just five starts combined last season. Developing this group is obviously one of the staff’s priorities this spring, as running back Michael Alisa, who has rushed for nearly 800 yards in his BYU career, is slated to make the switch to linebacker. Additional reinforcements are on the way in the form of incoming freshmen and returning missionaries, but between now and the first game of the season in late August, this linebacking corps will be a fluid situation to say the least.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
For nearly a decade, Bronco Mendenhall’s team has consistently been good for at least eight wins each season and I don’t expect that to change this fall. As an independent, BYU has one of the trickier schedules in the nation and 2014 is no different. Starting with the season opener on the road at Connecticut and finishing with the finale at California, BYU will traverse nearly 15,000 round-trip miles and visit six different states in a span of three months.
There are some familiar foes on the docket, as the Cougars will play seven teams they faced in 2013. They went 6-1 against these opponents last season with the only loss coming against Virginia on the road. This time, the Cavaliers come to Provo, Utah, as does Houston, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV and Savannah State. Also, the likes of Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Utah and Wisconsin have been replaced by the aforementioned Huskies, Golden Bears, Rebels and UCF Knights. Even with the loss of production at both wide receiver and linebacker, BYU has plenty of offensive talent and enough experience on defense returning to fare no worse than it did last season. In fact, if everything comes together, the Cougars could wind up with double-digit wins by season’s end.
Every MLB team should have its own Mt. Rushmore — four individuals that have risen above all others for each organization. Here is one man’s opinion for all 30 Mt. Rushmores from Aaron Cook for Colorado to Babe Ruth for New York. Depending on the organization and how long the franchise has existed, some teams were difficult to find four worthy players. Most teams provided ardent debate.
Below, you’ll find links to all 30 Mt. Rushmores.
TCU’s transition to the Big 12 hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. After finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play in their first season as one of college football’s so-called “big boys,” the Horned Frogs were expected by many to contend for the top spot in the Big 12 in Year 2.
Instead, Gary Patterson’s team took several step backwards, stumbling to 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the Big 12. It was the worst showing by a TCU team in Patterson’s 13 seasons as the head coach and the fewest wins by the program since going 1-10 in 1997.
While TCU’s defense was solid last season, the offense was a disaster, finishing near the bottom of the FBS ranks in both total and rushing yards. Not surprisingly, Patterson made some changes on his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators to overhaul the offense. This will be the key for the Horned Frogs’ hopes this fall, as the defense returns eight starters and could be one of the better units not only in the Big 12, but the entire nation.
TCU Horned Frogs 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 1
Spring Game: April 5
Three Things to Watch in TCU's 2014 Spring Practice
1. Starting over on offense. TCU was bad on offense last season. There’s simply no other way to state it. The Horned Frogs finished near the bottom of 125 FBS teams in total offense, rushing offense and third down conversions. Things were so bad on that side of the ball that despite being a top 25 defense nationally, TCU managed just four wins, one of them coming against an FCS opponent. And the other three victories were over Kansas, Iowa State and SMU, teams that went a combined 11-25. Not surprisingly, head coach Gary Patterson made some changes in the offseason, bringing in two new offensive coordinators to hopefully “fix” his offense. Doug Meacham comes to TCU after spending last season as the offensive coordinator at Houston. Sonny Cumbie joins the Horned Frogs’ staff after serving as the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at fellow Big 12 member Texas Tech. Last season, the Red Raiders’ and Cougars’ offense finished eighth and 55th, respectively, in the nation in total offense and both also were in the top 40 in scoring offense. Meacham and Cumbie will share offensive coordinator duties at TCU with the former slated to call plays. Meacham also will coach inside receivers, while Cumbie will stay with quarterbacks. It’s probably a good thing these two are working together because as last season showed, they have their work cut out for them. Starting with…
2. Finding a quarterback. Despite having two experienced signal-callers last season, the tandem of Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin produced disappointing results. With both seeing plenty of action, the duo combined to complete 57.1 percent of their passes for 2,666 yards while throwing more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (13). Pachall has exhausted his eligibility, leaving Boykin, a junior, atop the depth chart entering spring practice, at least for now. TCU also has sophomore Tyler Matthews and redshirt freshman Zach Allen who are expected to see plenty of reps this spring, as the Horned Frogs are shifting to more of a spread offensive system under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Boykin is athletic and versatile enough to operate in a spread, but he won’t just be handed the starting job, not after last season’s results and with new leadership running things. There’s been some talk already that Boykin could be moved to wide receiver, which means Matthews and Allen should get plenty of opportunities to impress the coaching staff and potentially shake up the depth chart. Either way, expect plenty of attention to be paid to what happens under center this spring.
3. Rounding out the defense. TCU returns eight starters from a defense that finished in the top 25 in the nation in yards allowed. This unit should be the strength of this team, but that doesn’t mean that defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas can sit back and take it easy during spring practice. For one, he has some decisions to make regarding his secondary, which is made up of five defensive backs due to the unique 4-2-5 scheme the Horned Frogs have long employed under Patterson. The biggest loss from last season is cornerback Jason Verrett, who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after leading the conference in passes broken up (14) while recording two interceptions. The secondary should be in good shape with senior strong safety Sam Carter, senior cornerback Kevin White and junior wide safety Chris Hackett forming a strong foundation to build around. However, Bumpas will need someone new to step up at cornerback opposite White and in the free safety spot that was occupied by Elisha Olabode last season. Otherwise, the front six returns largely intact form last year’s starting group, which doesn’t include Devonte Fields. The 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a true freshman, Fields played in just three games last season because of injury. He will start the spring second on the depth chart at right end. Fields also has run into some trouble off the field, including being robbed at gunpoint in January, so he could use a good spring to get things started on the right foot.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
The good news is that things shouldn’t get any worse for Gary Patterson and company compared to last season. Schedule-wise Minnesota replaces LSU as the marquee non-conference opponent and TCU’s defense should be good enough to keep this team in most games. However, whether or not these Horned Frogs get back to a bowl game will more than likely be determined by the performance of their offense. Patterson has brought in two new coordinators to oversee the offensive overhaul, now it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces and putting it all together. TCU has enough talent to win six games, but its margin of error will probably be pretty thin unless the offense takes a dramatic step forward this fall.
Former Texas Tech quarterback Michael Brewer has decided to transfer to Virginia Tech. The news was announced on Sunday, as Brewer announced his intention to transfer after the 2013 season and he will be eligible to play in 2014.
Brewer was expected to be Texas Tech’s starting quarterback in 2013, but a back injury sidelined him for most of the year.
In four appearances, Brewer threw for 65 yards and one touchdown on seven completions.
In two years with the Red Raiders, Brewer threw for 440 yards and five scores and completed 70.7 percent of his passes.
Mark Leal is considered the favorite to start at Virginia Tech this year, but he has only 48 career pass attempts. Brewer won’t arrive in Blacksburg until this summer. However, Brewer should have a chance to win the starting job in the fall.
Considering the lack of experience among returning Virginia Tech quarterbacks, landing Brewer could pay off for the Hokies in 2014.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Big Ten is known for its offensive lines and running games but that doesn't mean there haven't been some amazing quarterbacks to come through these ranks. Nothing proves this more than seeing three-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady sitting outside the Top 20.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000)
The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year led Purdue back to the Rose Bowl and finished among the top four in Heisman voting twice (1999, 2000). He set the NCAA record for passes attempted in a game with 83 against Wisconsin in 1998 (broken in 2013) and is the Big Ten's all-time leader in completions (1,026), passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense (12,692) and total touchdowns (104). His 39 touchdown passes in 1998 are still a single-season Big Ten record by a wide margin. He was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001, has posted four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history and is a Super Bowl champion.
2. Russell Wilson, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten. He posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. His 33 touchdown passes in 2011 are second all-time in B1G history to only Brees' 39. He was elite at NC State, elite at Wisconsin and has already led Seattle to its first Super Bowl championship. Needless to say, he is one of the greatest college quarterbacks in history.
3. Troy Smith, Ohio State (2003-06)
Stats: 5,720 yds, 54 TDs, 13 INTs, 62.7%, 1,168 yds, 14 TDs
Smith won the AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp awards and is the only Big Ten quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy since Les Horvath won the award at OSU in 1944. Only Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won a Heisman for the Big Ten during the BCS Era. Additionally, his Heisman Trophy in 2006 was en route to a perfect season, Big Ten championship and BCS Championship Game berth against Florida. The consensus All-American was the first Buckeyes quarterback to go 3-0 against Michigan since the 1930s and is one of just four players in league history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in a single season. His career QB rating of 157.1 is the best in league history. The 2006 Fiesta Bowl MVP was a part of three BCS bowl teams and was a fifth-round pick in the '07 NFL Draft.
4. Antwaan Randle El, Indiana (1998-2001)
Stats: 7,469 yds, 42 TDs, 37 INTs, 49.8%, 3,895 yds, 44 TDs
The electric athlete sparked the glory years of Indiana football. Well ahead of his time as one of the original dual-threat quarterbacks, Randle El had the top three rushing seasons in Big Ten history, including the only 1,000-yard season, by a quarterback until the likes Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller came along and topped his 1,270-yard season of 2000. The Hoosiers star is fifth all-time in Big Ten history with 11,364 total yards of offense and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2001, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He was a second-round pick and is the only wide receiver to ever throw a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.
5. Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2011-pres.)
Stats: 5,292 yds, 52 TDs, 17 INTs, 59.3%, 3,054 yds, 32 TDs
It may seem too early to place Miller this high after just two full seasons under center but his resume is starting to become one of the best in Big Ten history. Along with Brees, Miller is the only other player in league history to win two Player of the Year awards (2012 and '13) after he led his team to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. He has already accounted for 84 total touchdowns and over 8,000 yards of total offense and will have a chance to catch Brees in both categories by the time his career is over in Columbus. His 3,054 yards rushing is already third all-time in B1G history among QBs and he has an outside chance to top Denard Robinson's record of 4,495 yards.
6. Brett Basanez, Northwestern (2002-05)
Stats: 10,580 yds, 44 TDs,36 INTs, 57.6%, 996 yds, 18 TDs
He didn't post the gaudy touchdown numbers of some of the others on this list, but Basanez ranks among the all-time best in productivity. After back-to-back losing seasons, Basanez helped lead the Wildcats to two bowls in three years and was awarded Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior in 2005. He completed 314-of-497 passes (both top 10 in league history) for 3,622 yards (ninth all-time) and scored 28 total touchdowns. Basanez ranks third all-time in league history with 11,576 yards of total offense and is fourth all-time in passing yards.
7. Brad Banks, Iowa (2001-02)
Stats: 3,155 yds, 30 TDs, 7 INTs, 58.3%, 574 yds, 7 TDs
He only started one year in the Big Ten but it was a monster season in 2002. Banks was named Big Ten Player of the Year, won the Davey O'Brien Award, was named the AP Player of the Year and finished second in the Heisman voting. He also led Iowa to its first ever BCS Bowl berth. He posted 2,573 yards passing, 26 touchdowns, five interceptions, 423 yards rushing and five more scores in '02.
9. Chad Henne, Michigan (2004-07)
Stats: 9,715 yds, 87 TDs, 37 INTs, 3 rush TDs
Starting in his first career game as a true freshman, Henne was a true four-year starter for Michigan — just the second true freshman to start his career opener in school history. The freshman All-American eventually finished with every major Michigan passing record in the books. He is seventh all-time in Big Ten history in passing yards and trails only Brees (90) in career touchdown passes (87). Henne started 47 games in the Maize and Blue, posting 33 wins, two Rose Bowl appearances and came just one victory shy from playing in the national championship game in 2006.
10. Denard Robinson, Michigan (2009-12)
Stats: 6,250 yds, 49 TDs, 39 INTs, 57.2%, 4,495 yds, 42 TDs
There were certainly times when Robinson drove the Michigan fans batty but there is no doubting that he is one of the most dynamic, unique and explosive players in Big Ten history. Robinson set a Big Ten record with 4,272 yards of total offense in 2010, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and becoming the first player in NCAA history top both 1,500 yards rushing and passing in the same year. He has the top three single-game rushing performances by a quarterback in league history (258) and topped 200 yards rushing five times. His 1,702 yards rushing are a single-season record for B1G quarterbacks and his 4,495 career yards are No. 1 all-time in NCAA history among signal-callers. Robinson's 10,745 yards of offense rank sixth all-time in league history and he is one of only five players in college football history to throw for at least 6,000 yards and rush for at least 4,000.
Just missed the cut:
11. Craig Krenzel, Ohio State (2000-03)
Stats: 4,489 yds, 28 TDs, 21 INTs, 56.8%, 600 yds, 6 TDs
He wasn't the flashiest and he certainly wasn't the most talented but Krenzel was a winner. And he is the only Big Ten quarterback to lead his team to a BCS National Championship when his Buckeyes went 14-0 in his junior season. He was a two-time Fiesta Bowl MVP, finished his career 24-3 as a starter and earned a degree in Molecular Genetics along the way.
12. Michael Robinson, Penn State (2002-05)
Stats: 3,531 yds, 23 TDs, 21 INTs, 52.1%, 1,637 yds, 20 TDs, 52 rec., 629 yds, 3 TDs
The versatile weapon capped his career in Happy Valley by leading Penn State back to a conference championship and the BCS with a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award-winning campaign in 2005. He threw for 2,350 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 806 yards and 11 scores on the ground that season.
13. Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (2008-10)
Stats: 6,177 yds, 57 TDs, 26 INTs, 60.9, 2,164 yds, 17 TDs
Entering the lineup early in his freshman year, Pryor proved why he was the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation coming out of high school. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year went on to win three Big Ten titles and play in three BCS Bowls in all three seasons under center. His numbers are prolific and his talent was electric, but he is also responsible for a scandal so bad that it took down the entire coaching staff as well.
14. Kurt Kittner, Illinois (1998-01)
Stats: 8,460 yds, 70 TD, 33 INTs, 54.4%, 168 yds, 7 TDs
The all-time leader in school history for passing touchdowns in a career and season, Kittner capped his excellent tenure at Illinois by leading the Illini to an outright Big Ten championship and berth in the Sugar Bowl in 2001. His 70 passing touchdowns are eighth all-time in Big Ten history.
15. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska (2010-13)
Stats: 7,258 yds, 56 TDs, 29 INTs, 59.8%, 2,975 yds, 31 TDs
Few players have ever been as explosive and fun to watch as T-Magic was for the Huskers. And had an injury not ruined his final season, there is no telling where Martinez would have wound up in the record books. He owns Nebraska's all-time record for total offense, passing yards, career stars by a quarterback and touchdown passes as well as the single-season school record for total offense and total touchdowns. He led the Huskers to a Big 12 title game appearance as a freshman and was a first-team All-Big Ten pick when he led his team to the Big Ten title game in 2012. Fans in Lincoln were left to wonder what could have been had he stayed healthy this past fall.
16. John Navarre, Michigan (2000-03)
Stats: 9,264 yds, 70 TDs, 30 INTs, 56.1%, 2 rush TDs
Henne owns all of the major Michigan passing records but it was Navarre's marks that he broke. With three full seasons as a starter, Navarre is currently still ninth all-time in Big Ten history in passing yards and fourth all-time in touchdowns. Michigan won 29 games during his three-year run as the starter and went to back-to-back Rose Bowls in 2003-04.
17. Kyle Orton, Purdue (2001-04)
Stats: 9,337 yds, 63 TDs, 28 INTs, 58.8%, 316 yds, 6 TDs
Picking up where Brees left off, Orton posted three consecutive seasons with a completion percentage above 60 and led Purdue to four bowl games. He was named first-team All-Big Ten when he threw for 3,090 yards, 31 TDs and only five picks as a senior — making him one of only four players in league history to top 30 TD passes. He is eighth all-time in passing yards and was a fourth-round pick in 2005.
18. Juice Williams, Illinois (2006-09)
Stats: 8,037 yds, 56 TDs, 44 INTs, 53.3%, 2,557 yds, 18 TDs
The four-year starter for Illinois was one of the most productive players of his era and returned the Illini to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1983 when he got his team to Pasadena in 2007. Williams is seventh all-time in Big Ten history with 10,594 yards and is one of just eight to ever top 10K.
19. Curtis Painter, Purdue (2005-08)
Stats: 11,163 yds, 67 TDs, 46 INTs, 59.9%, 348 yds, 13 TDs
Painter started 41 of his possible 46 career games over four seasons in West Lafayette. His 11,163 career yards passing are second only to fellow Boilermaker Brees in Big Ten history and Painter also is ninth all-time in touchdown passes. He owns two of the Big Ten's top four single-season passing marks, including the conference's top performance with 3,985 yards in 2006. His 569 attempts in 2007 tied Brees for the Big Ten record while his 987 completions rank second all-time to only Brees as well. His 546 yards passing against Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl were the highest single-game total of any B1G QB during the BCS Era and the third most all-time.
20. Adam Weber, Minnesota (2007-10)
Stats: 10,917 yds, 72 TDs, 51 INTs, 57.0%, 873 yds, 10 TDs
A four-year starter, Weber posted four straight seasons with between 2,582 and 2,895 yards during his time in Minnesota. He is third all-time in the Big Ten in passing and fourth all-time in passing touchdowns. He led a 1-11 team as a freshman All-American to back-to-back bowl games as a sophomore and junior. His 11,790 yards of total offense are third all-time in league history.
Best of the rest:
21. Tom Brady, Michigan (1996-99): 4,773 yds, 30 TDs, 17 INTs, 61.9%, 3 rush TDs
22. Daryll Clark, Penn State (2006-09): 5,742 yds, 43 TDs, 16 INTs, 60.2%, 619 yds, 22 TDs
23. Dan Persa, Northwestern (2008-11): 5,181 yds, 34 TDs, 13 INTs, 72.7%, 716 yds, 10 TDs
24. Drew Stanton, Michigan State (2003-06): 6,524 yds, 42 TDs, 28 INTs, 64.2%, 1,512 yds, 15 TDs
25. John Stocco, Wisconsin (2003-06): 7,227 yds, 47 TDs, 22 INTs, 7 rush TDs
Southern Miss hasn’t had much success on the field over the last few years, but the program seems to be trending in the right direction under Todd Monken.
The Golden Eagles have released a few uniform tweaks over the last few years, and a new helmet design could be on the way for 2014.
In the picture below, Southern Miss’ equipment department tweeted out a new design for the school’s helmets for 2014.
If the Golden Eagles shift to this design, it’s a solid look for the helmet with the chrome additions.
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
My pick for the 2014 national championship is probably going to be Florida State versus Alabama. Nick Saban is the best coach in the nation, and Jimbo Fisher has quickly checked most boxes needed to earn a Hall of Fame induction. Both head coaches have a national championship on their resume — in fact, four of the five BCS titles — and both develop talent, call plays, prepare their team as well as any coach in the game today.
It doesn't hurt that they will have the best players in the nation as well. Alabama has won four straight recruiting national championships and Florida State returns the No. 2 roster in the nation — one that includes the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
According to the numbers, objectively, Alabama and Florida State will enter the 2014 season with the best depth charts in college football. Below is each roster in the major six leagues (plus Notre Dame, Boise State and BYU) based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports). Included is each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons.
Who are the biggest overachievers?
The fifth-best roster in the Big Ten has delivered a Rose Bowl, Big Ten title and three seasons with at least 11 wins.
Bill Snyder's roster ranks 61st nationally in terms of talent but has consistently competed for Big 12 titles.
Gary Andersen picked up where previous regimes left off on the field and might have actually improved UW off of it.
Only the Ducks of Oregon have won more games than the 20th-best roster in the nation. Back-to-back Pac-12 titles.
Bronco Mendenhall has had a winning record every year since his first (9) and has six 10-win seasons.
Paul Johnson has never missed a bowl and consistently competes for ACC titles with 52nd-ranked roster in the nation.
The 13th-best roster in the ACC and 68th-best roster in the nation won 10 games and its division last year.
Todd Graham has established ASU as a top-tier Pac-12 team with middle-of-the-pack (No. 7) talent.
The 13th-rated roster in the SEC just won the East and 12 games.
Art Briles has improved this roster incredibly over the last few years and now has depth that he didn't have before.
Who are the biggest underachievers?
It boasts the top roster in the Big 12 (No. 7 nationally) but is just 18-17 in league play over the last four seasons.
Eight losses with the second-ranked roster in the nation is completely unacceptable.
There is a reason that there was a regime change just a month into the season in Los Angeles.
Derek Dooley had solid recruiting classes but couldn't deliver on the field. See USC above.
Jeff Tedford had no problems luring talent, leaving Sonny Dykes with plenty to work with in Berkeley.
Not an elite roster but very talented within the league and UNC hasn't lost fewer than three ACC games since 1997.
The time is now for Al Golden and the ACC's second-ranked roster.
Wahoos rank 35th nationally — ahead of Missouri, Wisconsin and Kansas State to name a few.
The Hogs had their worst season in the program's history despite ranking 25th nationally in terms of talent.
Uphill battle in the SEC but this group has the worst record of any "Big 5" school and is 36th nationally in talent.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has narrowed the gap in recent years. And this conference will play a key role in shaping college football’s new playoff format, as Oregon, Stanford and UCLA are considered by many to be top-10 teams in 2014.
The North Division is shaping up to be another battle between Oregon and Stanford for the No. 1 spot. The Ducks return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, the defense is a concern with the personnel losses at tackle. The Cardinal return quarterback Kevin Hogan and a solid receiving corps, but the offensive line and defense will be under the spotlight in spring practice with new faces stepping into starting roles.
In the South Division, UCLA is the early frontrunner. Quarterback Brett Hundley turned down the NFL for another season in Los Angeles, and sophomore linebacker/running back Myles Jack is one of the nation’s most intriguing players for 2014.
But UCLA will be pushed by USC and Arizona State this year, provided both teams answer a couple of key questions in offseason workouts. The Sun Devils need to reload on defense, while the Trojans need to restock on the defensive line and find a replacement for Marqise Lee at receiver.
Arizona is the wildcard team to watch in the South, especially if coach Rich Rodriguez can find a quarterback and a replacement for running back Ka’Deem Carey this spring.
|Seniors Departing||Early NFL Draft Departures||Returning Starters: Offense||Returning Starters: Defense|
North Division Spring Outlook
Art Kaufman’s chance to fix the defense
The final numbers for California’s defense last year were simply dreadful. The Golden Bears allowed 529.6 yards per game and allowed 45.9 points per contest. After the season, Sonny Dykes made staff changes, hiring former Cincinnati coordinator Art Kaufman to call the defensive signals, while Greg Burns was brought aboard to tutor defensive backs. There’s simply no way California can be any worse on defense in 2014. The changes on the staff will make a huge difference for the Golden Bears, along with the return of a couple of key players from injury. End Brennan Scarlett and tackle Mustafa Jalil are back after missing 2013 with injury, while defensive backs Stefan McClure and Alex Logan missed significant time last year. This unit does lose a few key players from last season’s group, but the depth and overall talent level should be improved. The Golden Bears are also bringing in a handful of junior college prospects, including linebacker Sam Atoe, cornerback Darius White, tackle David Davis and end Jonathan Johnson. Improvement should be noticeable for California this year. And this spring is Kaufman’s first opportunity to put his stamp on the Golden Bears’ defense in 2014.
Concerns at defensive tackle:
With quarterback Marcus Mariota and eight other starters returning on offense, the Ducks will be one of the Pac-12’s most prolific offenses once again in 2014. However, the defense – which has been underrated nationally at times – enters spring with question marks. New coordinator Don Pellum will be replacing veteran Nick Aliotti as the Ducks’ play-caller on defense, and five starters return from a unit that held opponents to 4.9 yards per play last year. This will be Pellum’s first opportunity to coordinate the defense, but he is familiar with the personnel and keeps continuity in place for Oregon. Pellum’s biggest concern is on the line, where the Ducks must replace Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Ricky Heimuli. Alex Balducci was listed as Keliikipi’s backup last season, and he should take on a major role in the line in 2014. Outside of Balducci, the Ducks need more from Sam Kamp at the position, and there could be some shuffling of bodies this spring to anchor the interior. Arik Armstead, Stetzon Bair and DeForest Buckner have the size to play tackle and should see plenty of snaps in 2014. Another name to watch is junior college recruit Tui Talia. Where will he factor into the mix? If Oregon finds the right mix up front, this team will be in the mix for a playoff spot in Helfrich’s second season in Eugene.
New faces on the defensive line:
The Beavers have to find a replacement for receiver Brandin Cooks, but the defensive line is arguably the bigger concern for coach Mike Riley. This unit loses All-Pac-12 second-team end Scott Crichton, as well as tackles John Braun and Mana Rosa. Oregon State’s defensive line wasn’t exactly a strength last year either, as the Beavers allowed 190.3 rushing yards per game and registered only nine sacks in Pac-12 games. Where will the answers come from? Riley hopes junior college recruits Luke Hollingsworth and Kyle Peko are part of the solution, while Miami transfer Jalen Grimble is expected to factor on the interior. Juniors Lavonte Barnett, Akeem Gonzales and Jaswha James will likely battle for the open end spot opposite of Dylan Wynn. Defensive line coach Joe Seumalo and coordinator Mark Banker will have their hands full this spring as they try to shuffle the line around to find the best (and most productive) combination.
Restocking the trenches:
The Cardinal expect quarterback Kevin Hogan to take another step in his development this spring, and coach David Shaw and coordinator Mike Bloomgren want to rely on their ground game to set the tone once again. But there’s a glaring issue on the offense. The line was hit hard by personnel losses, with guards David Yankey and Kevin Danser, tackle Cameron Fleming and center Khalil Wilkes all departing. That’s the bad news. The good news? Talent isn’t an issue. Left tackle Andrus Peat is a future All-American, and Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy are highly-touted prospects waiting for their chance to start. Graham Shuler is the frontrunner to replace Khalil Wilkes at center, while Johnny Caspers is likely to replace Danser at right guard. There’s no question Stanford has talent here. But how quickly can this line jell? Additionally, can this unit develop depth this spring?
Filling voids at quarterback and running back:
Chris Petersen’s first spring as Washington’s head coach is already clouded with some mystery. Cyler Miles was expected to be the Huskies’ starting quarterback in 2014, but he was suspended after an off-the-field incident. It’s uncertain when Miles might return to the team, leaving sophomore Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman Troy Williams and incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels as the three candidates vying for time this offseason. Carta-Samuels won’t arrive until the summer, so it’s Lindquist and Williams for the top two spots – for now. Bishop Sankey will be missed at running back, but there’s a handful of options ready to take the top spot on the depth chart. Dwayne Washington was impressive in limited time last season, and Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper have battled back from knee injuries to play a key role in the backfield. Will Washington emerge as the No. 1 back? Or will the Huskies use a committee approach? Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith will start to answer those questions when practice opens on March 4.
Replacing three starters on the offensive line:
The Cougars ended 2013 on a down note by losing in the New Mexico Bowl, but there was clear progress for this team in Mike Leach’s second year. As spring practice opens for Washington State in 2014, this team is poised for another step forward. But in order for Leach’s high-powered offense to work, the line will need some new faces to emerge. Center Elliott Bosch, tackle John Fullington and guard Matt Goetz all depart. The left side of the line appears to be set with tackle Gunnar Eklund and guard Joe Dahl returning after starting all 13 games last season. But will the Cougars find answers to the other three spots in the spring? Riley Sorenson was listed as Goetz’s backup at right guard last season, so he could have an inside track on that position. But at center and tackle, both backups also depart. Will the Cougars turn to a junior college recruit from last year’s class (Jacob Seydel) for one of the spots? With three spots up for grabs, this unit will be one to watch this spring in Pullman.
South Division Spring Outlook
New starters at quarterback and running back:
Considering Rich Rodriguez’s track record of developing quarterbacks and finding standouts at running back, there’s not too much concern in Tucson over the new faces stepping in on offense. Quarterback B.J. Denker departs after recording 3,465 total yards last season, while running back Ka’Deem Carey left early for the NFL after another standout year. There’s no clear answer at either position as spring practice opens on March 3 for the Wildcats. At quarterback, Texas transfer Connor Brewer, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon and junior college transfers Jesse Scroggins and Jerrard Randall are considered the frontrunners to replace Denker. The picture remains muddy at running back, as Jared Baker (127 yards) is the top statistical returner, but redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier, Zach Green, Myles Smith and true freshmen Jonathan Haden and Nick Wilson will all have a chance to compete for carries. Baker is recovering from a torn ACL and is not expected to participate in spring practice. Cormier is a slight favorite to handle the bulk of the carries in 2014, but the Wildcats could use a committee approach. Can Rodriguez and his staff narrow the competition or find a starter at both positions this spring?
Rebuilding the defense:
It’s a good thing the Sun Devils return seven starters on offense this year. With only two starters returning on defense, Arizona State will be involved in plenty of shootouts in 2014. Of course, that’s easier to do when you return a quarterback like Taylor Kelly, as well as skill players in the form of running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong. But coach Todd Graham and new co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will have their hands full rebuilding a defense that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) in points allowed (26.9 ppg). The list of departures is heavy, starting with defensive linemen Davon Coleman, Gannon Conway and Will Sutton, continuing into the linebacking corps with Carl Bradford and Chris Young, while the secondary loses cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor, and safety Alden Darby must be replaced. Each level of the defense needs to be retooled, and Graham dipped into the junior college ranks for immediate help. Linemen Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey should factor into the mix right away, and linebacker Darrius Caldwell and cornerback Kweishi Brown will be expected to do the same. Expect the Sun Devils to find the right answers as the season progresses, but this defense will receive some extra attention from Graham and Patterson this spring with a ton of fresh faces stepping into new roles.
Find a replacement for Paul Richardson:
Even though receiver Paul Richardson was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last year, he didn’t get enough credit nationally for his 2013 season. Richardson caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns and averaged a healthy 16.2 yards per reception. Nelson Spruce and D.D. Goodson were solid complement options, but it’s clear Richardson will be missed. Just how important was Richardson to the passing attack? He caught 10 of Colorado’s 21 touchdown passes and 83 of the Buffaloes’ 235 receptions. With Richardson departing, Spruce and Goodson need to take on a bigger role in the passing attack, while Tyler McCulloch is due for an increased presence after catching 14 passes in 2013. Devin Ross was a three-star recruit in 2013 and caught six passes for 24 yards in limited action. Expect Ross to be more involved, and the coaching staff is eager to get a look at incoming freshmen Shay Fields and Lee Walker. Colorado may not have a receiver equal Richardson’s numbers. However, there’s enough returning talent to give quarterback Sefo Liufau options in 2014.
Who replaces guard Xavier Su’a-Filo?:
Sacks allowed aren’t necessarily the best indicator of offensive line success or failure, but UCLA gave up 29 in nine Pac-12 contests last year. The Bruins also managed only 3.9 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. Needless to say, there is room for this unit to improve. That task is complicated by the departure of guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL Draft. Jim Mora has recruited plenty of talent to Los Angeles over the last few seasons, and some of that youth got involved in the trenches last year, as Alex Redmond started all 13 games at guard, while Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch combined for 15 starts as true freshmen. With Redmond, Quessenberry and Benenoch having another offseason to work with the coaching staff and weight room, this trio should be even better in 2014. UCLA’s line will be bolstered by the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche and four-star recruit Kolton Miller in this year’s signing class. Replacing Su’a-Filo is no easy assignment, and he was one of the top guards in the nation last year. Kenny Lacy was listed as the backup at guard last season, but the coaching staff could shuffle some players around this spring. Keeping quarterback Brett Hundley healthy is priority No. 1 for UCLA in 2014. Finding a replacement for Su’a-Filo and the right mix on the line will go a long way to keeping Hundley in the mix to win the Heisman.
New faces set to emerge on the offensive line:
New coach Steve Sarkisian is stepping into a good situation for his first spring in Los Angeles. The Trojans won six out of their final seven games and return 14 starters in 2014. Even though receiver Marqise Lee and a couple of defenders will be tough to replace, most of Sarkisian’s focus this spring should be on the line. The Trojans lost center Marcus Martin, tackle Kevin Graf and guard John Martinez, leaving three starters back for 2014. Left tackle Chad Wheeler, guard/tackle Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker return, giving Sarkisian and line coach Tim Drevno a solid foundation to build around. But due to scholarship sanctions, depth remains a concern. Can Cyrus Hobbi claim the center spot vacated by Martin? Or will Drevno have to look for other solutions? Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn enrolled early to compete this spring, and touted freshmen Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao arrive in the fall. Will any of the recruits crack the lineup? If USC settles the line, it should have an explosive offense with the return of quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor.
Improvement on offense:
The Utes finished 2013 by averaging just 4.9 yards per play and ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in yards per game (364.9). To help jumpstart the offense, Kyle Whittingham hired former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen to call the plays. Jim Harding also comes to Salt Lake City via Laramie to coach the offensive line, while former coordinator Dennis Erickson will shift to tutor the running backs. Christensen was a solid pickup as the team’s coordinator, but Utah has a lot of work to do on this side of the ball. The top priority is at quarterback, where Travis Wilson will participate in non-contact drills this spring after his football future was in doubt in November. Wilson’s status for the 2014 season is still in question, but it’s a good sign he is able to work with the team this spring. Assuming Wilson does return to the field in 2014, the Utes need more consistency out of their starting quarterback, but it will help to have Dres Anderson back at receiver, while three starters are back on the line. Christensen needs to develop a few more options for Wilson at receiver, along with securing the line and developing a pecking order at running back. This unit has plenty of room to improve after the 2013 season. With Christensen calling the plays, and Wilson back on the field, the Utes have a chance to take a step forward this spring.