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The ACC has experienced a few changes through realignment over the last couple of years, and the final piece of the puzzle appears to be the addition of Louisville as the No. 14 team in the league. Maryland is off to the Big Ten, and the Cardinals will slide into the Atlantic Division in 2014. Stability is crucial for the ACC, as the conference seems to have momentum after what transpired on the gridiron last season.
Florida State ended the SEC’s national title streak with a last-minute victory over Auburn in Pasadena in the BCS Championship. The Seminoles are loaded for another national championship run, and coach Jimbo Fisher continues to bring in elite talent on the recruiting trail. Florida State is clearly the class of the conference heading into 2014, but Clemson should be a top 15-20 team. The Tigers return 11 starters, and three options will battle to replace Tajh Boyd under center this spring.
The pecking order in the Atlantic Division is clear, but things are murky in the Coastal. Miami is likely to open 2014 as the favorite, and it’s time for Al Golden to take this team to the conference championship game. If the Hurricanes aren’t the favorite, North Carolina or Duke can make a compelling case for the top spot. The Tar Heels are loaded on offense, and the Blue Devils return most of the core from last year’s team. Virginia Tech is a wildcard heading into spring practice. As usual, the Hokies should be strong on defense. However, the offense remains a work in progress and may struggle to top last season's totals.
|Lost Early to the NFL||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
Atlantic Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on offense:
With quarterback Chase Rettig, running back Andre Williams and receiver Alex Amidon expiring their eligibility, Boston College’s offense is essentially starting over in 2014. Williams and Rettig combined for 4,243 of the Eagles’ 4,774 yards last season, while Amidon caught 77 of the team’s 164 receptions. Needless to say, coach Steve Addazio and coordinator Ryan Day will be busy this spring. The news isn’t all bad for Addazio and Day, as Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse are a good foundation at running back. At quarterback, Florida transfer Tyler Murphy has experience, and the staff was able to redshirt James Walsh last year. Spiffy Evans and Harrison Jackson are back at receiver, and the offense can build around a solid line that returns three starters. This spring is Addazio’s first look at the replacements, and the offense can begin to develop some clarity at quarterback, running back and receiver.
Life without Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd begins this spring:
The offseason was a mixed bag of news for Clemson. There was good news: Offensive coordinator Chad Morris didn’t leave Death Valley. But there was also plenty of bad news, as quarterback Tajh Boyd and running back Roderick McDowell expired their eligibility, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant left early for the NFL Draft. Morris and coach Dabo Swinney have a rebuilding effort ahead on offense, but there shouldn’t be too big of a drop-off in production. Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson will compete for the starting quarterback job. Stoudt has the edge in experience, but Watson is a star in the making. The receiving corps also has talent, headlined by Adam Humphries, Mike Williams and Gerome Hopper. Charone Peake also returns to the lineup after missing most of last season with an injury. The first priority for Clemson is the quarterback battle. Is this Stoudt’s job to lose? Or do all three candidates have a shot to open the year as the No. 1 quarterback? This spring will be the first opportunity for Swinney and Morris to sort out their options on offense.
Restocking at defensive tackle:
With 13 starters returning, the Seminoles are in good shape to defend their national championship. Repeating as college football’s national champion won’t be easy, but Florida State has no shortage of talent waiting to step onto the field. New coordinator Charles Kelly should ensure there’s little drop in production on defense, but there’s a big concern at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan was one of the nation’s best last season, and he bolted early for the NFL. Additionally, Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. With Jernigan, McDaniel and McAllister gone, the depth is thin at tackle. Nile Lawrence-Stample is the top returner on the interior, with Desmond Hollin, Justin Shanks, Eddie Goldman and Keith Bryant battling for snaps this spring. The Seminoles will add more talent to the mix in the fall when Adam Torres, Arthur Williams, Derrick Nnadi, Fredrick Jones and Demarcus Christmas arrive for their freshman season. Not all of the incoming freshmen will compete for time, but some could be needed for depth in 2014. Finding answers at defensive tackle is even more critical when you consider the losses at linebacker (Telvin Smith and Christian Jones), along with active defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks.
Adjusting to the new 3-4 defense:
Replacing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is no easy task, but Will Gardner has potential and played well in limited action last year. While the quarterback situation is something to watch, Bobby Petrino should push the right buttons on offense. With Petrino back on the sidelines in Louisville, the focus of spring practice should shift to the defense. The Cardinals led the nation against the run last season and finished second in points allowed. However, only four starters return from last year’s unit, and there’s a transition period as new coordinator Todd Grantham shifts the personnel to a 3-4 scheme. Lorenzo Mauldin is expected to be an All-ACC performer, and the senior will move from end to linebacker this spring. Other personnel moves are anticipated, especially as Louisville looks for replacements at safety with the departure of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Charlie Strong isn’t leaving the cupboard bare on defense, but it may take some time for the players to adjust to a new 3-4 approach.
Jacoby Brissett’s time to shine:
The Wolfpack had a revolving door at under center last season, with five quarterbacks attempting passes. But 2014 is expected to be a different story in Raleigh. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is clearly NC State’s No. 1 quarterback and is an upgrade over last year’s options. Brissett has talent (No. 75 player by Rivals in 2011 signing class) but has thrown only 74 passes in two seasons at Florida and completed 4 of 10 passes for 59 yards and one touchdown in NC State’s 2013 spring game. The Wolfpack have a solid supporting cast in place to help Brissett, including running back Shadrach Thornton and receivers Bryan Underwood and Jumichael Ramos. As a first-year starter, Brissett is going to have his share of ups and downs. However, he should be an upgrade over last year’s options. This spring is all about getting him ready to take the first snap of 2014.
The front seven on defense:
The Orange have a few question marks on both sides of the ball, but this team is positioned to make another bowl in Scott Shafer’s second season. Quarterback Terrel Hunt grew more comfortable as the starter late in the year, and there are promising receivers with Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime. With the offense expected to take another step forward in 2014, the focus of spring practice should on defense. Seven starters are back, but this unit loses tackle Jay Bromley and linebacker Marquis Spruill. Bromley was one of the ACC’s underrated defenders last season and recorded 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss. Without Bromley, who steps up to be the difference maker in the trenches? Senior Eric Crume is an option, and massive junior college recruit Wayne Williams (335 pounds) could be a name to watch on the interior. In addition to securing the interior of the line, Spruill’s production at middle linebacker must be replaced. Luke Arciniega was listed as his backup last season, but the defense also needs more from Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch.
Rebuilding from scratch:
New coach Dave Clawson has plenty of experience in rebuilding. After going 3-19 in his first two years at Fordham, Clawson guided the program to a 26-10 mark over the final three seasons. Clawson used the same blueprint at Richmond, taking the Spiders from 3-8 in 2004 to 9-4 in 2005. At Bowling Green, Clawson went 14-23 in his first three seasons but finished with an 18-8 mark over the final two years with a MAC Championship in 2013. Clawson has his work cut out for him this season, as Wake Forest returns just eight starters and loses quarterback Tanner Price and standout receiver Michael Campanaro. This spring is all about finding playmakers on offense, along with developing Tyler Cameron at quarterback. The defense returns five starters but nose guard Nikita Whitlock must be replaced. The Demon Deacons have a handful of question marks and concerns, but this spring is the first step in Clawson’s rebuilding plan to get the program back on track.
Coastal Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on the defensive line:
After going 10-4 and playing in the ACC Championship last year, Duke is coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The Blue Devils return 14 starters in 2014, but there are a few concerns heading into spring practice. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper left for Florida, and Cutcliffe promoted from within, giving the play-calling duties to Scottie Montgomery. Considering Cutcliffe’s track record on offense, this unit shouldn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet. But a concern for Duke is the departure of three key players on the line, including standout end Kenny Anunike. In addition to Anunike, end Justin Foxx and tackle Sydney Sarmiento depart after starting up front in 2013. Cutcliffe and co-coordinators Jim Knowles and Jim Collins shifted Kyler Brown from linebacker to end to help alleviate the losses there. The Blue Devils are also counting on Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Jones and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo to step up their production this season. The spring will be the first look at a rebuilt defensive line, which will be a critical unit to watch as Duke hopes to repeat as the Coastal Division champion.
New faces in the backfield:
Despite having winning ACC records in five out of his six seasons at Georgia Tech, coach Paul Johnson is starting to feel a little heat from the fanbase. The Yellow Jackets are 14-13 over the last two years and will be picked near the bottom of the Coastal in 2014. In order for Georgia Tech to contend for a division crown, Johnson has to find new playmakers in the backfield. Quarterback Vad Lee left for James Madison at the end of the year, leaving Justin Thomas as the team’s No. 1 option under center. Thomas is a good athlete and should be a good fit in Georgia Tech’s offense. At running back, David Sims and Robert Godhigh depart after each player rushed for over 700 yards last year. Zach Laskey is the team’s leading returning rusher (485 yards), but the Yellow Jackets need to find more playmakers on the ground.
Looking for improvement on defense:
Sure, there’s a quarterback battle set to take place in Coral Gables this spring, but most of the attention for the coaching staff should be on the defense. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense last season, which came one year after finishing last in the conference. The numbers weren’t pretty for Al Golden’s defense, which allowed 6.2 yards per play in ACC-only games and gave up 32.8 points per game in eight conference contests. For a team that has the No. 2 ranked roster in the ACC, the ongoing defensive struggles are a mystery. While the numbers from last year are ugly, there’s hope for improvement with seven starters returning, while another solid recruiting class will help with overall depth. Each level of the defense has a potential impact player, starting with Anthony Chickillo at defensive end, Denzel Perryman at linebacker and Tracy Howard at cornerback. But can coordinator Mark D’Onofrio develop or find more difference makers on defense this spring?
Replacements on the offensive line:
The top spot in the Coastal Division is expected to be up for grabs once again next year. The Tar Heels finished 2013 by winning six out of their final seven games, and with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, Larry Fedora’s team is positioned for a run at the division title. Marquise Williams will have to compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting quarterback job, but the promising junior is expected to win the No. 1 spot. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including receiver Quinshad Davis and running back T.J. Logan. If there’s a concern on offense, it’s a line that loses two standout players in left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. Guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle Jon Heck provide a solid foundation, but left tackle and center are arguably the two most-important positions on the line. Can Fedora and new coordinator Seth Littrell find answers in the spring? One name to watch is incoming freshman Bentley Spain – the No. 115 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – who enrolled early to compete this spring.
Filling the voids on defense:
With a favorable schedule and promising young talent on offense, the Panthers are a team on the rise in the Coastal Division. But in order for Paul Chryst’s team to jump into division title contention, the defense has to fill a few holes to fill. Tackle Aaron Donald will be difficult to replace after earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, and the Panthers also lose fellow tackle Tyrone Ezell, linebacker Shane Gordon, cornerback K’Waun Williams and safety Jason Hendricks. Pittsburgh’s defense ranked a respectable fifth in conference-only games in fewest yards allowed. However, the Panthers gave up 27.2 points per game and struggled on defense inside the red zone and on third downs. With Matt House calling the plays for the second season, will this defense show improvement despite losing its best player? This spring is a big opportunity for players like tackle Darryl Render and end Shakir Soto as Pittsburgh looks to replace Donald’s production and improve off last year’s totals.
Quarterback play under the spotlight:
Talent certainly isn’t an issue at Virginia (No. 6 roster in the ACC), but the Cavaliers have won just six games over the last two years. Coach Mike London enters 2014 on the hot seat, and a tough schedule is on tap for his team once again. For Virginia to surpass last year’s two victories, it needs more from quarterback David Watford. In eight ACC contests, Watford threw only five touchdowns and tossed eight interceptions on 203 attempts. Backup Greyson Lambert didn’t fare much better, completing only 44 percent of his throws and tossing two picks on 75 attempts last year. Watford should enter spring with an edge on Lambert to start, but this battle could extend into the fall once freshman Corwin Cutler arrives on campus. With Kevin Parks returning at running back and an experience at receiver and tight end, there’s potential with this offense. However, Virginia’s passing game won’t improve unless the quarterback play is better in 2014.
Finding a spark on offense:
The final numbers for Virginia Tech’s offense weren’t pretty last season. The Hokies finished 13th in the ACC in total offense and averaged just five yards per play. Under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech managed just 28 points in its final two games and scored under 20 points seven times in 2013. This unit enters spring practice with a myriad of question marks, starting under center where Logan Thomas expired his eligibility after the Sun Bowl loss to UCLA. Mark Leal is the favorite to replace Thomas, but he has just 48 pass attempts in his career. Leal needs to prove he has control of the No. 1 spot this spring, while Loeffler has to provide the senior with more help in the supporting cast. The Hokies averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season, while inconsistency was a concern in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. Virginia Tech will be fine on defense, but it’s hard to see improvement off last year’s 8-5 mark without significant growth on offense.
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.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is king. The best players hail from the SEC footprint and, frankly, the SEC cares more about recruiting rankings than any other league — from the head coaches to the boosters to the message board junkies. In the consensus 2014 team recruiting rankings, the SEC bragged seven of the top nine classes in the nation and 10 of the top 22. For more perspective, Vanderbilt has landed an average class of 45.6 nationally — which ranks dead last in the SEC.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is the most cutthroat league in the nation and one man stands above the rest on the trail.
Here is how the SEC rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the SEC based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Pied piper of the recruiting trail
Nick Saban stands above the rest of college football when it comes to recruiting. He landed his fourth consecutive No. 1-ranked class nationally according to 247Sports a few weeks ago on National Signing Day. He brings in better players than anyone else in the SEC or the nation for that matter. His 2014 signing class had more five-star prospects (6) than any other program — and every one of these players were considered among the top 16 in the country. Additionally, Bama signed 13 top-100 players this cycle while the Big 12 as a conference signed just seven combined. Frankly, Saban’s dominance on the recruiting trail is starting to get absurd and NSD no longer stands for National Signing Day, it stands for Nick Saban Day.
Will Muschamp can’t blame his roster
The Gators had a historically bad 2013 campaign and, while injuries were a major factor, a lack of talent was not. According to the rankings over the last five classes, Florida boasts the second-most talented roster in the nation — tied with Florida State (5.6). However, that talent doesn’t appear to be translating into wins and this is the primary reason Will Muschamp enters his critical fourth season on the hot seat. Florida ranks ninth in the league with 30 overall wins over the last four years and eighth in the league with 17 conference wins. Health was a huge factor last fall, especially on offense, but Muschamp has no excuses in 2014 as he goes to battle with what the rankings indicate is the No. 2 depth chart in the nation.
Steve Spurrier is actually underrated
He is a Hall of Famer, a Heisman winner and national champion, so it’s virtually impossible to be underrated as one of the best the game has ever seen. But he might be. Only Alabama (46) and LSU (44) have won more games than South Carolina in the last four years (42) and both the Crimson Tide (No. 1) and Tigers (No. 4) are ranked in the top four nationally in terms of talent. Yet, Spurrier has done it with the eighth-best roster in the league. Carolina sits fourth in the SEC East entering ’14 in terms of overall talent behind Florida, Georgia and Tennessee but only one of those squads has a chance to post a fourth consecutive 11-win season. Expect more of the same from the Ol’ Ball Coach.
Positive trajectory in Knoxville, Oxford
In short order, both Hugh Freeze and Butch Jones have proven to be extremely effective recruiters. Jones finished seventh nationally according to 247 in his first full season and Freeze worked minor miracles in his first full class in 2013. Neither roster ranks in the top five in the SEC but both rank in the top nine and both are recruiting on the same level with teams like Texas A&M, South Carolina and Auburn. The two programs have struggled mightily on the field as the Rebels and Vols are tied at 7-25 in SEC play over the four years — ahead of only Kentucky (4-28). This is, of course, is why Houston Nutt and Derek Dooley are no longer employed. Under new leadership, both programs have improved on the field and on the trail while setting themselves up for more upward movement. Expectations are growing in both Knoxville and Oxford.
Nick Saban Jr.
Gary Pinkel was a college teammate of Saban’s at Kent State under the late great Don James. And now that he is coaching in the SEC, he’s doing his best Saban impersonation. The Mizzou head coach is arguably the most important and successful coach in school history and he is clearly doing it with coaching acumen. Pinkel doesn’t come close to competing with the big boys on the recruiting trail (unlike Saban), ranking ahead of only Vanderbilt in terms of overall talent. But his teams have won 35 games overall and 20 games in conference play over the last four seasons, including a 12-win SEC East title campaign in 2013. The Tigers may be the SEC East frontrunner this fall despite coming in as the 13th-best roster in the 14-team league.
Sleeping giant waking up?
Texas A&M donations are way up, as new renovations will make Kyle Field one of the nation’s top destinations and a certain redshirt freshman quarterback won a Heisman Trophy. A lot has happened in Kevin Sumlin’s first two years in College Station. But most importantly, he appears to have staying power due to his success on the recruiting trail. The three years prior to Sumlin’s arrival, Texas A&M averaged a national recruiting ranking of 23. Since his arrival, they’ve posted the ninth- and fifth-rated classes in the nation. So while Texas A&M likely won’t compete for an SEC title in 2014 with the seventh-best roster in the league, the Aggies appear poised for huge things in 2015 and beyond should Sumlin maintain his torrid pace on the recruiting trail.
Status quo in Baton Rouge, Athens and on The Plains
Les Miles and LSU boast the third-best roster in the SEC and the fourth-best roster in the nation entering 2014. Mark Richt and Georgia rank fourth in the SEC in terms of talent and eighth nationally. The Auburn Tigers are tied for the fourth-best roster in the conference and the eighth-best depth chart in the country. Miles has 44 wins over the last four years, second in the SEC while Auburn and Georgia are fourth and fifth in the league with 37 and 36 overall wins in the last four years. Certainly, LSU and the Dawgs have been much more consistent than War Eagle over that span but how many fans in the Bayou or Between the Hedges would trade an 0-8 SEC season for two national championship game berths? (Hint: All of them). These three will be three of the top five most talented teams in the SEC entering ’14.
Be careful what you wish for
SEC fans, in Starkville or otherwise, are quick to criticize Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. And his 13-19 record in the SEC over the last four years does leave Bulldogs faithful wanting for more. But this is the toughest job in the SEC West and Mullen has more overall wins in the last four years than Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Mullen is also the only coach in school history to take MSU to four consecutive bowl games. So while some may call for his head, others point to his impressive overall win-loss record in the toughest division in football with what will be the 11th-best roster in the league in 2014.
Uphill battle on West End
New coach Derek Mason has to know how difficult a job winning at Vanderbilt will be. James Franklin made it look easy and that has raised the level of expectations in Nashville. And while Mason, like Franklin, closed strongly on the recruiting trail in his first few weeks on the job, Vanderbilt is still clearly the least talented team in the league. Based on the recruiting rankings, the Dores are 45th in the nation overall in terms of talent but are dead last in the SEC.
March is three days away and a handful of teams are down to their final three and four games before the conference tournaments.
No doubt, it’s crunch time around the nation.
Somehow, the NCAA selection committee is going to have to find a way to fill 68 spots, which is as tough as ever on the bubble.
Here’s a look at the key games this week involving bubble teams and how the field could shake out on Selection Sunday:
Key Games with NCAA Implications This Week
Xavier at St. John’s (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Musketeers are sliding with a 3-5 record in the last eight games with two of those wins coming against Butler and DePaul. St. John’s missed a golden opportunity to improve its case when it lost a close one to Villanova on Saturday.
Iowa at Minnesota (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Minnesota has lost six of its last eight since defeating Wisconsin on Jan. 22. The stretch has included losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois, so the Gophers are at a point where they probably need to beat Iowa on Tuesday or Michigan on Saturday.
Dayton at St. Joseph’s (Tuesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Flyers have reeled off six consecutive wins to go with non-conference wins over Gonzaga, Cal and Ole Miss. This will be the make-or-break stretch against St. Joe’s, UMass, Saint Louis and Richmond. St. Joe’s isn’t an NCAA lock by any means, either.
Missouri at Georgia (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
No bubble team in the SEC wants any part of Georgia. Despite their overall record, Georgia has been the spoiler in the SEC with wins over Missouri earlier in the season, plus LSU and Ole Miss. Missouri is coming off a loss to Alabama and could slide onto the bubble with a second consecutive loss and a season sweep to the Bulldogs.
West Virginia at Iowa State (Wednesday, 8 p.m., Big 12 Network)
The Mountaineers have cooled off since defeating Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma in consecutive games. Lopsided losses to Texas and Baylor in the last two games probably signal West Virginia is an NIT team.
Cal at Arizona (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
Arizona is in the conversation for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament especially if the Wildcats can avenge their only loss in regulation this season.
Baylor at Texas (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
The unpredictable Bears have won four in a row since a 2-8 start in the Big 12. None of those games is as tough as road trip to Austin.
Nebraska at Illinois (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The Cornhuskers won’t have an opportunity to pick up a top 50 win until the last day of the regular season against Wisconsin. For now, they can’t afford any bad losses to teams like Illinois.
Stanford at Arizona State (Wednesday, 11 p.m., ESPNU)
This game will be more pressing for Arizona State than for Stanford, which defeated UCLA over the weekend. After defeating Arizona on Valentine’s Day, the Sun Devils dropped road games to Colorado and Utah.
Arkansas at Kentucky (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Arkansas is hanging on to relevance. Perhaps the only way the Razorbacks can get an at-large bid is to finish what LSU could not by winning in Lexington.
Georgetown at Marquette (Thursday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Defeating Xavier was key for Georgetown to recover from Thursday’s loss to Seton Hall. The Hoyas will have one more chance to defeat an NIT-worthy team before finishing up with Creighton and Villanova.
Oregon at UCLA (Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2)
The Ducks started 13-0, but they haven’t defeated a top 50 team since BYU on Dec. 21. At least the Ducks stopped losing to teams like Oregon State and Washington.
NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch
Feeling good: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia
Bubble in: Pittsburgh
Bubble out: Clemson
Feeling good: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis
Bubble in: SMU
Bubble out: None
Atlantic 10 (5)
Feeling good: George Washington, Saint Louis, UMass, VCU
Bubble in: St. Joseph’s
Bubble out: Richmond, Dayton
Big 12 (7)
Feeling good: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
Bubble in: Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Bubble out: West Virginia
Big East (5)
Feeling good: Creighton, Villanova
Bubble in: Georgetown, St. John’s, Xavier
Bubble out: Providence
Big Ten (6)
Feeling good: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Bubble in: Nebraska
Bubble out: Minnesota
Mountain West (2)
Feeling good: New Mexico, San Diego State
Bubble in: None
Bubble out: Boise State
Feeling good: Arizona, Stanford, UCLA
Bubble in: Arizona State, Cal, Colorado
Bubble out: Oregon
Feeling good: Florida, Kentucky
Bubble in: Missouri
Bubble out: Arkansas, 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: Mercer
Big Sky: Weber State
Big South: High Point
Big West: UC Santa Barbara
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
WAC: New Mexico State
*Wichita State would be an at-large if the Shockers lose in the MVC tournament
When North Carolina’s season started, P.J. Hariston and Leslie McDonald were in NCAA suspension limbo.
McDonald, though, was the clear No. 2 anytime the two suspensions were mentioned. Now that he’s been in the lineup for weeks, McDonald has proven himself one of the key missing pieces for the Tar Heels’ season.
The senior guard led North Carolina with 21 points in Thursday’s 74-66 win over Duke and added 19 points in Saturday’s rout of Wake Forest to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
"Once you see the ball go in the rim, you see that it starts going for you,” McDonald said after the Duke win. “I had the mentality where if it's going in for me, I'll keep using it to my advantage. I was feeling pretty hot, and I was making sure I was taking good shots."
National player of the week: Leslie McDonald, North Carolina
After recovering from a dismal two games from the field, McDonald combined to shoot 14 of 21 from the floor in Carolina’s wins over Duke and Wake Forest. For a team with suspect outside shooting, McDonald made 5 of 6 3-pointers in the 105-72 win over Wake.
National freshman of the week: Jabari Parker, Duke
Parker scored 19 points — the final two on a huge bucket in the lane with 1:31 remaining — and grabbed 10 rebounds to help Duke beat Syracuse 66–60 at the Carrier Dome. Despite a loss earlier in the week to North Carolina, Parker has double-doubles in three consecutive games.
Under-the-radar players of the week: Johnny Dee and Duda Sanadze, San Diego
Dee had 16 points and Sanadze had 15, including game-clinching free throws, in San Diego’s 69-66 upset of Gonzaga on Saturday. The backcourt duo combined to shoot 9-of-22 from the field, but more important, 9-of-10 from the free throw line in San Diego’s first win over Gonzaga in 11 meetings. The pair of Toreros also combined for 30 points in a 61-59 win over Portland earlier in the week.
Other top performers this week
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Russ Smith hit the game-winning shot, but Harrell, a sophomore forward, was Louisville’s best player as the Cardinals recorded a 58–57 win at Cincinnati in a battle of American Athletic Conference heavyweights. Harrell scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds — his seventh double-double of the season — to help Louisville move into a tie with Cincinnati (in the loss column) in the American.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart was sensational in his return from a three-game suspension, scoring 16 points and adding 10 assists, six steals, three rebounds and two blocks in Oklahoma State’s much-needed 84–62 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys, once ranked in the top 10, had lost seven straight games — the final three with Smart serving a suspension for pushing a fan in the final seconds of a loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 8.
Kenny Gaines, Georgia
Gaines poured in a career-high 27 points (on 9-of-14 shooting) to lead Georgia to a dominating 73–56 win at South Carolina. The Bulldogs have won five of their last six and sit alone in third place in the SEC with a 9–5 record in league play.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Kane continues to make a strong case for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. The senior guard scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out five assists in Iowa State’s 71–60 win at TCU. A fifth-year transfer from Marshall, Kane is averaging 16.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
Stephen Holt, Saint Mary’s
Holt enjoyed a career day, scoring 35 points — nearly half of his team’s total — to lead Saint Mary’s to a 76–54 win at Santa Clara, The senior guard, who scored only seven points in a loss to San Francisco two days earlier, hit 14-of-17 from the field (including 4-of-6 from 3-point range).
Levi Randolph, Alabama
Randolph scored a total of 24 points as Alabama went 1–6 in a season-killing seven-game stretch from Jan. 30-Feb. 20. The junior guard scored 33 on Saturday night to lead the Crimson Tide to an 80–73 win over Missouri. Randolph connected on 11-of-15 from the field, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Stauskas delivered in the clutch to help Michigan complete the season sweep over Michigan State. The sharp-shooting guard scored a game-high 25 points (on 9-of-13 shooting) and also had a team-high five assists to lead Michigan to its 11th Big Ten win of the season. Stauskas, who leads the team in scoring (16.7 ppg), had 19 points in the Wolverines’ win in East Lansing in late January.
Delon Wright, Utah
Utah snapped a two-game losing streak and moved back to one game under .500 in league play (7–8) thanks to a big game from Wright. The junior guard scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and added six assists as the Utes coasted to an easy 86–63 win over Arizona State in Salt Lake City.
T.J. Warren, NC State
Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer, scored 31 points to help NC State post a 71–64 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A sophomore forward, Warren connected on 3-pointers on the Wolfpack’s first two possessions and scored 17 of his team’s 35 points in the first half. He is averaging 23.3 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Bairstow was dominant in the Lobos’ biggest win of the season. The senior forward scored 26 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) and grabbed nine rebounds to lead New Mexico to a 58–44 win over San Diego State in a showdown of the top two teams in the Mountain West.
Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel shares his thoughts about Tiger Woods' unprecedented approach to the game of golf.
It is a curious fact that, a hundred years from now, when golfers are discussing Tiger Woods the way we discuss Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaustoday, they will have to talk about Tiger's swing by the year or vintage, the way one talks about great wines. Or perhaps the way we talk of ancient history using the preposition "circa" before the date. Because the Tiger Woods of 1997 was vastly different in form from the Tiger Woods of 2000, and different yet again in 2007, and different still today in 2014. Among his mind-blowing accomplishments, ascending to the number one spot in the world and dominating the world of professional golf with four completely different swings might be the most “in your face" feat ever achieved in sport.
Tiger may have been born to play golf, but it seems he was also born to build and destroy.
Michael Jordan worked harder than his peers to improve his form, but the mechanics he used to score over 3,000 points in the 1986-87 season looked essentially identical to those he used to hit a jumper with 5.2 seconds left to clinch the NBA Championship for the Bulls against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Gordie Howe played professional hockey in five different decades, and in his 2,421st game, his style was just as recognizable as it was in his rookie season of 1946. Imagine if either of these athletes, after being colossally successful early in their careers, had completely changed the way they played their respective sports — not once, but four times, and after each change became the best again. It would just never happen, not once, let alone four times.
Young athletes, new to their sport, make changes to their form as they learn what works and what doesn't based upon coaching and trial and error, but once they have the mechanics down, their form, with few exceptions, is as recognizable as a fingerprint for the rest of their careers. Don’t get me wrong — athletes, especially golfers, are always tinkering, but once a modicum of success has been achieved, changes for the most part amount to refinements.
Exceptions, of course, are players who failed early in their careers and then went back and dismantled and rebuilt swings, only to come back famously different golfers, like Ben Hogan in the 1940s and, most recently and less famously, Matt Kuchar. None of this happened to Tiger Woods, who exploded onto the scene in 1996 and won The Masters by 12 shots in 1997 only to completely scrap that record-breaking swing. What he came back with two years later was the best swing in the history of golf.
Build and destroy.
In 2000 Tiger started history's most dominant, astonishing stretch of golf with a longer, wider, spot-on plane and more versatile swing. He won four professional majors in a row by as much as 15 shots and made 142 consecutive cuts. What is the purpose of pursuing a method in sport, except in hopes of becoming the best, the most consistent and the most dominating athlete of your era, if not of all time? Tiger did just that, and then, as if he was tired of driving a two-year-old car, he traded it in for a newer model.
Build and destroy.
By 2007, Tiger’s swing, flatter and narrower, looked nothing like his swing that won four majors in a row, but his scoring average of 67.79 was exactly the same as his scoring average of 2000, and so was his dominance, if not his ability to win by blowout margins.
Build and destroy.
Like Shakespeare, who created anew almost 2,000 words when other writers struggled even to use that many, Tiger is the most singular figure golf has ever known.
Still, it has been almost six years since he won a major, and that is the one thing he hasn’t done with his new swing and it is the one thing that matters most. At 38 years old, the man whose record Tiger is chasing, Jack Nicklaus, had won 14 majors, and in his 38th year he added an Open Championship at St. Andrews, a place where he had won before. Tiger is playing at three major venues this year where he has previously won, and there is every reason to think 2014 will be the year in which Tiger starts his major ascendancy again. The swing changes are done, and he’s too old to change again; all that’s left is to compete.
Build and destroy.
Golf Channel Analyst
This article appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 24.
• The Instagrams of the week include this arresting shot from track athlete Leryn Franco.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his promise to join Twitter if he won the Daytona 500. He already has more than 300,000 followers.
• Fox ran last year's Daytona 500 during the rain delay. Some viewers thought it was the real thing. Hilarity ensued.
• 50 Cent offered to kiss Michael Waltrip if he won the 500. Armed with that motivation, Waltrip finished 41st.
• Athletes who have lost a ridiculous amount of weight, including Barry Bonds, whose melon has shrunk back down to human size.
• And now for something completely different: the world's weirdest bras.
• Watch a short kid dunk at a pep rally. So he had a little help.
• Thomas Robinson blocked Corey Brewer's dunk attempt and stole a piece of his soul in the process.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Baseball players have often been referred to as the “boys of summer,” and as far as MLB goes, the use of the word “boy” may have never been more appropriate. Look around the majors and there is no lack of young impact players all over the diamond, a group that’s led by arguably the best player in the game.
Take last year’s All-Star Game, for example. The National League’s 38-man roster alone featured 12 players who were 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2013 season. The AL team had eight such players representing them at Citi Field in New York. And while some of these have since graduated from the ranks of the 25-and-under crowd, there are still plenty of candidates remaining when it comes to indentifying the cream of this crop.
Here’s Athlon Sports’ list of the top 25 players who will be 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (March 31).
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best of the 25-and-under crop, he’s arguably the best player in the entire game – and he’s just 22 years old. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year could already have two MVP awards to his credit if not the for the Triple Crown exploits of one Miguel Cabrera.
As it is, all Trout has done is average a .324-29-90 line along with 41 stolen bases, while making a number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield in his first two full seasons. Trout figures to have a lock on a starting All-Star spot for years to come, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for this unique, one-of-a-kind talent. No wonder there is already speculation that Trout could up being baseball’s first $30 million (per season) man.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
Harper (above, right) and Trout will forever be linked, as they were the 2012 Rookies of the Year and are similar in that they are five-tool players. A two-time All-Star in his own right, Harper’s true potential won’t be known until he’s able to stay on the field consistently.
Injuries limited Harper to just 118 games last season, although his numbers were pretty much in line across the board with what he did in 139 games in his 2012 ROY campaign. Still just 21 years old, Harper is probably the closest thing there is to a Trout-like talent in the senior circuit. Now it’s just a matter of the Nationals’ outfielder producing Trout-like numbers.
3. Craig Kimbrel, P, Atlanta
Kimbrel and the Braves made news recently when he signed a four-year, $42 million contract. While that’s a lot of money for a pitcher who rarely goes more than an inning, it could end up being a bargain if the 25-year-old can maintain his level of performance.
Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves since 2011, while posting ridiculous numbers across the board. Among pitchers with 200 innings, Kimbrel is No. 1 in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.87), opponents’ batting average (.158) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.9) over the last three seasons. For his career, Kimbrel has struck out 381 batters in 227 1/3 innings or more than three times as many hits (123) as he’s allowed.
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
The Braves’ future seems incredibly bright as the team is well represented on this list. Prior to Kimbrel’s new contract, Freeman inked his own new deal, an eight-year, $135 million pact that is the richest in franchise history. That’s what happens when you make your first All-Star team and finish fifth in the NL MVP voting after batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs.
Whether he’s able to match or even surpass those numbers on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the 24-year-old will be manning first base for the Braves for many years to come.
5. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco
In a rotation that included two Cy Young winners that helped win two World Series in a four-year span, it would have been easy for Bumgarner to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, all the 24-year-old lefty has done is establish himself as one of the best southpaws in the game.
He has won 13 or more games three seasons in a row and last season posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with 199 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings while earning his first All-Star game invitation. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 76-86 showing, don’t be surprised to see Bumgarner leading the way on the mound.
6. Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington
There’s no denying Strasburg’s immense talent, but this season is a critical one for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick who will turn 26 in late July. After going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his innings-capped 2012 season, his first back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg slipped to just 8-9 last season. On top of that, he went under the knife yet again to have bone chips removed from his elbow this past October.
The upside with Strasburg comes in the form of his 3.00 ERA in 2013 along with more strikeouts (191) than innings pitched (183). Still, if the Nationals are to take that next step and become a legitimate NL pennant contender, Strasburg needs to develop into that 20-win, 200-innings workhorse ace everyone thought he would be when he made his debut back in 2010.
7. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The newest Cuban sensation, Puig made quite the splash last season when he debuted in early June. The epitome of a first-pitch swinger, Puig capitalized on the element of surprise, as he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games. While his plate discipline (36 BB, 97 SO in 382 AB) is a work in progress, there’s no disputing the 23-year-old’s all-around talent or the impact he can have on a team.
Puig was one of the catalysts behind the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, as his .319-19-42 line with 11 stolen bases in just 104 games resulted in a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for the NL West champs. The key for Puig moving forward is to continue to get better at the plate, with his defense and on the base paths and applying this acquired wisdom and maturity to the decisions he makes off of the field as well.
8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore
As last season wound down, no one seemed to be primed for a breakout 2014 campaign than Machado. Not only did he make his first All-Star team, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (.284-14-71) and providing Gold Glove-winning defense at third base.
Unfortunately, Machado suffered a serious knee injury running the bases in Tampa Bay in the last week of the season, resulting in reconstructive surgery and plenty of uncertainty regarding when he will able to return to the field this season. The hope is that Machado will fully recover and pick up right where he left off, but either way the future still seems incredibly bright for this 21-year-old.
9. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, in just one season Fernandez has inserted himself into the conversation of best pitchers in the game, while also replacing slugging teammate Giancarlo Stanton (see below), as the gem of the Martins’ franchise. After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA (2nd in NL) and 0.98 WHIP (3rd), it appears the only things that could hold back this 21-year-old this season are a potential innings cap and the lack of run support from a lackluster Marlins offense.
10. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
The unorthodox delivery combined with his lanky (6-6, 180) build are reason for concern, but Sale’s results on the mound speak for themselves. Although he went just 11-14 last season, the White Sox’ left-handed ace made his second straight All-Star team as he posted a 3.07 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and led the AL with four complete games. And durability questions aside, what hitters should really be concerned about is the fact that Sale, who will turn 25 just prior to Opening Day, cut down on his walks (46) last season even though both his innings and strikeouts went up compared to 2012.
11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Considering Stanton has averaged nearly 30 home runs per season over his first four, the first thought may be why isn’t he higher on this list? The simple answer to that query is that the jury is still very much out on the 24-year-old slugger, who has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. This also has led to a slip in his production.
The sky was seemingly the limit after Stanton bashed 34 home runs in 150 games as a raw 21-year-old in 2011. And while he has knocked a total of 61 more balls out of the park over the last two seasons, he’s played in just 239 total games during that same span and saw his batting average tumble to just .249 last season with only 62 RBIs. Still any player that hits a home run every 15 at-bats is someone who needs to be feared every time they step up to the plate.
12. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Entering his sixth full season, Andrus finally turned 25 last August. So while this will be his last time mentioned in this vein, it shouldn’t overshadow the All-Star-caliber player he has been since making his debut for the Rangers in 2009. At the plate, Andrus has consistently been a .270 hitter good for more than 80 runs and more than 30 steals each season. He’s also driven in more than 60 in each of his last three campaigns and has become a reliable, and at times slick-fielding, shortstop.
13. Michael Wacha, P, St. Louis
Wacha pitched in just 15 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but it was his five appearances in the postseason that have Redbird Nation and the rest of baseball buzzing. The 22-year-old went 4-1 in five postseason starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and claimed NLCS MVP honors after beating the Dodgers in two scoreless starts.
Wacha then went on to beat the Red Sox in Boston in Game 2 of the World Series before getting knocked around a little in the decisive Game 6. Still, in less than a span of two months, Wacha went from being just one of the Cardinals’ impressive crop of young pitchers to one of the most-talked about hurlers in the entire game. All eyes will be on this tall (6-6) Texan whenever he takes the mound this season.
14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Believed to be one of the top prospects in the majors a few seasons ago, Hosmer’s star dulled somewhat following a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he batted just .232. After another slow start last season, Hosmer caught fire in June, as he batted .318 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs over the last four months. Disciplined enough to take a walk (51 compared to 100 SO in 623 AB) and athletic enough to steal a base (11 with 4 CS), while providing Gold Glove defense at first base, the 24-year-old finally appears ready to become the Royals’ next superstar.
15. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay
Myers was the centerpiece of the December 2012 trade that sent James Shields and others from the Rays to the Royals, and it looks like a deal that Tampa Bay will be glad they ended up making. All Myers did after getting called up on June 18 last season was win AL Rookie of the Year honors even though he played roughly half a season. In just 88 games, Myers posted an impressive .293-13-53 line, so there’s no telling what this 23-year-old will do with a full season’s worth of at-bats.
16. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee
A first-time All-Star last season, Segura finished second in the NL in both stolen bases (44) and triples (10), while hitting .294 with 74 runs scored for the Brewers. Fairly reliable at shortstop (15 errors), Segura is the ideal table-setter for Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. If there’s any weak spot to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s game, it’s getting on base consistently. His .329 on-base percentage (25 BB in 588 AB) is something the Brewers would like to see improve in 2014, especially with last season’s leadoff hitter (Norichika Aoki) now in Kansas City.
17. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh
The strikeouts (138 in 510 AB) are certainly concerning, but there’s nothing wrong with the 83 runs and 41 stolen bases Marte contributed last season in helping the Pirates break their record streak of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. Add in the assortment of extra-base hits (26 2B, 10 3B, 12 HR) and a good glove in left field and the 25-year-old from the Dominican teams with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates a formidable one-two punch in their outfield.
18. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
The NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season and the league leader in defensive WAR, there’s no debate regarding Simmons’ value in the field. The next step for the 24-year-old is to continue his development at the plate. While his batting averaged dropped from .289 in 2012 (49 games played) to .248 last season, Simmons displayed an increased ability to drive the ball (17 HR, 27 2B) while posting a respectable 40:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio. And just like teammates Kimbrel and Freeman, Simmons signed his own long-term contract (seven years, $58 million) this month, cementing his status as one of the Braves' key building blocks for the future.
19. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The fourth Brave on this list, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward eclipse his teammates when it comes to eventual stardom. The 24-year-old has already displayed his immense all-around talent and potential, as evidenced by a 2012 season in which he batted .269 with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Unfortunately, that breakthrough season has been sandwiched by two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns, including last season’s 104-game showing in which he hit just .254 with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and only four steals. Heyward did seem to find a home as the Braves’ leadoff hitter late last season, and there’s still plenty of time for the Georgia native to emerge as a legitimate superstar for his hometown team.
20. Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis
Rosenthal saved more games in the postseason (four) than he did in the regular season (three) and did so in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old didn’t allow a run in 11 2/3 October innings last season and has yet to allow one in 20 1/3 career playoff frames.
Rosenthal has expressed a desire to join the starting rotation, but the Adam Wainwright-esque transition will more than likely wait at least one more season as manager Mike Matheny understandably doesn’t want to remove Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats (126 strikeouts in 87 total innings last season) from the closer role.
21. Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay
Moore led the Rays with 17 wins last season, which is pretty impressive considering Tampa’s rotation also features a former Cy Young (David Price) and AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson) winner. Moore went 17-4 in his second full season in the majors, lowering his ERA from 3.81 to 3.29 in the process.
A power arm, the strikeouts (143 in 150 1/3 innnings) should always be there, but the real key to Moore’s development and maturation on the mound will be harnessing his control (76 BB). If he can figure that out, the Rays may end up with yet another award winner in their rotation.
22. Shelby Miller, P, St. Louis
After winning a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training last season, all Miller did was win 19 games with a 3.06 ERA for the eventual NL champs. The problem for Miller is that this was mostly forgotten come October, as he pitched a grand total of one inning in the postseason and watched his teammate, Michael Wacha, claim the mantle of the Cardinals’ best young pitcher in the process.
However, don’t count out Miller this season as the 23-year-old Texan is no doubt just waiting for the opportunity to not only silence any would-be critics, but show just how well-armed the Cardinals are as they seek to defend their NL Central and league titles.
23. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
Altuve didn’t repeat his All-Star selection last season, but he still provided quite a bit of production, especially considering he stands just 5-5. Don’t let his diminutive size fool you, however, as he’s hit more than 30 doubles and stolen more than 30 bases in each of his last two seasons. He’s also managed to bat a combined .286 during the same span. A good glove at second, the 23-year-old Venezuelan still has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to drawing a walk (32 in 626 AB in 2013).
24. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado
No catcher has more home runs in the past two seasons than Rosario, who has slugged 49 in 238 games. While playing his home games in Coors Field probably helps, Rosario’s career home-away splits in the power department (29:23) aren’t that different. A .292 hitter last season, the just-turned 25-year-old backstop needs to improve his plate discipline (career 42:228 BB:SO ratio) if he wants to fully realize his potential.
25. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
This could potentially be a make-or-break season for Castro, which is hard to fathom considering he’ll turn 24 years old a week before Opening Day. But that’s where the two-time All-Star finds himself following an all-around disappointing 2013 campaign and with top prospect Javier Baez breathing down his neck.
The good news for Castro is that he gets a clean slate with new manager Rick Renteria now running the club and he also has financial security (signed through 2019). Now it’s just a matter of the talented Dominican rediscovering the form that made him such a productive hitter earlier in his career and continuing his development on the field as it relates to both his glove (22 errors last season) and on the base paths (just 9 SB in 2013).
Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Harvey is most likely going to miss the entire 2014 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he still deserves to be recognized for this exercise. The NL All-Star Game starter at just 24 years old, Harvey finished tied for fourth in the Cy Young voting even though he made his last appearance on the mound in late August.
A nine-game winner in 2013, Harvey’s value went well beyond the win-loss column, as he posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters with just 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. The Mets will clearly miss Harvey this season, as will baseball in general, but the hope is that he will be able to pick up where he left off when he does finally return to the mound.
Best of the rest (alphabetical order)
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco
Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston
Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh
Patrick Corbin, P, Arizona
Sonny Gray, P, Oakland
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Toronto
Sal Perez, C, Kansas City
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Addison Reed, P, Arizona
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta
Chris Tillman, P, Baltimore
On deck? (alphabetical order)
Chris Archer, P, Tampa Bay
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Boston
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit
Tony Cingrani, P, Cincinnati
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland
George Springer, OF, Houston
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
Stanford opens spring practice with a few holes to fill and some new faces on the coaching staff, but the program is poised to build off last year’s 11-3 mark. The Cardinal has won at least 11 games in each of the last four seasons and has claimed back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Coach David Shaw is an impressive 25-4 in Pac-12 contests (including conference championship games), while Stanford is looking for its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl in 2014.
The Pac-12 is one of the top conferences in college football, and Stanford will be up against a North Division that features Oregon and an improving Washington team. Shaw has been a model of consistency through his first three years on the Farm. And as any college football program has success, new challenges are created. That motto holds true for the Cardinal in 2014, as there’s some key personnel and coaches to replace.
Stanford Cardinal 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: February 24
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in Stanford's 2014 Spring Practice
|Aug. 31||UC Davis|
1. New faces on the coaching staff. Considering Stanford’s success, it’s no surprise its assistants have been targeted by other programs. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt, Mike Sanford was named the offensive coordinator at Boise State, and David Kotulski followed Mason to Vanderbilt. Shaw promoted Lance Anderson to defensive coordinator, hired Peter Hansen to replace Kotulski and Lance Taylor was brought aboard to coach running backs. Shaw has one more opening to fill, but there’s not expected to be a significant transition period under the new staff. Anderson has worked at Stanford since 2007, and his experience under Mason should ensure the defense remains one of the best in the Pac-12.
2. Who steps up at running back? Stanford has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for six consecutive seasons. Will that streak run to seven? Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combined for 2,062 yards last season but expired their eligibility after the Rose Bowl. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator Mike Bloomgren, as Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale return. Sanders was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and high expectations surround the Oklahoma native. But Sanders won’t have to carry the entire workload, as Wright and Seale have experience, and incoming freshmen Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Brandt-Sims are capable of playing this season. While running back is a question mark, there’s enough talent returning for Shaw and Bloomgren to feel alright about this position.
3. Restocking the trenches. The Cardinal expect quarterback Kevin Hogan to take another step in his development this spring, and Shaw and Bloomgren want to rely on their ground game to set the tone on offense 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?
4. Filling the voids in the front seven. Not only must Stanford’s defense adapt to a new coordinator (Lance Anderson), but this unit suffered some key losses in the front seven. The Cardinal must replace standout ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, and linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov also depart. Much like the offense, there’s talent waiting in the wings to step into the starting lineup. Henry Anderson earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season and is due to become an even bigger piece of the line in 2014. Blake Lueders and Luke Kaumatule shifted from other positions to the defensive line and join Anderson as key cogs in the trenches. Aziz Shittu is another name to watch at end, but Anderson also needs to develop more depth behind tackle David Parry. While the losses on the line are huge, the departures at linebacker are even bigger. Murphy and Skov’s production and leadership will be difficult to replace, but there’s a solid foundation to build around in A.J. Tarpley and Kevin Anderson. James Vaughters, Joe Hemschoot, Blake Martinez and Noor Davis are other names to watch this spring.
5. Who replaces Ed Reynolds at safety? The losses in the defensive line and linebacking corps were more significant, but Reynolds will be tough to replace. He recorded 87 tackles and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Of course, having a standout like Jordan Richards back at the other safety spot will help Stanford’s secondary remain one of the best in the Pac-12. The Cardinal has options to replace Reynolds, including converted receiver Kodi Whitfield and converted quarterback Dallas Lloyd. Devon Carrington was listed as the backup to Reynolds last year and expired his eligibility after the Rose Bowl. If Lloyd or Whitfield doesn’t win the job, Zach Hoffpauir or Kyle Olugbode could be the answer.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Yes, Stanford has some personnel losses and a few changes on the coaching staff. But David Shaw won’t allow the Cardinal to fall too far in the win column. Assuming the line jells early in the year, quarterback Kevin Hogan should take another step forward in his development. It’s a lot to ask the defense to replicate last year’s numbers without Murphy, Skov, Reynolds, Gardner and Mauro. However, this unit is still one of the best in the Pac-12. Stanford will be in the mix for another BCS bowl and will contend with Oregon for the North Division title.
Just call him Jason "All" Day. Aussie Jason Day outlasted an unbelievably resilient Victor Dubuisson in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, draining one last 4-footer on the 23rd hole of the grueling final match at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., to earn his second career PGA Tour win. Finally, a player known for appearing on major leaderboards but disappearing for the rest of the year can add a prestigious championship to his resume, a win that will propel him near the top of Masters favorites.
But Day had to earn it. Dubuisson, a 23-year-old Frenchman who was a virtual unknown to American audiences, all but clinched a spot on the European Ryder Cup team with an astonishing display of Houdini-level escape artistry. Two holes down with two to play, Dubuisson rallied, winning the final two holes with a birdie at 17 and a Day 3-putt at 18. On the first playoff hole, Dubuisson pulled off his first Great Escape, getting up and down out of the prickly cactus. On the second extra hole, he did himself one better, playing his ball from a bush and earning another impossible par.
"Vic coming down the stretch was just unbelievable," Day said. "I've never seen someone as young, apart from Jordan Spieth, and in the old days Tiger Woods, how clutch he was, especially out of the cactus. I kept shaking my head because it was so surprising because there was a couple of times there where I thought he was absolutely dead. The tournament was mine."
Ultimately, the tournament was Day's, and those final dramatic holes were the culmination of an impressive week of match play artistry from a litany of players who seemed determined to reward viewers for their loyalty given the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. Those who did tune in were rewarded with some of the most stomach-churning golf in recent memory.
Here are the key stats from five days in the desert.
89 Jason Day put on a clinic on how to survive in match play. Of the 36 greens he missed, he saved par 32 times, a staggering conversion rate of 89 percent. The PGA Tour leader converted 66 percent of the time in 2013.
26 At 26 years, 3 months, Day became the youngest-ever winner of the Accenture Match Play. Tiger Woods was 27 when he won in 2003.
0 Graeme McDowell, who reached the round of eight in the Match Play, won his first three matches without ever holding a lead until the final putt dropped. McDowell rallied to beat Gary Woodland in 19 holes, caught Hideki Matsuyama and beat him on the 18th hole, and rallied to beat Hunter Mahan in 21 holes. At no point in any of those matches did he stand on a tee with a lead.
72 Day had played 72 PGA Tour events since his previous win, the 2010 Byron Nelson Classic. The 26-year-old Day wasn't panicking that the wins weren't coming. "A career is very long in golf,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for myself is just to understand I’m not Rory. I’m not Tiger. I’m not Adam Scott. I’m not Justin Rose. I’m Jason Day. I need to do the work and it will happen. I’ve just got to be patient."\
2 Victor Dubuisson's second-place finish matches the best-ever finish by a French player in a PGA Tour event, joining Jean Van de Velde, Thomas Levet and Gregory Havret.
Players are fans, too, and they loved what they saw on Sunday. Here's a sample of some of the tweets that were flying across the twittersphere.
Tom Watson — Two of the greatest up-and/downs I have ever seen Victor!!!
Enjoy the video of Dubuisson's two remarkable par saves.
The Big 12 didn’t have a banner year in 2013 with only three teams finishing in the final Associated Press poll. Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State combined for 32 victories last season, while the rest of the conference combined for 38 wins. While last season left a lot to be desired, the Sooners defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Kansas State has momentum after a strong close to the year.
As spring practice opens in the Big 12, each team has a handful of question marks the coaching staff hopes to find solutions for over the next few months. Oklahoma is considered a slight favorite over Baylor for the top spot in the conference, but Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas will be tough outs for the rest of the Big 12.
Texas Tech is a darkhorse to watch this season, but the Red Raiders have a few significant question marks on defense. Assuming a quarterback emerges, TCU should rebound after going 4-8 last year. And West Virginia has enough returning talent to expect a run at a bowl game after a disappointing 2013 campaign.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the teams heading into spring practice with personnel losses from last season and returning starters on both sides of the ball.
|Seniors Departing||Lost Early to NFL Draft||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
Key Storylines Around the Big 12 for Spring Practice
First look at the new faces on defense:
An underrated part of Baylor’s Big 12 championship last season was the defense. The Bears held opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2013 after allowing 6.3 in 2012. Coordinator Phil Bennett has a busy spring ahead if he wants his defense to improve off of those totals in 2014. Only four starters return from last year’s unit, and All-Big 12 performers in safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Eddie Lackey and end Chris McAllister have expired their eligibility. Baylor’s recruiting has improved under Art Briles, and there’s talent waiting to step onto the field. Defensive end Shawn Oakman is a name to remember after recording 33 tackles last year, while help is also in the way in the form of three junior college transfers this spring. Will this unit continue to build off the improvement showcased last season? Or will all of the new faces create a transition year in 2014?
Is Grant Rohach ready to emerge as the No. 1 quarterback?:
The Cyclones have question marks on both sides of the ball, but Rohach’s development is the key to the season. The California native finished 2013 by throwing for 631 yards and six touchdowns over the final two games, leading Iowa State to back-to-back victories. New coordinator Mark Mangino should help Rohach’s growth, and the Cyclones are bringing in a potential impact recruit at receiver in Allen Lazard. Iowa State’s schedule is tough. But if Rohach builds off the final two performances of 2013, the Cyclones could push for six wins this season.
Improving the passing attack:
When you win four games in two years, it’s hard to call many areas of that team a strength. Kansas has some pieces to build around, including running back Darrian Miller, all-purpose threat Tony Pierson and All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney. However, for the Jayhawks to show significant improvement in the win column, quarterback play and the receiving corps needs to show progress this offseason. Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart each played significant snaps at quarterback last year, but neither showcased enough to have the full-time job going into the spring. UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard will get a chance to unseat Heaps and Cozart, and Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell should provide the quarterback a No. 1 target. But can the Jayhawks find a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver? Is Justin McCay ready to live up to the hype?
Finding a No. 1 running back:
With John Hubert and Robert Rose expiring their eligibility, Kansas State’s returning leaders in rushing yards are quarterbacks Daniel Sams (807) and Jake Waters (312). And there’s little in the way of returning experience at running back for coach Bill Snyder. Demarcus Robinson was a four-star recruit by Rivals but has only 11 carries in two years. Sophomore Jarvis Leverett Jr. was a three-star recruit in 2012 and will be in the mix to replace Hubert, while incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack is a name to watch this fall. A wildcard option to watch in the ground attack is Sams, as he could spend time at running back or receiver this season. Kansas State has a few other voids to fill, including spots at linebacker, cornerback and at tackle. However, this team is positioned to compete for a spot among the top 25 in many preseason polls.
Can Trevor Knight build off his Sugar Bowl performance?:
With 16 starters returning, and momentum from the Sugar Bowl win against Alabama in place, Oklahoma is considered a slight favorite over Baylor for the Big 12 title in 2014. The Sooners return most of their core from last season, and Knight’s performance in the bowl has provided plenty of optimism that Oklahoma is ready to contend for a playoff spot. Knight gashed Alabama’s defense for 348 yards and four touchdowns – easily his best performance of 2013. Should we expect to see similar numbers in 2014? Or was that just an aberration? With Blake Bell moving to tight end, it’s clear Knight has the starting job. Now it’s time for the sophomore to take the next step in his development, which will be a challenge with Jalen Saunders and Lacoltan Bester gone at receiver.
The quarterback battle:
Mike Gundy’s team returns only nine starters next year, but Oklahoma State should still be a factor in the Big 12 title picture. The Cowboys have not won fewer than eight games since a 7-6 mark in 2007, and there’s promising young talent on offense, including running back Desmond Roland and receiver Jhajuan Seales. However, all eyes this spring will be on the quarterback battle. Junior J.W. Walsh has the experience, but incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early and is expected to push for time. Daxx Garman and Richard Lagow are also in the mix, but the job is expected to go to Walsh or Rudolph. Walsh is a dual-threat option, while Rudolph is a prototypical pocket passer. Will a quarterback claim the job this spring? Or will Rudolph and Walsh take their battle into the fall?
Rebuilding on offense:
Despite the defense leading the Big 12 in fewest yards per game (conference-only contests), the Horned Frogs finished with their worst record under Gary Patterson. After watching the offense manage just 349.1 yards per game in Big 12 action, Patterson made changes to his offensive staff. Doug Meacham was hired away from Houston to call the plays, while Sonny Cumbie joins the staff after four years at Texas Tech. Meacham and Cumbie were solid additions, but both coaches will have their work cut out for them this preseason. The Horned Frogs need to find a quarterback, as Casey Pachall has expired his eligibility, and Trevone Boykin could slide to receiver. If Boykin doesn’t stay at quarterback, there’s not much in the way of proven options under center. Zach Allen, Tyler Matthews and Carson Snyder have combined for just three pass attempts, while incoming freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein will have an opportunity to win the job this preseason. The question marks on TCU’s offense extend to the line where two starters depart from a unit that struggled in 2013. The Horned Frogs also need more consistency from the receiving corps and at running back. This spring is the first step to finding answers for TCU.
Finding answers on offense:
In what seems to be an ongoing question mark, the Longhorns enter spring practice looking for answers on offense. Texas has not ranked higher than sixth in the Big 12 in scoring in each of the last four years and averaged only 5.1 yards per play in conference action in 2013. New coach Charlie Strong and co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline will be looking for solutions this spring, starting under center where David Ash returns after missing most of last year with a concussion. Ash will face competition from Tyrone Swoopes this spring, while touted freshman Jerrod Heard arrives this summer. In addition to finding a quarterback, Texas has to replace three starters on the line, while receiver Mike Davis departs after averaging 14.3 yards per catch last season. Wickline has a strong track record of developing offensive linemen, and with a strong backfield returning, Texas can lean on the ground until the passing attack stabilizes. However, for the Longhorns to be a factor in the Big 12 title picture, a quarterback needs to step up before the season opener.
Restocking the defensive line and secondary:
The Red Raiders finished 2013 with a fury, handling Arizona State 37-23 in the Holiday Bowl. Kliff Kingsbury has Texas Tech on the right track, but there are a few glaring concerns heading into spring practice. The receiving corps needs to reload after losing Eric Ward and Jace Amaro, but a bigger concern is on defense where only three starters return. The line must replace standout end Kerry Hyder, while the secondary loses three starters, including safety Tre Porter. To help with the personnel losses, Texas Tech dipped into the junior college ranks, bringing five players who can help this season. It’s always risky relying on junior college recruits to make an immediate impact, but the Red Raiders needed players who can play right away and help with depth this season. Finding two new starting cornerbacks and developing depth up front will be critical to Texas Tech’s chances at beating last year’s eight wins.
The quarterback battle:
Considering West Virginia had to replace quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, it was no surprise the offense took a step back from its 2012 production in 2013. However, the drop-off was greater than most anticipated. The Mountaineers still averaged 410.8 yards per game, but the scoring average dropped by 13 points. Quarterback play has been a strength in Dana Holgorsen’s offenses and spring practice will be critical to developing a pecking order under center after a season of lackluster play from the quarterbacks. Three players started under center last year, but Ford Childress left the team before spring practice, and Clint Trickett is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Paul Millard is the team’s No. 1 quarterback – for now – but keep an eye on junior college recruit Skyler Howard. Will Millard take a step forward in 2014? Or will he leave the door open for Howard, incoming freshman William Crest or Trickett to eventually win the job in the fall?
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.
The ACC will go through yet another change in 2014 as the College Football Playoff Era begins. Louisville, fresh off 23 wins over the last two seasons, will join one year after Pitt and Syracuse entered the league. Maryland is off for greener (cha-ching) pastures in the Big Ten and so yet another era of ACC football begins.
However, with all of the turnover in recent years, the ACC will begin play in ’14 with a familiar face leading the charge.
Here is how the ACC rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the ACC based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Florida State is a cut above
This is not rocket science. Florida State is by far the most talented team in the ACC. The Noles rank behind only Alabama in terms of overall talent nationally — tied with Florida for second with a national recruiting rank of 5.8 nationally. So it should come as no surprise that Jimbo Fisher’s squad has the best overall (45-10) and conference record (26-6) over the last four years. In fact, the recruiting class rankings indicate that no one is really even close. So as if the defending BCS National Champions and returning reigning Heisman Trophy winner needed any more help in their effort to repeat, Florida State will enter 2014 with a significant talent advantage in the ACC once again.
Clemson is Clemson
Ten or fifteen years ago, that statement would have carried a negative connotation. Now, however, it's positive. Clemson has really good players and is winning a lot of games. In fact, the Tigers are essentially tied with Miami as the league's second-most talented roster and is tied with Virginia Tech for the second-most ACC wins over the last four years (24-8). Has Clemson slipped behind Florida State to some degree? Certainly. But if the Tigers continue to recruit as well as they have and continue to get coaching from a star-studded staff, then they should be the top challenger to the Noles for the foreseeable future.
Mike London’s Last Chance
Over the last four seasons, London and the Cavaliers have the worst conference record of any team in the ACC by three games (8-24). Overall, Virginia is tied with Wake Forest for worst overall record at 18-31. Yet, the difference for the Wahoos is their recruiting has been solid. According to the recruiting rankings, Virginia has the sixth-best roster in the ACC, ahead of Louisville, Pitt, NC State, Georgia Tech and Boston College. After one winning season 2011, London has struggled to win games and it should be no secret that this is a make-or-break season in Charlottesville for the fifth-year head coach.
Good things ahead for Larry Fedora, Al Golden?
While Mike London is on the hottest of ACC hot seats, two others should be poised to win. Or at least, will face increased expectations to win. Larry Fedora has the fifth-best roster coming back to Chapel Hill in 2014 and yet North Carolina is just .500 in ACC play over the last four seasons (9-7 under Fedora). He has the talent to work with but now needs to separate himself from his two predecessors — both of whom barely finished above .500 themselves (Butch Davis, 28-23; Everett Withers, 7-6). Fedora's talent at his previous stop, Southern Miss, relative to his competition in the C-USA underachieved. Will he experience the same thing in the ACC or will the Tar Heels win more than five conference games for the first time since 1997, when Mack Brown was still wearing Carolina blue.
Golden is in an even better situation with the No. 2-ranked roster in the league coming back to Coral Gables this summer. The time is now for a well-respected coach at a program that normally competes for national championships. Clearly, Golden didn't know the gravity of the situation he stepped into when he took the Miami job three years ago but his steady hand and throwback sideline style has increased Miami's win total in three straight seasons — from six wins to seven to nine. The Coastal Division race is wide open and he has what appears to be the best roster among the any of the contenders. The time is now for the Canes.
Paul Johnson knows what he is doing
Has Georgia Tech lost a lot of games over the last four years? Yes, 25 in fact. But Johnson's team trails only Florida State (26), Clemson (24) and Virginia Tech (24) for ACC wins over the last four seasons. And he is doing it with one of the "poorer" rosters in the league. Johnson's depth chart ranks 10th in terms of talent entering this fall but his teams consistently beat those ranked above them as it relates to recruiting. He is 6-for-6 in postseason berths, has won three division titles and at least five ACC games in three straight seasons. Despite what could be perceived as an apparent lack of talent, Tech should once again compete for a division crown in '14.
Tough road for the new kids on the block
Syracuse has the 12th-best roster in the ACC heading into 2014. It definitely feels like the Orange will settle in as just another middle of the pack ACC squad on the football field. Pitt and Louisville have significantly more talented rosters but are still well behind the top of the conference when it comes to recruiting. All three were accustomed to be near the top of the Big East recruiting rankings in their old stomping grounds. Now, however, the Cardinals have the seventh-best roster entering this summer while the Panthers check in at eighth. It will be an uphill battle for all three.
Is the end really near for Beamer Ball?
Virginia Tech has slumped the last two seasons. There is no debating that. However, Frank Beamer's team is still tied for second in the ACC with a 24-8 record over the last four seasons and Tech's recruiting has seen a slight uptick over the last three classes — averaging as the 23rd-ranked class over the last three seasons. That is up significantly from back-to-back classes ranked outside of the top 30 in the two previous cycles. So the question becomes: Were the last two years Beamer's fault — an older coach slipping in the twilight of his career like so many before him — or just Logan Thomas' fault? The '14 season will be a critical one in Blacksburg.
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.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons. He was taken No. 3 overall in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns and is the best Big Ten offensive lineman of the BCS Era.
2. Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger has one when he was named the best lineman in America in 2005. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05 as well. The best stat for Eslinger, however, is that Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career and he helped lead the Gophers to their first 10-win campaign since 1905.
3. Jake Long, Michigan (2004-07)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy finalist. He was a Freshman All-American in his first year and was named Big Ten Lineman of the Year twice (junior and senior seasons) — one of just two players to accomplish this feat during the BCS Era. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder won a Big Ten championship as a freshman and has been to four Pro Bowls in his six-year NFL career.
4. Steve Hutchinson, Michigan (1997-2000)
Starting for four seasons for the Wolverines, Hutchinson helped the Maize and Blue win the 1997 national championship. He capped his career with consensus All-American honors, was an Outland Trophy finalist and didn’t allow a sack in his final two seasons at Michigan. He was a first-round pick by the Seahawks in 2001 and earned seven Pro Bowl invites during his 12-year NFL career.
5. Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin (2007-10)
Carimi perpetuated the run of elite Badgers blockers by stepping in for the departed Joe Thomas and starting all 13 games as a freshman. By his senior season, Carimi was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, the Outland Trophy winner as the best blocker in the nation, and was a consensus All-American. He started 49 games in his career, capping it with a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten championship in 2010. Carimi was a first-round pick by the Bears in 2011.
6. David Baas, Michigan (2001-04)
The interior blocker was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and capped his career with a Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. He also earned consensus All-American honors, was named the Big Ten’s top lineman and was an Outland Trophy finalist. Baas was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
7. Chris McIntosh, Wisconsin (1996-99)
An Outland Trophy finalist and consensus All-American, McIntosh helped pave the way for the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher and led Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships as a team captain. McIntosh was a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2000 NFL Draft but his career ended after just three seasons due to injury.
8. Jon Jansen, Michigan (1995-98)
Mr. Durable set a Michigan school record with 50 consecutive starts along the Wolverines' offensive line. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors twice and helped lead the Maize and Blue to the national championship in 1997. He was an All-American and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior before being selected in the second round by the Redskins in 1999.
8. Nick Mangold, Ohio State (2002-05)
From a technique and fundamentals standpoint, Mangold is one of the best college centers to ever play the game. He was a Rimington Finalist, a three-year starter and played in eight games as a true freshman for the BCS National Champions in ’02. Mangold started 33 of 45 career games and was a first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Jets. He has gone to five Pro Bowls.
10. Robert Gallery, Iowa (2000-03)
The massive blocker helped Iowa win a share of the Big Ten title as a junior in 2002. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top blocker the next year as the Hawkeyes went 21-5 over his final two years. Gallery was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick and the consensus All-American was the No. 2 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Despite his lackluster NFL career, Gallery remains one of the most dominant Big Ten blockers.
Just missed the cut:
11. Taylor Lewan, Michigan (2010-13)
Lewan, along with Jake Long, is one of just two players during the BCS Era to claim Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors twice. Lewan was a three-time All-Big Ten selection and two-time All-American during his time at Michigan.
12. LeCharles Bentley, Ohio State (1998-2001)
The Cleveland native was a consensus All-American in 2001 as a senior. He also won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center that year before getting drafted in the second round by the Saints in 2002.
13. David Molk, Michigan (2008-11)
The Wolverines center was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and earned Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors in a conference with Michael Brewster and Peter Konz. Molk was a consensus All-American and Rimington Trophy winner in 2011.
14. Bryan Bulaga, Iowa (2007-10)
A massive part of why the Hawkeyes won their only BCS Bowl in 2009 over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, Bulaga was a four-year contributor for Iowa. He earned Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors as a senior and was a first-round pick of the Packers in 2010.
15. Levi Brown, Penn State (2003-06)
The star left tackle played all over the field but settled in as a two-time All-Big Ten selection. He helped Penn State to its lone BCS bowl win in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season and one of only two Big Ten titles during the BCS Era. Brown was the second overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Best of the rest:
16. A.Q. Shipley, Penn State
17. Eric Steinbach, Iowa
18. Casey Rabach, Wisconsin
19. Aaron Gibson, Wisconsin
20. Michael Brewster, Ohio State
Football is king in the SEC, but outside of pockets in Lexington and Gainesville, basketball never feels like a pressing issue.
The Big Ten, on the other hand, is where a balance between football and basketball success is trending upward. The league doesn’t have the names of the new ACC — Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Williams and soon Pitino — but Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, John Beilein and Thad Matta stack up with any roster of basketball coaches in the country.
Football is starting to shed its image of unable to compete in the big game. Mark Dantonio led Michigan State to the Big Ten’s second Rose Bowl win since 2000. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, despite two losses to finish the season, is on the short list of top football coaches after Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Our ranking of the top college football and basketball coaching tandems attempts to identify the programs that can expect to be competitive from August to April, from the start of football season to the end of basketball season.
The teams at the top of our national list can expect to have their fanbases at a fever pitch year round.
1. Michigan State
Football: Mark Dantonio | Basketball: Tom Izzo
The Spartans have a good chance of sweeping Big Ten coach of the year honors with Dantonio already receiving both the coaches’ and media awards with a Rose Bowl-winning season. Izzo will have some tough competition with the coaches at Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota for basketball honors, but the Spartans could still win a conference title despite a rash of injuries to key players. A healthy basketball squad this season would be in contention for Izzo’s second national title and seventh Final Four.
Related: Complete Big Ten coaching tandem rankings
2. Ohio State
Football: Urban Meyer | Basketball: Thad Matta
Meyer is well on his way to replicating his Florida tenure at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won his first 24 games before losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. This is not Matta’s most complete team on the basketball side, but he’s led Ohio State to at least a share of the conference regular season title five times, the conference tournament title four times and a Final Four appearance twice.
Football: David Cutcliffe | Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski
On the basketball side, Duke has a Hall of Fame coach with four national championships, two Olympic gold medals and more than 900 wins. On the other side, the Blue Devils have a coach who has reached bowl games in back-to-back seasons with the ACC’s worst program. Krzyzewski is four years removed from his most recent national title, but as usual, he’s in contention for another one this season. Meanwhile, Cutcliffe led Duke to 10 wins and the ACC title game last season. One interesting parallel for these coaches: Both had health scares that sidelined them for a year (Krzyzewski’s back in 1995 and Cutcliffe’s heart in 2005), but both coaches are at the top of their games.
Related: Complete ACC coaching tandem rankings
Football: Bobby Petrino | Basketball: Rick Pitino
The Petrino/Pitino sound-alike duo is back in the Derby City. The first time around wasn’t so bad for Louisville. Petrino successfully guided the Cardinals into the Big East era with an Orange Bowl victory in his final season in 2006. Louisville is counting on Petrino to do the same as the Cards move into the ACC in 2014. Since 2009 alone, Pitino has led the basketball program to the 2013 national title, two Final Fours and three 30-win seasons. Certainly, it’s risky bringing Petrino — a career-long flight risk whose Arkansas tenure was bought down by ethical failings — back into the fold.
Football: Bob Stoops | Basketball: Lon Kruger
Stoops earned a victory lap in 2013 after his program went 11-2, finished at No. 6 in the AP poll and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. After two seasons of falling below expectations, Oklahoma had as much of a surprise season as the Sooners possibly could in 2013. Overall under Stoops, OU has finished in the top 10 nine times in 15 seasons. Facing sanctions when he was hired, Kruger needed only one season to rebuild Oklahoma into an NCAA Tournament team. Beyond Oklahoma, Kruger is the only coach to lead five different teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Related: Complete Big 12 coaching tandem rankings
Football: Gary Andersen | Basketball: Bo Ryan
Ryan’s consistency at Wisconsin has been astounding with NCAA Tournament bids and top four finishes in the Big Ten for every year of his tenure since 2001-02. Moreover, Ryan is 12-3 against Izzo and 13-1 against Michigan’s John Beilein. The only thing missing from his resume is a deep NCAA Tournament run. Andersen also kept the football program a consistent program in the Big Ten. In his first season, the Badgers went 9-4, with three of those losses coming by one score.
Football: Rich Rodriguez | Basketball: Sean Miller
Sean Miller’s last four NCAA Tournament appearances have resulted in either a Sweet 16 or an Elite Eight. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to the Final Four or better, especially as he’s returned Arizona to national powerhouse status. Rodriguez has made the most of his second chance in a major conference since his ill-fated tenure at Michigan. The Wildcats have back-to-back eight win seasons and back-to-back bowl wins in two seasons under RichRod.
Related: Complete Pac-12 coaching tandem rankings
8. Kansas State
Football: Bill Snyder | Basketball: Bruce Weber
Kansas State doesn’t have the advantages of other Big 12 programs in either sport, but that hasn’t stopped Snyder or Weber from contending. In 2012, Kansas State won a share of the football title (and earned the BCS bid), and in 2013, the Wildcats won a share of the basketball title. Snyder’s second act as Kansas State football coach has been just as impressive as his first, and Weber’s second chance at a big-time program is about to yield his second consecutive NCAA Tournament trip.
9. Florida State
Football: Jimbo Fisher | Basketball: Leonard Hamilton
Not long ago, Florida State’s basketball program arguably was more successful that its football program, especially given the expectation level for both. In four seasons, Jimbo Fisher has returned FSU football to national prominence after a 14-0 season, the national championship and a Heisman Trophy. Hamilton’s basketball program may land in the NIT for the second consecutive season, but that shouldn’t overshadow his tenure. Hamilton is the first FSU basketball coach to lead the Seminoles to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, four consecutive 20-win seasons and an ACC Tournament title.
10. South Carolina
Football: Steve Spurrier | Basketball: Frank Martin
If anything, Spurrier could teach Martin how to mellow out. Away from game day, Spurrier knows how to relax, especially if there’s a golf course nearby. But the football coach is just as sharp as ever, leading South Carolina, once one of the league’s underachieving programs, to three consecutive top 10 finishes. After a successful run at Kansas State, Martin still has work to do to even get to an NIT, but there have been shades of improvement in his second season with the Gamecocks. He has one of the league’s top freshmen in Sindarius Thornwell.
Related: Complete SEC coaching tandem rankings
Football: Brady Hoke | Basketball: John Beilein
One thing we’ve learned over the years: Never count out a Beilein-coached team. A season after losing the national player of the year in Trey Burke and playing most of the season without rising star Mitch McGary, the Wolverines remain in contention for the Big Ten title. On the football side, Hoke appeared to have Michigan on the path to Rose Bowl contention, but the Wolverines’ win total has decreased in each of the last three seasons.
12. Notre Dame
Football: Brian Kelly | Basketball: Mike Brey
Notre Dame still has work to do in order to be among the national elite. Alabama exposed as much in the BCS championship game after the 2012 season. Still, a title game appearance is more than Kelly’s predecessors in South Bend. Dealt a curve ball with Everett Golson’s academic issues, Notre Dame still went 9-4 in 2013, Kelly’s eighth consecutive season with eight or more wins. Brey hasn’t been as fortunate this season with a key player, Jerian Grant, lost due to academics. Brey’s streak of seven consecutive 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament bids likely ends this season, but the track record suggests Brey’s program won’t be down for long.
13. North Carolina
Football: Larry Fedora | Basketball: Roy Williams
The coaches have more in common than a Chapel Hill zip code. Both would like their teams to operate at a fast pace, and neither has ever had a losing season as a head coach. Of course, Williams track record is more impressive with two national titles at North Carolina and a basketball Hall of Fame induction. Fedora’s 8-4 season in 2012 despite a bowl ban was impressive, but last season’s 7-6 performance, the third of Fedora’s career, was a let down.
Football: Art Briles | Basketball: Scott Drew
In 2006, Baylor football went 4-8 and a sanctioned-limited basketball went 4-13. Less than a decade later, Baylor is competitive on both fronts. In the last three seasons, Baylor football has won its first Heisman and its first Big 12 title. Basketball has been inconsistent under Drew, but the Bears still have two Elite Eight appearances under his watch, which is two more than any other Baylor coach since 1950.
Football: Jim L. Mora | Basketball: Steve Alford
With 19 wins in two seasons, UCLA football is a factor again in the Pac-12 even if the Bruins haven’t broken through for a conference title. Alford’s hire was greeted with skepticism, but the Bruins are in NCAA Tournament contention in his first season in Westwood. Expectations soon will be higher.
Football: Les Miles | Basketball: Johnny Jones
Miles’ credentials are pretty clear: The 2007 national title and appearance in the 2011 title game and four consecutive 10-win seasons. Jones is in his second season at his alma mater after leading one of the most consistent Sun Belt programs at North Texas. Both coaches are standout recruiters in a region flush with prospects.
Football: Mark Richt | Basketball: Mark Fox
Richt has to wonder what might have been if his team had stayed healthy for all of 2013. Otherwise, Georgia has been the SEC’s most stable program since his tenure began in 2001. The Bulldogs haven’t reached a title game, but they’re consistently in the mix for the East title. Fox has had his own dose of bad luck with players like Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie leaving for the NBA Draft. The overall record isn’t pretty, but Georgia has been competitive in SEC play, including an 8-4 mark this season.
Football: Nick Saban | Basketball: Anthony Grant
Saban has few peers in football coaching with three national titles in the last five seasons. Another national No. 1 recruiting class ensures the Crimson Tide are still the team to beat in the SEC despite Auburn’s league title in December. Grant has recruited at a high level, though some of his top prospects have been washouts. This season has been the worst of his five-year tenure, which has included two NITs and one NCAA Tournament.
Football: Will Muschamp | Basketball: Billy Donovan
Normally, a coaching tandem with basketball national titles and a Sugar Bowl would be enough to be at or near the top. Indeed, if Florida overcame injuries last season to get to a second-tier bowl game, maybe the Gators would be No. 1. Alas, Muschamp will be under pressure in his fourth season after presiding over a loss to Georgia Southern and the program’s first losing season since 1979.
Football: Mark Stoops | Basketball: John Calipari
Again, the top two basketball coaches in the SEC are paired with football coaches we’re not quite sure about yet. The last two seasons probably haven’t gone the way most Big Blue Nation envisioned, but Calipari and Kentucky are a perfect match. If Kentucky football can get to regular bowl contention, then this might be the best tandem in the league. Stoops brought in a top 25 signing class in 2014, so it may happen in the near future.
Football: Tommy Tuberville | Basketball: Mick Cronin
Cronin took over a Cincinnati program in shambles just as the Bearcats moved into the Big East. Now, it’s one of the most consistent programs in the country thanks to a commitment to a gritty defensive style of play. Cincinnati has reached three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance two years ago. The Texas Tech job wasn’t a great fit for the well-traveled Tuberville, but Cincinnati welcomed him with open arms. With Louisville gone, he should have the top program in the AAC.
22. San Diego State
Football: Rocky Long | Basketball: Steve Fisher
The former Michigan coach Fisher has had one of the most impressive second acts of anyone. Fisher took over a moribund San Diego State program in 1999 and molded it into the most consistent winner in the Mountain West. This season, the Aztecs are can win their third league title in the last four seasons. Long has also enjoyed his second head coaching stop, continuing the success from the Brady Hoke era. With three bowl games, Long is the only San Diego State coach to reach multiple postseason games.
Football: David Shaw | Basketball: Johnny Dawkins
Shaw has established himself as the top football coach in the Pac-12, leading the Cardinal to back-to-back conference titles. Stanford is 34-7 with three BCS bids under Shaw with plenty of potential to continue given his recruiting success. Dawkins hasn’t matched the success of his predecessors Mike Montgomery or Trent Johnson, but Stanford basketball is finally back in NCAA Tournament contention after a six-year absence.
Football: Kirk Ferentz | Basketball: Fran McCaffery
Ferentz has had only one 10-win season and top-10 finish since the Hawkeyes did so three seasons in a row from 2002-04. Still, Iowa enjoyed rebound season in 2013, finishing with its first winning record in the Big Ten since 2009. In four seasons, McCaffery has rebuilt an Iowa program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and hasn’t won a Tournament game since 2001.
25. Oklahoma State
Football: Mike Gundy | Basketball: Travis Ford
In the last decade, Oklahoma State has risen from an also-ran in football to a program alongside Oklahoma and Texas. The investment from T. Boone Pickens has helped, but Gundy has capitalized with three 10-win seasons in the last four years. After a disappointing season, Ford may be in some trouble if the Cowboys can’t scrap together what they can when Marcus Smart returns from suspension. Still, Oklahoma State has three Tournament appearances in five seasons under Ford.
26. Iowa State
Football: Paul Rhoads | Basketball: Fred Hoiberg
The job in Ames is one of the tougher jobs in either sport, but Rhoads and Hoiberg have been able to keep the Cyclones in postseason contention. More than that, both coaches have a knack the big win — football defeating Oklahoma State in 2011 and basketball defeating No. 7 seed Notre Dame in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Football: Kevin Wilson | Basketball: Tom Crean
If Wilson can find a defense to match the offense in Bloomington, this tandem will rise near the top. The Hoosiers have improved from 0-8 to 2-6 to 3-5 in the Big Ten in his three seasons. Though Indiana’s disappointing 2013-14 season began with a Sweet 16 exit from the NCAA Tournament last year, Indiana emerged from NCAA sanctions to spend much of last season ranked No. 1.
Football: Jerry Kill | Basketball: Richard Pitino
Kill’s program has enjoyed incremental improvement in each of his three seasons, remarkable given that Minnesota finished 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten even as Kill was limited for seven games while he dealt with epilepsy. Pitino, the youngest basketball coach in the Big Ten, has the Gophers in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season.
Football: Bo Pelini | Basketball: Tim Miles
Pelini will need to use the Gator Bowl victory over Georgia to turn the momentum for his program. Nebraska is consistent, but a little too consistent for fans’ tastes. The Huskers have lost four games each season under Pelini, including a few head-scratchers. The charismatic Miles has Nebraska in postseason contention in 2013-14 after going 5-13 in his first season.
Football: Charlie Strong | Basketball: Rick Barnes
Texas has gone from having one of the best tandems in the country when Mack Brown and Rick Barnes on the top of their game, and then one of the most disappointing when Brown missed a bowl game and Barnes missed the NCAA Tournament in a three-year span. Now, we don't know what to expect. With Texas enjoying a bounce-back season on the court, Barnes is coach of the year material. Strong is new to the Big 12 and all the pressures of the Texas job, but his track record at Louisville included 23 wins in his last two years.
Football: Scott Shafer | Basketball: Jim Boeheim
Few coaching tandems are more lopsided than the one that shares the Carrier Dome. After last season’s trip to the Final Four, Boeheim joked his program was due for one trip to the national semifinals each decade (he wasn’t wrong), but the Hall of Famer has a team capable of doing it again. In his first season in the ACC, Boeheim is building upon his win total with 25 consecutive wins to start 2013-14. The football coach, however, is why Syracuse’s tandem is ranked this low in the ACC. Shafer proved himself a perfectly capable coach in his first season, going 7-6 with a Texas Bowl victory.
Football: Al Golden | Basketball: Jim Larranaga
With the NCAA investigation related to the Nevin Shapiro scandal finished an another Penn State coaching search completed, Miami will look to continue its progress under Golden. The Hurricanes have increased their win total every season under Golden, but they remain a middling ACC program (10-6 the last two seasons).
Football: Bronco Mendenhall | Basketball: Dave Rose
The win totals have dropped from the days when BYU won at least 10 games every year from 2006-09, but Mendenhall has never missed a bowl game as a head coach even as the Cougars opted for independence over Mountain West affiliation. Rose’s program on the basketball side is also one of the most consistent in the country. A Tournament bid this season would be the seventh in the last eight seasons.
Football: Gary Pinkel | Basketball: Frank Haith
The question if Missouri could stay afloat in the SEC has been answered with a resounding yes as the Tigers reached the SEC title game and had a shot at the national championship game. Missouri likely will make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season under Haith, but some of the results — two early NCAA exits and a 17-13 record in lackluster league — make it tough to rank this tandem any higher.
Football: Dabo Swinney | Basketball: Brad Brownell
Swinney’s homespun rah-rah personality and his offensive coordinator seem to have made the Clemson football coach underrated — as if motivation and assistant hires aren’t part of the job. Clemson under Swinney is one of eight programs to win 10 games in each of the last three seasons. Meanwhile, he’s led the Tigers to their first top-10 finish since 1990 and first ACC title since 1991. After two lackluster seasons, Brownell has Clemson basketball in contention for its second NCAA Tournament bid in his four-year tenure.
37. Arizona State
Football: Todd Graham | Basketball: Herb Sendek
Graham’s reputation as a job jumper will follow him around, but he can coach. The Sun Devils improved from 6-7 the year before he arrived to 8-5 his first season to 10-4 in his second. Sendek is a veteran coach who is probably earning himself more time after entering the season with his future in question. Arizona State is poised for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.
Football: Paul Chryst | Basketball: Jamie Dixon
Dixon’s consistency — in results and his approach — remain impressive. He’s never won fewer than 22 games and has missed the NCAA Tournament only once in 11 seasons, all without a ton of McDonald’s All-Americans. After two bowl games and a 13-13 record in two seasons, Chryst’s greatest contribution to Pitt has been putting program on stable footing after a revolving door of three head coaches in two seasons.
Football: Mark Helfrich | Basketball: Dana Altman
Helfrich went 11-2 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12 in his first season as a head coach. The next question is if he can sustain Oregon as a national power. Altman wasn’t the first choice for the basketball program, but he’s led the Ducks to a Sweet 16 berth in his third season. Sustainability will be worth watching for Altman as well. His program has been a haven for high-profile transfers, for better or worse.
40. Colorado State
Football: Jim McElwain | Basketball: Larry Eustachy
Eustachy took over an experienced Colorado State team in 2012-13 to go 26-9. The veteran coach has plenty of experience building programs, leading Utah State, Iowa State and Southern Miss to the NCAA Tournament. With an 8-6 season and a New Mexico Bowl victory, McElwain, a former Nick Saban assistant, is a rising star in the coaching ranks.
College basketball will have a new No. 1 team today as Syracuse’s luck ran out — twice — last week.
Florida has as strong a case as any team, turning in another complete performance in a 75-71 win at Ole Miss, the Gators’ 19th victory in a row. Meanwhile, the nation’s lone undefeated team still has plenty of reason to feel underappreciated despite its unblemished record. Wichita State thrashed Drake 83-54 and remains two games away from going to the Missouri Valley Tournament undefeated.
If any team besides Florida or Wichita State ends up No. 1, it will be a surprise, but a handful of teams are playing some of their basketball of the season. Arizona is back to its mid-January form. Kansas answered for its 12-point loss to Texas on Feb. 1 with a 31-point win.
The takeaway from the week, though, may be a first for Jim Boehiem.
College Basketball Weekend Recap: 10 Things to Know
1a. Boeheim cost his team dearly
Jim Boeheim is the Hall of Fame coach, so he’ll get the benefit of the doubt that few other coaches or any of his players would receive for such an outburst. Credit C.J. Fair for pointing out the obvious: Boeheim’s tantrum, his first career ejection, cost Syracuse a realistic chance to tie. Boeheim said the close charge call on Fair on what would have tied the game with 10.4 seconds left was the “game-decider” and the “worst call of the year.” Though Fair and his teammates appreciated the show of emotion, the numbers didn’t really work out. “I think maybe if we didn't get the techs, we probably still had a chance to win,” Fair told reporters. “We lost by (six)? He made three of the four free throws. You do the math.” Maybe not a chance to win, but certainly an opportunity to force overtime.
1b. Jabari Parker, folks
There’s not too much more to be said about one of the nation’s top freshmen and most versatile players. He’s been in All-America form in recent games, picking up his third consecutive double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds against Syracuse. Perhaps Parker benefitted from facing the Syracuse zone, but his 3-point shooting touch returned with 3 of 3 shots from beyond the arc Saturday night. Parker had made two 3-pointers in the previous six games combined.
2. Caris LeVert is the nation’s most improved player in February
Michigan has been one of the most interesting teams in the country this season, essentially because a different player has stepped up to carry the team without Trey Burke and later Mitch McGary. Nik Stauskas is still productive, but Caris LeVert has been the star in recent weeks. That much was true in Sunday’s 79-70 win over Michigan State. Down by 1 midway through the second half, Stauskas and LeVert took over during a 13-0 run that decided the game. LeVert nailed two free throws, hit a 3-pointer and converted on a dunk as part of the run. After finishing with 23 points, LeVert is averaging 17.8 points in the month of February as Michigan remains in the lead of the Big Ten.
3a. Louisville is in championship form
Hadn’t heard much from Louisville lately? That’s because the Cardinals had been playing the worst teams the American Athletic Conference had to offer in the last few weeks. That changed Saturday with a 58-57 win at Cincinnati. The final shot said a great deal about this Louisville team getting ready for the stretch run. Russ Smith rolled to his left, saw he didn’t have a shot and trusted freshman Terry Rozier with the ball. Rozier immediately passed it back to Smith for the long 2-pointer to win the game. But beyond that, Montrezl Harrell had a standout game with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Louisville gave Cincinnati little in the offensive end. Sean Kilpatrick was the only player with more than two field goals, and it took him 26 shots to get to 28 points.
4a. Frank Kaminsky should get Big Ten player of the year looks
And that’s kind of ridiculous. Back on Nov. 19, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points against North Dakota. At the time it seemed like an oddity. He hasn’t hit 40 points again, but Kaminsky had as great a week as anyone in the Big Ten. On Feb. 16, Kaminsky had 25 points and 11 rebounds in a road win over Michigan. And on Saturday, he added 21 points and seven rebounds in a 79-74 road win against Iowa. The real scary thing is that the 7-footer is a fine free throw shooter, helping seal the win over the Hawkeyes with 5 of 6 shots from the free throw line.
4b. Iowa’s ceiling strikes again
Iowa is a fine team, but the Hawkeyes have yet to prove they’re better than Sweet 16 material. Iowa and Wisconsin traded the lead six times in the final 3:08 before the Badgers finally sealed the game. Iowa is now 2-7 against the RPI top 50.
5. Florida is as worthy of the No. 1 ranking as anyone
The Gators had a fairly typical game Saturday, defeating Ole Miss 75-71 in Oxford. And by typical, we mean Florida was really, really good. Florida started slow defensively but held Marshall Henderson to 0 of 6 from the field in the second half. Meanwhile, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier were the outside shooters of note, combine for 9 of 20 from 3. And center Patric Young continues to cap his career in excellent fashion with 12 super-efficient points (4 of 5 from the field, 4 of 4 from the free throw line). The Gators can defend, they can score from inside and outside, and their edge in experience down the stretch is evident.
6. Virginia might win the ACC
Thanks to three combined losses by Duke and Syracuse last week, Virginia has taken over the ACC lead, and there’s no reason the Cavaliers can’t finish the deal. Virginia has lost once since the calendar turned to 2013 — a four-point loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. For the remainder of the regular season, Virginia has Miami and Syracuse at home and Maryland on the road. Virginia’s run isn’t just fortunate scheduling. The Cavs can win some games in March. In a game where Joe Harris was not at his best (3 of 10 from the field), Virginia still shot 63.6 percent from the floor and outscored Notre Dame 40-19 in the second half of a 70-49 win.
7. A little bit of good and a little bit of bad for Kentucky
Give credit to Kentucky for avoiding a season sweep to LSU with Julius Randle’s putback with 3.9 seconds in overtime off an offensive rebound by James Young. LSU led in the final two minutes of overtime and by two with 21 seconds left in regulation before Kentucky emerged with a 77-76 win. On the one hand, Kentucky needed this kind of hard-earned win. But LSU, a talented but inconsistent team, still appears to have Kentucky’s number. Johnny O’Bryant III had a combined 49 points and 21 rebounds against the Wildcats. If it wasn’t O’Bryant against Kentucky, it was Anthony Hickey (20 points, four 3-pointers, eight assists) from the outside. Kentucky chalked this up to LSU being a good matchup for the Wildcats, but that has to be a concern for a Wildcats team looking to advance in the postseason.
8. Arizona is back among the national elite even without Brandon Ashley
The season-ending injury to Brandon Ashley forced Arizona to adjust to the absence of a key frontcourt player. After an 88-61 win at Colorado, the Wildcats are passing that test. Defensive stalwart Aaron Gordon had his best game of the season with 23 points and 10-of-13 shooting against the Buffaloes. Meanwhile, guard Gabe York entered the starting lineup to grab 10 rebounds against Colorado and score 15 points in Wednesday’s overtime win over Utah. Ashley still leaves a major void, but the only loss without him is in double overtime to Arizona State.
9. Time to start paying attention to New Mexico
It’s been too easy to ignore the Mountain West this season. In all likelihood, this will be a two-bid league. New Mexico, not San Diego State, might end up winning the conference, though. The Lobos shocked a top-10 Aztecs team 58-44, but this thing was over early. New Mexico led by as much as 24 in the second half behind an All-America kind of performance from Cameron Bairstow (26 points, nine rebounds, 11 of 18 shooting). When New Mexico finishes the season on the road at San Diego State, Craig Neal could clinch a regular-season title in his first season with the Lobos.
10. You won’t find many finishes stranger than what happened to Tennessee
Let’s start with the end of regulation in College Station. Volunteers guard Antonio Barton appeared to have hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left, but Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin had called a timeout to negate the shot. On the next play, Jarnell Stokes tied the game on a layup but missed the free throw on the 3-point play to send the game to overtime. In the extra frame, Texas A&M’s Antwan Space hit a 3-pointer with 8 seconds remaining. Here’s the strange part: Space has made nine 3-pointers, and two of them were to beat Tennessee in the final seconds of a game. Beyond the bizarre finishes, Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes may be in trouble with four losses in the last six games.
• Someone will be the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, but no team in this league outside of Arizona looks capable of winning multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford defeated Arizona 83-74 in a game that was rarely in question. Any time UCLA starts to build momentum, the Bruins get tripped up on the second road trip of the week. The Bruins are 0-3 in Saturday/Sunday road games. Good on Stanford, though, which is a step closer to making the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Johnny Dawkins.
• Andrew Wiggins went 2 of 12 for 7 points in Kansas’ loss to Texas in Austin on Feb. 12. He went 7 of 12 for 21 points in an easy 85-54 win when the Longhorns visited Lawrence. Wiggins is ready for the postseason.
• Is it time to declare a moratorium on referring to North Carolina’s bad losses early in the season? The Tar Heels came back from the win over Duke to roll over Wake Forest 105-72. Leslie McDonald, suspended to start the season, had a breakout week with 21 against Duke and 19 against Wake.
• Oklahoma State is still alive. The Cowboys defeated Texas Tech 84-62 to end a seven-game losing streak in Marcus Smart’s return from suspension. Smart was back to form with 16 points, 10 assists and six steals.
• Who wants to play in the NCAA Tournament from the Big East? St. John’s let a key win slip through its fingers in a 57-54 loss to Villanova. Xavier dropped its fifth game in the last eight games with a 74-52 defeat to Georgetown, a team that lost earlier in the week to Seton Hall.
• Why can’t anyone figure out who the No. 3 team in the SEC is? Missouri keeps doing things like losing 80-73 to an Alabama team with a losing record.
• UMass appeared to be fading a few weeks ago, but the Minutemen picked up two nice wins last week on the road against George Washington on Feb. 15 and at home over VCU on Friday.
• Saint Louis won its 19th consecutive game and still wasn’t satisfied, even if that win was another stout defensive performance against a fellow A-10 team likely headed to the NCAA Tournament in George Washington. The Billikens are the only top 10 team no one’s watching.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For a sport facing such drastic change — change that has not necessarily been accepted by an obstinate fanbase — NASCAR needed a dose of familiarity. In its marquee event, the Daytona 500, it got just that. Favorite son and this generation's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., broke a 55-race winless skid with a thrilling victory in the Great American Race, giving NASCAR Nation a brief moment of serenity.
“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.”
The win was his second Daytona 500 victory, the first earned 10 years prior. The triumph juxtaposed with the return of the No. 3 car, a symbol made famous by his late father who lost his life in this very race in 2001.
The event was also reminiscent of great Daytona races of the past. A tweaked rules package promoted passing, and the evening’s cooler temperatures — a six and a half hour rain delay pushed the bulk of the event into prime time — increased grip and speed. The result was an action-packed show that witnessed seven cautions, four of which came in the final 32 laps that set up pit strategies that further escalated the drama.
“I think it was the (rules) package and the way you were having to race to stand your ground,” Earnhardt said of the competitive nature of the race.
The sport’s heavy hitters were front and center, as well, slugging it out at the front of the field as the laps wound down. Earnhardt dueled with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the Fords of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski, and the week’s heretofore strongest contingent, the Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. If NASCAR needed its brightest stars to showcase its biggest event that begins its most dramatically altered season in decades, the boys delivered in fine form.
A chaotic final two-lap dash to the checkered flag found Earnhardt out front, fending off the dogged challenges of Hamlin, Keselowski and Gordon who, along with Johnson, ultimately rounded out the top 5. When the pack failed to formulate a drafting run on the Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy, he muscled his way to the win as the caution and checkers flew simultaneously due to a crash in Turn 4.
“Tonight it was about not giving an inch; not running fifth,” Earnhardt said. “It was a unique race. We were all pushing the envelope out there and asking a lot of each other.
“Everybody was climbing on top of each other and we all really put each other in difficult situations — but it was really fun. I felt like that for the first time in a long time we were able to see just how talented everybody is.”
“I think everyone raced a hard 500-mile race,” Keselowski agreed. “I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting. That has to be the hardest 500 race ever — probably one of the best.”
The competitive race and electric finish, coupled with Earnhardt’s popularity, found the crowded grandstand at a fever pitch on his victory lap. The result was a weight lifted off the shoulders of not only the driver, but that of his massive fanbase.
“It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say that you’re the face of the sport and you’re running fifth or 10th every week it’s difficult because you want to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “This bring me a lot of joy.”
It was a joy others felt as well. Jeff Gordon, the sport’s “wonderboy” turned elder statesman, summed up the collective feelings of NASCAR Nation, which has endured droves of change — seemingly for the sake of change — over the past month.
“Congrats to Junior,” Gordon beamed. “All's right in the world!”
For at least one glorious Sunday night in Daytona Beach, mere miles from the sands where the sport was established, all was right in the world of NASCAR.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
What happens when the Daytona 500 goes to a rain delay and FOX decides to re-air the previous year’s race?
When confused viewers take to social media, Twitter hilarity ensues.
The Daytona 500 was red flagged at 2:12 pm EST due to heavy rain in Daytona Beach, Fla. After some live coverage of the delay and quickly running out of content, FOX simply re-aired the 2013 edition of the Great American Race.
Steve Luvender (@steveluvender) took to Twitter, retweeting over three hours worth of viewers who had been fooled into thinking what they were watching was live. It’s unclear why FOX did not “stamp” the screen with a “REPLAY” designation, but we’re glad they didn’t.
Thank you for this brilliance, Steve. Now sit back and observe quickly it can all go wrong .... and the majesty of a confused viewing audience:
Not surprisingly, Danica Patrick got a lot of play. The best part of the above tweet? Danica finished eighth last year, not ninth. Fricking unbelievable, indeed.
As with any new season, drivers, numbers, sponsors come and go. Thus, no 500 run this year for Jeff Burton and Mark Martin — just to clear up any confusion. And that 3 car? Yeah, I heard something about it returning as well…
Actually, Meagan, the really cool people knew better.
Wrong 500 AND wrong sport!
Hanging with the big boys in the motor coach lot, that is.
Why yes, yes it is.
And the crème de la crème … FOX News (yes, the same organization that pays millions to broadcast NASCAR) claims to be fair and balanced, but that's a tall order when they obviously weren't keeping track of the day's events:
There’s a reason ESPN has become the sports goliath that it is today.
They were the first and best in the business to do what they do. It began on Sept. 6, 1979 with the original run of their signature nightly sportscast that kept fans informed about what was happening in sports. This well before the eruption of the Internet, blog-o-sphere, social media or niche television networks.
For those of us born in the early '80s (like myself), SportsCenter was as big a part of my childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I could follow my favorite teams, stories and personalities from all over the nation in one place. I could watch Knicks and Mets highlights every night whether I lived in Dallas, Atlanta or Austin. But what took SportsCenter from small cable network newscast to broadcasting behemoth was the creative, funny and unique personalities that, as Ron Burgundy would say, read the news. To quote one truly epic newscaster, “I don’t know how to put this, but, I’m kind of a big deal.”
With that in mind, from the viewer's perspective, here are the Top 25 SportsCenter anchors of all-time:
1. Dan Patrick (1989-06)
Not many jobs in any broadcasting field last for nearly 20 years and Patrick was the one of the best. Signature phrases "en fuego" (which actually started as "el fuego") and "The Whiff" helped grow the idea that SportsCenter was as much entertainment as it was news. He and his cohort Keith Olbermann should be largely credited with the initial growth of ESPN as the World Wide Leader. Others brought creativity and entertainment to sports broadcasting but Patrick and "KO" perfected the art and changed the way fans consume highlights forever. Not many sportscasters have 16 motion pictures and two national radio shows on their resume. Patrick has set the bar in the sports broadcasting industry.
2. Bob Ley (1979-present)
The classy stalwart has been with the network since its inception in 1979, making him one of (if not the) longest tenured ESPN employees in the building. Over the course of his prestigious career, Ley has claimed eight sports Emmys (Sports Journalism) and three Cable ACE awards (Sports Information Series) and has been the long-time host of the acclaimed investigative program Outside the Lines. He is credited with breaking the story of Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
3. Keith Olbermann (1992-97)
After a decade with CNN, Olbermann joined ESPN’s SportsCenter in 1992 quickly becoming a marquee personality. By 1995, he had won the Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. After things had soured internally at ESPN, and with an eye always toward the political spectrum, Olbermann left SportsCenter for MSNBC in 1997. He also worked for Fox Sports Net and NBC Nightly News. The cult-hit sitcom Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, is based on Olbermann’s time spent with Patrick on the set of SportsCenter. Despite his bizarre and eccentric personality, ESPN likely isn’t what it is today without the impact of the combination of Patrick and Olbermann. He is credited with the advent of the phrase “This is SportsCenter” which has been used in cross-promotion and advertising for nearly two decades.
4. Greg Gumbel (1979-88)
There is little Mr. Gumbel has yet to accomplish in his illustrious broadcasting career. He has done play-by-play for the NCAA Tournament, NBA, MLB, Winter Olympics, college baseball and NFL. He has hosted shows about every sport on NBC and CBS as well as ABC. But it all started back in 1979 when he started his career at ESPN. He was a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man at a time when many doubted the future of SportsCenter. Gumbel’s no-nonsense approach has made him a model and iconic broadcaster who influenced generations of rising journalists and TV personalities.
5. Scott Van Pelt (2001-present)
The signature bald head of Van Pelt has become a staple of the ESPN television and radio broadcasts. He began working at the Golf Channel and has continued his work as one of the top host/analysts at all the major tournaments each season. Much like Patrick, Mayne and Olbermann, SVP’s comedic talents on SportsCenter helped him land an ESPN Radio gig as well as a variety of video game jobs (EA Sports).
6. Kenny Mayne (1994-present)
Few television personalities have ever had a dryer sense of humor than Mayne. The Washington native and junior college quarterback debuted on SportSmash in 1994 before moving over to the big network and developing into one of the funnier broadcasters in sports. His extensive and creative home runs calls in particular have withstood the test of time. He then developed “The Mayne Event” for NFL Sunday mornings and is still currently involved with his own feature “Wider World of Sports” as well as horse racing.
7. Linda Cohn (1992-present)
In 1987, Cohn made her first big mark in the business by becoming the first full-time national female sports anchor in U.S. radio history. She has withstood the test of time, hosting SportsCenter for over 20 years. Along the way, she was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and given the Women’s Sports Journalism Award. She also authored her own biography and has paved the way for women everywhere to break into the sports broadcasting business — or, as she puts it, “The Boys’ Club.”
8. Rece Davis (1995-present)
Laurece “Rece” Davis graduated from Alabama in 1968 and worked his way to ESPN2 by 1995. The consummate professional, Davis can play both host and analyst roles as well as anyone in the business. His work on College Football Live, Gameday Final and College Gameday make him one of the best in the business. He is always gracious with his time and is one of the few who genuinely loves the sports he covers.
9. Robin Roberts (1990-04)
The smooth-talking Roberts has been a staple of national television for over two decades. With quality catch-phrases and her up-tempo personality, Roberts developed into one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all-time. She won three Emmys for her work at ESPN and was given the Mel Greenberg Media Award in 2001. It eventually landed her on ABC’s signature morning program Good Morning America. Her very public bout (and victory) with cancer is just one reason millions have grown to love the Mississippi native.
10. Chris Berman (1979-present)
When he was good, few have ever been as entertaining and likable as Berman. Signature catch phrases and nicknames made him one of the preeminent SportsCenter anchors during the time of biggest growth for ESPN. His work on NFL Primetime and the Home Run Derby makes him one of the most distinctive personalities in ESPN history. However, his longevity might be his biggest weakness as 30 years in the business has left his shtick a bit stale. At his best (the '90s), he was one of the greats. And at his worst (the '00s), he can be nails on a chalkboard.
11. Ron Burgundy (2013)
The legend himself had a short run at ESPN — one show — but he is one of the greatest broadcasters to ever grace a television set. His interview with Peyton Manning alone was epic. And, of course, who could forget his audition tape from before SportsCenter had launched. As it turns out, Burgundy's intuition about the potential of 24-hour sports network were incorrect.
12. Brian Kenny (1997-11)
A baseball and boxing junkie, Kenny won an Emmy at ESPN and was named the network’s Volunteer of the Year in 2007. He also was named SI’s Media Personality of the Year in 2004 and Boxing Broadcaster of the Year in 2005.
13. John Anderson (1999-present)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious journalism departments in the nation at Missouri, Anderson has been one of the best new generation anchors at ESPN. He won the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year in 2012 and has crossed over into mainstream as the co-host of ABC's Wipeout.
14. Craig Kilborn (1993-96)
Many give credit to Kilborn, Patrick and Olbermann for bringing comedy to the SportsCenter set. He went on to host The Daily Show on Comedy Central and The Late, Late Show on CBS. He also famously appeared in Old School.
15. John Buccigross (1996-present)
The hockey aficionado has won Emmys for his work on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight as well as NHL Tonight. He has written for the Web site (as well as a book) and hosted for ESPN for nearly 20 years.
16. Dave Revsine (1999-07)
An even-keel broadcaster is as professional as they come. A Northwestern grad, Revsine hosted a variety of shows for ESPN and did play-by-play. In 2007, he left ESPN to become the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network when the channel launched.
17. Charley Steiner (1987-01)
The jolly, bearded anchor always seemed to have a good time on the air and always seemed to be involved in the funnier SC moments (Carl Lewis?). He eventually worked his way onto ESPN’s national baseball radio broadcasts as well before moving on to the Yankees' radio team in 2002.
18. Rich Eisen (1996-03)
The affable NFL Network lead host began his broadcasting career at KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. He landed at ESPN in 1996 and built a name for himself with baseball impersonations and quality reporting. His podcast (The Rich Eisen Podcast) is one of the most listened to on the Web (over 7 mill. downloads).
19. Tim Brando (1986-94)
Brando has been a broadcasting giant for nearly 30 years. He has worked for CBS and, now, SiriusXM College Sports Nation, but it all began nationally at ESPN. He worked on the NCAA basketball championships and the beginning of the great College Gameday as well as anchoring SportsCenter for nearly a decade.
20. Mike Tirico (1991-1997)
One of the smoothest sportscasters in the business today has arguably the best job in the business calling Monday Night Football. However, he got started on SC in the early 90s. He is calm, cool and collected at all times and it makes for an enjoyable broadcast nearly everytime.
21. Steve Levy (1993-present)
A quality and likable broadcaster, Levy has been around the SportsCenter desk for two decades. His famous “bulging disk” slip-up is one of the all-time great moments in ESPN history. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Overtime” for his work as a hockey broadcaster.2
22. Neil Everett (2000-present)
The West Coaster worked at Hawaii Pacific University for 15 years before getting back into broadcasting. His signature deep, gravelly voice and Island vocabulary makes him one of the better “new” anchors.
23. Suzy Kolber (1993-96, 1999-present)
She has been around and lasted as long as anyone in the business. Like Roberts and Cohn just before her, Kolber is a bit of a pioneer in the male-dominated industry. She also gave American sports fans one of the greatest TV moments of all-time.
24. Kevin Frazier (2002-04)
His time was brief at ESPN, but “K-Fray” has long been one of the business’ most respected personalities. He is now the host of The Insider as well as college football coverage on FX and Fox.
25. Sage Steele (2007-present)
One of the most affable hosts in the business earned her stripes as a SC anchor and it delivered her a big-time gig. Steele recently has taken over as the lead chair for ESPN's NBA coverage.
A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona Beach. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.
Denny Hamlin has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. Amongst those in the garage, the performance of Hamlin’s No. 11 team — and his Joe Gibbs Racing outfit as a whole — has managed to unseat another popular storyline: The return of Richard Childress’ No. 3 car.
Austin Dillon cornered the publicity market last Sunday when he won the pole while campaigning the number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt after a 13-year hiatus.
Meanwhile, some of NASCAR’s traditional heavy-hitters have bent more sheet metal than collected hardware during Speedweeks.
Defending series and Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson has destroyed two cars, one in the Sprint Unlimited, the other in a Duel 150. Johnson’s chief rival in 2013, Matt Kenseth, has been involved in two wrecks of his own, though he rebounded for a Duel win on Thursday. Others, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, have shown flashes of speed but have little to show for it thus far.
Last year’s Speedweeks sweatheart, Danica Patrick, has been far from invisible, having weathered a storm that arose when Richard Petty made pointed observations about her stock-car credibility. However, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole winner’s 13th-place run in the 25-car Duel field and crash in the Unlimited were mundane showings, to say the least.
With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the green flag flies at 1:30 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the week prior, the exhibitions and qualifiers, will fall prey to the reality of performance on race day.
The aforementioned Hamlin is undefeated since last season’s penultimate race, having won the season finale in Homestead, Fla., and his two races this week.
Though his qualifying speed on Sunday was only 22nd fastest, his JGR team has found single-car speed since and the No. 11 Toyota seems to do whatever its driver commands in the pack. In 35 years, no driver has pulled the Daytona trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 — in the same year, though 13 have won the two prelims.
“I think the biggest challenge we'll have is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said of the difficulty in sweeping Speedweeks. “(The Daytona 500 is) a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it's hard not to just want to go out there (and) show that you're still on top and still the best right on lap one.
“I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.”
Thus far, when the reins have been released it’s been Hamlin riding the fastest horse.
A two-time Daytona 500 champion, Kenseth is as stealthy-strong as any plate racer on the circuit. Yes, he’s torn up some race cars this week, but the lessons learned may have only made him better. A masterful win in Thursday’s second Duel wasn’t proof of that, but it was sweet redemption.
“Honestly, I was kind of embarrassed to walk in the garage,” said Kenseth of the two wrecks where he’d been at ground zero. “I feel like they're looking at you cross-eyed when you're walking by.
“To get the car in the front (in the Duel) and keep it there, win that thing, certainly builds confidence.”
Even more encouraging for Kenseth and teammate Hamlin is that as good as they’ve been, the duo has yet to truly work with one another in race conditions.
Kevin Harvick can identify with Denny Hamlin. Last season, it was Harvick who entered Sunday with an unblemished Speedweeks record. His hopes for a second 500 win wasn’t to be, though, as his Richard Childress Racing Chevy — one very similar to the Chevy Austin Dillon will drive this year — was swept up in an accident not of his making.
Starting anew at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he’s shown strength throughout the week, running second by a nose to Kenseth in the first Duel. Crew chief Rodney Childers says the team is ready.
“I feel like we’re good to go,” said Childers following Happy Hour. “Kevin’s really happy with the car. Didn’t have any vibrations, tire wear has been good.
“It’s a new group of guys. We have to do our jobs, not make mistakes and we should be good.”
Keselowski typically doesn’t make this list. His career-best, fourth-place run in the Daytona 500 boosted the 2012 series champion’s average finish at the track to 22.1. However, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford has shown muscle in the pack throughout the week.
Second to Hamlin in the Unlimited, another showdown between the two was shaping up in the second Duel when a pit road speeding penalty and subsequent flat tire spoiled a promising run.
“I have the best (Cup) car I’ve ever had down here,” Keselowski quipped following a runner-up finish in the Nationwide Series race.
If the car matches the confidence, that average finish could continue its positive trend.
Looking for a darkhorse? McMurray, in a back-up car after the big Duel wreck, fits the bill. Third on the board in final practice, McMurray’s Chip Ganassi Racing team ran 27 laps on Saturday.
“The car has been running better today,” crew chief Keith Rodden said. “We had to get the back up out and we didn’t get much time on the track yesterday. So today we ran in a small pack. It sucked up good (in the draft) and we ran by ourselves to try a few things just for raw speed and Jamie is pretty happy.”
If Rodden may have questions about the car, but there are none surrounding the driver. Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And as McMurray showed in the 2010 Daytona 500, the annual unexpected contender sometimes actually goes to Victory Lane.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Not long ago, Michigan and Michigan State appeared to be the only teams in a duel for the Big Ten title.
Technically, the Michigan schools are still locked in the conference title race, but Iowa has been able to close the gap as neither the Wolverines nor the Spartans have been able to win back-to-back games in several weeks.
The Spartans, despite an incomplete roster for most of the season, continue to surprise, but Thursday’s result may have been the most shocking. Michigan State hit 17 3-pointers on 32 attempts in a game in which Tom Izzo’s team attempted only 2-point shots in the first half against Purdue.
John Beilein’s team has had its own share of surprises, too. Nik Stauskas became the go-to player as Big Ten play began, but now that mantle belongs elsewhere.
Just like it was the first time around, the Big Ten lead will be up for grabs when Michigan State faces Michigan.
What’s on the line for Michigan State
Hard to believe, but Michigan State hasn’t won back-to-back games in a month. The schedule has become more difficult in the Big Ten, plus the Spartans played a non-conference game against Georgetown in New York. The Spartans have been limited by injuries all season, so the rotation hasn’t been consistent, either. Still, Michigan State is one game ahead in the win column in the Big Ten standings.
What’s on the line for Michigan
The Wolverines’ drought of consecutive wins isn’t as long as Michigan State’s, but it’s significant. Michigan hasn’t won two in a row since Jan. 30. Michigan can take the Big Ten lead with a win.
Sunday, noon Eastern, CBS
About Michigan State
Record: 22-5, 11-3 Big Ten
Record: 18-7, 10-3 Big Ten
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan State 67-62
Braden Gall: Michigan 71-70
Mitch Light: Michigan 74-69
The first meeting on Jan. 25 was one of the top games of the season. The Wolverines and Spartans went back and forth in East Lansing before Michigan pulled away for a 75-70 win. The finish was remarkable given Michigan State’s limitations — Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson were out, Keith Appling’s wrist limited him to 3 of 11 from the field. This time around, Dawson is still out, and Appling is ailing.
Pivotal player: Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Payne missed the first meeting between the two, but now that he’s healthy, he’s continued to be a matchup problem inside and outside. He hit key 3-pointers against Wisconsin despite the loss and then hit 4 of 8 from beyond the arc in the 3-point fest against Purdue. And remember, this is a 6-10 forward who is a problem in the paint. How Michigan holds him in check will be a key to the game.
Biggest question: Who will take the lead for Michigan?
Nik Stauskas was the top of his game during the first meeting, but opponents have figured out how to defend him in recent weeks. Meanwhile, guard Caris LeVert has emerged as the go-to scorer. His 16.8 points per game leads Michigan in the month of February. Freshmen Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin also have been leading contributors in the last five games.
1. Joe Gibbs Racing easily the early favorites
The sabre-rattling from the Joe Gibbs Racing camp early in Daytona Speedweeks has been impossible to avoid. Simply put: they’ve won everything, save for the Daytona 500 pole in single-lap qualifying.
Denny Hamlin has beamed with confidence that apparently hasn’t let up since he won the 2013 season finale last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He’s been perfect, dominating every segment of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and waltzing to the win of his Thursday qualifying race. Naturally, teammate Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag in the other one.
JGR didn’t find victory lane in the four points-paying restrictor-plate races last season, but it did put on a spectacular show for the first 150 laps of last year’s 500. All told the team led 119 of 200 laps before a plague of engine failures for Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch dropped them to the garage. Hamlin settled for 14th.
The speed display in racing conditions for the team so far has shown that it’s ready for a similar 500 output — though hopefully with a better finish.
Should the JGR team manage to put a driver across the finish line first, it would also mark the first-ever win for Toyota in the sport’s crown jewel event.
2. Patience in passing key to Daytona’s start
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 always gets goofy. But 2014 may be one of the crazier starting lineups in recent history with so many race favorites loaded in the back half of the field either due to crashes, engine changes or just poor runs in the qualifying races.
Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart all are scheduled to start 30th or worse. And if you’re the extra-optimistic type, last year’s eighth-place finisher, Danica Patrick, joins that group, too.
How that group handles being at the back for the start will play a big role in how the race finishes. Track position, according to the early competitive events at Daytona, seems a bit easier to gain on-track this year than last. But such a charge requires calculated risks through a field of drivers with inexperience and general nerves of starting the Daytona 500.
Watching how those drivers move through the field and in to position will be a fascinating storyline early on.
3. Explaining the sport’s newest popular phrase
If you’ve watched any racing at Daytona so far, you’ve heard it. You’ll undoubtedly hear it during Sunday’s 500. It’s the new phrase that every driver and team can’t stop mentioning at Daytona related to restrictor plate racing.
But what exactly is side drafting? According to Kevin Harvick, it’s the best way for a challenging car to both slow down a car under threat and to keep the challenger’s momentum from stalling out when attempting a pass. Basically, it’s an equalizer.
“It’s like putting the brakes on, exactly like putting the brakes on,” Harvick said of side drafting when another driver tries the maneuver.
“When you go to go by a car, basically the front air off the car that you are passing packs up against your rear spoiler and just slows the car down,” Harvick said.
To avoid that, drivers swing within inches of the side of the car they are passing hoping to force the wake of air up and over both cars, rather than primarily to their own spoiler. As the cars pull alongside, the moved air from both increases the drag of each car. With the help of a draft from behind or just simply stronger momentum, a pass can be made.
It’s certainly no exact science, but side drafting is definitely a factor in the current restrictor plate configuration. It may just play a role in the final sprint for the Harley J. Earl trophy.
4. Weather again a factor at Daytona
Just like it was a year ago for the Great American Race, forecasters are worried rain could impact the sport’s grand season opener. Just over 24 hours before the green flag, the National Weather Service predicted a warm, mostly cloudy day with temperatures near 80 degrees. The day-long chance of precipitation was 30 percent.
What effect could that have on drivers in Sunday’s race? Don’t expect much of an issue in the mental department — most drivers have been through rain delays enough times to not let the often halting conditions change their preparation. The rain could, however, affect how many teams plot out gaining track position throughout the day.
If blips show up on the radar and the race is nearing or past the halfway point, crew chiefs might be compelled to gamble with alternate pit stops. The aggression will also carry over the team radio and into the driver’s head — potentially producing more on-track aggression.
Of course, the forecast could prove irrelevant. Rain drops could miss the 2.5-mile superspeedway throughout the afternoon and everything could go off without a hitch. If that happens, expect handling to come in to play more than normal thanks to the air temperature that is expected to be higher than many previous 500s.
5. Will Hendrick Motorsports’ quiet Speedweeks last?
Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon ran — officially, at least — second in each of their qualifying races Thursday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 14 laps in his and Jimmie Johnson tore up his second Chevrolet SS in six days when he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the second Budweiser Duel and triggered a massive crash.
It’s not that Hendrick Motorsports has been invisible during this edition of Daytona Speedweeks. But the team certainly hasn’t been top of mind as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas have won every event. Will that last? Signs after the qualifying races indicate the team may not have shown its full hand quite yet.
On his qualifying race cool-down lap, Earnhardt shot a quick message of confidence to crew chief Steve Letarte over the team’s radio.
“That’s a lot of race car,” Earnhardt said.
Gordon, too, seemed to beam knowing his team didn’t stand as the target of the garage area.
“I’m really happy with our race car. I think we snuck in there with a quiet, under the radar, very fast car that's capable of winning this race,” Gordon said Thursday. “I like it that way.”
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Kansas and Texas have identical records at 20-6, but the perception couldn’t be more different.
In Austin, Rick Barnes could be the Big 12 coach of the year. In Lawrence, media are asking Bill Self about the more frustrating parts of the season. Such are the expectation levels in basketball, and you can bet if Kansas and Texas had the same record in football, the roles would be reversed.
The first meeting between these two schools was a pivotal moment in the Big 12 season. With an 81-69 win, Texas proved it was in the league race to stay. And with the loss, Kansas dropped its first Big 12 contest of the season after handling a run of NCAA Tournament-caliber teams in the league.
For the second time around, Self is anticipating a change in the narrative.
“There's something about how teams kind of raise their level the second time you play somebody if they've been handled pretty easily the first time,” Self said. “I don't know why that is, but it seems like it's always that way.”
What’s on the line for Texas
The Longhorns are playing with house money. Contending for the Big 12 title is more than anyone expected. What Texas needs more than anything is a respectable showing on the road. Texas lost its last two road games, by 9 to Iowa State and by 17 to Kansas State. Three of Texas’ last five regular season games are away from Austin.
What’s on the line for Kansas
The Jayhawks have a two-game lead in the Big 12 standings as they look to win their 10th consecutive league title. Even though Kansas doesn’t have a bad loss on its ledger — all six are to teams ranked 38th and above in the RPI — the Jayhawks might have trouble grabbing a No. 1 seed with seven or more losses.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU
Record: 20-6, 9-4 Big 12
Record: 20-6, 11-2 Big 12
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Kansas 78-67
Braden Gall: Kansas 81-67
Mitch Light: Kansas 83-71
The top freshman entering the season is starting to play like a superstar. The 64-63 win over Texas Tech was closer than KU would have expected, but Wiggins had several huge plays late, including the game-winning layup with 2 seconds remaining and a block in the final minute. The first meeting against Texas was one of his most ineffective of the year as the freshman was 2 of 12 from the field.
Pivotal player: Javan Felix, Texas
The Longhorns aren’t the most prolific or efficient 3-point shooting team in the Big 12, but Javan Felix will take some shots. Felix is 14 of 33 from 3-point range in the last three games. The formula for a road upset is 3-point shooting, and Felix is Texas’ best hope.
Biggest question: How will Texas defend Joel Embiid?
Kansas’ other big-name freshman returned from injury to score 18 against Texas Tech. In the Longhorns’ last game, Iowa State dominated inside, outscoring Texas in the paint 40-17.
The last time Syracuse and Duke met, it might as well have been a Final Four game.
A massive arena, two 900-win coaches and a thriller down to the end of Syracuse’s 91-89 win in overtime. The rematch of the game of the year will have a different feel, and not just because the game is in cozy Cameron Indoor instead of the Carrier Dome.
The names are the same, but both Syracuse and Duke are coming off losses, both problematic for different reasons. The first loss of the season for the Orange came against a team that entered the matchup with six wins all year. Duke’s loss was far less embarrassing at North Carolina, but the Blue Devils’ went cold from the field in the final six minutes, contributing to the Tar Heels’ come-from-behind win.
Neither team desperate by any means, but both programs are seeking to avoid an unlikely two-game losing streak.
What’s on the line for Syracuse
The Orange had been flirting with their first loss for weeks before the bottom fell out against Boston College on Wednesday. Has the pressure been lifted or does Syracuse have major concerns after shooting 32.3 percent from the floor at home against a bad Boston College team?
What’s on the line for Duke
Duke needs to answer for a loss, too. The Blue Devils collapsed down the stretch against rival North Carolina on Thursday as a four-point lead in the final 6:26 ended in an eight-point defeat.
Saturday, 7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Record: 25-1, 12-1 ACC
Record: 21-6, 10-4 ACC
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Duke 68-60
Braden Gall: Duke 73-67
Mitch Light: Duke 80-61
Ennis' bid at late-game perfection ended in the last week against NC State and Boston College, but the first game against Duke was one of the high points of his season. Ennis had three assists and no turnovers and was perfect from the field (1 for 1) and the free throw line (6 for 6) in the final 10 minutes of the overtime win. How he responds to Syracuse’s first loss and his own personal cold streak will be key. Parker began the season as a prolific 3-point shooter, but that part of his game has been all but abandoned in ACC play.
Pivotal players: Duke’s second and third options
The first meeting between the two was a key moment for Blue Devils not named Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Amile Jefferson had six offensive rebounds. Rasheed Sulaimon and Andre Dawkins had a combined 30 points. Those three players had minimal contributions in Thursday’s loss to North Carolina.
Biggest question: Can Syracuse score enough to win in Cameron?
Syracuse hasn’t cracked 60 points in the last four games and topped 70 points only once since Jan. 7. The per-possession numbers have been just as dismal: Syracuse has averaged 92.7 points per 100 possessions in the last two games. C.J. Fair has been streaky, and Trevor Cooney has been cold from 3-point range. That can’t continue if Syracuse hopes to win games deep into March.
Ricky Craven didn’t put a full-court press on Victory Lane during his Sprint Cup driving career. He won only twice over a span of 11 years, but in his life as a racing analyst for ESPN — a role he’s held since 2008 — he has emerged as one of sports television’s most respected commentators.
Calm, confident and reasoned in his comments, Craven has established himself as a whip-smart analyst in a sport that often defies easy analysis. He doesn’t use catchphrases or wild rants but instead attempts to tell listeners why events unfold and what to expect around the next turn.
A driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 1991 and from 1995-2004, Craven, now 47, scored wins at Martinsville and Darlington (in a famous, grinding finish with Kurt Busch) before exiting the driver’s seat for good after the 2006 Nationwide Series season.
Craven shared some of his perspective with Athlon Sports.
Athlon Sports: How do you see a race as an analyst versus how you experienced one as a driver? How is the perspective different?
Ricky Craven: From a driver’s perspective, you’re not as aware of the big picture and what is required to pull off an event and how one or two things during the race affect so many others. Most athletes are programmed to be selfish. It’s what you need to be to compete and succeed. Some things appear one way from the driver’s seat, and the same things I see today I say, ‘OK, wow, that looks different and has a completely different effect.’
Years ago, races ended under caution. A race ended at Talladega under caution, and fans showed their displeasure by throwing things over the fence. I was appalled by it, but I also felt something I’d never acknowledged before in all the years I had driven race cars. The race finishing under caution has a horrible effect on the paying customer. It’s like, ‘We paid to see the checkered flag fly at 200 miles per hour, not 80. That’s what we came for.’ From the seat I occupy today, it was a fabulous decision to go to the green-white-checker finish. As a driver then, I wouldn’t have seen it that way.
How has racing changed for the driver since you retired?
There’s more parity, and the margins between a good car and a bad car are very narrow. There’s more strategy now on pit road. Not that we didn’t have strategy, but there’s a much greater emphasis on preserving track position now — whatever is required to do that or to get that. It’s arguably the most competitive time in the history of the sport. The double-file restarts are a bonus. I think it’s the most important aspect of the race for the drivers now, because there’s an opportunity to capitalize on three or four spots that otherwise might take 60 laps to gain. You can get three or four spots in a lap on a restart. That’s changed the game.
Some racing insiders say the car is 60 or 70 percent of the quality equation and the driver is the rest. How do you see that dynamic?
It’s 50-50 for a good car and a good driver to finish top 10. I think it’s 70-30, driver, for those drivers that are perennial top-5 drivers. The reason I say that is it’s not that a driver can carry a car. These cars are just too sensitive, but their willingness to run right on the edge and have that talent to back it up, that’s what separates the winners and the top-10 drivers.
Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch — they run extremely hard to finish off a win or a top-5 day. I think some drivers are guilty of depending too much on a good car. They would say, ‘I need the car that Jimmie has.’ I think those drivers will continue to finish eighth to 15th because very, very, very seldom are they going to have that car. Frankly, Jimmie doesn’t have that car week in and week out. When he does, he capitalizes on it with a maximum-point day. But what about the days when he wins because he just laid it on the line? We see that out of some drivers — Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick — but Jimmie Johnson makes a living out of it. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win a lot of races on fuel mileage or pit-road strategy. He just outruns you. Those drivers who can contribute 70 percent are in the minority — a select, very special group.
Do you think the relative importance of the driver has changed with the Gen-6 car?
I don’t think so. I think the driver has always been the determining factor. In other words, you could have 20 good drivers and we might have seasons where we have 15 or 16 winners, but the drivers who win year in and year out — they could switch teams and win. Matt Kenseth is a great example of that. Late in life, he moves from the only organization he’s been with (from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and has arguably the best year of his career statistically. You look at Clint Bowyer, who is a very good race car driver. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I watch the in-car camera, and he lives on that edge. There has to be a willingness to do that, where other drivers just aren’t that comfortable on the edge. When Clint transitioned from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip, in some people’s minds, Waltrip’s program wasn’t ready for Clint. And that obviously wasn’t correct. They’ve capitalized and run extremely well. The old saying is that the cream rises to the top. If the driver is given enough time with the car, he’ll medal.
Do you think the sport has to have compelling competition pretty much every week to thrive, or can it roll along sort of on the back of the drivers’ personalities and the color and the noise?
I think the latter is more important. If we think back to some of the key figures in our sport, there are drivers who had dominant seasons — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon. There have been some other excellent drivers who won a few races in a year and maybe won a championship, but they didn’t carry the same flavor as the elite that put up big numbers and were the drivers to beat and had a bull’s-eye on them.
Eventually, somebody is going to step up and challenge the status quo. Ernie Irvan is a good example. When I was racing, he came along and became a formidable challenger to people. All of a sudden, he was a guy who was willing to ruffle some feathers and move people out of the way. Somebody labeled him ‘Swervin’ Irvan.’ If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I think he would have continued to put up some big numbers and would have been challenging for a championship. He still had a good career. But it takes that kind of personality, like a Kevin Harvick has or even a Kyle Busch has.
As it relates to Jimmie Johnson, the reason we haven’t seen that great rivalry, that heated rivalry, between him and someone else is that he typically doesn’t win at someone else’s expense. He’s not that guy who roughs up the other drivers, but he wins like the elite drivers did. But he goes about it differently.
Can you put what Johnson has done in the last decade into historical perspective?
Very difficult. I emptied the tank to win two races in Cup. I remember winning Rookie of the Year in 1995 and thinking that I would have double-digit wins in my career. It didn’t work out. There was a period when I didn’t think I was going to win a Cup race, but I can tell you I emptied the tank trying to.
Then I see Jimmie win, and he makes it look easy. And I know it’s not easy. At this point in his life, a lot of drivers’ skills diminish. Their focus diminishes because they’ve acquired so many things and they have so much distraction, and that all comes at a price. I haven’t seen an ounce of that from Jimmie Johnson. I see him prepare like an extremely talented athlete who’s scared to death that he’ll underachieve or never win a title. He doesn’t operate like he’s satisfied. He operates like there’s an urgency. He works harder than most. He has a greater focus than most. He has less distraction than most. Those are some of the ingredients that make him so difficult to beat.
He also has this tremendous ability to preserve relationships. It’s so well documented that some of the best in our sport eventually have the feeling that ‘I’m not getting the credit I deserve’ or something along those lines, and there was a separation. They still won races, but they didn’t continue on that pace that they had with that magical combination. We all marvel at what they’ve done. Chad (Knaus) and Jimmie have preserved that, and that’s at the very core of their success.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to run with the top group, but the wins have been few and far between. And he’s still looking for that first championship. What’s missing?
What’s missing the last few years was attitude. I go back to my introduction to Dale Jr. It was toward the end of my career. There has never been a question in my mind that he has the skills to be a champion in Sprint Cup. And I’ve never deviated from that. But he’s been on a hell of a ride as far as being tested and the ups and downs. I would say most people would be mentally exhausted. Dale Jr. lost his dad in this sport. I don’t how he got through that. When you put all that in a bowl and stir it up, it’s an awful lot.
But what I see right now — in the past few months, maybe he finally turned the corner. Maybe he’s finally sleeping better. Maybe he’s finally relaxed. Maybe he’s finally got that edge. But I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his voice. I see it in his interviews. There’s no question there was a difference in him in the second half of 2013. He’s got that fire. All the hard work from Steve Letarte has helped put good cars under him and rebuilt that confidence.
If Dale preserves that attitude through the offseason, he’s going to have a very good 2014. It’s going to be his best at Hendrick Motorsports. It might be his last push, but it’s going to be a good one.
Talk about Tony Stewart. What are you looking for from him this year considering what he went through in 2013?
He’s very resilient. He’s as mentally tough as anybody I’ve met, but he has a hurdle to clear in that any time you’re out of the race car, particularly later in life, you have some catching up to do. And there are some timing issues. When you jump back on the horse, it comes back to you, but it doesn’t mean that your motor skills and all the things that you perfect are going to be there in February and March.
And this is something that gets lost, but the cars are constantly changing. The cars are constantly being adjusted and changed in an effort to gain speed. You hear teams talk all the time about what they ran at a track in the spring doesn’t work in the fall. So Tony lost that whole last part of the season where the cars continued to evolve. He has some catching up to do, and, frankly, it won’t be easy.
He’s been quiet, almost stealth-like, but I’m hearing he’s working hard. I expect him to come out of the gate like a bear, but he will have some catching up to do.
What about his team? There’s quite a volatile collection of drivers there with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch coming on board. What do you expect from them?
I expect Harvick and Busch will make the Chase. They’re just that good, and they’ll be in good equipment. I’m hedging a little bit, and that is based on one thing and one thing only, but it weighs heavily with me: Mark Martin didn’t run well in that 14 car (as a substitute for the injured Stewart).
Mark Martin is as good as anybody I’ve raced against. I know he’s an anomaly in that he’s doing this at such a late age. But he didn’t run Mark Martin-like in that car. That concerns me a little.
At the end of 2013, there wasn’t a really good measure. Danica (Patrick) was still going through the learning curve. Ryan (Newman), even though he made the Chase, he didn’t run that well in the last 10 events. And Mark was put in a situation where he had to get acclimated to the team, and it just didn’t seem to synchronize. That has me scratching my head a little.
There’s talk in the garage that NASCAR is looking to make some significant changes to the 2015 Sprint Cup schedule with the arrival of the new television contract. What do you think? Should the schedule be worked on extensively? Are other changes needed?
I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think we could use one less mile-and-half track in the Chase. Seems like we’re a little out of balance there. I’m not for or against the idea of a road course in the Chase. That’s not that important to me. I’d love to have another short track in the Chase. To me, short-track racing is one of the pillars of our sport.
I think the one big challenge for our sport is that I think we would benefit from taking 30 to 40 percent of the seats out of the grandstands. This has gone on long enough. We had a tremendous build-out when the economy was firing on all cylinders and there was an abundance of extra cash for people to travel and be entertained. The sport is healthier than it appears when you view the grandstands.
I feel good about our sport. I feel that we’re making progress, but we’re going to be perceived as underachieving as long as the grandstands are half-full or half-empty, depending on an individual’s perspective.
I don’t see why we would want that perception. The only way I know to correct that is to do away with the empty seats.
Which driver might be the next to step up into Johnson-Kenseth territory?
It’s such a tall order to try to predict that somebody will be in that company. Usually, we only see a few in a generation. We had Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. With all due respect to all the others, we’re talking multiple championships and winning on all types of tracks.
When I look ahead, I’d say the most obvious is — or was — Kyle Busch. Kyle has 90 percent of the tools to do what the three I just mentioned have done. The 10 percent he’s missing might not come until he’s 32, 33, 34 years old. Some drivers get it younger than that. He’ll be at his best in terms of mental toughness and being able to manage races when he’s a little later in life.
The risk is that the other components diminish so that he’s not able to have the level of success to join that elite group. And some of it comes down to endurance. It’s one of the liabilities of starting really young. Do you get tired of it? Are you physically conditioned to be at your best when it matters most?
There were some competitive races in 2013, but there also were some that can’t quite be described as barnburners, particularly at some of the 1.5-mile tracks. Is there an easy solution to that? Can rules be changed? Can something be done to boost the competition at those tracks?
The tug of war is this — speed is an important contributor to the entertainment value of our sport. A lot of people suggest that we’re going too fast and that we need to slow the cars down, but that seems contradictory to what NASCAR is synonymous with. It’s got to be about speed. Track records are exciting. As the cars go faster, the drivers truly are challenged through the middle of the turn to manage that speed. Does it contribute to the aerodynamic issues that we have with the cars from second on back? It does, but there are things that correct some of that.
There are two things that are obvious to me. One is to get the front end (of the car) off the racetrack. The front end being sealed to the racetrack (with ground splitters) creates so much front grip and really magnifies the dependence. If the car out front had a couple of inches between itself and the racetrack and had some air going underneath it, the car is not going to drive as well. It’s not going to have as much straightaway speed. It’s going to create more drag or more resistance. I’m not smart enough to understand why we continue to seal off the front ends.
The other thing, and the ultimate fix — which is monumental to accomplish but it is the ultimate fix — is to not react as quickly to repaving tracks. The new asphalt creates more grip, more speed, but makes the car sensitive and edgy, not allowing for side-by-side racing. The best racing we have is at Atlanta and Texas, which is a throwback to what Darlington used to be. The reason that works, and the reason it worked at Michigan before they repaved it, is because as the tires wear the drivers are challenged to adjust their line through the corners in an effort to preserve that tire wear. It brings another element into the equation.
You can run hard early in a run, but it will come at the expense of a long run. Or you can run moderate the first 20 laps and you’ll catch all the cars in front of you in the long run. There’s some strategy. It’s fun to watch. I love that type of racing. It’s why you hear drivers rebel about tracks being repaved. When they’re repaved, at least early on, they become single-lane racetracks, and they don’t allow options. Drivers love options.
Bob Warren arrived at Professor Perry Wallace’s office at American University in 2006, and delivered a message nearly 40 years in the making.
“Forgive me, Perry,” Warren said, “There is so much more I could have done.”
The former basketball teammates at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., hadn’t seen each other since 1968, when Warren was a senior and Wallace, a sophomore, was the first and only African-American ballplayer in the entire Southeastern Conference.
Wallace’s mind raced back to the days that nearly destroyed him, but he also thought of the healing and reconciliation that had come later, and he believed that it wasn’t the “good, decent and humble guys like Bob Warren” who needed to go on living with that sort of regret, anyway.
“We are fine,” Wallace assured Warren. “Don’t think another thing of it. We were all just kids.”
Today, 46 years after Perry Wallace became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and the first black scholarship athlete to play a full SEC season in any sport, it’s nearly impossible to fathom an SEC without black stars. But for there to be a Shaquille O’Neal at LSU, a Charles Barkley at Auburn, a Dominique Wilkins at Georgia, — for their even to be a Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith or Cam Newton — there had to be Perry Wallace, a man who quietly broke barriers in the southern sanctuary of sport.
Buses, movie theaters, lunch counters, schools and many city and state governments were all desegregated before the most hallowed of grounds, the athletic fields of the former states of the Confederacy. Steve Martin, a walk-on baseball player at Tulane during the Green Wave’s final year as a member of the SEC, was actually the first African-American student-athlete in the league, followed by Nat Northington, a football player at Kentucky who played in four varsity games before transferring. So it was Wallace, the valedictorian of his high school class and an engineering double-major at Vanderbilt, who became the first African-American to complete a full season and career as a varsity athlete in the SEC. And nothing about the experience was easy.
On road trips through the Deep South, he was the target of the vilest of catcalls. Back home in Nashville, his parents received letters threatening to kill or castrate their son. On campus, he was ignored by many of the same white students who cheered his prowess on the basketball court. Many of his black neighbors and peers criticized him for attending a white university. The pioneering experience was relentlessly difficult; Henry Harris, the first black basketball player at Auburn, later committed suicide, and Wallace said it took years before he was able to come to terms with his own ordeal.
After decades of distance, there is now a deep and powerful relationship between Vanderbilt and its trailblazing alum. Athletic Director David Williams calls Wallace a “hero,” and he was instrumental in retiring Wallace’s jersey and inducting him — in the inaugural class — into the university’s athletic hall of fame. Wallace, a professor at the American University law school in Washington, D.C., frequently travels to Nashville to speak to Vanderbilt students, served as the voiceover talent for a season ticket campaign, and sits on the school’s athletic advisory committee. He speaks French, sings opera, practices law, has testified before the United Nations, and is a proud husband and father. Though he’s not sure he’d do it all over again if he had the chance, he knows he’s left a powerful if underappreciated legacy, both in sports and society. When fans gaze upon his jersey hanging above the student section at Memorial Gymnasium, he hopes that they will appreciate his contributions not only “as bearing on equality in sports, but, as with Jackie Robinson, extending out to contribute to progress in larger ways.” Looking for a role model in the world of sports? Look no further than Perry Wallace.
—By Andrew Maraniss
Maraniss has spent the last eight years researching and writing a biography of Perry Wallace. The book, "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South" will be published by Vanderbilt University Press, with a publication date of November 2014. For more information or to be added to an e-mail list for updates on the title, exact publication date and author appearances, email [email protected].
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
Louisville has a knack for heating up as the calendar turns to March. It happened last season, as the Cardinals didn’t start to look like national championship contenders until weeks before the Big East Tournament.
The Cardinals are in that form again, but you can’t blame fans if they haven’t noticed. Louisville has pounded the teams in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference. A rematch with Cincinnati could be the turning point.
The Bearcats, though, know what they’re getting when they face Louisville again. The Cardinals are a little more balanced than the first time around, a little more consistent.
But Cincinnati leads the American right now and could take a major step to winning the league with a season sweep of its Ohio River rivals.
What’s on the line for Louisville
The Cardinals are looking to re-announce themselves as a Final Four contender. Since the last time Louisville faced Cincinnati, a 69-66 loss, Louisville has faced the dregs of the American Athletic Conference. Louisville hasn’t had much trouble with teams ranked outside of the RPI 150, defeating them by an average of 26 points per game since the start of February.
What’s on the line for Cincinnati
The Bearcats are looking to complete a season sweep of Louisville after defeating the Cardinals 69-66 at the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 30. With a victory, Cincinnati will have a three-game edge in the win column in the American. Cincinnati lost to New Mexico and Xavier in the non-conference schedule, so a win over Louisville could be a boon to Bearcats’ NCAA Tournament seed.
Saturday, noon Eastern, CBS
Record: 22-4, 11-2 American
Record: 24-3, 13-1 American
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Louisville 71-63
Braden Gall: Cincinnati 68-62
Mitch Light: Louisville 60-58
Two of the most dynamic veteran guards in the country will meet at least one more time this season Kilpatrick led the way in the first meeting with 28 points against the Cardinals while Smith had 14 points and four turnovers. This is the point last season when Smith began to carry Louisville to the national title.
Pivotal players: Louisville’s point guards
Chris Jones and Terry Rozier are key cogs in Louisville’s pressure defense, which for the second consecutive season is second only to VCU in turnover rate. Since the first meeting, the freshman Rozier has become more and more involved in the offensive end. Rozier shot 11 of 24 from the floor in Louisville’s last two games, home routs against Rutgers and USF.
Biggest question: Who wins the frontcourt matchup?
Cincinnati senior Justin Jackson is the top shot blocker in the American at 3.1 blocks per game. He’ll be tasked with limiting contributions from Louisville’s improving duo of forwards in Montrezl Harrell and Mangok Mathiang.