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Path: /nascar/nascar-sprint-unlimited-what-we-learned-daytona

Denny Hamlin is loaded for bear. The winner of the 2013 season finale in Homestead, Fla., Hamlin won all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway in an event that unofficially kicked off NASCAR’s 2014 season.

Hamlin sat out four races last year when an accident at Auto Club Speedway left him with multiple fractures in his lower back. His title hopes gone, Hamlin was relegated to a test driver down the stretch for his Joe Gibbs Racing team, which fielded cars for championship contenders Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

Was that Homestead victory a sign of things to come? Judging by Saturday’s performance, it very well could be. Richard Childress Racing cars have shown the most pure speed at Daytona through offseason testing and Speedweeks — and are favorites for the the front row — but there was little doubt who had the piece to beat in race trim.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “That was survival of the fittest for sure. With three (laps) to go we were at the tail end of a small pack and it’s really tough to get a run — but this car was phenomenal.”

Phenomenal it was. Hamlin led 27 of 75 laps – easily a race high — staying in front of the mayhem that played out in the pack. And survival it was as well. With attrtition high, only eight cars lined up for a final five-lap dash to the finish.

“Passing's going to be tough no matter what aero package they have in these cars,” Hamlin continued. “The fewer the cars, the tougher it is to get runs. That's probably what saved us at the end of the race is that the few guys that were left were fighting each other versus lining up and getting a run on us once we got out there so far.”

As others battled for position over the final five circuits, Hamlin used a push from Busch to launch into the lead. He held off the small pack from there, scoring his second career Sprint Unlimited victory. Brad Keselowski, Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5.

Full moon fever
What was learned that could translate to next weekend’s Daytona 500? Well, when a wreck eliminates all but nine cars at the halfway mark, the lessons are relative. With that in mind, the aero package for the Cup cars may have changed — with more intense racing throughout the event being the goal — but don’t expect a three-wide, nine-deep battle for 500 miles.

“The reason we were all racing around (was because we) could go anywhere we wanted to — there was more space,” Busch said of the thinned field. “Less cars, more space gives you opportunity to do stupid things, I guess you'd say. You can't make moves like that bottom to top, top to bottom, when there's 30 cars out there.”

Like last year’s Daytona 500, drivers will mind their manners until “go time.” The field ran in single-file formation through a large portion of the first segment not because drivers were pigeonholed into doing so, but because it only made sense. Winning demands one be there at the end, so why do anything too crazy, too early?

Well, actually, it did get too crazy, too early. When Kenseth dipped to the low side and clipped Logano in Segment 2, he set off a grinding crash that eliminated seven competitors.vThat left nine drivers to battle it out in what was a virtual all-star race with only a trophy and cash on the line.

Blocking and daring passes will surely shape the closing laps in the Great American Race, but don’t expect the intensity to be at a fever pitch until the final 100 miles.

Popular attrition
Drivers involved in the second segment’s “Big One” on lap 35 included Kenseth, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and Harvick (though he was able to continue), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who smashed into his girlfriend after she had seemingly made it through the mayhem), Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.

Jimmie Johnson crashed on lap 28 of the first segment, ending his evening. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired after tangling with Marcos Ambrose, and then the wall, with 10 laps remaining in the final segment.

By the final sprint to checkers, only Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Jamie McMurray were left to spar for the win. Expect a group three times that size to be jockeying for the Harley J. Earle trophy next week.

Smoke is Stoked
Sidelined since August with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa, Tony Stewart was chomping at the bit in his return to racing.

Not satisfied with running a high-speed parade in the Unlimited, Stewart didn’t hold back in the event’s first segment, jumping out of line multiple times while the rest of the field seemed content to take it easy. His moves didn’t always pay off, but they served a purpose: Stewart was afforded the opportunity to work some pent-up adrenaline out of his system before the racing that really matters unfolds later in the week.

“I waited seven months to race,” Stewart later quipped. “I damn sure wasn’t going to ride around in line.”

For Stewart, the storybook ending never materialized; he was swept up in Kenseth’s crash on lap 35 and eliminated but emerged from the car under his own power and showed no ill effects.

Protect your line
The low line again appeared to be the preferred groove at Daytona. While Stewart noted that side drafting made passing difficult, there was no shortage of action. Taller rear spoilers have increased the closing rate while making cars less stable in the pack. Being out front and protecting the low groove was the most secure place to be.

“There was some interesting moments where the inside lane started going (when) guys were trying to make the outside lane go,” Kyle Busch said. “Seemed like more guys were trying to get the third lane going up against the wall, that kind of killed the middle lane a little bit, so the bottom persevered.”

Johnson used that low line to win his second Daytona 500 last season while most ran in formation on the high side. Prior to his crash on lap 28, Johnson worked his way from 18th to third by passing on the low side.

Not even the pace car was safe
In one of the evening’s most bizarre moments, the pace car caught fire while leading the field prior to Segment 3. A battery pack in the trunk used for the external caution lights overheated, causing the fire. I’ll save the comparisons between pace driver Brett Bodine and Daytona jet-dryer destroyer Juan Pablo Montoya and simply say that with a full moon presiding over an exhibition race on a plate track, was the pace car going up in flames really that surprising a development?

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


Rundown and reaction from the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 01:13
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2014-sochi-olympics-what-watch-feb-14

Today's Highlights


8-11:30 p.m. Eastern

A little history will be made on NBC's Valentine's Day Olympic broadcast, as Meredith Vieira becomes the first woman to anchor Olympic coverage while Bob Costas continues to battle a stubborn eye infection.


1. Alpine Skiing — Men's Super Combined
One ominous note for U.S. fans: American medal favorite Bode Miller has expressed concern over the course in Sochi, saying: "If by the luck of the draw you draw (bib number) 5, you're running 45 minutes to an hour before somebody who's ranked two points behind you who draws 29. In these conditions, the course really changes a lot in an hour."


2. Freestyle Skiing — Women's Aerials

Ashley Caldwell, a 20-year-old from Virginia, is the top American medal hope in an X-Games-style event that produces maximum air and maximum thrills.


3. Women's Skeleton

The Women's Skeleton wraps up today with American Noelle Pikus-Pace in prime medal position.


4. Figure Skating — Men's Free Skate

American Jeremy Abbott's dramatic fall eliminated him from contention, and Russian legend Evegeni Plushenko withdrew, but high drama will still reign at the Men's Free Skate. Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu set a scoring record in the short program and will try to hold off Canada's Patrick Chan for gold.

Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 12:58
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-14-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 14.

• Ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen), your 50th anniversary SI Swimsuit cover. Happy Valentine's Day.

A heartfelt Valentine's greeting from Bill Belichick.

• Keeping with the love theme: Derek Jeter's dating diamond. It's impressive, especially strong up the middle.

An assortment of Valentines for the totalitarian dictator in your life.

A Russian perspective on the Miracle on Ice. I say, who cares? U-S-A!

Today's heartwarming story of Olympic sportsmanship.

Bob Costas' eye funk is allowing Meredith Vieira to make history.

• A craftsman never blames his tools, but some are blaming the U.S. speedskaters' uniforms for their poor performance.


The Internet's obsession with Kate Hansen's dancing continues.

The week's funniest tweets. Some real gems there.

The report to the Commissioner about the Incognito-Martin situation is out, if you'd care to dig in.

• Cat's already out of the bag, but here's video of Jimmy Kimmel's big reveal of the Swimsuit cover.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 10:42
Path: /ranking-all-23-nba-slam-dunk-contest-champions

The 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contests lifts off on Saturday, Feb. 15, in New Orleans. The Raptors' defending Slam Dunk Contest champion Terrence Ross, Pacers’ 360 windmill man Paul George, Wizards' John Wall, Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, Warriors' Harrison Barnes and Kings' Ben McLemore will follow in the flight paths of MJ, Dr. J and Dominique.

With that in mind, we judge all 23 Slam Dunk Contest champions since the ABA introduced the competition in 1976 and the NBA brought it back in 1984.

Mount Rushmore

One-name icons with star power, style and the ability to jump out of the gym — or from the free-throw line, as it were — no one in history has had the hang time or staying power of these four fly guys.

1. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (1987, 1988)
“Air” Jordan was an aerial artist who transcended the act of putting a ball through a rim.

2. Julius Erving, New York Nets (1976 in ABA)
“Dr. J” was the originator — complete with an Afro and red-white-and-blue ABA ball.

3. Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks (1985, 1990)
The “Human Highlight Film” windmilled and tomahawked his way into dunk history.

4. Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors (2000)
“Half Man, Half Amazing” could jump over French dudes and through 10-foot hoops.


Freak Shows
There’s just something about watching a sub-six-footer or near-seven-footer take over the Dunk Contest that adds to the spectacle of Saturday night’s three-ring circus.

5. Spud Webb, Atlanta Hawks (1986)
The shortest (5’7”) champ ever beat his teammate in front of his hometown crowd.

6. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic (2008)
Superman’s hand missed the rim on his most famous dunk, but it was out of this world.

7. Nate Robinson, New York Knicks (2006, 2009, 2010)
The only three-time champion in event history was 5’9” of Kryptonite for Dwight.


Big Names, Bigger Air
No matter how great the dunks are it’s always better when there is a name that matters on the marquee. Lately, the lack of cachet has taken the air out of the slam-dunk sails.

8. Larry Nance, Phoenix Suns (1984)
The underrated Nance could get high in his high socks, winning the NBA’s first contest.

9. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks (2005)
The ATL native paid homage to Nique with a throwback jersey to go with pogo hops.

10. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (1997)
Remember when Kobe was bald, Brandy was his girl and Adidas was his shoe of choice?

11. Kenny Walker, New York Knicks (1989)
“Sky” Walker could rise with the best of them, rocking Knicks No. 7 before Carmelo did.

12. Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors (2002, 2003)
One of three repeat champs in history, along with Michael Jordan and Nate Robinson.


Props Plus Hops
The All-Star Game sideshow has featured its fair share of gimmicks, third parties and prop comedy that almost always ends in winning over the crowd and the trophy.  

13. Dee Brown, Boston Celtics (1991)
Brown Pump-ed up his Reeboks and covered his eyes with his arm to take the title.

14. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (2011)
Jumping over a car — the type of Kia he endorses — was Griffin’s modus operandi.

15. Cedric Ceballos, Phoenix Suns (1992)
Ceballos put on a blindfold that he may or may not have been able to see through.

Signature Style
To contest connoisseurs, these are two of the more exciting dunkers. Each had a signature dunk that every kid who ever had an eight-foot goal attempted over and over.

16. Harold Miner, Miami Heat (1993, 1995)
“Baby Jordan” matched his namesake with two Slam Dunk Contest statement wins.

17. Isaiah Rider, Minnesota Timberwolves (1994)
Wild child “J.R.” went between the legs midair in front of the Twin City crowd.


White Man Can Jump
His dad Granny-shot free-throws but Bones could throw down like no one this side of Woody Harrelson — and he remains the only white guy to win it all in event history.

18. Brent Barry, Los Angeles Clippers (1996)
Not quite from the free-throw line, but Barry did take off from near the charity stripe.

Hi and Bye
Who are you? And why are you here? Okay, you can dunk. Nice job. But I still wish the field had more star power. After all, literally every player in the NBA can dunk…


19. Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors (2013)
Wearing a Vince Carter jersey does not make you Vince Carter.

20. Gerald Green, Boston Celtics (2007)
Sure this wasn’t the NBDL Dunk Contest?

21. Desmond Mason, Seattle SuperSonics (2001)
The Sonics? Is that a WNBA team?

22. Fred Jones, Indiana Pacers (2004)
You mean the character from Scooby-Doo?

23. Jeremy Evans, Utah Jazz (2012)
Is that the Ray Bandit who stole sunglasses?

<p> Best Slam Dunk Contest Championship of All-Time, including Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter, Spud Webb, Dwight Howard, Nate Robinson, Larry Nance, Josh Smith, Kobe Bryant, Kenny Walker, Jason Richardson, Dee Brown, Blake Griffin, Cedric Ceballos, Harold Miner, Isaiah Rider, Brent Barry, Gerald Green, Desmond Mason, Fred Jones and Jeremy Evans.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 10:15
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /mlb/derek-jeters-dating-diamond-graphic
Since it's Valentine's Day and Derek Jeter is readying for his final season, it seemed like the perfect time to highlight this graphic of Jeter's off-the-field accomplishments with the ladies. 
Source: SportsNation
Since it's Valentine's Day and Derek Jeter is readying for his final season, it seemed like the perfect time to highlight this graphic of Jeter's off-the-field accomplishments with the ladies.
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 08:47
Path: /college-football/top-10-big-12-running-backs-bcs-era

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.

In a league with a tradition of high-flying passing attacks and decorated wide receivers, the list of running backs to star in the Big 12 is remarkable. The Big 12 boasts some of the greatest to ever play the position during the BCS Era, including the top two runners of the Era regardless of conference.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004-06)
Stats: 747 att., 4,045 yds, 41 TDs, 24 rec., 198 yds, TD

The BCS version of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson was the three-year star from Palestine (Texas) High. A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 runner finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting as a true freshman in 2004. His 1,925 yards was an NCAA record for a true freshman and it earned him unanimous All-American honors. Despite missing chunks of time with injuries in each of his next two seasons, “All Day” Peterson still topped 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. His natural blend of power, speed, size and balance has never been duplicated during the BCS era. He rushed for 970 yards for the Vikings in 2011 in a season shortened by a torn ACL, the only time since high school that A.D. hasn’t rushed for at least 1,000 yards. He is the Sooners' No. 3 all-time leading rusher.

2. Ricky Williams, Texas (1995-98)
Stats: 1,011 att., 6,279 yds, 72 TDs, 85 rec., 927 yds, 3 TDs

The power back from San Diego gave fans in Austin a preview of things to come when he rushed for 990 yards as a true freshman fullback. His two-year run as an upperclassman may never be matched, as he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and claimed the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy as a senior. He left school as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher (since broken) and he is one of four players to ever score at least 70 rushing touchdowns.

3. Darren Sproles, Kansas State (2001-04)
Stats: 815 att., 4,979 yds, 45 TDs, 66 rec., 609 yds, 2 TDs, 1,224 ret yds, TD

Few players have ever been as valuable to their school as the diminutive Sproles was to Kansas State. The all-purpose dynamo rushed for at least 1,300 yards in three straight seasons and he helped lead the Wildcats to an improbable Big 12 championship in 2003. His 323 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns against Oklahoma in the title game will go down in history as arguably the greatest single-game performance by any Wildcat in history. The Sunflower State native finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year as his 2,735 all-purpose yards is the best single-season performance by any Big 12 running back during the BCS Era (fourth all-time). Sproles has proven himself by carving out an extremely productive niche in the NFL as an all-purpose talent.

4. Cedric Benson, Texas (2001-04)
Stats: 1,112 att., 5,540 yds, 64 TDs, 69 rec., 621 yds, 3 TDs

The Longhorns' running back is one of the most productive in history. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting two separate times and is one of only six players to score at least 60 rushing touchdowns. The Midland (Texas) Lee star posted four seasons of at least 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns while in Austin — one of just eight players in NCAA history to post four 1,000-yard seasons. He won the ’04 Doak Walker and carried more times (1,112) than any Big 12 back in history.

5. Quentin Griffin, Oklahoma (1999-02)
Stats: 714 att., 3,842 yds, 43 TDs, 154 rec., 1,282 yds, 7 TDs

A steady performer in both the running and receiving game, Griffin blossomed as a superstar in his senior season. He rushed for 783 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 45 passes for the unbeaten 2000 national champions before exploding in his final season in 2002. He finished 10th in the Heisman voting after 1,884 yards rushing and 18 total touchdowns in '02 — which was the seventh-best single-season rushing total in Big 12 history and his 2,184 all-purpose yards that year are eighth-best all-time. Griffin is seventh all-time in rushing in the Big 12.

6. DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma (2007-10)
Stats: 759 att., 3,685 yds, 50 TDs, 157 rec., 1,571 yds, 13 TDs, 1,462 ret. yds, 2 TDs

An underrated talent from Las Vegas, Murray was as productive across the board as any player in Sooners history. He is sixth in rushing, first in total touchdowns, fifth in receptions and No. 1 in all-purpose yards. In 2008, he helped lead the Sooners to a Big 12 title and a berth in the BCS title game, as he racked up 2,171 all-purpose yards, which is good for ninth-best all-time in Big 12 history. His 65 career touchdowns are fourth all-time behind Williams, Benson and Taurean Henderson.

7. Jamaal Charles, Texas (2005-07)
Stats: 533 att., 3,328 yds, 36 TDs, 49 rec., 539 yds, 3 TDs

Charles was a major contributor on the undefeated national title squad of 2005 by posting 1,035 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns. He capped his three-year stint in Austin with a 1,619-yard, 18-TD season in 13 games in 2007. Charles posted at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in all three of his seasons and at least eight touchdowns each year. He was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

8. Chris Brown, Colorado (2001-02)
Stats: 493 att., 2,787 yds, 35 TDs, 11 rec., 76 yds

He didn’t play for very long in the Big 12 but his final season was nearly as good as any of the Hall of Fame types atop these rankings. He carried 303 times for 1,841 yards and 19 touchdowns — after a 946-yard, 16-TD season in ’01 — en route to a Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year award. He finished eighth in the Heisman voting and was a third-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.

9. Taurean Henderson, Texas Tech (2002-05)
Stats: 587 att., 3,241 yds, 50 TDs, 303 rec., 2,058 yds, 19 TDs

Certainly, the Mike Leach Air Raid offense bolstered his numbers, but it’s hard to argue with what Henderson accomplished in Lubbock. He scored more touchdowns (69) than anyone in league history except Ricky Williams and is one of just 10 players in NCAA history to catch at least 300 passes. His 5,299 yards from scrimmage is among the best in conference history.

10. Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State (2007-10)
Stats: 708 att., 4,181 yds, 37 TDs, 63 rec., 519 yds, 2 TDs

Hunter was a consensus All-American and posted two different 1,500-yard, 16-TD seasons in 2008 and '10. Injuries shortened his junior campaign, otherwise Hunter might be even higher up the Big 12’s all-time rushing charts. Still, Hunter is fifth all-time in league history in rushing and eighth all-time in carries. The Pokes' top rusher helped elevate Oklahoma State from middle-of-the-pack Big 12 program to eventual conference champ in ’11.

Just missed the cut:

11. Daniel Thomas, Kansas State (2009-10)
Stats: 545 att., 2,850 yds, 30 TDs, 52 rec., 428 yds, 155 pass yds, 2 TDs

When it comes to a two-year run in the Big 12, few have been as productive as Thomas. He carried 247 times for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first year and then backed it up with 298 carries, 1,585 yards and 19 touchdowns in his second. He was a quality receiver and Wildcat quarterback as well for Bill Snyder’s bunch.

12. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State (2010-12)
Stats: 564 att., 3,085 yds, 40 TDs, 108 rec., 917 yds, 3 TDs

For the 2011 Big 12 champions, Randle ran for 1,216 yards, caught 43 passes for 266 yards and scored a school-record 26 total touchdowns. He came back the next year and ran for 1,417 yards and scored 14 more rushing touchdowns. Randle carried on the Pokes' impressive streak of great backs before leaving early for the NFL.

13. Roy Helu, Nebraska (2007-10)
Stats: 578 att., 3,404 yds, 28 TDs, 54 rec., 501 yds

Helu posted three straight seasons of at least 800 yards and seven scores and back-to-back seasons with 1,100 yards and 10 scores. Helu helped lead Nebraska to back-to-back division titles and Big 12 title game appearances in his final two seasons before getting drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft.

14. Ricky Williams, Texas Tech (1997-01)
Stats: 789 att., 3,661 yds, 36 TDs, 172 rec., 1,151 yds, 6 TDs

The other Ricky Williams actually overlapped the more famous version by two years. This Williams is fifth all-time in league history with 5,992 all-purpose yards and is 10th all-time in rushing in the Big 12. He also caught 172 passes as a receiver. And he did all of this before Mike Leach got to town.

15. Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M (2008-11)
Stats: 632 att., 3,298 yds, 30 TDs, 103 rec., 776 yds, 6 TDs, 2,349 ret. yds, 2 TDs

Gray was an all-around dynamo for the Aggies for four full seasons. Gray played 49 career games for Texas A&M and is third all-time in all-purpose yards in Big 12 history with 6,423 yards — behind only Sproles (6,812) and Murray (6,718). He scored 38 total times in his career.

Best of the rest:

16. Darren Davis, Iowa State (1996-99): 823 att., 3,763 yds, 26 TDs, 74 rec., 649 yds, 5 TDs
17. James Sims, Kansas (2010-13): 798 att., 3,592 yds, 34 TDs, 72 rec., 587 yds, 2 TDs
18. De’Mond Parker, Oklahoma (1996-98): 578 att., 3,404 yds, 21 TDs, 42 rec., 504 yds, TD
19. Jorvorskie Lane, Texas A&M (2005-08): 489 att., 2,193 yds, 49 TDs, 26 rec., 271 yds, TD
20. Henry Josey, Missouri (2010-13): 395 att., 2,771 yds, 30 TDs, 24 rec., 175 yds, TD
21. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (2009-12): 635 att., 3,329 yds, 30 TDs, 60 rec., 507 yds, 5 TDs
22. Alexander Robinson, Iowa State (2007-10): 705 att., 3,309 yds, 27 TDs, 83 rec., 789 yds, 4 TDs
23. Tatum Bell, Oklahoma State (2000-03): 634 att., 3,409 yds, 34 TDs, 36 rec., 258 yds, 2 TDs
24. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (2012-13): 289 att., 2,189 yds, 18 TDs, 9 rec., 107 yds, TD
25. Rodney Stewart, Colorado (2008-11): 809 att., 3,598 yds, 25 TDs, 93 rec., 969 yds

ORV: Bobby Purify, Vernand Morency, Zack Abron, Christine Michael, Baron Batch, Correll Buckhalter, Keith Toston, Brian Calhoun


Top 10 Big 12 Running Backs of the BCS Era
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketball-weekend-preview-florida-kentucky-among-highlights

Snow through the Southeast and mid-Atlantic derailed basketball schedules Wednesday and Thursday, pushing the first Duke-North Carolina matchup into the third week of February.

The weekend may make up for missed time.

Quality games highlight both days of the weekend, with key matchups atop the SEC and Big East spread across Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Florida rarely has been tested in SEC play, but even an inconsistent Kentucky team could be the Gators top hurdle in the league, especially with the game in Lexington.

And in the Big East, the first matchup between Creighton and Villanova — a 3-point fest for the Bluejays — suggested the Missouri Valley imports will be just fine in their new league. A Villanova win will put further distance between the Wildcats and Creighton in the standings while a Bluejays could signal a new leader in the league.

Those aren’t the only key road trips, of course. Pittsburgh needs to regroup from Wednesday’s heartbreaker against Syracuse or else risk sliding onto the bubble before the ACC Tournament. And Wichita State will again get another team’s best shot in another MVC road trip.

College Basketball Weekend Preview: Feb. 14-16
All times Eastern.

Saturday’s Top Game:
Florida at Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN)

Just as John Calipari’s talented young team appeared to be making progress, the Wildcats limped to a 64-56 win over lowly Auburn. James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison combined to shoot 6 of 28 from the field against Auburn, but they did contribute on the defensive end. The stumbles in the offensive end of the court aren’t a great sign against a Florida team that is one of the best defensive teams in the country. Even if this isn’t the Kentucky team most expected to see at the start of the season, Florida needs a strong performance to solidify their national title contender status. The Gators haven’t faced a ranked team since a Dec. 17 win over Memphis.

Related: College Basketball Power Rankings Heading into the Weekend

Sunday’s Top Game:
Villanova at Creighton (5 p.m., Fox Sports 1)

Remember what happened the last time these teams met? Led by Ethan Wragge’s school-record nine 3-pointers, Creighton drilled Villanova, ranked No. 4 at the time, 96–68 in one of the most stunning results of the season. The Wildcats, who have not lost since, will be eager to exact some revenge, but that won’t be easy. Creighton has not lost at home since last February. Creighton is one game behind Villanova in the Big East standings. A season sweep would give the Bluejays an excellent chance to be the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.

Pittsburgh at North Carolina (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS)

Pittsburgh’s 20-5 record is starting to look awfully hollow. Tyler Ennis’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer robbed the Panthers a chance of pulling off one of the biggest wins of the season. Now, the Panthers’ last chance for their top win of the regular season is against the inconsistent Tar Heels. Pitt has only one RPI top 50 win (Stanford) and won’t face another certain NCAA Tournament team until the ACC Tourney. Behind Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina has found its stride with five consecutive wins, mostly against the second tier of the conference.

Related: 26 Teams on the NCAA Tournament Bubble

Best Coaching Matchup:
Wisconsin at Michigan (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS)

A list of the top coaches in college basketball would have Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Michigan’s John Beilein near the top. Shocking as it may be, Ryan has a 12-1 record against Beilein since both have been in the Big Ten. Worth watching will be the continued development of Michigan’s freshman point guard, Derrick Walton Jr., The rookie had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Ohio State, a key development for a Wolverines team looking to find scoring options beyond Nik Stauskas.

Backcourt Bonanza:
Memphis at Connecticut (Saturday, noon, ESPN)

UConn’s lack of size remains a major concern for the Huskies’ ability to advance in March, but it might not be too much of a liability at home against the guard-heavy Tigers. Memphis’ Joe Jackson and UConn’s Shabazz Napier are both productive veterans, but their shots can be streaky.

Bubble Watch:
West Virginia at Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network)

West Virginia is making a late push to reach the NCAA Tournament, and Juwan Staten, a transfer from Dayton, has emerged as one of the top players in the league. Texas is still hanging around in the Big 12 race. The Longhorns are one game behind Kansas in the loss column, but they already have a win over the Jayhawks and still have one game remaining with KU.

Upset Alert:
Wichita State at Evansville (Sunday, 6 p.m., MVC TV)

Evansville is not a great team, but for some reason Wichita State trailed the Purple Aces by 15 at one point when these teams first met on Feb. 1 in Wichita. The Shockers still won 81-67. Wichita State allowed Southern Illinois to stick around for most of a 78-67 win on Wednesday as well. Are the Shockers losing their grip on an undefeated season?

Defensive Wizardry:
VCU at Saint Louis (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)

Saint Louis might be the best team few people are watching closely. That’s certainly the case on the defensive end of the court where the Billikens rank third nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom. A major component of Saint Louis’ defense is the ability to shut down the 3-point line. Of course, VCU’s bread and butter is the pressure defense that leads the nation in forced turnover rate. VCU is 1.5 games behind Saint Louis for the A-10 lead.

Under-the-Radar Game of the Week:
UMass at George Washington (Saturday, 2 p.m., CSN Mid-Atlantic)

The Minutemen still have a good RPI at No. 21, but UMass did all of its best work against a solid non-conference schedule. UMass is 3-4 in its last seven, including Wednesday’s home loss to a 9-15 George Mason team. The Minutemen are desperate for a big win while George Washington is looking to re-establish itself in the Atlantic 10.

Other Key Games:

Arizona at Arizona State (Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
In a rare Friday night game of merit, Arizona State hosts its in-state rival in a key game for its NCAA Tournament hopes. The Sun Devils are on the bubble, but they’ve defeated Colorado, Cal and Oregon in the last five games. One key to the game will be quick Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson against the Wildcats’ standout defense but also big man Jordan Bachynski against the short-handed Arizona frontcourt.

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)
All is not well in the basketball version of Bedlam. Oklahoma State’s problems are well-established, and Oklahoma has been in a 1-3 funk itself. The Sooners needed a late rally to make a 68-60 home loss to Texas Tech look more respectable.

NC State at Syracuse (Saturday, 3 p.m., ACC Network)
The Wolfpack started 1-4 in the ACC, but it will enter Saturday’s game in the Carrier Dome at 6-5. NC State is about to embark on a three-game road swing, and, obviously, this is the toughest game. Syracuse will look to limit T.J. Warren’s action near the rim. He’s a high-volume shooter, but he hits 57.7 percent of his shots from 2-point range.

Tennessee at Missouri (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
Missouri’s NCAA chances have taken a hit thanks to a three-game losing streak that has left the Tigers with an overall record of 16–7 and a 4–6 mark in the SEC. It’s fair to say this is a must win for Mizzou, which does not play a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team the rest of the way. Tennessee might be on the good side of the bubble at this point, but the Vols sure could use a win or two away from Thompson Boling Arena.

Maryland at Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
This will have little impact on the ACC standings, but it’s a significant game because it’s the last meeting between these two rivals before Maryland heads to the Big Ten next season. Duke has had the upper hand of late, but over the years Maryland has played the Blue Devils as well as any ACC team not named North Carolina. The Cameron Crazies will be ready.

Kansas State at Baylor (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
Baylor continues to be one the most disappointing teams in the nation. The Bears, loaded with talent, dropped to 15–9 overall and 3–8 in the Big 12 with a loss at Oklahoma on Saturday. Kansas State, on the other hand, has overachieved. The Wildcats, who beat Kansas in overtime on Monday night, are in position to earn an NCAA Tournament invite for the fifth straight season.

College Basketball Weekend Preview: Florida-Kentucky among highlights
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketball-pre-weekend-power-rankings-feb-14

Tyler Ennis made sure Wednesday there wouldn’t be a change atop the Athlon Sports power rankings this weekend.

His unlikely 35-footer as time expired to defeat Pittsburgh keeps Syracuse undefeated and at the No. 1 spot in the power rankings for another week.

This weekend, though, could reshuffle things. Besides Syracuse, the rest of our top five goes on the road this weekend. All of which have reason for concern. Arizona and Wichita State are looking to avoid letdowns while Villanova and Florida are playing perhaps their biggest games of the conference season.

Here’s how the rest of the college basketball landscape looks heading into the weekend.

Related: Previewing Florida-Kentucky and the rest of the weekend action

College Basketball Power Rankings: Feb. 14
All games Saturday unless noted.

1. Syracuse (24-0, 11-0 ACC)
This weekend: NC State
With a win over NC State, Syracuse will be the first team to start 25-0 since 2007-08 Memphis, a team led by Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
Last week: 1

2. Arizona (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12)
This weekend: at Arizona State (Friday)
After the loss to Cal, Arizona has been just as stingy in the defensive end. The Wildcats held two of the top five scorers in the Pac-12 (Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson and Oregon’s Joseph Young) to 8 of 23 from the field and a combined 24 points. Jahii Carson is next.
Last week: 2

3. Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC)
This weekend: at Kentucky
Averaging 18.7 points in his last three games, point guard Scottie Wilbekin is becoming the go-to player as the Gators angle for an SEC title and another deep run in the Tourney.
Last week: 3

Related: 26 Teams on the NCAA Tournament Bubble

4. Wichita State (26-0, 13-0 MVC)
This week: at Evansville (Sunday)
The last time the Shockers faced Evansville, they faced a 15-point deficit in the first half. Wichita State won by 14.
Last week: 5

5. Villanova (22-2, 10-1 Big East)
This weekend: at Creighton (Sunday)
Villanova hasn’t won the Big East regular season title since 2006. If the Wildcats can win in Omaha to split the season series with Creighton, the championship is in their grasp.
Last week: 6

6. Kansas (18-6, 9-2 Big 12)
This weekend: TCU
Freshman big man Joel Embiid has been hobbled the last three games with knee and back injuries. He could be held out this weekend, and let’s face it: TCU isn’t a bad game to miss.
Last week: 7

7. Duke (19-5, 8-3 ACC)
This weekend: Maryland
The Blue Devils will be well-rested after the North Carolina game was postponed. An upcoming three-game week, though, will include Georgia Tech (Feb. 18) and North Carolina (Feb. 20) on the road and Syracuse (Feb. 22) at home.
Last week: 12

8. Michigan State (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten)
This weekend: Nebraska (Sunday)
Thursday's 85-70 win over Northwestern gave Tom Izzo a chance to empty his bench — 14 players saw court time for the ailing Spartans.
Last week: 9

9. San Diego State (21-2, 10-1 MW)
This weekend: Air Force
The Aztecs finally met their match against a well-coached Wyoming team. San Diego State shot 5 of 21 from 3-point range in the loss in Laramie.
Last week: 4

10. Virginia (20-5, 11-1 ACC)
This weekend: at Clemson
Virginia at Clemson will feature two of the bottom four teams in the ACC in possessions per 40 minutes.
Last week: 15

11. Saint Louis (22-2, 9-0 Atlantic 10)
This weekend: VCU
Jordair Jett, who had the game-winning shot in a scare against La Salle last week, is averaging 17.8 points, 5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in A-10 play.
Last week: 14

12. Iowa State (18-5, 6-5 Big 12)
This weekend: Texas Tech
West Virginia averaged 1.36 points per possession in a 102-77 win over the Cyclones. Iowa State normally allows 0.979 points per possession.
Last week: 13

13. Michigan (18-6, 10-2 Big Ten)
This weekend: Wisconsin (Sunday)
Teams are doing a better job of guarding Nik Stauskas. Fortunately for Michigan, Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert have stepped up.
Last week: 8

14. Creighton (20-4, 10-2 Big East)
This weekend: Villanova (Sunday)
The Bluejays shot 56 percent from the free throw line in Madison Square Garden. Don’t expect a repeat in Omaha’s biggest game of the season Sunday.
Last week: 10

15. Cincinnati (22-3, 11-1 American)
This weekend: Houston
The key to beating Cincinnati? Force Sean Kilpatrick to take a ton of shots from the perimeter. Kilpatrick was 3 of 12 against SMU.
Last week: 11

16. Iowa (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten)
This weekend: at Penn State
Iowa hasn’t won back-to-back games in nearly a month. That could change this weekend, but Penn State isn’t an easy out in Happy Valley.
Last week: 16

17. Kentucky (19-5, 9-2 SEC)
This weekend: Florida
John Calipari made his former assistant, Auburn coach Tony Barbee, look good in a 64-56 win over the Tigers.
Last week: 18

18. Wisconsin (20-5, 7-5 Big Ten)
This weekend: at Michigan
The Badgers' perimeter defense was vastly improved in the rematch against Minnesota.
Last week: 23

19. Louisville (19-4, 8-2 American)
This weekend: at Temple (Friday)
This is not the Big East: Louisville is amid a five-game stretch against team that rank between 150-200 in KenPom.
Last week: 17

20. Memphis (19-5, 8-3 American)
This weekend: at UConn
The Tigers will hope their lackluster performance against UCF on Wednesday is due to play Gonzaga in the game before and looking ahead to UConn on Saturday.
Last week: 20

21. UConn (19-5, 7-4 American)
This weekend: Memphis
The Huskies defeated UCF and USF by a combined 63 points last week. The next three home games will be huge: Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati.
Last week: NR

22. Texas (18-5, 8-3 Big 12)
This weekend: West Virginia
The Longhorns will hope to have Jonathan Holmes (knee) back to face a red hot Mountaineers team.
Last week: 19

23. SMU (19-5, 8-3 American)
This weekend: at Rutgers
SMU basketball was ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1985. Football hasn’t been ranked since 1986.
Last week: NR

24. Ohio State (19-6, 6-6 Big Ten)
This weekend: at Illinois
LaQuinton Ross has the consistent scorer the Buckeyes have been lacking.
Last week: NR

25. UCLA (19-5, 8-3 Pac-12)
This weekend: Utah
Kyle Anderson has five double-doubles in his last six games — three with points and assists, two with points and rebounds.
Last week: 25

College Basketball Pre-Weekend Power Rankings: Feb. 14
Post date: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-catering-television-vs-honest-competition

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

Sticking with the parity theme from yesterday’s Roundtable question, some claim that today’s Cup cars are too closely matched and that “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” rules keep the field more tightly grouped. Is this simply a product of “sports,” circa 2014? Has the importance of catering to a television audience trumped honest, on-track/on-field competition?

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree):In a word, yes. But NASCAR always has been about “manufactured” racing, to a degree. In a perfect racing world, a driver who works hard to build a two-second advantage on the track during green-flag racing should retain that margin after a caution. That isn’t feasible, of course, and entertainment value certainly is boosted by repeated green-flag restarts. The wave-around? A bit ridiculous.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes, it caters to television and is a product of sports circa 2014. But so what? You need rules that keep fans interested. The free pass and wave around do that, and they also play a key safety role as drivers don’t race back to the start-finish line when the yellow comes out. The wave-arounds also keep a nearly lapped-down car from racing the leaders on a restart. There’s nothing wrong in giving a driver who has a flat tire early in the race a little more hope thanks to these rules.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It’s the product of a governing body that might be too attuned to the whims of its followers. More tricks have been added in the past decade of NASCAR’s premier series than in its first 55 years. Though it’s wise to be mindful of fans’ demands, it’s a fine line of catering to entertainment at the expense of competition. NASCAR can’t roll back many of the changes that have been made, but eradicating the “free pass”/wave-around rule and the three attempts at a green-white-checker finish (one is plenty) would be a good start.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): When I talk to the old-timers, these lead-lap rules drive them nuts, way more than stuff like the Chase or the new points system. NASCAR has gotten ripped over the years for being such a dictatorship, but perhaps their biggest flaw in recent years is that they’ve reacted to fan feedback a little too much. That’s where some of all these parity-driven policies have come from — hits and misses. But what’s fascinating to me is that no matter how hard they work at creating that mythical 43-wide finish, the best teams still win the most races and championships. And I can tell you firsthand the catering-to-TV theories are overstated. If that was the primary impetus for all decisions, then no race would last longer than three hours.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Continuing with the “close doesn’t always equal competitive” theory, I’ve never taken an issue to NASCAR’s institution of the wave-around and Lucky Dog rules. It replaced a gentleman’s agreement of racing back to the caution flag; an agreement that had different terms each time it happened. The equal terms of the official rule is more important than any perception of parity-forcing.

But I’m not sure how those rules are catering to a television audience rather than a common sense simple major-league sports move. It was only natural that NASCAR was going to have to increase rules and regulations when teams started to spend more and more to find speed.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): NASCAR Cup racing has become a made-for-TV show; at-track fans have been all-but MIA. The sport's decline since 2007 has been striking, and it's unclear why Daytona/NASCAR has been unable or unwilling to make the major changes to shake things up. The wave-around rule was a bad idea to begin with, and it's become a terrible part of the sport — one big reason for lack of competition on Sundays — because the leader always gets clean air on restarts instead of having to fight his way back to the front. The “Lucky Dog” is OK, as Dale Jarrett and many others, like Bobby Allison, can attest. Yes, the Cup cars today are way too tightly regulated, which plays right into the hands of the mega-teams that can afford engineering armies. You ask why the Hendrick teams dominate? Just look at the rulebook ... and count the engineers on the Hendrick payroll. NASCAR is changing the rules for 2014? Then expect another Jimmie Johnson championship.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I think NASCAR has done a good job in walking that fine line between competition and entertainment but it’s not going to get any easier in the coming years. The sport simply has to cater to a new breed of fans' expectations while maintaining its core of long-time supporters. Tough balance to say the least.

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Are today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are too closely matched so that “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” rules keep the field more tightly grouped. Is this simply a product of “sports,” circa 2014? Has the importance of catering to a television audience trumped honest, on-track/on-field competition?
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Austin Dillon, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-austin-dillon

Richard Childress Racing’s iconic, stylized No. 3 will make its return to the Cup Series for the first time since February 2001. That will undoubtedly be one of the sport’s biggest headlines heading into the 2014 Daytona 500, as Childress promotes grandson Austin Dillon to the seat Dale Earnhardt made famous. And the expectations that come with carrying one of the most recognized and revered numbers in motorsports history are not lost on him.  Austin Dillon

Childress, in fact, believes Dillon is the man to face them head-on. “We had quite a few discussions on it,” Childress says. “Sure, there’s pressure, but I think the pressure from the number drives him.”

The stats back the claim. The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, Dillon also has a Camping World Truck Series title to his credit (2011). He comes from a racing pedigree — the Childress connection is well documented, and his father is former journeyman racer and current RCR general manager Mike Dillon. Childress made it clear that Earnhardt would approve of the move, claiming that “The Intimidator” wanted a replacement who could compete for titles, year in and year out.

RCR, as expected, is throwing every resource at this venture to ensure that happens. Sponsorship comes from Dow Chemicals, General Mills and Bass Pro Shops, strong sources of funding to ensure competitive equipment. Earnhardt-Childress engines are ultra-durable, with just one failure among all three RCR teams in 2013, and that means that if Dillon avoids trouble, his cars should be running at the end of the day. Crew chief Gil Martin engineered three third-place points finishes over the last four seasons for Kevin Harvick, and he has been a mainstay at the company since 2000. He’ll provide veteran leadership that will be critical to the young driver’s success.

But while Dillon has the support system in place, it’s not going to be as easy as the lower divisions appeared to be for the young driver. While RCR equipment is among the best in the Cup Series, several teams can make the same claim, and that means there will be a lot of drivers fighting for real estate on the points chart this year. The teen positions around the Chase cutoff, in particular, will be a slugfest — and Dillon is on that cusp. A Nationwide championship doesn’t guarantee success; just ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 19th in the premier series one year removed from an NNS title in a previously top-5 car.

Perhaps the best asset Dillon brings is consistency. He captured the NNS title without a single win, and he doesn’t tear up race cars. To date, his Cup numbers are far from earth-shattering — though 11th- and 14th-place runs at Michigan last year are reason for optimism. Also, a top-3 run-gone-wrong on the final lap at Talladega was impressive in that it showed he had the composure to hang with the big boys. However, running sporadically and for multiple teams did not allow Dillon to establish any kind of rhythm or communication with a crew chief.

Considering the challenges ahead — as a rookie and with the “special circumstances” that come with the ride — a top-20 points finish over a full 36-race slate would be a very successful debut.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He's won titles in two national series and comes from a racing family that enjoys racing anything,” a rival crew chief says. “His dirt experience will serve him well when he goes to the next level. He already has several races in Cup cars so he’ll be able to give quality feedback to his team. … Gil Martin is going to be his crew chief. He has been a proven winner in Cup for a long time, and he’ll help bring Dillon along.”

“He’s driving the 3 (car). Whether people love it or hate it, they’re going to be talking about it,” another crew chief says. “There is going to be all sorts of pressure about driving that car, and the longer it takes him to succeed the more attention he’s going to get from fans and media. He’s also always going to have to battle the perception that he was given the ride and didn’t earn it.”

“Dillon wasn’t bad in faux-RCR stuff and in the 14 (car) last year,” a media member points out. “Though I sometimes wonder about his killer instinct. I’m not convinced a poor finish really hurts his heart — unlike his brother Ty, who strikes me as the one with a little chip on his shoulder.”

No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Dow Chemicals/General Mills/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Lewisville, N.C.
Born: April 27, 1990




Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Dillon courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


2014 season preview for Austin Dillon in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:54
All taxonomy terms: Ryan Newman, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-ryan-newman

After five years with Stewart-Haas Racing, Ryan Newman seeks a new beginning with Richard Childress Racing for 2014. And RCR? It hopes Newman becomes the steadying, stable force inside the organization it just released in Jeff Burton.  Ryan Newman

When Kevin Harvick’s defection to SHR was made public over a year ago, the handwriting was on the wall for Newman in the No. 39 ride. Ultimately, the organizations made what amounted to a trade, with Newman slotting into Burton’s former No. 31 ride and Austin Dillon transitioning into Harvick’s seat. With the rookie, Dillon, and journeyman Paul Menard already signed on at RCR, the right free agent pickup was key to keep the company in position to challenge heavyweights like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

On paper, the 36-year-old Newman seems to fit the bill at RCR. His record is more current than Burton’s, with wins in five of the last six seasons and five Chase appearances on the résumé. Since 2008, he joins Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

On the flip side, eight of Newman’s 17 career wins are bundled in one season with Penske Racing (2003), and he’s never finished higher than sixth in the final standings, so whether he’s a championship-caliber driver isn’t a question with an easy answer.

What became a tired act for former boss Gene Haas was Newman’s pesky habit of hovering right around the Chase’s cutoff. His “bubble” performance at Richmond last year, in which a win evaporated late in the race, was the trigger for the whole race-fixing fiasco. In the end, NASCAR’s penalties awarded him the spot, but historically he’s far from the postseason top-5 finisher that Harvick has been in five of the last eight years.

In a 16-team field, however, he’s easily capable of qualifying for the playoffs. What he does in such an inclusive (and eliminative) format remains to be seen.

At least Newman has funding and stability behind him — an issue that dampened his efforts at SHR. RCR reportedly has backing in place for his No. 31 for the entire season, as Quicken Loans will come with Newman for a dozen events, with staunch Childress-backer Caterpillar and WIX Filters along with Kwikset filling out the docket. Add in family funding from teammate Menard, which benefits the entire organization, and this team should have money to burn.

Luke Lambert will return to the No. 31 as crew chief in 2014 after guiding Burton to a handful of top-10 finishes last year. Lambert is a young talent in the garage, and some new ideas could give Newman an infusion of speed if the two see eye-to-eye. Lambert also has a history of working with veterans, making him big on both fuel-mileage and track-position gambles. That’ll mesh well with a driver who can thank in-race strategy plays to get in position on final restarts for two of his last four victories on tour.

Lambert’s first goal, though, will be to rebuild confidence following a 2013 roller coaster that left Newman too vulnerable for even good friend and co-owner Tony Stewart to save the pink slip. His final stats were still respectable: an 11th-place points finish, a win at Indianapolis and a pair of poles. But an 11th-hour inclusion in the Chase didn’t boost momentum like it did for Jeff Gordon. During the final 10 races, Newman never cracked the top 5, the only Chaser who failed to do so.

Of course, on-track success isn’t the only goal listed here. RCR tapped Newman for his brains as well as his talent; a strong mentor would be helpful to young Dillon and even Menard. There’s just a risk involved in labeling him “Jeff Burton Jr.” Newman’s role as a team player has been questioned in the past, and it’s unlikely that he’ll make a sudden about-face in that department. His engineering knowledge is extensive — as is Lambert’s — and that should undoubtedly be a plus, but they’ll have to make Newman want to share it outside the No. 31 circle.

Childress also seems to be overly focused on grandson Austin’s promotion to the Cup Series. It was enough to cause Harvick to leave in a huff; will playing second fiddle, a role Newman filled too much at SHR, eventually frustrate him?

All in all, Newman was a prime pickup for RCR in a market where the choices were limited. He’ll be a better example to Dillon than, say, the volatile Kurt Busch — who was rumored to fill this slot before Silly Season truly kicked in last year. But Newman doesn’t quite fill the driver’s shoes left by Harvick or the mentor’s role left by Burton. What he does bring is consistency, the ability to grab a win or two each year and the potential to contend for a Chase spot.

What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Ryan Newman’s No. 39 team was the leader of the pack at Stewart-Haas Racing last season — due in large part to teammate Tony Stewart’s season-ending injury after 21 races. How he adapts to the new environs at Richard Childress Racing this year will be key.

“He seems like he’s good at playing the strategy game — whether taking two tires or staying out,” a rival crew chief says. “He seems to be very capable of taking a car that shouldn’t win and putting it in a position to do so even if it doesn’t deserve to.”

“Newman’s consistency — particularly last year — wasn’t there,” another rival says. “He was either really good or really bad and, all around, his team was the best of the organization at SHR. We’ll see how that changes at RCR. Obviously, he’ll be working with a new group of guys, so we’ll find out if it was a chemistry issue the last few seasons.”

“A hard-nosed driver like Newman and an old-school racer like Childress? Heck, it seems to be a match made in heaven,” one media member says. “(Austin) Dillon’s effort in that No. 3 car will be the organization’s focal point, but that may actually benefit Newman and Luke Lambert. Let those two do their thing quietly in the background, and you just might be surprised with the results.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
He’s usually good for about one win a year these days, and it seems the flatter the track, the better.
Pretty Solid Pick: Keep an eye on this bunch at Loudon — a track where Newman won in 2011, and where Luke Lambert engineered third- and eighth-place finishes for the 31 team last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Newman hasn’t won in Jake and Elwood country since 2003, but he can claim top 10s in six of his last seven visits.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Road courses, where Newman is 1-for-12 in the top 10 category in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Insider Tip: Pairing the driver-engineer in Newman and the engineering-minded Lambert as crew chief in what many claim are indestructible cars at RCR will make for an intriguing watch.

No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
 Caterpillar/Quicken Loans/WIX Filters/Kwikset
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Luke Lambert
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: Dec. 8, 1977

Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

2014 driver preview for Ryan Newman on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Paul Menard, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-paul-menard

Paul Menard has spent the past few seasons of his Sprint Cup career on the fringe of success. He has just one win on his Cup résumé, in 2011, but it’s one of the most prestigious wins a driver can have: the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s good for a top 5 and a few top 10s per year and, through conserving equipment, can achieve consistency. He was good enough to run inside the top 10 in points for 10 weeks in 2013.  Paul Menard

The problem is, Menard has never been able to sustain a hot streak or be consistently good enough to contend for a Chase berth. In seven full-time Sprint Cup seasons, he has cracked the top 20 in points three times, but never finished better than 16th (2012). With Cup competition stronger than ever heading into this season, Menard could very well struggle to make it into that top 20 if he simply maintains the status quo.

The No. 27 team itself remains stable for 2014. Crew chief Slugger Labbe is signed through 2016, and Richard Childress Racing equipment was strong enough for Kevin Harvick to make a 2013 title run, so race cars will not hold Menard back. Labbe is a veteran presence on the box and also has one of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Daytona 500, in the win column. His mechanical excellence will continue to be a boon to Menard.

But perhaps the driver’s best asset in today’s NASCAR is his homegrown sponsorship. Menards, the retail chain owned by Paul’s father, John, is the driver’s primary backer, and that family money means he is virtually a lock for a ride with a decent team every year. In a day and age when money rules NASCAR — and even a winning record isn’t the guarantee of a ride it once was — Menard’s future is as secure as that of the sport’s elite.

That’s not to say he is undeserving of the ride. While his numbers will never be mistaken for Jeff Gordon’s, he has proven to those in the garage that he can hang.

This season should resemble most on the Wisconsin native’s Cup résumé. He’s had at least eight top-10 runs in each of his three years at RCR, and if the planets align, he could pick up a win on an intermediate oval, where he’s earned five of his 10 career top-5 finishes. The problem is, the same can be said of a lot of drivers this year. While Menard has everything he needs behind him to make a driver successful, he has yet to have a breakout season in which he stomps out the naysayers once and for all. Even in 2013, with such a hot start — Menard was the only driver to complete every lap in each of the first nine races — he failed to earn a top-5 showing until Michigan in August.

Typically the aforementioned numbers aren’t enough to sustain employment, but Richard Childress Racing is using a creative method to provide organizational funding.

Menard has shown flashes of talent — but just flashes — over a seven-year career. A points finish in the back half of the teens or low 20s reflects said talent in a deep Cup field and is in line with past results.

What the Competition is Saying

Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He has quite a few years of experience and continues to develop his racing skills,” a rival crew chief says. “He’s a well-known driver and pretty consistent. Paul has the ability to win a race at any point because he runs decent on all types of racetracks. That tells me he has a good feel for what he wants in his car. Plus, he’s a strong team player who shares information well with his teammates — that’s a big plus.”

For every compliment, though, there is criticism: “He doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct needed to bring a fifth-place car to the point,” says another crew chief. “He’s a good driver, but not Chase-caliber. Honestly, his tenure in the sport has been significantly lengthened due to the money he brings to the table, but Slugger Labbe is a good crew chief — yet even he hasn’t been able to take the team to the next level.”

But another crew chief plays his trump card: “He’s won the Brickyard. I wonder how many drivers can lay claim to that?”

“You know what you’re going to get with Menard,” says a media member. “You know what his season-ending stats are going to look like before the season even starts. That said, he brings great insight when addressing the media. Wish we heard more from him.”

No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Richard “Slugger” Labbe
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 16th (2012)
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wis.
Born: Aug. 21, 1980



Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of NASCAR.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro



Driver preview for Paul Menard on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:50
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/baseballs-all-time-valentines-day-lineup

With MLB camps open in Florida and Arizona, no doubt there are a few WAGs missing their sweethearts today. In honor of the Day of Love, we present the all-time Valentine’s Day lineup including Flowers, a Rose, Candy, a Cookie, a Jewel and an appearance by Cupid himself.

Tyler Flowers

The former 33rd-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves has increased his hit total over the past four years from 1 to 23 to 29 to 50. The career .200 hitter is shooting for 80 this season as the likely starter behind the plate for the Chicago White Sox.

Paul Goldschmidt

Every lady loves a little gold for Valentine’s Day, and the Diamondbacks certainly struck the mother lode with their first baseman, a future National League MVP.

Cupid Childs

The pudgy second baseman was one of the best players of his era, but has received only modest support for the Hall of Fame over the years. He amassed 1,721 hits over a 13-year career. All but 189 of those hits came in the 1800s while playing for the Quakers, Stars, Spiders, Perfectos and Orphans. He was a part of multiple trades, once for Gid Garner, another time for Cub Striker. Also known as Fats and Fatty, according to, the Grand Rapids Democrat called him “the most curiously built man in the baseball business ... he is as wide as he is long, yet there are few men who can get over the ground faster than the ‘dumpling.’”

Cookie Lavagetto

Cookie was an all-star for Brooklyn from 1938-41, and then spent the next four years serving his country. Thank you for your service, sir.

Bobby Valentine

Once a budding prospect in the Dodgers’ system, this Valentine was on his way to stardom in the city of Angels when a gruesome collision with an outfield wall derailed his career. With nearly 1,200 wins and one National League pennant in his 16 seasons as manager of the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox, Valentine also fits the bill as the ideal skipper for this unique team.

Jim Ray Hart

The sweet-swinging Hart averaged .290-29-92 with an OPS+ of 136 over his first four seasons in the bigs. Unfortunately, he was overshadowed by guys named Mays, McCovey and Cepeda in the same lineup.

Pete Rose

No player ever got to first base more than the all-time hits leader. He wasn’t bad at scoring either.

Ellis Valentine

No prudent base runner dared to sneak an extra base when this Valentine was throwing darts from right field.

Sugar Cain

Cain pitched in an offensive era in the 1930s for the Philadelphia A’s, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, so he didn’t win many games. Evidently, he wasn’t afraid to issue free passes. He led the league in walks once, logged more than 100 in three successive seasons and ended his career with 5.6 BB/9IP.

Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbread” Bailey

The righthander fashioned a non-descript career with only six starts and 46 relief appearances, but this name must be on any list compiled in February.

Scott Diamond

Currently in the Twins’ rotation, the lefthander was a real Diamond in the rough in 2012 with a 12-9 mark, leading the league in fewest walks per nine innings. But in 2013, he was merely a rough Diamond.

Slim Love

At 6-7 and 195 pounds, we’re guessing his frame is the origin of the name. He won 13 games for the Yankees in 1918 and gave up only eight home runs in his career, but some who victimized him are memorable names: Swede Risberg and Hap Felsh of Black Sox fame, Smoky Joe Wood, George Burns and, of course, the Babe.

Lynn Lovenguth

The journeyman won 193 games in the minors for eight different organizations, but pitched a scant 27 innings for the Phillies and Cardinals in the 1950s. Evidently, Lynn wasn’t exactly the loving sort. He was reportedly kicked out of the dugout by his own manager, Cot Deal, in the minors for complaining about a lack of defensive support.


Jewel Winklemeyer Ens

The first baseman didn’t see much action in the majors, but he played with Hall of Famers Max Carey, Pie Traynor and Kiki Cuyler with the Pirates. Yet there was only one authentic jewel on that team.

Diamond Jim Gentile

With a nickname like Diamond Jim and a surname pronounced “jen-TEEL” the slugging first baseman must be in the Valentine’s Day lineup. He was third in AL MVP voting in 1961, the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, Mickey Mantle slugged 54 and Norm Cash batted .361.

Corey Hart

Hart was broken during the 2013 season in what ended up being his final go-round with the Brewers. He’s moved on to Seattle leaving Milwaukee, well, um, Hartless.

Rudolph Valentino Regalado

Yep, that’s his name. Whether or not the backup infielder made women in Cleveland swoon or not is unknown. But in 91 games for the Indians he had no effect on pitchers whatsoever.

Candy Maldonado

A personal favorite of mine ever since his pennant-clinching pinch-hit for my Strat-O-Matic team in 1989.

Baseball’s All-Time Valentine’s Day Lineup
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 17:00
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /college-football/athletes-recall-impact-tennis-great-arthur-ashe
If the athletic record were our only method of judging Arthur Ashe’s impact on U.S. history and culture, it would be pretty impressive.
His life, however, was much more than that.
Ashe won three Grand Slam tennis titles — Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open — and was the first African-American to capture each. He was the first black man to be named to the U.S. Davis Cup team and reached the second spot in the ATP computer rankings in 1976. 
But Ashe was so much more than a trailblazing athlete, and his legacy goes far beyond the courts. He crusaded against apartheid in South Africa and the cruel treatment of Haitian refugees. His efforts raised millions for the United Negro College Fund and for inner-city tennis programs. Ashe established the African-American Athletic Association. As his friend, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young said, “He took the burden of race and wore it as a cloak of dignity.”
Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. Though his life ended too early, Ashe’s impact on society was enormous and is celebrated below by athletes who remember his great influence.
Andrew McCutchen, outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates: Arthur Ashe was a pioneer in athletics for African-Americans, breaking down barriers by being the first African-American to win a singles title in a Grand Slam. His accomplishments led to a great level of acceptability for African-American athletes throughout the entire sports world. He also persevered off the tennis court, battling HIV and AIDS, while using his platform to help toward treatment and cures for the deadly disease.
Ozzie Newsome, GM, Baltimore Ravens; Hall of Fame tight end, Cleveland Browns: Arthur Ashe was a champion both on and off the tennis court. He inspired a generation of athletes who otherwise would not have tried tennis to get on the courts. He used the notoriety he gained in tennis to improve the world, especially in education and toleration. His dignity was evident throughout his life, including handling a debilitating illness until he passed. While I did not know him, you could see he was a man of tremendous character, courage, intelligence and a role model for many of us.
Adam Jones, outfielder, Baltimore Orioles: His career as a tennis player speaks for itself. I think he is the greatest African-American tennis player that ever lived. But what sticks out to me is how much he did for others, when he could have done nothing. Through no fault of his own, he acquired a horrible disease, but instead of doing nothing, he raised awareness for HIV and AIDS research and started foundations that would carry on his legacy long after he had passed. To me, what he did after his tennis career is more important than what he did during it, and we should all strive to make the kind of impact Mr. Ashe did.
Tyrone Wheatley, coach, Buffalo Bills; running back, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders: Arthur Ashe picked up where Althea Gibson left off but did not settle for just breaking down barriers. He took it to another level. He wanted South Africa banned from the tennis federation. A lot of athletes who were at the peaks of their careers did not want to make trouble. They just wanted to collect their money. Arthur Ashe said, “This is who I am, and I am going to bring to light what’s going on.” His accomplishments for civil rights were not publicized, but he did a lot. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in team sports, but tennis wasn’t trying to include black athletes. It was trying to keep things the way they were. When you think about the strength it took every day to go through that, it did more than what he did publicly. I don’t know if I would have had the mental toughness to do that.
Mike Singletary, Hall of Fame linebacker, Chicago Bears: I think Arthur Ashe was before his time. He allowed a lot of African-American athletes and people of color to get interested in a sport that was very non-traditional for them. To bring the class that he brought and to play the way he played and to overcome the things he overcame in a sport that was not traditional for African-Americans speaks volumes about him. I’m very proud of what he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do.
Isiah Thomas, Hall of Fame point guard, Detroit Pistons: Arthur Ashe impacted America on the tennis court with his groundbreaking championship play. He not only shattered racial barriers with his play, but he inspired us with his dignity and grace – sometimes against amazing odds. He made us better and bigger people because of the way he handled the racial prejudices and social injustices he faced. He was often quoted as saying, “My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.” Today, we salute his memory. I thank him for not only opening doors to a level playing field in tennis and sports but for using his celebrity status to promote a more educated and just society.
Tom Jackson, ESPN analyst, linebacker Denver Broncos: Arthur Ashe was one of the greatest athletes ever, not only for what he did on the court, but off the court as well. The courage and class he showed when he was HIV positive, and the stigma attached to it back then, we should all aspire to be so courageous.
Keyshawn Johnson, ESPN analyst, wide receiver, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers: Arthur Ashe is somebody who achieved greatness against major odds. He showed me and many young people like me who grew up in the inner city, that with courage and perseverance, you can succeed in any sport or career you choose.
—by Michael Bradley
Main Photo Credit: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo Item number 927-7839
Athletes Recall the Impact of Tennis Great Arthur Ashe
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 15:08
Path: /college-football/michigan-te-jake-butt-suffers-torn-acl-winter-workouts

Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffered a torn ACL during winter conditioning drills and is out indefinitely. The news of Butt’s injury was announced through the team’s website on Thursday.

As a true freshman last season, Butt caught 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of his receptions came over the final two games, including a touchdown catch in the 42-41 loss to Ohio State.

Butt has seven months to heal until the season opener, but it’s uncertain if he will be at full strength by late August.

In order for Michigan to improve off its 7-6 record from last season, the Wolverines have to give quarterback Devin Gardner more help. Unfortunately for Gardner, Butt’s injury is a setback for the receiving corps, especially with the departure of Jeremy Gallon. The cupboard is far from bare at tight end with Devin Funchess returning. However, Butt appeared to be on his way to being a significant piece of Michigan’s passing attack in 2014.

Michigan TE Jake Butt Suffers Torn ACL in Winter Workouts
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 13:36
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2014-sochi-olympics-what-watch-feb-13

Today's Highlights


8-11:30 p.m. Eastern

Matt Lauer is starting to get comfortable in the anchor's chair, as Bob Costas spends a third night tending to his eye infection. Normal spoiler alert: By tonight, all of this will have already happened, so if you want to go in fresh, avoid the usual sports sites today.


1. Freestyle Skiing — Men's Slopestyle
The U.S. men — Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nicholas Goepper — are attempting to make history in this event, and even if you already know the outcome, you'll want to tune in.


2. Short Track Speed Skating — Women's 500m

It's not a spoiler to say that this event lives up to its reputation for chaos and unpredictability. Sometimes, it's the last skater standing who skates away with gold.


3. Figure Skating — Men's Short Program

Count on Russian legend Evgeni Plushenko to make news, whatever he does. American Jeremy Abbott is out for redemption after a disappointing showing in the team event.

Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 12:12
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-13-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 13.

• As anticipation builds for SI Swimsuit 2014, here's a rundown of top Swimsuit rookies for each year since 1999, including Class of 2011 standout Kate Upton.

• I found this amusing: What celebrities would look like if they were normal suburbanite schlubs like us.

Olympic freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy is tackling the Sochi stray problem all by himself.

Two American medal favorites have crashed and burned in Sochi.

• Short track speed skating strategy 101: Be patient and wait for everybody else to crash.

One blogger is already nauseated in anticipation of Derek Jeter's syrupy, schlocky farewell tour this season. I see his point, especially when I see a headline like this

It was Disco Demolition Night at the Warriors game.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner suspended a player for cussing. If that's the standard, a lot of people are in trouble.

• Reminder: Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. If you forget to give your honey something, make her forget that you forgot by mixing some of these Valentine-themed cocktails.

Buzzer-beater of the year so far comes to us from Washington high school hoops.

• Of a little more national significance was Tyler Ennis' buzzer-beater to beat Pittsburgh.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 10:31
Path: /college-football/big-ten-team-recruiting-consensus-rankings-2014
Body:,, ESPN and are the four major recruiting services who all do an excellent job evaluating, tracking and ranking all things recruiting.

But they don't always agree and that is a great thing for fans. It also means the best way to rank the best classes in the nation is to average them all together and come to a consensus. One service may value quantity while another may value quality. One service may really love one prospect while another may not feel as strongly about him. Each site has its own metric for evaluating a class. Again, this is why Athlon Sports publishes its national team recruiting rankings as an average of the four big sites combined.

After another stellar National Signing Day of winners and losers, here are the consensus Big Ten team rankings for 2014.

• If the rest of the Big Ten isn’t careful, Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes will leave them all behind. Ohio State landed the best class in the Big Ten for the third straight season and the sixth time in seven years (2010, Michigan). Meyer's team is the only one in the league even attempting to compete with the SEC on the recruiting trail. The rest of the league finished outside of the top 20 and well behind the Bucknuts in the national rankings. There is a clear vacuum behind Ohio State on the recruiting trail in the Big Ten.

• So who will fill that void left in the wake of Meyer? Enter James Franklin. The new Penn State coach only had a few weeks to work his magic on the trail this year and it paid off in a big way as Penn State jumped to No. 3 in the Big Ten following a flurry of commitments. With a full season to recruit and now playing games every year in both Maryland/DC and New Jersey, the Nittany Lions have a chance to become the top challenger to Ohio State. Franklin’s ability to sell his program is uncanny — just ask the folks in Nashville. The recruiting battles — both on and off the trail — between Franklin and Meyer should be intriguing to watch for as long as both remain in place in Columbus and Happy Valley.

• Brady Hoke and Michigan were noticeably absent from the national conversation on National Signing Day. There is no shame in landing the Big Ten’s No. 2-ranked class or the nation’s No. 22-ranked group. But this team expects more, and losing five out of their last six games this past season clearly killed any momentum the Wolverines might have had on the trail. The Maize and Blue can do better than 22nd and if they want to compete with that school down South, Hoke will have to improve in recruiting as well as on the field.

• What to do with Michigan State? If five-star defensive lineman Malik McDowell wants to go to Michigan State without his parents' consent, he can. Eventually, when he turns 18, there is nothing to stop him from attending Michigan State. However, for the time being, his parents will not sign his Letter of Intent and he remains in recruiting purgatory. With McDowell, this is a Top 25 class nationally and one of the better groups in the Big Ten. Without him, this class drops 8-10 spots and lands near Wisconsin and Nebraska in the 33-35 range. Mark Dantonio needs to get this issue resolved in a timely fashion.

• For the second year in a row, Kevin Wilson and Indiana had an excellent class. After finishing 38th nationally a year ago, the Hoosiers once again landed inside the top 50 nationally. Prior to 2013, however, Indiana wasn’t accustomed to recruiting at this level. Indiana ranked 66th (‘12), 59th (‘11), 92nd (‘10), 59th (‘09) and 78th (’08) over the last five cycles. That stretch ranked the Hoosiers 10th in the Big Ten on average but Wilson now has back-to-back upper-half finishes in the conference.

• Maryland and Rutgers finished the recruiting cycle in two totally different ways. Kyle Flood and the Knights finished 12th in the Big Ten and 59th overall after a record 12 decommitments throughout the process. The Terrapins landed a five-star stud in offensive lineman Damian Prince and had three other four-star signings. This class was small (17) and that resulted in a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten. However, this group has excellent quality. How these two programs do in their own regions in their first few seasons in the Big Ten will be critical to the survival of the current coaching regimes.

• Illinois and Purdue have two embattled coaching staffs after two really bad seasons and both did very poorly on the recruiting trail. Not only were both classes small (18 signees) but the quality wasn’t impressive either. In fact, Purdue ranked dead last among all Big 5 conference schools while Illinois ranked ahead of only the Boilermakers and Colorado from the Pac-12. Tim Beckman and Darrell Hazell have two major uphill battles ahead of them and these two classes didn’t help with that process whatsoever.

1.Ohio St231154th3357
3.Penn St250524th24242524
4.Michigan St*231325th25222129

* - This ranking reflects the addition of five-star defensive lineman Malik McDowell. This group falls back near Wisconsin and Nebraska without McDowell in the fold.

Big Ten Team Recruiting Consensus Rankings for 2014
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/top-10-sec-running-backs-bcs-era

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.

Being a running back in the SEC isn't easy. Generally, the defenses are the fastest and most physical in the nation. And the legacy set forth by two greats in the 1980s by the name of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson is nearly impossible to live up to. But that doesn't mean the SEC didn't have some of the nation's best carrying the rock during the BCS Era.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas (2005-07)
Stats: 785 att., 4,590 yds, 41 TDs, 46 rec., 365 yds, 2 TDs

When it comes to pure breakaway speed and big-play ability, few can match Run-DMC’s talent. The North Little Rock prospect finished second in Heisman balloting in back-to-back seasons, coming up just short to Troy Smith and Tim Tebow in 2006 and '07 respectively. McFadden won the Doak Walker and SEC Offensive Player of the Year awards in both consensus All-American seasons. His 4,590 yards is No. 2 all-time in SEC history to only the great Herschel Walker. He helped lead Arkansas to the SEC Championship Game in 2006 but came up short against the eventual national champion Florida Gators.

2. Trent Richardson, Alabama (2009-11)
Stats: 540 att., 3,130 yds, 35 TDs 68 rec., 730 yds, 7 TDs, 720 ret. yds, TD

T-Rich is one of the most physically imposing running backs to ever play the game. The Pensacola product only started for one season but became the only SEC running back to rush for 20 touchdowns in a season until Tre Mason scored 23 times in 2013. Richardson won two national titles and is one of the rarest combinations of size, speed and agility. His 1,679 yards in the 2011 national title season are second to only McFadden (1,830) among all SEC backs during the BCS Era and is an Alabama single-season record. He was the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and finished his collegiate career by earning consensus All-American recognition, winning the Doak Walker Award and SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting in '11.

3. Mark Ingram, Alabama (2008-10)
Stats: 572 att., 3,261 yds, 42 TDs, 60 rec., 670 yds, 4 TDs

Ingram is the only Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama’s storied history and he might not have been the best back on his own team. From Flint, Michigan, originally, Ingram led Bama to the national championship in 2009 with 1,658 yards and 17 scores. It was his only 1,000-yard season while in Tuscaloosa. No Bama player has scored more rushing touchdowns than Ingram and his 2009 Heisman Trophy campaign was the third-best among all SEC backs during the BCS Era (McFadden, Richardson). The SEC Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American was a first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints when he left school early in 2010.

4. Shaun Alexander, Alabama (1996-99)
Stats: 727 att., 3,565 yds, 41 TDs, 62 rec., 798 yds, 8 TDs

Alexander was a steady performer for four years at Alabama. The Florence, Ky., talent is the all-time leading rusher in Alabama history and he capped his career with an SEC Offensive Player of the Year season when he scored 23 total touchdowns and a career-high 1,383 yards rushing in 1999. Alexander is 12th all-time in rushing in SEC history and his 41 career rushing touchdowns trails Ingram by only one for seventh all-time in SEC history and tops at Alabama.

5. Kevin Faulk, LSU (1995-98)
Stats: 856 att., 4,557 yds, 46 TDs, 53 rec., 600 yds, 4 TDs, 1,676 ret. yds, 3 TDs

From an all-purpose standpoint, few can match the production of Faulk. He posted the No. 4- and No. 5-best all-purpose seasons in SEC history when he totaled 2,109 yards in 1998 and 2,104 in '96. Those are still the best two seasons per game in SEC history (191.7 ypg and 191.3 ypg). His 46 rushing touchdowns are third all-time to Tebow and Walker and Faulk is third all-time in SEC history in rushing. He is fifth in rushing attempts and scored a total of 53 times while at LSU. 

6. Cadillac Williams, Auburn (2001-04)
Stats: 741 att., 3,831 yds, 45 TDs, 45 rec., 342 yds, TDs, 911 ret. yds

He never got the ball all to himself and that likely keeps him from being in the top five. He topped out in 2003 with 1,307 yards and 17 touchdowns before his second 1,000-yard season during the unbeaten 2004 campaign. He has scored more rushing touchdowns than anyone in school history and is No. 2 to only Bo Jackson in rushing yards. Williams is 11th all-time in rushing in SEC history and is fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns before becoming the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. He’s 10th all-time in all-purpose yards in SEC history (5,084).

7. Tre Mason, Auburn (2011-13)
Stats: 516 att., 2,979 yds, 32 TDs, 19 rec., 249 yds, TD, 1,107 ret. yds, 2 TDs

Mason’s numbers speak for themselves. His 1,816 yards rushing in 2013 are third-best all-time in the SEC behind only McFadden and Walker. His 23 rushing touchdowns tied Tebow for the most in a single season in SEC history. He carried his team to an SEC championship and berth in the BCS title game while finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year and posted the second-best all-purpose season in SEC history with 2,374 yards (Randall Cobb, 2,396). His record 46 carries for 304 yards and four touchdowns in the SEC title game win over Missouri will go down as one of the greatest single-game performances in league history.

8. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (2010-12)
Stats: 555 att., 2,677 yds, 38 TDs, 74 rec., 767 yds, 3 TDs

What could have been for the star from South Carolina? Lattimore, in just 29 career games over just three seasons, finished 12th in rushing touchdowns (38) and averaged 118.8 yards from scrimmage per game throughout his time in Columbia. He rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as just a freshman in his only full season in college. Both his sophomore (seven games) and junior (nine) campaigns were cut short with major injuries. His numbers would be among the league’s greatest had he even just played three full seasons.

9. Knowshon Moreno, Georgia (2007-08)
Stats: 498 att., 2,734 yds, 30 TDs, 53 rec., 645 yds, 2 TDs

As far as a two-year run goes, few have been as productive as Moreno. He carried 248 times for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 games in 2007 as a redshirt freshman. He came back the following season and rushed 250 times for 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. Moreno averaged 131.1 all-purpose yards per game during his two-year career, good for eighth in SEC history — with only 30 career return yards. He was a first-round pick of the Broncos in 2009 and could have posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons had he stayed in school.

10. Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State (2006-09)
Stats: 910 att., 3,994 yds, 42 TDs, 56 rec., 449 yds, 4 TDs

Dixon finished second all-time only to Walker in SEC history with 910 carries during his career in Starkville. He is eighth all-time in SEC history in rushing (third to only McFadden and Faulk during the BCS Era) and is tied with Mark Ingram for seventh all-time with 42 rushing touchdowns. Dixon had two 1,000-yard seasons and never scored less than seven times in a season. The burly ball-carrier was one of the most consistent in the history of the league after playing 48 career games for the Bulldogs. 

Just missed the cut:

11. Jamal Lewis, Tennessee (1997-99)
Stats: 487 att., 2,677 yds, 17 TDs, 39 rec., 475 yds, 4 TDs

Lewis never scored 10 times in a season and isn’t near the top 10 in most career rushing lists. But few backs in SEC history have ever been as talented right from the get go. Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards as a true freshman in 1997 and then helped lead the Vols to a BCS National Championship and perfect record in 1998. After a modest junior year (and injuries over his last two seasons), Lewis left school early and was the fifth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. His NFL career speaks for itself.

12. Ronnie Brown, Auburn (2000-04)
Stats: 513 att., 2,707 yds, 28 TDs, 58 rec., 668 yds, 2 TDs

He was supremely talented but his best year was 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2002. He took a slight back seat to Williams on the unblemished ’04 squad, but still managed to produce 1,226 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns en route to an SEC and Sugar Bowl championship. He was the second overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

13. Deuce McAllister, Ole Miss (1997-00)
Stats: 633 att., 3,181 yds, 37 TDs, 66 rec., 671 yds, 3 TDs, 1,276 ret. yds, 2 TDs

A touchdown scoring machine, McAllister is 13th all-time in SEC history with 37 rushing touchdowns. He is Ole Miss’ leading rusher in every major category: carries, yards, touchdowns and 100-yard games (13). He only had one 1,000-yard season (1998) but averaged 5.0 yards per carry for his career and was unstoppable around the goal line. The Saints took him in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft.

14. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt (2009-12)
Stats: 581 att., 3,143 yds, 30 TDs, 46 rec., 415 yds

Simply put, he is the best, most productive running back in school history. And he helped get the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. He owns every major school rushing record after back-to-back seasons with at least 200 carries, 1,140 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011-12.

15. Travis Henry, Tennessee (1997-00)
Stats: 556 att., 3,078 yds, 26 TDs, 20 rec., 99 yds

An excellent producer for three full seasons, Henry helped lead Tennessee to a national title in 1998 before capping his career with a 1,314-yard, 11-TD season in 2000. The Volunteers went 41-9 during Henry’s time on campus. He was a second-round pick of the Bills in 2001.

16. Felix Jones, Arkansas (2005-07)
Stats: 386 att., 2,956 yds, 20 TDs, 39 rec., 383 yds, 3 TDs, 1,760 ret. yds, 4 TDs

Few players have the resume that Jones has in just three seasons… as a back up. He posted back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons and scored 27 total times in his career. His 1,990 all-purpose yards in ’07 is good for 11th all-time in SEC history. He was a consensus All-American and a first-round pick while helping Arkansas to an SEC title game.

17. Rudi Johnson, Auburn (2000)
Stats: 324 att., 1,567 yds, 13 TDs, 9 rec., 70 yds

Johnson played just one season in the SEC after winning two straight junior college national championships. But it was a good one. No back carried the ball more (324) in any one BCS season in the SEC than Johnson did in 2000. His 1,567 yards that season are second only to Jackson’s 1,786 in school history. He was named SEC Player of the Year and finished 10th in the Heisman voting.

18. Travis Stephens, Tennessee (1997-01)
Stats: 488 att., 2,336 yds, 21 TDs, 27 rec., 200 yds, TD

After biding his time behind both Lewis and Henry, Stephens posted one of the great single seasons in Vols history in 2001. He ran for 1,464 yards and 10 touchdowns on 291 carries and single-handedly beat No. 2-ranked Florida to win the SEC East title.

19. Ben Tate, Auburn (2006-09)
Stats: 678 att., 3,321 yds, 24 TDs, 53 rec., 336 yds

A few years after the Williams-Brown tandem, Tate posted three quality seasons in Auburn with at least 159 carries. But his final year was his best as he posted career highs in carries (263), yards (1,362) and touchdowns (10) to go with 20 receptions.

20. Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss (2006-09)
Stats: 304 att., 1,955 yds, 15 TDs, 130 rec., 1,703 yds, 7 TDs, 431 ret. yds

He wasn’t really a running back or a wide receiver and that may hurt his perception, but few players were as difficult to stop as McCluster was in his final season. He posted 1,689 yards from scrimmage and 11 offensive touchdowns while leading Ole Miss to their second straight nine-win season. The across-the-board production makes him one of the SEC’s best.

Best of the rest:

21. Eddie Lacy, Alabama (2010-12): 355 att., 2,402 yds, 30 TDs, 35 rec., 338 yds, 2 TDs
22. Todd Gurley, Georgia (2012-pres.): 387 att., 2,374 yds, 27 TDs, 53 rec., 558 yds, 6 TDs, 243 ret. yds, TD
23. Joseph Addai, LSU (2001-05): 490 att., 2,576 yds, 18 TDs, 66 rec., 641 yds, 6 TDs
24. Henry Josey, Missouri (2010-13): 395 att., 2,771 yds, 30 TDs, 24 rec., 175 yds, TD
25. Arian Foster, Tennessee (2005-08): 650 att., 2,964 yds, 23 TDs, 83 rec., 742 yds, 2 TDs
26. Earnest Graham, Florida (1998-02): 609 att., 3,085 yds, 33 TDs, 59 rec., 402 yds
27. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama (2012-pres.): 382 att., 2,343 yds, 26 TDs, 31 rec., 314 yds, TD
28. Kenneth Darby, Alabama (2003-06): 702 att., 3,324 yds, 11 TDs, 70 rec., 340 yds, 2 TDs
29. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ole Miss (2003-07): 920 att., 3,869 yds, 25 TDs, 39 rec., 316 yds, TD
30. Jeremy Hill, LSU (2012-13): 345 att., 2,156 yds, 28 TDs, 26 rec., 254 yds
31. Rafael Little, Kentucky (2004-07): 580 att., 2,996 yds, 16 TDs, 131 rec., 1,324 yds, 4 TDs, 1,023 ret. yds, 2 TDs
32. Jerious Norwood, Mississippi State (2002-05): 573 att., 3,222 yds, 15 TDs, 43 rec., 186 yds, 2 TDs, 313 ret. yds
33. Artose Pinner, Kentucky (1999-02): 438 att., 2,105 yds, 17 TDs, 58 rec., 407 yds, 2 TDs
34. Stevan Ridley, LSU (2008-10): 306 att., 1,419 yds, 19 TDs, 17 rec., 94 yds
35. Montario Hardesty, Tennessee (2005-09): 560 att., 2,391 yds, 26 TDs, 38 rec., 405 yds, TD

ORV: Cedric Cobbs, Knile Davis, Kenny Irons, Glen Coffee, Mike Davis, Thomas Brown, Cedric Houston

Top 10 SEC Running Backs of the BCS Era
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-which-team-has-you-flip-flopping-your-opinion

This regular season has been unusually unpredictable, especially when it comes to the top teams from back in November.

Athlon Sports isn’t above changing it’s opinions based on more games and more of the season. For better or worse, three teams have caused us to recalibrate what we think of each program this season.

We asked our editorial staff which teams, for better or worse, have caused them to change their opinions the most in the last few weeks.

Weekly Tipoff: Name a team that you have changed your opinion of (either good or bad) in the past few weeks.

David Fox: Oklahoma State
I’m going to steal the thunder of my colleagues and pick Oklahoma State. This stretch has been coming long before the Marcus Smart suspension. Even before the fateful shove in Lubbock, the Cowboys already were on the way to their fourth consecutive loss and fifth in six games. The Michael Cobbins injury set Oklahoma State back just as the Cowboys entered Big 12 play. The dismissal of backup point guard Stevie Clark essentially gave the Pokes as six-man rotation. In Big 12 play, Oklahoma State is middle of the pack in almost every way, but especially on the glass — the Cowboys are sixth in defensive rebound rate and eighth in offensive rebound rate. And now this team won’t have Smart for two more games. Oklahoma State caught a break in Smart’s first game out, facing Texas without its star forward Jonathan Holmes. Texas still won by 19. If Oklahoma State can’t beat Oklahoma or Baylor without Smart, this team will be 4-9 in the Big 12 and 16-10 overall when Smart returns. That’s a bubble team. A far cry from a team we thought could win the Big 12 title back in November.

Mitch Light: St. John's
St. John’s, left for dead after an 0–5 start in the Big East, is now looking like a team capable of winning a few games in the NCAA Tournament. Led by guard De’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm have won five of their last six league games, with the only loss coming by three points at Creighton on Jan. 28. On Sunday, Harrison scored 19 points and hit some key free throws late to secure a 70–65 win in the rematch with Creighton. With an RPI of 63 and only one win against a top-50 opponent, St. John’s still has some work to do, but this team clearly has the talent to play its way into the NCAAs.

Braden Gall: SMU
This is a team that was picked in the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference. The Mustangs showed some progress early in the season but didn’t exactly warrant much national attention. That, however, has changed. After beating both Memphis and Cincinnati at home in convincing fashion over the last two weeks, Larry Brown’s team is now in the national rankings and appears headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. The only five losses for SMU? At Louisville, at Cincinnati, at Arkansas, Virginia on a neutral court and at, gulp, South Florida. The loss to the Bulls is the only real head-scratcher, and the Mustangs are perfect at home at renovated Moody Coliseum. Rematches with UConn, Louisville and Memphis in the final two weeks could be for more than just seeding in the conference tourney.

Weekly Tipoff: Which Team Has You Flip-Flopping Your Opinion?
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-jimmie-johnsons-reign-comparable-any-sport-has-seen

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. In a day when parity in professional sports is not merely encouraged but is the norm, is this team’s sustained success comparable to anything ever seen in NASCAR?

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I was a kid through Petty’s reign and covered some of Earnhardt’s as a reporter, but what Johnson is doing to rewrite the record book is simply spectacular. Fans of other drivers might not like it, but Johnson has already established himself as the greatest driver in NASCAR history.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): No. This is the greatest streak of domination in NASCAR history. While NASCAR is closer than it’s ever been, you could make the argument that close doesn’t always equal competitive. In an NFL where a 2–14 team quintuples its win total the following year, the same turnarounds don’t and can’t happen in NASCAR’s climate.

But that’s not taking anything away from what the No. 48 team has done. That closeness leaves less margin for error. For example, a bobble on pit road under green can create a deficit that’s impossible to make up. And in the Chase format, that can be fatal. But through the 10 Chase seasons, six of these titles have been won by this bunch. That’s simply incredible.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It’s best compared to an NBA dynasty. The Chicago Bulls also won six championships in eight seasons, and its common thread is a dynamic troika. Just as the Bulls’ core of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen remained mostly constant (aside from MJ’s sabbatical) through roster churn and varied opponents, the No. 48 trio of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec also has been in place for all six championships. Malec somehow hasn’t left despite plentiful offers for greener pastures via a crew chief promotion, and that might be one of the most underreported stories in Sprint Cup.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): No. Jimmie Johnson is a great driver. Chad Knaus is a great crew chief. They have a great team and organization behind them. For those who hate the fact he has won six titles in the last eight years, there is one good thing — the chances of another driver achieving such a feat is extremely slim.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): Jimmie Johnson may be a great driver, one of the best ever, but such a run is not good for the sport. Sustained success in NASCAR history? Check out Richard Petty, the Wood brothers and Junior Johnson. In my opinion it is long past time for Brian France to do the rest of the job he started a few years ago — limiting the number of Cup teams any one man can run. Break up the mega-teams; limit owners to no more than two Cup teams; and drastically modify these “engineering” operations.

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): The only real comparison is the extended success of the old Petty Enterprises team, which was obnoxiously dominant in its day. But the No. 48’s run is more impressive, given the ability of more teams to be competitive in the modern era.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): No. Teams like Holman-Moody, Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson & Associates, or even Richard Childress Racing did their greatest damage in eras when only the top handful of cars could realistically win races. Now we’re seeing double-digit winners each year and rules designed to keep as many cars as possible on the lead lap. They’ve changed the cars, the championship format, everything … and Hendrick keeps on winning. Yes, they have a big budget. But so do the other superteams. The difference is the right people in the right places and a willingness to take risks when it comes to new processes. Oh, and that Johnson guy is pretty good.

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. In a day when parity in professional sports is not merely encouraged but is the norm, is this team’s sustained success comparable to anything ever seen in NASCAR?
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Carl Edwards, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-carl-edwards

By the close of last year’s Daytona 500, Carl Edwards had already wrecked four of his Fords five times in the 2013 calendar year.  Carl Edwards

It wasn’t exactly the auspicious start Edwards had hoped for as he tried to snap a winless streak that reached 70 races over the course of the prior two seasons. And it wasn’t the start his team needed during the early period of NASCAR’s transition to its Gen-6 car, in a shop already working overtime to fine-tune the new pieces.

But good track position and horrible passing conditions rectified that a week later at Phoenix International Raceway, where Edwards drove the No. 99 to Victory Lane after leading 122 laps. He snapped that winless streak — the longest of his 10-season Sprint Cup career — and seemed to make a statement that Roush Fenway Racing had corrected the issues that kept him out of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“I think we have a lot of great things to look forward to,” Edwards said days later. “A win right off the bat is really, really good for us.”

Alas, it was a bit of a mirage in the desert.

Yes, Edwards did improve in 2013 on his personal-worst 2012. He did return as a qualifier for the Chase. He also saw an increase in important statistical averages.

In 2012, Edwards finished 15th in points, without a win, and with just three top-5 finishes while racing only 56.2 percent of the season inside the top 15. Last year, he nabbed two wins — you’ll excuse most fans who forgot about the fact that he was the winner of the oh-so-controversial regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway — while pushing his top-5 finishes to nine and piling on a 12.7 percent increase in his laps run inside the top 15.

All told, Edwards’ driver rating jumped to 92.5 after a dismal 84.2 in 2012. The cumulative effect of Edwards’ strength was most notable after that second Richmond race. Without the Chase format causing a reshuffle of the point standings, Edwards would have left Richmond one point ahead of Jimmie Johnson with 10 races left.

It was those final 10 races, however, that ultimately left Edwards in a non-speaking role at last season’s Las Vegas awards banquet. In fact, he was dead last in the Chase when the checkered flag flew on the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An average finish of 16.9 in the Chase will do that to a driver.

But the way Edwards came about that horrible, no-good finish to an otherwise nice season of team improvement is exactly why it makes sense to believe that he’ll do better this season.

No, Edwards was never really championship material — his strength all year was consistent finishing, not necessarily overpowering wins. However, his Chase run was marred by two mechanical failures. First, he suffered a wheel hub issue at Dover that left him 15 laps down in 35th after starting fourth and leading. Later, he lost an engine at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Edwards is traditionally a favorite.

Those failures were combined with an uncharacteristic shortage of Chase top-10 finishes — Edwards had only three. There was also a blown opportunity for a Phoenix sweep, but he ran out of gas and was ultimately relegated to 13th in the point standings.

If his team can just put its bad luck behind him, Edwards figures to improve his position this year. He’ll also be in his second season with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, personally requested after a tumultuous 2012 left Edwards searching for a team leader.

The relationship between Fennig and Edwards was easily the biggest question mark before last season, but the Type-A personalities seemed to mesh amazingly well. Fennig, despite his military style, managed to avoid stepping on the toes of his driver, while Edwards managed to align to Fennig’s straight-and-narrow style of team leadership.

All told, it’s a relationship with a minimal amount of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies, but one that seemed to work without fireworks in 2013. That’s exactly what team owner Jack Roush was hoping for. But as Ford’s No. 1 wheelman, signed to a multi-year extension in 2011, Edwards needs to step it up one more notch. Since the signing, he’s won only twice, finished outside the top 10 in points the last two years and fallen outside the marketing limelight. There’s too much money getting paid out here for executives to be satisfied with that.

With a year of fine-tuning under their belts, Edwards and Fennig should improve. But 2014 can be no mirage.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There may have been behind-the-scenes questions about Carl Edwards’ personality in the past, but none of his rivals currently question his desire.

“He is a very consistent driver who is truly passionate about the sport,” one crew chief says. “He’s driven for performance and physical fitness. When he was in contention for the title, he was so competitive, almost to a fault.”

“The tide of success with the Gen-6 car seemed to be against Edwards and the Ford camp,” another rival notes. “They’re making some crew chief changes and moving some stuff around over there that will probably make them better. He needs to have success early and then ride the wave to the Chase next year.”

From a media perspective, one member values Edwards’ insight and honesty: “I don’t always personally agree with Edwards’ opinion on every topic, but I sincerely appreciate the fact that he’ll lay it on the line with you. Carl isn’t gonna BS you. And he really takes ‘this side’ of his job seriously — not all drivers are as willing to give an honest effort in communicating with the media like he does.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
His 2013 wins came on a three-quarter-miler and a one-miler, but 11 of his 16 triumphs in the CoT/Gen-6 era have come on the intermediates.
Pretty Solid Pick: See that 6.6-place average finish at Homestead in the chart above? He’s in the zone when others are mentally on a beach in the Caribbean.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ve covered his intermediate prowess, so how about that 7.9-place average showing in the seven races at Watkins Glen in the CoT/Gen-6 era?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has averaged a 17th at Talladega dating back to that scary catchfence-tumble in 2009, cracking the top 10 only twice.
Insider Tip: We love Jimmy Fennig, and Edwards is a fascinating thinker, but is the 99 team still a feared unit?

No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979



Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro



Previewing the season of Car Edwards on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:55
All taxonomy terms: Greg Biffle, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-greg-biffle

Greg Biffle earned his sixth berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, and it’s not lost on the Ford driver just how important making the sport’s postseason actually is. In fact, he believes the Chase is what offers the sport’s top drivers and teams a sense of legitimacy.  Greg Biffle

“What makes up the face of this sport is the Chase, and the Chase guys,” Biffle says. “That’s what everybody talks about from the Daytona 500 on is the 12 or 13 cars that are gonna be in the Chase. It’s really important, and that’s been our focus. Let’s face it, you can’t win the championship unless you’re in the Chase.”

This season, Biffle should expect to earn his seventh appearance in the NASCAR championship format and sixth in a row. While making a legitimate run at the title seems unlikely, it will be another postseason berth based on Biffle’s sterling consistency and strong ability to find a way to Victory Lane. Of his 11 full-time seasons, Biffle has failed to win a race just twice.

Last year, Biffle notched just one victory — he held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson in the June race at Michigan International Speedway — but he ultimately didn’t need it for his Chase qualification effort. Still, Biffle knew at the time that the insurance was awfully nice.

However, making the show is one thing; succeeding is another task altogether. Biffle ultimately finished ninth last season in points due in large part to a Chase effort that garnered only three top-10 finishes, one of which was a top 5. As it so often is with Biffle, his No. 16 was good enough to be within the select group of drivers, but not quite good enough to make a legitimate title run. He hasn’t been a serious candidate down the stretch since 2005.

That’s a crucial point, because Biffle enters 2014 at age 44 in the midst of a contract year with longtime Roush Fenway prospect Trevor Bayne waiting in the wings. Bayne’s progress has been tediously slow, but he has driven for Biffle’s sponsor, 3M, and has been searching for a full-time Cup opportunity since winning the 2011 Daytona 500. As we saw with Kenseth two years ago, Roush has a history of going younger as a way of doing business. Biffle’s job this year is to show that he’s still the best option.

It’ll take improvement on Biffle’s part to make that happen, despite a solid history of regular-season success. Consider that, overall, Biffle’s 2013 was a one-win affair with just four top-5 finishes and 13 top 10s. Those numbers were substantially off from the prior season and similar to 2011, a year that found him outside the Chase picture.

Even if Biffle does not improve, he’ll likely breeze into a 16-team Chase this season, though once there may be surpassed by a competitive slate of drivers who weren’t in Chase competition last fall (Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart). It’s a hungry trio, backed by the off-track PR hype that has never quite seemed to attach itself to Biffle.

A good note is that Biffle’s crew chief relationship survived some offseason reshuffling at RFR. Biffle and Matt Puccia will now work their third full season together, although you have to wonder what kind of production Roush will require early in the season’s slate. He has to have concerns that Biffle’s average start dropped more than six spots last year, the worst result in years for a driver who struggles in traffic.

Some of that problem may also be attributable to the Fords Biffle drove. While consistent (Biffle finished every race last year), he often talked about how the team was playing catch-up. Ford drivers won just six times overall and didn’t finish higher than eighth in series points.

However, the Ford camp did spend time last season lobbying NASCAR for some undisclosed concessions. The manufacturer was primarily concerned that some of NASCAR’s in-season car modifications across all makes had unfairly caused a disadvantage among the Blue Oval brigade. No direct evidence was ever made available, though.

NASCAR never made any public announcement about new allowances for the Ford teams, but at the very least, a new grille molding will be used. If it did — or if Ford found some speed through good old-fashioned research and development — then Biffle and RFR could stand an improved chance.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to envision Biffle being more than another mid-level Chase competitor in 2014. Does that mean free agency’s next up?

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Biffle knows how to win — he’s a proven champion in the Truck and Nationwide series,” one crew chief says. “And he can win on any type of track, although he hasn’t won on a road course. Biffle runs a street stock race on his farm every year and builds the car himself. That knowledge helps him share pertinent information with his race team.”

Another crew chief points to some inhibiting factors that could derail any hopes for a NASCAR “title trifecta” — at least in 2014: “While he can win, he can be very inconsistent. His personality can be a drawback, too. He is a rather dry individual. And he’s in Roush equipment, which — if you look at the success that Matt Kenseth had this season — appears to be an inhibiting factor.”

A media member who has watched Biffle his entire NASCAR career still believes in the Washington native’s talent: “I’ve always thought Biffle was a helluva wheelman. He really came out of nowhere — like, literally, the Great Northwest — to win his two championships (NNS and CWTS), but the Cup level is something entirely different. I think he has the ability, but the Roush program has been a step off since Edwards’ missed title bid in 2011.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
We all know the “intermediate” story on Biffle, who has recorded 16 of his 19 career Cup wins at seven tracks: Auto Club, Darlington, Dover, Homestead, Kansas, Michigan and Texas.
Pretty Solid Pick: In the CoT/Gen-6 era, Biffle has managed to score five top 10s in six starts — with two third-place runs in the last four years — at Indy.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hey, have we mentioned Biffle’s success on seven specific tracks?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville is the obvious choice, but strangely enough, Biffle has bucked the intermediate trend at Kentucky, where he’s averaged a 25.3-place finish.
Insider Tip: He’s not an A-lister, but he makes a fine selection out of the B-list when the circuit visits seven very specific tracks.

No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
3M/American Red Cross/Fastenal/American Dental Association
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Matt Puccia
Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)
Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: Dec. 23, 1969

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Previewing the 2014 season of NASCR Sprint Cup driver Greg Biffle.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-ricky-stenhouse-jr

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. concluded what most would consider a typical rookie season at 19th in the final Sprint Cup standings in 2013. While many expect continued gains, the rising sophomore is caught square in the muck of mid-major teams that will fight tooth and nail to gain footing in the points range just outside of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse won the 2013 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award after predictably edging out girlfriend and competitor Danica Patrick. With each of his three top 10s scored in the year’s final 11 races, it appeared that driver development was right on track. Yet based on the reaction of Roush Fenway Racing team officials following the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, Stenhouse’s team underachieved to the point of necessary change.

Just two days after 2013’s final checkered flag, Stenhouse’s crew chief, Scott Graves, was demoted — RFR coined it a reassignment, but don’t be misled as to what it actually was — to Nationwide Series duty on Chris Buescher’s No. 60 car in 2014. Moving to Stenhouse’s Cup pit box is Mike Kelley from RFR’s Nationwide Series program. It was a familiar move — most likely made at Stenhouse’s request — as Kelley worked with him during his two Nationwide titles in 2011 and ‘12.

“As with any season,” says Jack Roush, “we always sit down at the end of the year and evaluate where we are, what we have and what we think are the best options to put our teams in the best position to compete for wins and championships.”

Roush never revealed what exactly led to the end-of-season upheaval, but Stenhouse’s season-long statistics may help with the why. Still, the No. 17 was showing improvement with those three top 10s and its jump from 23rd to 19th in points during the final 12 races.

Stenhouse cited past success with Kelley and improved chemistry as two reasons he was excited about the move away from Graves after only one season. It’s a move that also begs the question: Why wasn’t Kelley hired in the first place?

The crew chief change is one that certainly leaves Stenhouse in a bit of a sticky situation should he not show marked improvement. After all, a driver only gets so many management changes before the finger of blame starts to point at the guy behind the steering wheel. But the move also seems to indicate that the team expects much more from the 26-year-old driver.

Stenhouse admirably finished every race in 2013, but he lagged far, far behind teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in critical statistical areas. Stenhouse had only three top-10 finishes compared to Biffle’s 13 and Edwards’ 16. He only could muster a single top-5 run and struggled with the sport’s 26th-best average running position.

Those numbers played a large role in why Stenhouse was the only one of the three RFR drivers not to make the Chase. In fact, he really was never close, despite running a program that ran top seven in points the previous year with Matt Kenseth at the helm.

Expect Stenhouse’s best chance for success this season to come on the sport’s 1.5- and 2-mile tracks. During his Nationwide career, 17 of his 39 career top-5 finishes came at those ovals as well as five of his eight wins in that series.

Stenhouse didn’t win in his first season, and he rarely ever came close. For Roush, that had to be a bit of a surprise considering Stenhouse’s runaway success against the sport’s second tier. After all, the last RFR driver to win rookie honors — Kenseth in 2000 — went to Victory Lane in his 12th start of his first full-time season.

Is it fair to compare Kenseth, the sport’s champion in his fourth full-time season, to the still new Stenhouse? Of course not, and it’s also important to note that the Roush organization is down a few pegs from its late 1990s to early 2000s heyday.

But Jack Roush didn’t hire Stenhouse just to wear cowboy hats, date another driver and run mid-pack.

If driver-crew chief chemistry yields fruit, paired with the typical improvement that comes with experience, Stenhouse will take steps forward this year. Just don’t expect those steps to be big enough to launch the No. 17 into title contention.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He is the Rookie of the Year, he’s a two time champion in a national touring series, and he went through his turmoil at Roush and it turned him into a better driver,” a rival team member points out. “He gradually improved over the course of last season with his average finish climbing over the second half of the year consistently.”

Another says: “He is still dating Danica, so there is always going to be that cloud over his head even though it seems to have died down. He’s in a Ford, which was a bit of a curse last season. Roush seems to be behind the rest of the power teams, so it may take some time before he can run with the Hendrick cars.”

“It’s my understanding that the crew chief change was Stenhouse’s call,” a media member says. “I think he wanted (Jimmy) Fennig two seasons ago, but Carl (Edwards) pulled rank — and I imagine Ford wanted its best driver paired with its best coach. That said, Stenhouse has a guy (Mike Kelley) he’s enjoyed a lot of success with in the Nationwide Series. And Roush will give them all the time in the world to make it work on the Cup level. I’m looking forward to seeing what the duo can do at the premier level, to be honest.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
It could happen. He seems to have an affinity for those ’tweeners like Richmond and Phoenix.
Pretty Solid Pick: Like a good little Roushian, he looks at home on the intermediates — and he certainly has the teachers in Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ll refrain from making a Danica joke and call your attention to his third-place run at Talladega last fall.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still learning (and earning respect) on the shorter, more physical tracks like Loudon, Martinsville and the roadies.
Insider Tip: Will Mike Kelley’s return to his pit box ignite a six-win season, which the duo accomplished on the Nationwide circuit in 2012? Not immediately, but you will see some near-misses this year — and possibly a breakthrough.

No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Nationwide Insurance/Zest/Fifth Third Bank Ford
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Mike Kelley
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 19th (2013)
Hometown: Olive Branch, Miss.
Born: Oct. 2, 1987

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


Previewing the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and Roush Fenway driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:50
Path: /college-football/cincinnati-qb-munchie-legaux-granted-extra-year-eligibility

Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux has been granted an eligibility extension, and the Louisiana native will return to the Bearcats’ team in 2013.

The extra year was granted to Legaux after he missed nearly all of 2013 due to a leg injury. Prior to the season-ending injury against Illinois, Legaux threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns.

Legaux will have one season of eligibility remaining, and he is expected to compete with Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel to be Cincinnati’s starting quarterback in 2014. However, as a result of his leg injury, Legaux is not expected to return to practice until this summer.


Cincinnati QB Munchie Legaux Granted Extra Year of Eligibility
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 18:22