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Path: /mlb/baseballs-pitching-changes-nl-arms-race

—by Mark Ross

Similar to the American League, this offseason has seen plenty of changes when it comes to the pitching staffs in the National League. Trades and free agent signings have not only impacted rosters, but have been made in hopes of shaking up the standings in Major League Baseball's Senior Circuit.

In the National League East, not only do the Marlins unveil a new name (Hello Miami, good-bye Florida), new look (logo, colors, uniforms), open a new stadium and have a new manager (Ozzie Guillen), they also have committed nearly $200 million to free agency this offseason. While more than half of that is shortstop Jose Reyes’ six-year, $106 million contract, the Marlins also gave a four-year $58 million deal to left-handed starter Mark Buehrle and a three-year, $27 million deal to closer Heath Bell.

Besides reuniting Buehrle with Guillen, his former manager with the Chicago White Sox, the Marlins also acquired another veteran starter who pitched in the Windy City, Carlos Zambrano. The Chicago Cubs sent the mercurial right-hander and cash considerations (Cubs are reportedly paying more than $16 million of Zambrano’s $19 million 2012 salary) to the Marlins for right-hander Chris Volstad in a Jan. 5 deal. Guillen, who is friends with Zambrano, publicly stated his desire to bring Zambrano with him after he was named the Marlins’ manager, and now it will be up to him to keep his fellow fiery Venezuelan in check and under control.

In Buehrle and Zambrano, the Marlins get two veteran workhorses to team with their returning core of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. There are lingering questions about Johnson’s health, he was sidelined for most of the season with shoulder inflammation but is expected to be ready for spring training, and the obvious questions about Zambrano’s temperament/mindset, but if everything goes right, this has the potential to be a potent starting rotation.

It also didn’t hurt that the Marlins went out and signed Bell, who averaged 44 saves in his three seasons as closer for the San Diego Padres. It remains to be seen if Bell’s production will be impacted switching from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to new Marlins Park as his home stadium. Still, considering the Marlins blew 19 saves last year compared to just five for Bell, a change at the backend of the bullpen may end up being just what the Marlins need to make some noise in 2012.

Another NL East team positioned to make some noise in the near future, if not this year, is the Washington Nationals. A young team on the rise, the Nationals already had two top-flight starting pitchers in right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman. Then on Dec. 23, the Nationals added left-hander Gio Gonzalez in a trade with the Oakland A’s.

The cost for Gonzalez was high, as the Nationals sent the A’s three of their best pitching prospects and another player in return, but it was a price they were willing to pay to add the 26-year-old who made his first All-Star team last season. With Gonzalez in the fold, the Nationals have three starters who are capable of winning 20 games and striking out more than 200 batters every season.

That being said, the trio most likely will not reach those milestones together this year, as Strasburg’s innings are expected to be limited to around 180 or so in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010. Regardless, the future looks bright for the Nationals thanks in part to their new 1-2-3 punch at the top of their rotation.

For now, the best 1-2-3 punch in the division, if not all of baseball, belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies. In Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the defending NL East champions not only have two Cy Young winners (Halladay, Lee), they have three hurlers who each won at least 14 games, pitched at least 216 innings, had an ERA of 2.79 or lower and made the All-Star Game last season. And if that wasn’t enough, they all finished in the top 5 of voting for last year’s NL Cy Young Award.

While Philly’s Big 3 is back for a second season together, there will be a new closer as Jonathan Papelbon comes over to the NL. Papelbon, the closer for the Boston Red Sox the past six seaons, signed a four-year, $50 million free agent deal that could be worth as much as $63 million over five years. He has 219 saves in his career and should add plenty more to that number closing for one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.

Similar to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL, the Atlanta Braves have one of the youngest starting rotations in baseball. Tim Hudson, 36, is far and away the oldest of the Braves’ starters. The rest of the rotation includes Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrgens and Brandon Beachy with Mike Minor, Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran expected to fill the fifth spot. Of these, Jurrgens is the oldest at 26 and Teheran, the youngest, will turn 21 later this week.

There are plenty of health-related question marks surrounding the front of the Braves’ rotation. Hudson underwent surgery in November to repair a herniated disc in his back, Hanson missed the last two months of last year with a partially torn rotator cuff, and Jurrgens has missed significant parts of the past two seasons due to different injuries. However, if these guys are healthy and are able to produce like they have in the past, they could combine with the young guns to form a formidable rotation with the potential to be something truly special.

In the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds are hoping this season ends up being special as they are in “win now” mode after making several big moves. The first one came on Dec. 17 when the Reds acquired Mat Latos from the Padres for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger and two of the organization’s top prospects in first baseman Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal.

The Reds gave up a lot to get Latos, who they hope will team with Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31 ERA in 24 starts last season) to give them up essentially two aces in their rotation. Latos, 24, is 23-24 with a 3.21 ERA and 374 strikeouts in 379 innings the past two seasons, but that was with the aforementioned Petco Park as his home base.

Now, he will call the launching pad known as Great American Ballpark his home stadium. Last year, 209 home runs were hit in Great American compared to 100 at Petco. And for his career, Latos has been more of a flyball pitcher compared to a groundball one (0.81 G/F ratio entering 2012). Latos, who received less than five runs of support per start last season, should figure to benefit more in that department this season with the Reds’ offense. On the other hand, it’s also fair to expect him to give up a few more runs each start, especially with him pitching his home games in a hitter-friendly environment.

Latos also has a reputation for being somewhat of a hothead and never being afraid to show his emotions on the mound or in the dugout, especially when things aren’t going his way. It will be up to pitching coach Bryan Price and manager Dusty Baker to guide him through the adjustment period with his new team, situation and home ballpark to get the front-line starter production they, in essence, paid for and, more importantly, need if they have any hopes of contending.

The Reds weren’t done with their pitching makeover with just Latos, however, as on Dec. 23 they acquired reliever Sean Marshall from their division rivals, the Cubs. The Reds sent the Cubs three players in return for the left-handed Marshall, who has thrived as a set-up man the past two seasons. He is 13-11 with six saves, a 2.45 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings in that span.

Marshall will continue his role as set-up man for the Reds, where he will precede their new closer, Ryan Madson. Madson, who won a World Series and played in another in his nine seasons with the Phillies, signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal to try and help the Reds make it back to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1990.

Madson, like Latos, will be under pressure to perform, as he will be replacing the departed Francisco Cordero. Although it may not have always been pretty, Cordero was effective in his four seasons as the Reds’ closer, averaging 38 saves per season. To put it another way, Cordero’s lowest single-season saves total with the Reds was 34. That’s two more than Madson saved last year in his first full season as the Phillies’ closer.

With Latos, Marshall and Madson on board, the Reds are hoping they have the arms to take down the defending World Series champions St. Louis Cardinals and defending NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers. While the Cardinals will look to defend their championship without first baseman Albert Pujols (signed with Los Angeles Angels), manager Tony LaRussa (retired) and pitching coach Dave Duncan (leave of absence), they will welcome back a key piece to their starting rotation in Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright missed all of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last February. Prior to that, he won 39 games with a 2.53 ERA and 425 strikeouts in 2009 and 2010, and finished in the top 3 of the NL Cy Young voting both years. Even if he’s not back to his old self right away, the Cardinals’ starting rotation is already better of with Wainwright, who will team with Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook.

Meanwhile, the Brewers will look to their pitching to carry the load even more this season with the departure of Prince Fielder and the expected 50-game suspension for NL MVP Ryan Braun. Last year, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum combined for 46 of the Brewers’ franchise-record 96 wins, and will probably need even more this year to have any hopes of defending their division title.

Like the Brewers, the Arizona Diamondbacks are looking to defend their division title , and they went out and got another arm this offseason in hopes of keeping them atop the NL West standings. On Dec. 13, the Diamondbacks acquired right-handed starter Trevor Cahill, along with left-handed relieved Craig Breslow, from the Oakland A’s. The A’s received pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook and outfielder Collin Cowgill in return.

Cahill, who will turn 24 on March 1, has 40 wins in three major league seasons and will join a rotation that already includes Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Kennedy, the oldest of the three at 27, is coming off a 21-win season where he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. Hudson won 16 games last year and the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting pitcher in the NL. Together, the trio has the potential to each win 20 or more games this season and beyond.

Likewise, the San Francisco Giants, the Diamondbacks’ division rivals, have three starters of their own that are capable of winning 20 or more games in a season. Tim Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young winner (2008-09) has come the closest with 18 wins in 2008, while Matt Cain (12-11, 2.88 ERA in 2011) and Madison Bumgarner (13-13, 3.21 ERA) each appear to have the stuff to do it. And that’s leaving out Ryan Vogelsong, who led the staff with a 2.71 ERA last year, and the guy who has actually won 20 or more games in a season, Barry Zito (23 wins in 2002 with the A’s), in the process.

So just like the AL, the NL appears to be well armed, if you will, especially as it applies to teams who are planning on contending. And if any of these teams are looking for even more pitching, there are plenty of free agents still out there (Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Cordero, etc.) and probably a pitcher or two (Cubs’ Matt Garza, Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox, namely) that could be pried away from their current team, if the price is right.

What other moves, if any, are made by these supposed contenders will probably come down to one question – does my team have enough “arms” to compete, or more specifically, win? This is a hard enough question to answer once the season starts, let alone the end of January. But it’s definitely not a question they will want to revisit come the end of the season, especially if they are one of the teams watching, and not playing in, the postseason.

<p> A look at the significant pitching changes made this offseason in the National League</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - 06:59
Path: /mlb/baseballs-pitching-changes-al-arms-race

— by Mark Ross

Pitchers are scheduled to report to spring training in less than a month, and if Major League Baseball’s offseason is any indication, a lot of teams’ postseason hopes will be riding on those arms that will get tuned up in Florida and Arizona.

Between free agent signings, trades and injury comebacks, more than half of MLB's 30 teams will enter the season with a different starting rotation compared to the start of the 2011 season. More to the point, teams that are expected to contend this season made a majority of the biggest moves, adding significance, not to mention, scrutiny, to these transactions.

In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels struck first when they signed C.J. Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million deal. Adding the left-hander to a starting rotation that already features Jered Weaver, who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting last season, and Dan Haren is no less significant than the fact that adding Wilson also meant taking him away from the Angels’ division rival, the Texas Rangers.

Last season, Wilson went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA for the Rangers, earning his first All-Star Game invite and helping them reach the World Series for a second straight year. In Anaheim, he will team with Weaver and Haren, who combined to win 34 games and strike out nearly 400 batters.

The Rangers didn’t sit idly by, however, as in December they won the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish with a posting fee of $51.7 million. The defending AL West champs then completed the deal with the 25-year-old right-hander by agreeing to a six-year contract worth about $60 million just prior to the deadline to sign him within the 30-day negotiating period.

Darvish, who went 18-6 last season in Japan with a 1.44 ERA, will join presumed Opening Day starter Colby Lewis, and most likely, Dexter Holland, Matt Harrison and converted closer Neftali Feliz in the Rangers’ rotation. Alexi Ogando, who won 13 games as a starter last year, is also a possibility, but at this point it appears he will take Feliz’s place in the bullpen this season.

Like their AL West counterparts, the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s also joined in on the rotation makeovers, albeit following a different strategy. Last week, the Mariners agreed to send two young pitchers, Michael Pineda and Jose Campos, to the New York Yankees for top prospect Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi. The A’s also traded away two young starting pitchers, sending right-hander Trevor Cahill and left-handed reliever Craig Breslow to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a Dec. 9 trade and two weeks later shipping left-hander Gio Gonzalez and a prospect to the Washington Nationals. These two trades brought the rebuilding A’s a total of seven players, five of them pitchers, in return.

While Gonzalez and Cahill are significant additions for the Nationals and Diamondbacks respectively, Pineda to the Yankees could turn out to be the real game-changer. Pineda, who went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings as a rookie last season, was expected to team with former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez as the Mariners’ 1-2 punch for years to come.

Now, the 22-year-old right-hander goes to a legitimate World Series contender and helps the Yankees fill what was a glaring need – starting pitching depth beyond CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. The Mariners did well by adding the young, impact bat they needed in the slugging Montero, but they did this trade with an eye towards the future, while the Yankees are focused on the present.

And if adding Pineda wasn’t enough, Yankees GM Brian Cashman bolstered the rotation further by agreeing to a one-year, $10 million deal with free agent Hiroki Kuroda the same night he brokered the trade with Seattle. Kuroda, 36, is considerably older than Pineda, but over the past four years he has posted a 41-46 record with a respectable 3.45 ERA. Last year, he went 13-16 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the right-hander was ninth in the National League with a 3.07 ERA.

With Pineda and Kuroda joining Sabathia and Nova in the rotation, the Yankees have three candidates – A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes – for their fifth spot, a luxury they didn’t have just two weeks ago. The Boston Red Sox, the Yankees’ AL East rivals, are making some tweaks to their rotation as well, but their move came from in-house as they are switching Daniel Bard from a reliever to a starter.

Bard figures to join lefty Jon Lester and right-handers Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz with Aaron Cook, Vincente Padilla and Carlos Silva coming to spring training in hopes of securing the fifth spot. Starting pitching depth will be critical for the Sox this season, who at some point hope to get Daisuke Matsuzaka back after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June. In addition, the team will be without the services of John Lackey, who will miss the entire 2012 season after having Tommy John surgery during the offseason.

For now, one could argue that the Yankees appear to have the strongest starting rotation in the AL East, which is saying something since the division also includes the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa definitely has the youngest rotation in the league, not to mention the majors, as the Rays will trot out left-hander David Price, workhorse James Shields, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and young phenom Matt Moore, one of the early favorites to win the award this season, with either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann rounding out their starting five. Shields, who turned 30 in December, is the oldest of the six, while Davis, Hellickson, Moore and Price range from 22 to 26 years old.

The AL Central was the quietest of the three divisions when it came to pitching acquisitions in the offseason, but in case of the Detroit Tigers it’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After all, the defending division champs’ rotation is headed up by none other than Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP. Following Verlander, the Tigers look to have righties Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, and possibly 20-year-old Jacob Turner, their top pitching prospect, in their rotation.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians acquired veteran right-hander Derek Lowe from the Atlanta Braves last October and will add him to their young core of starting pitchers Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Tomlin in hopes of competing with the Tigers for division supremacy.

And if that wasn’t enough pitching turnover to digest, some of these same teams tinkered with their respective bullpens as well. The most significant moves along those lines involved the Rangers and Red Sox, who will have new closers in 2012.

The Rangers signed Joe Nathan away from the Minnesota Twins to take Feliz’s place, while the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey from the A’s to replace departed closer Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Red Sox also acquired Mark Melancon from the Houston Astros in a separate deal. Melancon, who saved 20 games for the Astros last season, is expected to take Bard’s place as the Sox’ set-up man this season.

What’s more, this is probably not the last of the pitching changes that will be made before the season even starts. For one, dozens of free agent pitchers remain unsigned, including a three-time All-Star and two-time 20-game winner (Roy Oswalt), a starter who’s averaged more than 200 innings over the past four seasons (Edwin Jackson), and a closer who’s saved 34 or more games the past five seasons (Francisco Cordero), to name a few. There also are pitchers like Matt Garza of the Chicago Cubs and Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox, who are reportedly available via trade.

So regardless of what other moves happen between now and Opening Day, or even during the season itself, the arms race has clearly begun. Now it’s a matter of seeing which team has the arsenal to play, and ultimately win, in October.

<p> A look at this offseason's significant pitching changes in the American League</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 16:05
Path: /news/prince-fielder-signs-giant-contract-tigers-cabrera-now-1st-overall-fantasy-pick

In a surprise free agent signing, the Detroit Tigers won the Prince Fielder sweepstakes and inked the ex-Brewer to a reported 9-year $214 million contract today.

And with that, the Tigers filled a huge hole after the loss of their All-Star catcher Victor Martinez to a knee injury. It also makes the Tigers a major player and gives them three starters with salaries over $20 million a year. Contrast that to 2004, when their entire payroll was close to $60 million.

So while others will debate how the Tigers will find a way to put three players into two positions (1B and DH) (Will Miguel Cabrera move back to third base when Martinez comes back from the DL?), let's look at how this signing affect baseball fantasy drafts.

The first glance is that Fielder will probably drop a little, given that the Tigers park is more of a pitchers park than his previous home in Milwaukee. But honestly, that's probably a minor issue for Fielder, who usually puts up pretty steady homer numbers.

What this is very good for, is Miguel Cabrera, who will have some of the best protection in the majors with Fielder hitting right behind him. There were questions as to how the loss of Martinez would affect his draft position, but now a very wealthy Fielder will make sure Cabbie gets plenty of balls to hit.

And as long as he's sober, he's going to crush it once again this year, and is my pick for the #1 draft slot over Albert Pujols in fantasy baseball.

Would you be happy with either one? Sure. But whenever a player moves to a new city, like Pujols did this offseason when he switched from the Cardinals to the Angels, you never know how that's going to affect a player (ahem, Adam Dunn.) A new league,a  new set of pitchers, a different ballpark could all have affects on Pujols as he gets himself settled into Anaheim.

While Cabrera, on the other hand, will have the same consistent routine he had last year, with an arguably even better guy behind him. 

To be honest, the best pick this year is #2 overall. That way you're assured of one of these guys, but if you're lucky enough to land #1 overall, as hard as it is to pass up Pujols, go for Cabrera. Just don't take him out for drinks after his games.

<p> Detroit signs Fielder, but it gives Cabrera much-needed protection in the lineup</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 15:45
All taxonomy terms: Chuck Giampa, Funny, News
Path: /news/chuck-giampa-fails-his-announcing-debut-video

You probably didn't know who Chuck Giampa was before you watched this video. And there's a chance that you may never see him again after he completely botched his announcing debut on Showtime's Boxing show.

As you can see, he's clearly not ready to be in front of the camera. And add to that, it seems like he thinks he's not doing a live run, but a taped one. And then add to that that he looks like a human version of Eyore, you've got yourself an Internet classic.

<p> The ex-boxing judge may need to work on his announcing skills</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 12:50
Path: /college-football/college-football-early-top-25

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

It's never too early to start thinking about next season. Spring practice will kick off for some teams in late February and before we know it, the 2012 Athlon Sports' preseason college football annuals will be hitting newsstands across the nation. 

Athlon's updated top 25 for 2012 reflects the coaching changes and early entries into the NFL Draft, but expect several tweaks before our official preseason poll is released in May.

Related: 2012 Athlon Consensus 100

1. LSU – The Tigers were easily blown out in the national title game by Alabama, but all is not lost going into 2012. LSU has one of the top returning rosters next season, but it also features a handful of question marks. The offense will have one of the top backfields and offensive lines in the nation, but can Zach Mettenberger improve the quarterback play? The defense will miss cornerback Morris Claiborne and tackle Michael Brockers, but this unit should still rank among the nation’s best.

2. USC – If a team is going to end the SEC’s run of dominance, the Trojans figure to be the frontrunner. Quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year and will be throwing to one of the top receiving corps in the nation. Replacing offensive tackle Matt Kalil will be one of the biggest question marks for coach Lane Kiffin. The defense showed improvement last year, but must replace three starters, including all-conference selections in end Nick Perry and tackle Wes Horton. The Trojans won’t have the depth of LSU or Alabama, but there’s plenty of talent coming back to Los Angeles for a run at the national title next year.

3. Alabama – After claiming the national title, Nick Saban and his coaching staff have some work to do in order to get this team back to No. 1 by the end of next season. The Crimson Tide suffered some key losses on both sides of the ball, but Saban has recruited well and this team should be able to reload by midseason. AJ McCarron had a breakout performance in the national championship against LSU and will be expected to build upon that game in 2012. Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow to the offense, but Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart, Jalston Fowler and talented freshman T.J. Yeldon are a capable group. Seven starters are gone off the nation’s best defense, which figures to be tested early with games against Arkansas and Michigan in September.

4. Georgia – It’s not crazy to think Mark Richt could go from coach on the hot seat to contending for the national title in 2012. The Bulldogs have the pieces to contend for a top-five finish next year, starting with quarterback Aaron Murray and a defense that returns nearly everyone. Improving the rushing attack will be one of the priorities during preseason practices, but the offensive line will have to replace two key stalwarts in left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones.

5. Oklahoma – The Sooners were one of the favorites to win the national title in 2011, but slipped to a 10-3 record and a fourth-place finish in the Big 12. Although it was a disappointing season in Norman, Oklahoma should be back in the top 10 once again next year. The offense never recovered after an injury to receiver Ryan Broyles, but the passing attack should be better with an offseason to sort everything out. Dominique Whaley’s return from a broken ankle should help bolster the rushing offense and help to take the pressure off of quarterback Landry Jones. The defense returns seven starters, while the addition of former Arizona coach Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator figures to only help this group get better in 2012.

6. Oregon –  The surprising departure of quarterback Darron Thomas was a setback to Oregon’s chances of winning the Pac-12, but the Ducks remain the favorite to win the North Division. Sophomore Bryan Bennett should be Thomas’ replacement and he showed plenty of promise in limited action last season. Although running back LaMichael James will be missed, the one-two combination of Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas will give the backfield plenty of punch in 2012. The defense finished fifth in the Pac-12 in points allowed, but could be even better next season.

7. Michigan – With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title, the balance of power in the Big Ten is clearly resting in the Legends Division. The Wolverines are the early favorites, thanks to the return of quarterback Denard Robinson and an improving defense. Coach Brady Hoke’s first year in Ann Arbor was a success, as Michigan won 11 games and played in a BCS game for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. For the Wolverines to crack the top five, Robinson has to cut down on his interceptions (15) and up his completion percentage (55%). The defense showed big progress under coordinator Greg Mattison, but will be replacing two key starters on the line. The Wolverines won’t have an easy schedule next year, as Alabama and Notre Dame await in the non-conference portion, while they have conference road games against Ohio State and Nebraska.

8. Arkansas – The Razorbacks are inching closer to Alabama and LSU, and they will have a good chance to make some noise in the SEC West next year. Quarterback Tyler Wilson turned down the NFL for another season in Fayetteville, and the offense will get a boost with the return of running back Knile Davis back from a leg injury. The receiving corps must be revamped, but Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg is a good place to start rebuilding. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes will have his work cut out for him in 2012, as the Razorbacks will be replacing three of their top players: End Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas.

9. Florida State – Yes, the Seminoles are back in the top 10 once again. This team did not have the big season most expected in 2011, but the pieces are in place to win the ACC Championship in 2012. And when you consider the losses at Clemson and Virginia Tech, Florida State becomes an even bigger favorite to win the ACC. The defense should be among the best in the nation, while the young talent on offense should be improved with another offseason to work with quarterback EJ Manuel. How well (and fast) a young offensive line develops will determine just how high Florida State can climb next season.

10. Ohio State – With Urban Meyer arriving in Columbus, don’t expect a repeat of 2011’s 6-7 season at Ohio State. Quarterback Braxton Miller is a good fit for the Buckeyes’ new spread offense, while a group of young receivers should be better in 2012. The biggest question mark on offense will be filling holes on the line, as the Buckeyes have to replace standouts Mike Adams (LT) and Michael Brewster (C). The defense finished 19th nationally in yards allowed and could be even better in 2012 with only two starters departing. Although the Buckeyes should have a shot to finish next year with 10 victories, they are ineligible to play for the Big Ten title or a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions.

11. South Carolina – After finishing 11-2 and sweeping the SEC East for the first time in school history, what can the Gamecocks do for an encore? South Carolina is behind Georgia in the pecking order, but the Bulldogs have to visit Williams-Brice Stadium in 2012. Quarterback Connor Shaw played well at the end of the season, and the offense will get a boost with running back Marcus Lattimore returning from a torn ACL. Replacing receiver Alshon Jeffery is the biggest question mark facing the offense in 2012. The Gamecocks finished third nationally in total defense, but suffered some key departures, including end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

12. Texas – The Longhorns aren’t quite ready to contend for the Big 12 title, but they are slowly working their way back into contention. After improving its win total by three games from 2010 to 2011, Texas is poised to make a run at 10 victories in 2012. The defense should be the best in the Big 12, but the offense has to improve if the Longhorns want to push Oklahoma for the top spot. David Ash appears to have earned the No. 1 quarterback spot after his performance in the Holiday Bowl, while the rushing attack features three promising young running backs. Texas always recruits well, and its time for the young players on offense to step up in 2012.

13. West Virginia – Whether the Mountaineers are in the Big 12 or Big East, this team will be a factor on the national scene next year. Quarterback Geno Smith will lead one of the top passing attacks in college football, especially with receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney returning in 2012. While the passing game shouldn’t be an issue, the rushing attack and offensive line must show improvement. Losing coordinator Jeff Casteel was a tough blow for West Virginia’s defense, and this unit must find replacements for defensive linemen Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. 

14. Michigan State – After back-to-back 11-win seasons, can the Spartans push the win total higher in 2012? The Spartans should be the biggest challenger to Michigan in the Legends Division, but they will have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and the team’s top three wide receivers. With questions surrounding the passing attack, look for the offense to lean more on running back Le’Veon Bell and an offensive line that returns four starters. Losing defensive tackle Jerel Worthy was a tough blow, but end William Gholston is back after registering 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps could be among the best in the nation, with Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Chris Norman returning. The schedule isn’t easy, as Michigan State hosts Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska in East Lansing, while playing Michigan and Wisconsin on the road.

15. Clemson – The defending Atlantic champs are in good position to contend for the conference title once again in 2012. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will form one of the top pass-catch combinations in the nation, while running back Andre Ellington figures to top 1,000 yards once again in 2012. While there’s no shortage of weapons coming back for coordinator Chad Morris, the Tigers will be replacing three starters on the line. The defense allowed nearly 400 yards a game in 2011, prompting coordinator Kevin Steele’s departure. Former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables was a terrific hire by coach Dabo Swinney, but the defense may be a year away, especially with the departure of four key linemen.

16. Virginia Tech – The Hokies have been a model of consistency under coach Frank Beamer, posting at least 10 victories in 13 out of the last 17 years. And even though Virginia Tech has some significant question marks to address before next season, the Hokies will be the favorite to win the Coastal Division. The offense loses four starters on the line and must replace running back David Wilson. Quarterback Logan Thomas improved as a passer as 2011 progressed and will have to shoulder more of the workload on offense next year. With only two starters departing, the Hokies’ defense should be one of the best in college football.

17. Nebraska – Year 1 of life in the Big Ten turned out so-so for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska began the year as the favorite in the Big Ten Legends Division, but finished with a 9-4 record with losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina. The Big Red should be in the mix for 9 or 10 victories once again in 2012, but could challenge for the division title if the offense continues to jell. Quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for 874 yards and nine scores but completed only 56 percent of his throws. Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead form a solid combination, but the offense needs to throw the ball better next season. The defense will have some new faces stepping into key roles, as linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have finished their eligibility. The schedule makers didn’t give Nebraska any breaks either, as the Cornhuskers have road trips to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, while Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State visit Lincoln.

18. Notre Dame – Is 2012 the year the Irish get back into a BCS bowl? Although Notre Dame has some key pieces returning, this team is probably ticketed for a spot in the lower half of the top 25 next year. Settling on a quarterback is priority No. 1 for coach Brian Kelly this spring. True freshman Gunner Kiel is already enrolled and will have a good shot to beat out Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson in preseason practices. With uncertainty at quarterback, expect running back Cierre Wood and a solid offensive line to carry the team early on. The defense will have a revamped secondary, but the line – led by Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt – could be one of the best in college football.

19. TCU – Moving from the Mountain West to the Big 12 is a step up in competition, but the Horned Frogs are ready. Coach Gary Patterson is assembling another solid recruiting class, and the team is bringing back several key contributors. The offense is loaded with the return of quarterback Casey Pachall and depth at running back and in the receiving corps. Patterson is one of the top defensive minds in the nation and should prevent this unit from suffering much of a drop-off in production. Losing linebacker Tank Carder is a tough blow, but Tanner Brock returns after missing nearly all of 2011 with an injury.

20. Washington – Thanks to a revamped coaching staff, the Huskies have closed the gap with Oregon in the Pac-12 North. But will it be enough to win the division in 2012? The offense will be among the best in the conference, despite losing running back Chris Polk to the NFL Draft. Quarterback Keith Price has a group of talented receivers returning and the junior should shine with another offseason to work with coach Steve Sarkisian. Landing coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive assistants Tosh Lupoi and Peter Sirmon should pay dividends on the field and in recruiting for Washington. Expect the Huskies to be better on defense next year, but they didn’t catch any breaks in the schedule with road trips to LSU, Oregon and Washington State, while getting USC and Utah in Seattle (CenturyLink Field).

21. Kansas State – The Wildcats were one of college football’s biggest surprises, as they were picked near the bottom of the Big 12 in the preseason, but finished second in the conference with a 10-3 record. This team won’t sneak up on anyone next year, but there’s a lot to like with Kansas State in 2012. Quarterback Collin Klein is back after compiling 40 touchdowns, while linebacker Arthur Brown returns after emerging as one of the Big 12’s top defenders in 2011. If the Wildcats want to contend for the conference title next year, improving the passing attack and replacing three key starters on the line will be crucial.  

22. Wisconsin – There’s a lot of new faces stepping into key positions and on the coaching staff next year in Madison. The biggest loss is quarterback Russell Wilson, who turned in a terrific senior year and led the Badgers to another Rose Bowl appearance after transferring from NC State. With Wilson departing, the offense will lean on running backs Montee Ball and James White. However, the line will be replacing three starters. The defense ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed and most of the core will return in 2012. Mike Taylor and Chris Borland will form one of the top linebacking duos in the nation.

23. Louisville – If West Virginia moves to the Big 12, the Cardinals will be the frontrunner to win the Big East crown next season. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the conference in 2011, Louisville managed to earn a share of the Big East title and nearly claimed a spot in the BCS. The offense suffered its share of ups and downs with freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater taking over as the starter, but this group should show improvement in 2012. The rushing attack produced only 121.5 yards per game last season and figures to be a focal point of attention in spring practice. The defense allowed only 20.1 points a game in 2011 and nearly everyone is back. Coach Charlie Strong has Louisville back on the rise and this team should easily surpass its win total (seven) from last season.

24. Boise State – The Broncos have a plethora of key losses on both sides of the ball, but remain the favorite in the Mountain West and should finish with nine or 10 victories in 2012. Replacing quarterback Kellen Moore is the top priority for coach Chris Petersen, with Joe Southwick, Nick Patti, Grant Hedrick and Jimmy Laughrea expected to compete for the job in spring practice. The Broncos will have a revamped defensive line in 2012, but the defense should be among the best in the Mountain West.

25. Oklahoma State – Without quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, the Cowboys won’t match last season’s win total (12) and Big 12 championship. However, this team won’t slip too far, as the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mike Gundy in 2012. Running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will anchor the offense while the quarterback situation is sorted out. The defense must replace a couple of key players on the line, but the back seven should be solid. The Big 12 could have six teams start the year in the preseason top 25, so the road to eight or nine wins won’t be easy.

The Next Five

26. Utah – Running back John White and a solid defense will lead Utah once again in 2012. The Utes should be USC’s toughest competition in the Pac-12 South.

27. Georgia Tech – With a little more consistency from quarterback Tevin Washington, the Yellow Jackets could make some noise in the ACC Coastal.

28. Auburn – There’s lots of young talent coming back to Auburn, but how will the new coaching staff mesh with the personnel?

29. NC State – The Wolfpack were one of the hottest teams in the ACC at season’s end, finishing with victories in four out of their final five games. Quarterback Mike Glennon should challenge for all-conference honors, while cornerback David Amerson should be a preseason All-American.

30. Missouri – With the move to the SEC, the Tigers will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch in 2012.

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early SEC 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early ACC 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Pac-12 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

<p> Athlon continues its countdown to spring practice with a pre-preseason look at the top 25 teams for 2012.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 07:18
All taxonomy terms: AC100, Recruiting, College Football
Path: /college-football/recruiting-rankings-2012-athlon-consensus-100-finalized

-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

The 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 is finalized.

Like it is every recruiting cycle, the final revamping of Athlon’s top-100 is always the most volatile. The national, regional and state all-star games allow scouts to see the best compete against equivalent talent, sometimes for the first time in their careers. Thus, it creates rapid risers and late fallers in the recruiting rankings.

All six major recruiting services have totally reworked and finalized their rankings for the class of 2012, and the AC100 reflects that. As National Signing Day 2012 inches closer, the ink is now dry on the 2012 recruiting rankings permanently. There are plenty of new faces in the AC100, but the name atop the rankings remains the same.

Dorial Green-Beckham Still No. 1

Green-Beckham, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound receiver, debuted atop the AC100 back in the summer and never fell off the top spot. In fact, he widened the gap as the nation’s best player by adding two additional first place votes. Offense-Defense and named the Springfield (Mo.) Hillcrest wide receiver as the No. 1 prospect in the nation, while and NCSA left DGB atop their lists. He finished as the No. 2 player in the nation by and No. 3 in the nation by ESPN.

Green-Beckham is planning on a National Signing Day announcement and took his second official visit last weekend to Arkansas. He has visited Texas officially, but Missouri, Oklahoma and the Razorbacks appear to hold a slight edge over Texas and Alabama. The star wideout claimed co-MVP honors in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl two weeks ago after scoring on a USAAA bowl-record 79-yard touchdown reception.

There was plenty of movement around DGB, however, as three names dropped out of the top 10. Tempe (Ariz.) Corona Del Sol blocker Andrus Peat dropped from No. 5 to No. 23. Jacksonville (Fla.) Bolles lineman John Theus, who is committed to Georgia, fell from No. 8 to No. 13. And Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook running back Keith Marshall, formerly the top running back in the nation, dropped from No. 6 to No. 16. Marshall is also headed to Georgia. Hueytown (Ala.) quarterback Jameis Winston also fell from No. 10 to No. 15.

The biggest jump into the top 10 came from Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek blocker D.J. Humphries, who went from No. 17 to No. 3. The future Florida Gator is now the nation’s No. 1 offensive lineman. A pair of defensive tackles, Washington (D.C.) Friendship Collegiate’s Eddie Goldman (previously No. 13) and Brenham’s (Texas) Malcom Brown (previously No. 24) , both finished 2012 as top-10 players.

Olney (Md.) Good Councel athlete Stefon Diggs, who recently visited Florida, made a big jump from No. 11 to No. 5. Diggs has stated he will wait until after NSD to sign but proved in San Antonio that he is one of the nation’s most dynamic football forces.

Biggest Risers and New Faces

There are 16 new faces in the Athlon Consensus 100 – by the far the biggest number of new names ever to leap into the top 100. In fact, Daphne (Ala.) linebacker Ryan Anderson was completely unranked — meaning not one of the six recruiting services had ranked Anderson in the top-150 nationally — for the entire recruitment process until today when he lands in the AC100 at No. 84. Future Washington quarterback Cyler Miles made a huge jump after a co-MVP showing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He is now the nation’s No. 4-rated quarterback. A pair of tailbacks, Tarboro (N.C.) runner Todd Gurley and Stone Mountain (Ga.) tailback Mike Davis, both used all-star showings to vault themselves into the AC100 as well. Gurley is headed to Georgia and Davis is committed to South Carolina.

Here is the list of the biggest risers in the final AC100 (* - new to the AC100):

Name Pos. Hometown +/- Rank Prev. Verbal
Ryan Anderson* LB Daphne, AL N/A #84 UR Alabama
Todd Gurley* RB Tarboro, NC +148 #83 #231 Georgia
Mike Davis* RB Stone Mountain, GA +88 #54 #142 South Carolina
Amari Cooper* WR Miami, FL +75 #58 #133 Alabama
Cyler Miles* QB Denver, CO +73 #91 #164 Washington
Kendall Sanders* ATH Athens, TX +73 #87 #160 Texas
Leonard Williams* DE Daytona Beach, FL +66 #68 #134 --
Kevon Seymour* DB Pasadena, CA +65 #96 #161 USC
Ondre Pipkins* DT Kansas City, MO +61 #60 #121 Michigan
JaQuay Williams* WR Tyrone, GA +46 #99 #146 Auburn
Ukeme Eligwe* LB Stone Mountain, GA +44 #72 #116 Florida State
Alex Carter* DB Asburn, VA +44 #76 #120 Stanford
Deontay Greenberry WR Fresno, CA +40 #52 #92 Notre Dame
Jonathan Bullard DT Shelby, NC +40 #11 #51 Florida
Brian Poole* DB Bradenton, FL +40 #71 #111 Florida
Isaac Seumalo OL Corvallis, OR +38 #39 #77 Oregon State
Zach Kline QB Danville, CA +34 #40 #74 Cal
T.J. Yeldon RB Daphne, AL +29 #32 #61 Alabama
Sterling Shepard* WR Oklahoma City, OK +23 #100 #123 Oklahoma
Trey Williams RB Spring, TX +22 #19 #41 Texas A&M
Curtis Riser* OL DeSoto, TX +22 #79 #101 Texas
Zach Banner OL Lakewood, WA +21 #50 #71 --
Josh Harvey-Clemons ATH Valdosta, GA +20 #20 #40 --
D.J. Foster* ATH Scottsdale, AZ +15 #97 #112 --

Biggest Fallers and Dropouts

If there were a record 16 new faces in the AC100, that unfortunately means that 16 old names had to drop off the list. The quarterback position took a big hit in the finalized rankings as Texas A&M’s Matt Davis, Auburn’s Zeke Pike and Texas’ Connor Brewer each fell outside of the top 100. The highest player to fall out of the rankings, however, was Rochester (N.Y.) Aquinas Institute defensive tackle Jarron Jones. The future Fighting Irish defender had some difficulty at the All-American events once he was facing the nation’s best. New York prep football leaves much to be desired, and his adjustment period likely caused him to drop from the AC100. Yuri Wright, formerly of Don Bosco Prep, plummeted for other reasons, as his lewd and inappropriate twitter timeline ended with his discharge from the program.

Here is the list of the biggest fallers in the final AC100 (* - dropped out of the AC100):

Name Pos. Hometown +/- Rank Prev. Verbal
Avery Johnson* WR Pompao Beach, FL -99 #166 #67 LSU
Jelani Hamilton* DE Ft. Lauderdale, FL -74 #154 #84 Miami
Matt Davis* QB Houston, TX -73 #161 #88 Texas A&M
Zeke Pike* QB Edgewood, KY -71 #153 #82 Auburn
Connor Brewer* QB Scottsdale, AZ -70 #134 #64 Texas
Jarron Jones* DT Rochester, NY -69 #101 #32 Notre Dame
Dominique Wheeler* WR Crockett, TX -69 #127 #58 Texas Tech
Anthony Alford* QB Petal, MS -49 #119 #70 Southern Miss
Yuri Wright DB Ramsey, NJ -49 #70 #21 --
Kwon Alexander LB Oxford, AL -44 #82 #38 --
Barry Sanders, Jr. RB Oklahoma City, OK -35 #80 #45 Stanford
Ricardo Louis* WR Miami Beach, FL -34 #121 #87 Florida St
Quay Evans DT Morton, MS -34 #93 #59 Mississippi St
Devonte Fields* DE Arlington, TX -27 #122 #95 TCU
Noor Davis LB Leesburg, FL -27 #49 #22 Stanford
Jordan Payton* WR Westlake Village, CA -25 #124 #99 Cal
Dan Voltz* OL Barrington, IL -24 #114 #90 Wisconsin
Sheldon Day* DT Indianapolis, IN -20 #116 #94 Notre Dame
Cayleb Jones WR Austin, TX -20 #59 #39 Texas
LaDarrell McNeil* DB Dallas, TX -16 #112 #96 Tennessee
Tyriq McCord* DE Tampa, FL -10 #107 #97 Miami
Evan Boehm* OL Lee's Summit, MO -3 #103 #100 Missouri

<p> There was plenty of movement in the final 2012 Athlon Consensus 100. Who were the risers and fallers?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/florida-state-over-duke-syracuse-and-uconn-losses-highlight-wild-weekend

It was a wild weekend around college basketball, with several upsets and plenty of last drama. Some of the most notable results were Florida State winning at Duke, Syracuse tasting its first defeat, Baylor losing at home to Missouri, Tennessee beating UConn, Mississippi State’s comeback at Vanderbilt and Wisconsin winning on the road at Illinois. Our editors answer three questions covering the best and worst from the college hoops week.

1. Name a team that really needs to get its act together over the next few weeks?

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): Northwestern has the talent to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. But the Wildcats, currently 12–7 overall and 2–5 in the Big Ten, don’t have an NCAA Tournament resume. The Cats broke through with a big win at home vs. Michigan State on Jan. 14, but followed up with a 20-point loss at Wisconsin and a 23-point loss at Minnesota. Northwestern was alarmingly uncompetitive on Sunday against the Gophers, falling behind 11–0 and 21–4. The Cats begin a stretch with three out of four at home this weekend when Purdue visits Evanston. It’s about time for this team to play like it belongs in the NCAA Tournament.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman): I want to see what Texas can get done over the next month. The Longhorns did lose a ton — Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, Cory Joseph and Gary Brown — from last year’s team, but Rick Barnes’ club still has enough talent to get to the NCAA Tournament. However, a 12–7 record and a tough Big 12 slate has Texas looking at missing March Madness for the first time since 1997-98, Tom Penders’ last season in Austin. The heralded freshman class of Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Jonathan Holmes and Julien Lewis will need to grow up quickly and help veterans J’Covan Brown and Clint Chapman end a current three-game losing streak. The Horns are 2-4 in league play and still have two games against Baylor, plus rematches with the teams that gave them those four Big 12 defeats — Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State. Texas will need to go above .500 in its 12 remaining games and win in the league tournament to avoid playing in the NIT in March.

Mark Ross: How about an entire conference, as in the Pac-12. The Pac-12 is currently No. 7 in the RPI rankings, behind the Mountain West, A-10 and Missouri Valley. The Pac-12's current leader is Cal, which is tied with Oregon atop the standings at 6–2, and beat the Ducks in Eugene a few weeks ago. Cal is currently No. 37 in the RPI, followed by Oregon at No. 56. The other 10 teams are ranked 61st and below. One Pac-12 team will get into the NCAA Tournament because of the automatic bid, but unless someone starts making some real noise, this “Big Six” conference may be ‘One and Done’ come Selection Sunday.

2. Which team had the best win over the weekend?

Patrick Snow: There are several good candidates — Notre Dame taking down undefeated Syracuse, Tennessee beating UConn, Wisconsin winning at Illinois — after an exciting weekend, but I have to go with Florida State winning at Duke. The Seminoles were impressive the previous Saturday in beating North Carolina as Deividas Dulkys got red-hot from beyond the arc and the Tar Heels seemed to give up down the stretch. However the victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which broke Duke’s 45-game home winning streak, shows that Leonard Hamilton’s team is for real. The Noles are not quite as good defensively as last season’s Sweet 16 club, but they are scoring more points this year — especially during the current four-game winning streak. FSU is in great shape at tied for first in ACC play, and the Seminoles have the look of being a dangerous March team once again.

Mitch Light: Mississippi State made a nice statement with a comeback win at Vanderbilt Saturday night. The Bulldogs had lost their two previous road games in the SEC, but found a way to rally from 11 down at the half to beat Vanderbilt — a team that had won eight in a row — at Memorial Gym. State opened the second half on a 20–2 run, thanks in large part to some tremendous shooting from long range. The Bulldogs hit 10-of-11 from beyond the arc in the final 25 minutes (second half, plus overtime), with sophomore guard Jalen Steele (four threes in the second half) responsible for much of the damage. Mississippi State has a ton of talent. If Rick Stansbury’s club has its head on straight — which isn’t always the case — there is no reason they can’t be a factor in the SEC title chase.

Mark Ross: How can it not be Florida State? Beating North Carolina at home is one thing, even if it was by a convincing 33 points. Beating Duke on the road in Cameroon Indoor Stadium is something entirely different. But that's the rare double-double Leonard Hamilton's Seminoles pulled off thanks to Michael Snaer's game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer on Saturday. The Seminoles have seemingly found their defensive identity, as they held the Blue Devils to under 40 percent shooting and ended their 45-game home winning streak in Durham. In name, this may be the same team that lost to Harvard and Princeton earlier in the season, but on the court it looks a lot like the team that made it all the way to the Sweet 16 last year.

3. Which team had the most damaging loss over the weekend?

Mark Ross: Not to pile on the Pac-12, but given the conference's across-the-board weakness this season, the last thing Cal needed to do was to lose to Washington State. Yes, Cal is still tied for first in the league standings and this was on the road in Pullman, but this is a Washington State team that has lost to Utah, Pepperdine and UC Riverside — all of which are ranked 175th or lower in the RPI, this season. In a year like this, Cal can't afford too many bad losses, even if they are in conference road games.

Mitch Light: There’s no need to panic in Charlottesville, but I was disappointed that Virginia let a Virginia Tech team that had been 0–4 in the ACC steal a win at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavs had been 2–1 in the league with the only loss coming by three points at Duke. This was simply a game that Virginia had to win if it wanted remain relevant in the ACC race over the next six weeks.

Patrick Snow: I thought UConn’s loss at Tennessee was a bad sign for the reigning national champions. The Vols have played better since freshman big man Jarnell Stokes became eligible, but Cuonzo Martin’s crew is still a team with a losing record. The 14–5 Huskies should easily make the NCAA Tournament, but the non-conference defeat was their fourth loss in six games. Jim Calhoun’s bunch has the talent to make another magical March run, but the loss in Knoxville pointed out some damaging deficiencies. Center Alex Oriakhi has regressed since last season, and freshman big man Andre Drummond has been very inconsistent. UConn has solid guards in stud scorer Jeremy Lamb and point Shabazz Napier, but there has not been much depth with freshman Ryan Boatright out of the lineup as the NCAA investigates his eligibility. Consequently, the Huskies have not been able to play their usual aggressive defense on the perimeter for fear of fouls. Obviously UConn showed us last season that a high league finish is not a prerequisite to win it all. The Huskies have the individual players to do it again, but their latest loss showed some weaknesses that must be corrected quickly.

<p> Florida State ends Duke's 45-game home winning streak while Syracuse and UConn lose.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 17:55
Path: /mlb/milwaukee-brewers-mt-rushmore

MLB Mt. Rushmores

by Charlie Miller

We believe that all MLB teams should have their own Mt. Rushmores. Who are the four baseball players that have risen above all others for each organization? The question sounds simple. Even two guys sitting in a bar can figure that out, right? Not so fast. Let the arguments begin.

Milwaukee Brewers Mt. Rushmore
A franchise that began as the Seattle Pilots in 1969 lasted just one season in the northwest prior to moving to Milwaukee under new ownership that included Bud Selig. The Brewers have the distinction as the only franchise to compete in four different divisions at some point: the AL West from 1969-71, the AL East from 1972-93, the AL Central from 1994-97 and the NL Central from 1998-present. But Milwaukee has just two division titles, the first in 1982, and the second in 2011. In 45 seasons of competition, the Brewers have finished at .500 or better just 16 times. The 2002 season marked the only time the franchise lost 100 games, and the only season with a worse record than the expansion season of 1969. The two names that scream loudly to any Milwaukee fan for Mt. Rushmore are Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Finding two additional names takes a bit more digging.

Robin Yount
The most popular man in Milwaukee (who never played for the Green Bay Packers, that is) won two MVP awards, one as a shortstop in 1982, the second as a centerfielder in 1989. Yount made his major league debut on Opening Day in 1974 at age 18 and spent his entire 20-year career with the Brewers. The Hall of Famer amassed 3,142 hits, 1,632 runs and 1,406 RBIs in a Brewers uniform.

Paul Molitor
With Yount firmly entrenched at shortstop, Molitor was forced to find other positions in order to break into the Brewers’ lineup. Like Yount in 1973, Molitor was drafted No. 3 overall in 1977. And also like Yount, Molitor found himself in the Brewers’ Opening Day lineup the following season. A shortstop by trade, Molitor stated at five different positions the first five Opening Days of his career (shortstop, DH, second base, left field and third base). In 15 seasons in Milwaukee, Molitor totaled 2,281 hits, 412 steals and a .303 batting average in 1,856 games.

Cecil Cooper
Ranking third in most offensive categories in Brewers history (albeit a distant third) is enough to get Coop in this honored company. He has 154 more RBIs than Molitor, which ranks him second in that category. Cooper in fifth with 201 home runs. Of the nine 120-RBI seasons in team history, Cooper owns three of them, most of anyone. The former first baseman also owns three of the team’s seven 200-hit seasons, again, tops on that list. Acquired prior to the 1977 season from Boston, Cooper batted .302 over 11 seasons with the Brew Crew. During his first seven seasons with the team, he finished fifth in MVP voting three times over four seasons with an eighth-place vote mixed in. He won two Gold Gloves and batted .316 from 1977-83, averaging 22 home runs and 95 RBIs. His .352 average in 1980 would have been good enough to win an AL batting title 22 times during the 30 years from 1962-91, but George Brett chased .400 in 1980, ending at .390, leaving Cooper to settle for runner-up.

Bud Selig
You can say what you want about Selig’s tenure in the Commissioner’s office, but he worked tirelessly to bring baseball back to Milwaukee after the Braves left for Atlanta after the 1965 season. It isn’t a stretch to say that the owner-turned-Commissioner is responsible for bringing baseball back to Milwaukee.

Close Calls
Along with Yount and Molitor, Jim Gantner shares the record for games played by three teammates.
Mike Caldwell averaged 15 wins and 231 innings from 1978-83, and won 102 games.
Had he signed a long-term contract with the franchise, Prince Fielder most certainly would have hit his way onto the mountain.
Stormin' Gorman Thomas averaged 35 home runs and 98 RBIs from 1978-82.

Best Current Player
The only current player with a shot at becoming a member of this elite foursome is Ryan Braun. But after his PED problems, he has much more ground to makeup. Putting together a couple of clean Braun-like seasons would be a nice start.



Follow Charlie Miller on Twitter @AthlonCharlie or email him


Other teams' Mt. Rushmores:

American LeagueNational League
Baltimore OriolesArizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red SoxAtlanta Braves
Chicago White SoxChicago Cubs
Cleveland IndiansCincinnati Reds
Detroit TigersColorado Rockies
Houston AstrosMiami Marlins
Kansas City RoyalsLos Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles AngelsMilwaukee Brewers
Minnesota TwinsNew York Mets
New York YankeesPhiladelphia Phillies
Oakland A'sPittsburgh Pirates
Seattle MarinersSan Diego Padres
Tampa Bay RaysSan Francisco Giants
Texas RangersSt. Louis Cardinals
Toronto Blue JaysWashington Nationals


<p> After one disastrous year in Seattle, the Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970. From the American League West to the AL East, to the AL Central to the National League Central, the Brew Crew has won two division titles. Two Hall of Famers — Robin Yount and Paul Molitor — are the faces of the franchise. Who else belongs on the Brewers' Mt. Rushmore?</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 13:32
Path: /college-football/remembering-joe-paternos-legacy

With the passing of Joe Paterno over the weekend, many people are struggling to put his career in perspective. On one hand, he was a rare coach who won without ever getting caught up in a big NCAA scandal--a rarity in college football these days--but on the other, his legacy will foreever be tarnished by the horrific Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

So we asked our Athlon editors (who know more about college football than most people have forgotten) to look back on JoePa's complicated career.

By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman

Joe Paterno’s legacy has been completely tarnished because of his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. There aren’t many acts that could have ruined the reputation of the Penn State legend with 400+ wins, but repeatedly being an enabler to a pedophile is one of them. That’s a harsh reality, and it feels uncomfortable to write. But it is reality, even if many Nittany Lions and others around college football are choosing to ignore it.

The quotes from some media and college football coaches calling Paterno “classy” and “a great man” ring very hollow because of what we now know. His choice to cover up for a child molester in order to protect the interests of a business/football program is sick and disturbing. That type of behavior does not fall under the category of “people make mistakes” or “I’ll just choose to remember the positives”.

Many people will says those words this week in regards to Paterno, but that’s just putting your head in the sand for fear of facing a tough reality. It’s difficult for Penn State fans, ex-players or just fans of football to see their belief system crushed, and many will be in denial over what happened on the Penn State campus. Joe Paterno did some amazing things on the football field, but unfortunately his legacy will now be the repeated enabling of a sick pedophile. Success with honor? Not so much.

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall

January 22, 2012 was a sad day for many college football, Big Ten and Penn State fans. I, personally, never would have thought I would be writing stories this season about the firing and death of a legend. In fact, it was an extremely surreal experience hosting my radio show on November 9, the day Paterno was classlessly (albeit justifiably) fired via phone, and then again on Sunday. The winningest coach of all-time was not a perfect man — no man is — and his mistakes will, rightly so, never be forgotten. There will be a portion of the population that will never be able to hold respect for Joe Paterno ever again, and I would never try to convince them otherwise. His final legacy will be debated until the end of time. But Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports pinpointed my feelings precisely on a day that "piling on" was totally unnecessary. Sunday was a day to have respect for the dead (and his loved ones) and to honor a man whose 70 years of good still dramatically outweighed the year(s) of bad:

"Paterno reached too many, taught too many, inspired too many. And for years and seasons, for decades and generations to come, those that drew from his wisdom will pass it on and on. That will be his most lasting legacy. No, his worst day can’t be forgotten. Neither can all the beautiful ones that surrounded it."

Joe Paterno's legacy as arguably the greatest college football coach to ever live is absolutely tarnished, but will never be erased.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven

The final chapter of Joe Paterno’s career was certainly not how most pictured his tenure at Penn State would end. Just over a week after earning the Division I record with his 409th win, Paterno’s tenure came to an abrupt end as the Penn State board of trustees fired him as a result of the ongoing Jerry Sandusky investigation. While the final chapter will certainly leave a mark on Paterno’s career, there’s no question he is one of college football’s icons and a coaching legend.

Considering the win-now mentality, coaches are afforded very little time to build a program. And college football may not see a coach spend 46 years at one school and earn 409 wins at one stop again. Another remarkable note about Paterno’s career at Penn State was the fact he never ran into any major trouble with the NCAA and his teams were near the top of the nation in graduation rates. Some are certainly going to remember Paterno for the surprising end to his tenure, but I think most will remember him for the 409 wins and being one of college football’s most influential coaches.

By Nathan Rush

Joe Paterno may have left a dark cloud lingering over Happy Valley — in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal — but the 85-year-old was undeniably the architect of something bigger than himself, once upon a time. There was a "Great Experiment" and a "Penn State Way" that were personified by the wavy-haired Brooklyn native who wore thick-rimmed glasses, a blue tie, rolled up khakis and black sneakers. More than the 409 wins and two national championships, JoePa's legacy will be defined by the countless lives he impacted — including all Penn Staters, his decades of Nittany Lion players, young coaches around the country and, yes, the victims of Sandusky, if in fact Paterno knew what he appears to have known about the actions of his longtime defensive coordinator. Even in defeat, Paterno taught us all several valuable lessons that are as timeless as the classics he once studied at Brown. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Do the right thing, even if no one is watching. In the end, the truth will come to light. Joe Paterno was a tragic hero whose story — both rise and fall — will be told for generations to come.

By Rob Doster (@athlondoster)

As a kid, I preferred my football southern-fried, so I tended to dismiss the guys in the boring blue-and-white uniforms and their odd-looking little coach in his bulky black-rimmed glasses as little more than a regional curiosity that had no business on the field with the Alabamas of the world. That perception eroded as Joe Paterno and his program elbowed their way into the college football elite, asking only for an opportunity to prove they belonged and then delivering over and over on the big stage. Dismissal gave way to grudging respect, and finally to outright admiration for the Penn State Way. Sadly, Paterno leaves a complicated legacy tarnished by scandal. But in the immediate aftermath of a man's death, I prefer to focus on the positives, and there were plenty of those. Rest in peace, Joe Pa.

By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch

Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines in the first college football game that I remember watching. I was seven years old, dressed in crimson pants, an Alabama t-shirt and an Alabama cowboy hat. It was the 1979 Sugar Bowl, featuring No. 1 Penn State vs. the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

We had recently moved to New Jersey, and my parents hosted a party to watch the game that would end up settling the national title. Seemingly all of my parents’ friends were fans of Penn State, which at that time was basically the home team for college football fans in North Jersey.

We were fans of the Tide. My dad, a 1961 Alabama grad, hung a Bear Bryant poster in my room while I was still in a crib. He was eager to show his new friends in the Northeast what SEC football was all about. Read the rest here

<p> Athlon Editors look back on how to view JoePa's complicated history&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 13:26
All taxonomy terms: coach, Miami Dolphins, Regis Philbin, Overtime
Path: /overtime/what-everyone-thought-when-philbin-was-named-dolphins-head-coach

This is exactly what popped in my head when the Miami Dolphins announced that someone named "Philbin" was going to be their next head coach.

Now that Regis Philbin has quit his time as co-host of the long-running "Regis and Kelly" show, it seemed like maybe this could be more plausible than originally thought. Regis loves sports in general--especially Notre Dame football. So why wouldn't he be able to lead Miami onto the field on Sundays? Some coaches are more inspiration guys than Xs and Os guys. 

And who wouldn't want to go out and beat the crap out of the Jets after a pre-game speech by Regis and his trademark cadence?

Of course, it's actually some guy named Joe Philbin who was named the Dolphins coach. But who would you rather see roaming Miami's sidelines?

<p> Admit it, you'd rather see this Philbin in charge of the Dolphins</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 12:57
Path: /college-football/struggling-joe-paternos-legacy

Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines in the first college football game that I remember watching. I was seven years old, dressed in crimson pants, an Alabama t-shirt and an Alabama cowboy hat. It was the 1979 Sugar Bowl, featuring No. 1 Penn State vs. the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

We had recently moved to New Jersey, and my parents hosted a party to watch the game that would end up settling the national title. Seemingly all of my parents’ friends were fans of Penn State, which at that time was basically the home team for college football fans in North Jersey.

We were fans of the Tide. My dad, a 1961 Alabama grad, hung a Bear Bryant poster in my room while I was still in a crib. He was eager to show his new friends in the Northeast what SEC football was all about.

Alabama, of course, won the game, delivering the Bear his sixth and final national title. It was a happy day in the Light household.

At the time, I didn’t know much about the man on the other sideline. But as a fan of the sport, I grew to respect Paterno and his team. I didn’t necessarily like Penn State during my formative years — in fact, I rooted against the Nittany Lions until I got to college — but it was a program that I admired.

It’s cliché, but Paterno did things the right away. Simply put, he is one of the greatest coaches in the history of team sports. But is that how he will be remembered? Or will we remember him for the final three months of his life and the scandal that ended his 46-run as the boss in Happy Valley? It’s a complicated question. And a personal question.

I want to remember Paterno for all of the good things he did for a sport I love. But then, as the father of a 7-year old boy, it’s hard for me to ignore what we have learned about this legendary figure in the past few months.

We will never truly know how much Paterno knew, but I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know that Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator and long-time friend, was committing these atrocities. Paterno was most powerful man in State College and the CEO of one of the top football programs in the nation. There is no way he didn’t know something was going on.

And for that, I can’t not think of Jerry Sundusky when I think of Joe Paterno. Whenever I hear his name, the first image that pops into my head is Sandusky — and it’s not a pleasant image. I don’t know if I will feel the same way in a year, or in five years.

But for now, my memory of Joe Paterno is more about grand jury testimony, child abuse and power than it is about Penn State football.

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)

<p> Athlon Editor Mitch Light looks back at Joe Paterno's career</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 11:34
All taxonomy terms: Eli Manning, News
Path: /news/eli-manning-calls-tom-brady

We're pretty sure this is what happened after the Giants beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday.

Eli probably got on the phone and called up the Pats to see if they wanted to play a little football at his brother's house in Indianapolis.

<p> Anyone want to play football at my brother's house?</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 10:33
All taxonomy terms: Eli Manning, New York Giants, NFL Playoffs, NFL
Path: /nfl/giants-fans-need-enjoy-unexpected-super-bowl-ride

Enough with the prognosticating. Giants fans should simply enjoy a ride that might be the best one yet.

Everything about the 2011 Giants has been said and said again. And again.

Eli is full of crap, how dare he put his name next to Tom Brady’s! Except, actually, he might be Elite but not quite as good as Brady or Rodgers or Jesus – but wait, hold on a second, because Eli’s playing really good right now and is approaching Elite status, so now we’re seriously starting to wonder whether or not you can spell Elite without E-L-I.

Hold on. I’ve just received a call from my source, who is telling me that, yes, we’ve just now finally decided, ONCE AND FOR ALL, that ‘Elite’ cannot be spelled without its first three letters.

What have we learned from the 2011 Giants that we didn’t know before? That Antrel Rolle likes to talk? That Brandon Jacobs does too, sometimes derisively to fat people?

That Tom Coughlin’s reputation, for at least the third time in his Giants tenure, has bobbed and weaved before capsizing, like a poorly-piloted cruise ship? That not throwing millions of dollars at a possession receiver with a shakily-reconstructed knee was a shrewd, ballsy move? That eschewing a big commitment to an oft-injured tight end who had never caught more than 42 passes was similarly awesome?

We didn’t know about Victor Cruz. And now we do. So now, every sportswriter and blogger with a minimal vested interest in New York sports, go and write 4,000 words that have been written a thousand times before.


Save for my ill-fated prediction in December, I haven’t written a word about the Giants in three months. Strange, for a man who lists February 3, 2008 as one of the greatest nights of his life, a diehard whose house is lined with Giants regalia, a fan whose authentic #88 jersey hasn’t been washed in almost as long – god forbid it not be dry on game day.

Why not? Sure, I’d rather not waste my time writing old words. But, even more so, I’d rather just enjoy the ride.

That’s my message to Giants fans. Enjoy the ride. A ride that may – or frankly, may not—turn out to be the ride of your life.
Most of us have already dreamt of knocking off Brady and Belichick yet again, of silencing every doubter who calls our team’s 2007 greatness a fluke. Some have gone so far as to check airfare to Indianapolis, only to shudder at the cost. We’re already debating whether we should have the championship parade in Newark or Manhattan, which is a stupid debate not just because Newark sucks and Chris Christie is fat but because, to even reach that point, the Giants, with a record of 11-7, will need to triumph over two teams with a combined record of 29-5.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

But guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that. In 2007, we were behind the curve. Greatness hit us by surprise. We watched an unlikely band of misfits, future St. Louis Rams and spongebob-band-aid-wearing defensive backs fight their way to a world title. We rejoiced. We tasted greatness, but by the time we had apprehended what had happened, a bullet was in Plaxico’s leg and the parade screeched to a halt. So we wanted another taste. And it hasn’t come. Until now.

On the doorstep of similar achievement, the 2011 Giants are a different beast entirely. Their greatness comes not from their unlikeliness or from a Conference Championship game appearance or their newfound dominance on both sides of the ball.

If there’s greatness in these Giants, it’s derived from the potential of watching the perfect title run. In 2007, we experienced the purest form of an underdog story: 53-scrappy Davids unseating the undefeated behemoth thanks to a great play from a receiver who would never catch another ball as long as he lives.

This year? We’re still the underdog. We’re 9-7 going against 13-3 and hopefully 14-2. Yet we still believe – nay, we expect. In 2007, we didn’t believe. Those Giants didn’t look like they belonged on the same field as the Cowboys, or the Packers, or the Patrioits. And then suddenly, before we even knew what hit us, it happened. Greatness caught us by surprise. We won’t be caught napping again.

We’ve spent the last four years yearning for that greatness and have lamented and screamed and sulked every time it hasn’t come. Few honest Giants fans would tell you that they believed in that 2007 team. They’d tell you they were converted only when that ball glued itself to Tyree’s helmet, or maybe not even until Brady’s final pass eluded Randy Moss and fell to the turf.

Today? Find me a Giants fan who doesn’t believe that his team’s destined for Disney World. Good luck.

In 2012, we are excited because we feel it coming. That may be irrational, it may be arrogant, and it may even be self-defeating. But our readiness for greatness is no less real. These Giants haven’t scraped by four of the league’s supposed contenders, like their 2007 counterparts did; they’ve annihilated them.

We’ve watched Aaron Rodgers made to look only slightly better than Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan made to look like Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning made to look like Aaron Rodgers. Everything is coming together at just the right time and in just the right way, with enough build-up and emphasis to keep us on the edge of our seats, shivering in anticipation. It’s all come together to make us believe.

We’ve dismissed the massive challenge of the Niners’ nasty defense and now we're ready for the Patriots high-flying attack. When and if our team take the Super Bowl crown in 2012, we’ll be ready to celebrate.

Or to cry when Tom Brady passes for four hundred yards. Either way, it will be bigger and better this time.

Go Giants.

Jesse Golomb is the Editor-in-Chief of TheFanManifesto. Follow him on twitter, or drop him a line via email

<p> Fans of the Big Blue are playing with house money right now</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/joe-paternos-career-numbers

-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

Joe Paterno’s legacy will cause mixed emotions and create division amongst sports fans and non-sports fans alike across the country from now until the end of time. He impacted thousands of lives in the most positive and meaningful ways possible. But he also was in charge when the worst scandal in college football history hit his university.

Either way, the facts don’t lie about how successful he was as the head coach at Penn State University. He is arguably the greatest college football to ever live and the stats back it up:

December 21, 1926: Joe Paterno was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Angelo and Florence Paterno.

1944: Joe Paterno played his final season at Brooklyn Prep High School. He lost one game his senior season – the season finale against the Vince Lombardi coached St. Cecilia’s squad.

1950: Graduated from Brown University as the star quarterback — and an English major. He accepted a position on Rip Engle's Brown coaching staff. Shortly thereafter, Engle took the Penn State head coaching job and was allowed to bring one assistant. He selected a young and completely inexperience Paterno to take with him to Happy Valley.

1962: Married Suzanne Pohland, Penn State Class of 1962.

1966: Is hired as the head coach of Penn State University.

1969: Hires Jerry Sandusky as Penn State’s defensive line coach.

1970: Multiple sources indicate had the Green Bay Packers offered the head coach/General Managing job to Joe Paterno, that he would have accepted the position after only five years of leading Penn State.

5-2: The seven-man Green Bay Packers' Board of Trustees votes to hire Missouri head coach Dan Devine over second choice Joe Paterno.

2: National Championships under Joe Paterno. In 1982, Penn State defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and in 1986 Penn State defeated Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.

5: Undefeated Seasons under Joe Paterno. He didn’t lose a game in 1968, 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1994. Only one of those seasons earned him a National Championship.

46: Years as head coach at Penn State University by Joe Paterno.

409: The most wins all-time by any D-1 head football coach. His final coaching record was 409-136-3.

24: The most bowl wins all-time by an D-1 head football coach. His final bowl record 24-12-1.

23: It took Joe Paterno 23 seasons to finally experience his first losing season in Happy Valley.

40: The number of winning seasons Paterno had as a head coach at Penn State. Also the initial number of counts of aggravated child sexual assault levied against Jerry Sandusky.

35: Number of Top 25 postseason rankings in 46 seasons of coaching. Also, the number of 8+ win seasons for JoePa.

21: The number of double-digit win seasons for Penn State in 46 years of coaching.

15: Number of 11-win seasons as the head coach at Penn State for Paterno.

5: Number of children with wife Sue, which eventually led to 17 grandchildren.

5: Number of major bowls Joe Paterno won. Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Cotton.

5: Number of AFCA National Coach of the Year Awards for Joe Paterno.

5: Maxwell Trophy winners coached by JoePa: Rich Lucas (1959), Glenn Ressler (1964), John Cappelletti (1973), Chuck Fusina (1978), Larry Johnson (2002)

4: Chuck Bednarik winners coached by JoePa: Lavar Arrington (1999), Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006), Dan Connor (2007)

3: Big Ten titles won while at Penn State (PSU joined the Big Ten in 1993).

1: Heisman Trophy winner John Cappaletti, who led the 1973 Nittany Lions to an unblemished record while rushing 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns. Also, the same number of flavors of ice cream named after Joe Paterno on campus (Peachy Paterno).

8: Number of College Football Hall of Famers coached by Joe Paterno at Penn State: Mike Reid, Ted Kwalick, Jack Ham, Dennis Onkotz, John Cappelletti, Keith Dorney, Lydell Mitchell, Curt Warner

250: Over 250 NFL players played under Joe Paterno at Penn State.

$3.5 million: Dollars Joe Paterno and wife Sue donated to the brand new Paterno Library on Penn State’s campus in 1998. He and his wife gave more than $4 million total to Penn State over his the course of his career.

9: Days between being fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees via phone and when he announces that he has a “treatable” form of lung cancer.

44: Days between being fired by Penn State on November 9 and passing away at 9:25 AM on January 22.

4: Number of weeks Bear Bryant lived after retiring as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

<p> Joe Paterno's Penn State Career By The Numbers</p>
Post date: Monday, January 23, 2012 - 08:32
Path: /news/steven-tyler-murders-national-anthem-video

Steven Tyler isn't really known for having a good voice. Sure, he has an interesting voice, and that stuff he does at the end of "Dream On" sounds pretty cool, but let's face it, he squeals and screeches more than hits solid notes.

And that all became clear during his performance of the National Anthem before the Patriots and Ravens AFC Championship again.

The American Idol judge, who watched the game from Pats owner Robert Kraft's booth, was sort of like a watching a car wreck. He never really flubbed it or forgot the words, but his wavering voice just made viewers uncomfortable and he didn't really sound very strong. The only parts that got the crowd riled up was when he leaned on his classic screeching. 

We doubt he'll be invited back to sing anymore national anthems in the future. But if it was up to us, we'd love to see a duet between him and Christina Aguilera before the Super Bowl.

<p> He should stick to judging and not so much singing</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2012 - 22:51
Path: /news/joe-paterno-dies-85-lung-cancer

Joe Paterno, the recently embattled Penn State football coach, has died at the age of 85 from lung cancer complications.

The man who has won more football games than anyone else and was seen, until recently, as one of the most honored and respected men in the game wasn't able to survive his fight with the deadly disease.

His family released a statement Sunday morning to announce his death.

Paterno's son Scott announced Nov. 18 that his father was being treated for lung cancer, which was diagnosed in mid-November during a follow-up visit for a bronchial illness.

Jay Paterno, one of Paterno's sons, thanked fans for their support Saturday.

"I appreciate the support & prayers. Joe is continuing to fight," Jay Paterno wrote on his own Twitter account.

The storied career of "JoePa" included 409 wins in 46 seasons and two national championships.

Paterno died at State College's Mount Nittany Medical Center, where he had been undergoing treatment.

Paterno remained connected to a ventilator into Sunday, individuals close to Paterno's family told The Washington Post.

The newspaper reported the family had communicated to the hospital his wishes not to be kept alive through extreme artificial means.

Paterno's cancer diagnosis was revealed Nov. 18, nine days after he lost his Penn State head coaching job in the fallout of sexual abuse charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

But his reputation for success with honor was shattered when a former assistant was charged with molesting 10 boys during a 15-year span, including some in the Penn State athletic complex.

Critics said Paterno should have done more to stop it. He was fired Nov. 9.

How much a of a role the scandal that severely tarnished the reputation of the man whow as considered the grandfather of college football played in the speed and his ability to fight his illness will never be known. But it's probably safe to say that this whole ordeal weighed on him very, very heavily.

Joe Paterno recently told The Washington Post that he did not know how to deal with the report from Mike McQueary that his former defensive coordinator--Jerry Sandusky--was accused of abusing a boy in the showers.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he told The Post in an extensive two-day interview at his home. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

In all, Paterno guided five teams to unbeaten, untied seasons.

<p> The Penn State coach has died of lung cancer complications</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2012 - 09:14
Path: /nfl/nfl-playoffs-which-match-will-make-best-super-bowl

The Final Four has been set, and it might not have been the one you were expecting. The AFC did get its top two seeds through to the championship, but over in the NFC the two best teams – or what everyone thought were the two best teams (the Packers and Saints) are gone.

That leaves this: The Baltimore Ravens (13-4) vs. the New England Patriots (14-3) on one side, and the upstart New York Giants (11-7) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (14-3) on the other. On Feb. 5 two of them will meet in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.

We’ll find out soon enough whom those teams will be. The question right now is: Who do you want to see? Do you want a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, one of the greatest ever played? Or a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV, which might have been one of the worst. How about a battle of franchises that have 11 Super Bowl appearances and eight championship rings between them? Or maybe the Harbaugh Brothers Bowl?

Or what about any matchup that involves a team from Baltimore playing in Indianapolis, 28 years after Indianapolis stole a football team from Baltimore?

Keep all that in mind when you’re watching the championship games on Sunday. Which of these four matchups do you want to see?

New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers

There have been 45 Super Bowls and 11 have featured one of these teams, but never has there been a game that involved both. The Patriots are a dismal 3-3 in the big game, while the 49ers are a sparkling 5-0. It’s been 18 years since the 49ers – one of the dominant franchises of the ‘80s – has been to the Super Bowl, and you can bet they’re still smarting over the Steelers picking up their sixth ring two years ago.

Beyond the franchise matchup, there’s Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest coach of this generation, facing Jim Harbaugh whose 14-3 rookie year as an NFL coach has been spectacular. Alex Smith, in his long-awaited breakout year, would go a long way towards proving he’s for real by beating Tom Brady. And then there’s the age-old question: Does defense really win championships? The Patriots don’t really have one. The 49ers definitely do.

New England Patriots vs. New York Giants

This might be the most tantalizing matchup of all, considering they played four years ago in Super Bowl XLII and they put on one of the greatest NFL shows ever. The Giants won that game, of course, in spectacular, come-from-behind fashion complete with the David Tyree catch that became an iconic play.

What the Pats likely remember most is this: They were 18-0 and dreaming of the NFL’s second perfect season and its longest. They were an absolutely offensive machine that year and looked nearly unbeatable, until the Giants’ pass rush left them overwhelmed. Now the Giants’ pass rush is leading their charge again, with many people finding comparisons to their miracle run in 2007.

The Patriots would love to get in their way in the end, this time with much different results.

And if that isn’t enough, how about this: Eli Manning, months after insisting he was an “elite” quarterback in Tom Brady’s class, getting a chance to beat him in the biggest game? Or what about Brady and Eli Manning battling it out for another ring in Peyton Manning’s backyard?

Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants

Most of the players on these teams were mere kids when the Ravens, with their all-time defense, hammered the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, putting a stain on Jim Fassel’s pretty good coaching career in New York that he never really washed away. One guy who clearly remembers will be Jessie Armstead, now an assistant with the Giants.

In that game he had an early interception that he returned for a touchdown that was nullified by a terrible defensive holding penalty on defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. That play could’ve turned everything around. Instead the Giants fell apart and were beaten by Trent Dilfer, one of the worst quarterbacks to ever win the big game.

This game also would pit two strong defenses against each other, and linebacker Ray Lewis – arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation – against Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who might turn out to be one of the best of the next.

Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

The headline would be Ravens coach John Harbaugh vs. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who may already be the most successful coaching brothers in any sport, ever. John has been knocking on the Super Bowl door ever since he took over the Ravens. It’s hard to imagine he wants to see Jim on the other side when he finally kicks it in.

It would be compelling TV, though, and a great storyline for the entire week. Never have two brothers faced each other with stakes this high.

And if you can get past that, this also is the matchup that probably should’ve been most likely, considering how the NFL has gone this season. It’s been the Year of the Quarterback, with three of them topping 5,000 yards and passing offenses exploding all over the league.

Wouldn’t it just figure, then, that the Super Bowl would feature two of the best defenses in the league?


<p> Which of the final four NFL teams do you want to play for it all?</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 22, 2012 - 08:07
Path: /college-football/sec-very-early-predictions-2012

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Very Early 2012 SEC East Predictions

1. Georgia Bulldogs

Key Returnees: QB Aaron Murray, RB Isaiah Crowell, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Michael Bennett, WR Marlon Brown, WR Tavarres King, DL Arby Jones, DL John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree LB Cornelius Washington, LB Michael Gilliard, DB Bacarri Rambo, DB Shawn Williams, DB Sanders Commings, DB Brandon Smith

Key Losses: TE Orson Charles, OL Cordy Glenn, OL Ben Jones, OL Justin Anderson, DT DeAngelo Tyson, CB/RET Brandon Boykin, K Blair Walsh, P Drew Butler

The story on offense should be pretty clear heading into 2012 for the Dawgs. Aaron Murray and a host of electric young skill players will return to a unit that has to replace its three best blockers. Can UGA establish the run better with an older, and more mature Isaiah Crowell, and new star Keith Marshall? The offensive line could be the only thing keeping Georgia from the national championship game.

If UGA does have a special season in 2012, it will be because of the defense. Todd Grantham in two short years turned the Dawgs into one of the stingiest units in the nation. And he has 10 starters back with elite level talent and depth at nearly every position. All-American candidates Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo lead the way on the backend.

Special teams will take a big hit for Mark Richt as both kickers and return dynamo Brandon Boykin have moved on. However, the schedule is powerful reason why Georgia is the early favorite to win the East. Richt’s squad misses the three best teams from the West in LSU, Alabama and Arkansas — all of whom could be preseason top-10 teams. Trips to Missouri (to start SEC play) and South Carolina will be the toughest road tests of the year.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

Key Returnees: QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Ace Sanders, TE Justice Cunningham, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Shaq Wilson, DB D.J. Swearinger, DB DeVonte Holloman

Key Losses: OL Rokevious Watkins, WR Alshon Jeffery, DE Melvin Ingram, DT Travian Robertson, LB Rodney Paulk, CB Stephon Gilmore, LB/S Antonio Allen, C.C. Whitlock

Dismissing Stephen Garcia in the middle of the season might have been the best decision Steve Spurrier has made at South Carolina. The only disappointment is that new quarterback Connor Shaw didn’t get a full year of seasoning. The dual-threat quarterback played his best football down the stretch in 2011 and will welcome back the best running back in the nation when Marcus Lattimore returns to the field in 2012. Replacing Alshon Jeffery’s talent will be virtually impossible, but replacing his underwhelming (at times) production won’t. If the pass protection can improve, this entire offense has an opportunity to be much better in 2012.

Defensively, the front line has some holes to fill with the loss of Melvin Ingram and Travian Roberston, but Devin Taylor is back and Jadeveon Clowney proved his lofty recruiting status was totally justified. Toss in Kelcy Quarles and Carolina will have another stellar D-Line. Replacing some of the key pieces in the back seven, as well as the loss of coordinator Ellis Johnson, will determine if this defense can rank in the top-10 nationally once again.

The real issue with South Carolina, despite coming off its first 11-win season in school history, will be the schedule. The cross-over slate features a trip to LSU and a visit from Arkansas – two of the preseason top-10 teams in the nation. The schedule was the reason Athlon Sports picked Georgia to win the East in 2011 and a repeat decision is likely from America’s Premier Sports Publisher.

3. Missouri Tigers

Key Returnees: QB James Franklin, RB Kendial Lawrence, RB Henry Josey (injury), WR T.J. Moe, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L’Damian Washington, DL Brad Madison, DL Sheldon Richardson, DL Brayden Burnett, LB Andrew Wilson, LB Will Ebner, LB Zaviar Gooden, DB E.J. Gaines, DB Kip Edwards, DB Matt White, DB Kenronte Walker

Key Losses: WR Wes Kemp, TE Michael Egnew, OL Elvis Fisher, DE Jacquies Smith, DT Dominique Hamilton, DT Terrell Resonno, LB Luke Lambert, DB Kenji Jackson

The SEC’s other James Franklin enters America’s best conference with the potential to be an all-conference performer at quarterback. Whether or not his style of play can be effective against the extraordinarily talented SEC front sevens still remains to be seen. The good news is Gary Pinkel has plenty of talent coming back in the backfield and out wide for Franklin to utilize. But a great offensive line is a necessity to succeed in this league and how quickly this new group can gel will have the biggest impact on the offense. 

One look at the NFC playoffs in San Francisco and fans should understand how well Pinkel has recruited the defensive line. The Aldon-Justin Smith combo has proven that Mizzou has been one of the stronger Big 12 teams in the trenches since he arrived in Columbia. Brad Madison and Sheldon Richardson return to lead what should be one of the better units in the East — or at least one that is on par with Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. Can they hold up week-in, and week-out against SEC power rushing attacks? Only time will tell, but Missouri isn’t entering a new conference empty handed.

Hosting four of its first five conference games will help to ease Missouri into SEC play. However, the maiden voyage through the southeast culminates with three straight road games in three of the most hostile stadiums in the country: At Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The second half of the year will likely determine if the Tigers are successful in their first SEC campaign.

4. Florida Gators

Key Returnees: QB Jacoby Brissett, QB Jeff Driskel, RB Mike Gillislee, ATH Trey Burton, WR Andre Debose, WR Quinton Dunbar, TE Jordan Reed, OL Xavier Nixon, OL Jonotthan Harrison, OL Matt Patchan, OL Jon Halapio, DL Sharrif Floyd, DL Ronald Powell, DL Dominique Easley, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, LB Michael Taylor, DB Matt Elam, DB Josh Evans, DB Jaylen Watkins, DB Cody Riggs

Key Losses: QB John Brantley, RB Chris Rainey, RB Jeff Demps, OL Dan Wenger, DT Jaye Howard

Another year, another offensive scheme. Will Muschamp hired former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease as his new offensive guru. In case you are counting at home, that makes four coordinators in four seasons in Ganiesville. And Pease’s first order of business is to find a quarterback. Uber-recruits Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will likely compete for the starting job, but how do their skills fit with the new scheme? And can Pease find offensive playmakers to help out – which sounds unfathomable at a school like Florida. How quickly Pease settles into his new office will likely determine if the Gators challenge for an SEC title or lose another five games.

While the offense has huge question marks heading into 2012, the defense has all the potential to be a dominant unit. It finished eighth nationally against the run, allowed only 20.3 points per game (20th nationally) and returns NFL talent at every position. This team has a chance to be very stout in 2012.

There are few breaks, as is the case with most SEC schools, on the Gators’ schedule. Muschamp starts the year visiting a rebuilding Texas A&M team and a developing Tennessee squad. LSU also comes to The Swamp in October in cross-over play with a very tough but potentially manageable finish to the year: South Carolina at home, Georgia in Jacksonville and Missouri at home.

5. Vanderbilt Commodores

Key Returnees: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, RB Warren Norman, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Chris Boyd, OL Wes Johnson, OL Ryan Seymour, DL Rob Lohr, DL Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, DB Kenny Ladler, DB Javon Marshall, DB Trey Wilson

Key Losses: TE Brandon Barden, OL Kyle Fischer, OL Logan Stewart, DL Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson

Other than Alabama, there might not have been a fan base more excited about its program in 2011 than Vanderbilt. Much of the credit belongs to cult of personality head coach James Franklin — and a host of experienced seniors on defense. Finding a way to replace names like Marve, Hayward, Fugger and Richardson will be key for Franklin.

Ideally, an experienced and developing offense should help mask some of the holes on defense. Jordan Rodgers returns for a full season under center (and back-up Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels is talented as well) and has all-SEC type players to work with in skill talents Zac Stacy, Warren Norman and Jordan Matthews. The offensive line won’t be a strength, but won’t be a weakness either as it is deep and beginning to develop experience.

The real reason Vandy fans are thinking bowl game for the second-straight season is the schedule. Like Georgia, the Dores miss the big three from the West (LSU, Alabama, Arkansas). However, Franklin and Rodgers will have to be ready to compete right out of the gate as South Carolina visits West End in the Thursday night primetime season kickoff in Week 1. Two non-conference road tilts with Northwestern and Wake Forest will also figure heavily into postseason play.

6. Tennessee Volunteers

Key Returnees: QB Tyler Bray, RB Marlin Lane, WR Justin Hunter, WR Da’Rick Rogers, OL Ja’Wuan James, OL Alex Bullard, OL Marcus Jackson, OL Dallas Thomas, DL Corey Miller, DL Jacques Smith, DL Daniel Hood, DL Maurice Couch, DL Willie Bohannon, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Curt Maggitt, DB Prentiss Waggner, DB Brian Randolph, DB Izauea Lanier

Key Losses: RB Tauren Poole, DE Malik Jackson, DE Ben Martin, LB Austin Johnson

There is a lot on the line for Derek Dooley in 2012. His career hangs in the balance as Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter return healthy as potentially one of the top QB-WR combos in the nation. There is loads of talent, and now experience, along the offensive line, so improving upon the 117th-ranked rushing offense will go a long way to keeping Dooley in Knoxville. Easier said than done.

Defensively, Dooley has an entirely new staff in place as he hired Sal Suneri from Alabama to run his defense. Like the offense, fans can finally point to talented, upside youngsters at key positions. Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson likely had to play too much as freshman, but went along way in accelerating the development process for the future star sophomores. The secondary has a lot of bodies and should be decent, but Sunseri’s ability to develop the front line will likely be the most important aspect of the defense. Maurice Couch and Daniel Hood showed consistency, but Corey Miller and Jacques Smith have the talent to be much better players. It falls to Sunseri, who developed stars like Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, to turn them into the stars fans thought they would be as recruits.

Missing Arkansas and LSU helps this Tennessee team immensely in 2012, but will still have to face Florida, Georgia and Alabama in its first four SEC contests. The Vols likely have to reach seven or eight wins to save Dooley’s job and will undoubtedly need to pull one, if not two, upsets throughout the course of the season.

7. Kentucky Wildcats

Key Returnees: RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OL Larry Warford, DL Collins Ukwu, LB Avery Williamson, LB Ridge Wilson, DB Martavius Neloms

Key Losses: WR Matt Roark, LB Danny Trevathan, LB Ronnie Sneed, S Winston Guy, DB Randall Burden

This team is in dire need of improvement in all areas. The offense failed to score more than 16 points in any SEC game in 2011 and topped 10 points in only two of eight games. Developing a quarterback will go a long way to making Joker Phillips’ group competitive once again in 2012. La’Rod King returns as the leading receiver and top offensive playmaker and blocker Larry Warford is a very talented start to building an offensive line.

Defensively, Phillips has to plug massive voids left by Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy. And with one of the toughest schedules in the league, finding defensive play-makers becomes magnified. Road trips to Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee packaged with homes games against South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt does not afford many chances for wins in 2012 for Kentucky.

2012 Very Early SEC West Predictions

1. LSU

Key Returnees: RB Spencer Ware, RB Michael Ford, RB Kenny Hilliard, WR Russell Shepard, WR Odell Beckham, LT Chris Faulk, C P.J. Lonergan, RT Alex Hurst, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tyrann Mathieu, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing

Key Losses: QB Jordan Jefferson, QB Jarrett Lee, WR Rueben Randle, LG Will Blackwell, DT Michael Brockers, LB Stefoin Francois, LB Ryan Baker, CB Morris Claiborne, SS Brandon Taylor

A great regular season in Baton Rouge was overshadowed by an awful performance in the national title game against Alabama. The Tigers navigated a difficult regular season slate unbeaten, but that won’t wash away the disappointment from the 21-0 loss to the Crimson Tide in New Orleans. Although the loss still stings at LSU, the Tigers have to be ecstatic about what’s returning in 2012.

Quarterback play was a huge issue in the national title game and will enter 2012 as a question mark. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee depart, leaving Zach Mettenberger as the team’s No. 1 option entering spring practice. Mettenberger saw limited action in 2011, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and one touchdown. Not helping Mettenberger’s cause was the departure of receiver Rueben Randle. With uncertainty surrounding Mettenberger, expect the Tigers to lean heavily on the rushing attack once again. Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard combined for 2,338 yards and 30 scores in 2011 and will be helped by the return of four starters on the offensive line. LSU should have one of the top rushing attacks in college football, but Mettenberger’s development will be crucial to winning a national title.

Despite the loss of a few starters, LSU isn’t going to suffer much of a drop-off on defense. The defensive line should be among the best in college football, especially with ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo returning after registering 17 sacks in 2011. Tackle Bennie Logan also returns after picking up 57 tackles last season. Two starters depart in the linebacking corps, but the backups have experience. Morris Claiborne was one of the top cover corners in the nation and may be missed more than some believe. However, the cupboard isn’t bare in the secondary, as Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon return in 2012.

2. Alabama

Key Returnees: QB AJ McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy, WR Kenny Bell, OL Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, RT D.J. Fluker, DE Damion Square, DE Quinton Dial, DE Jesse Williams, LB Trey DePriest, LB Nico Johnson, LB C.J. Mosley, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester, S Vinnie Sunseri

Key Losses: RB Trent Richardson, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, TE Brad Smelley, C William Vlachos, RG Alfred McCullough, OG Anthony Steen, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Courtney Upshaw, NG Josh Chapman, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB DeQuan Menzie, S Mark Barron

The Crimson Tide will be replacing a plethora of key players, but is there really any doubt this team will be back in the mix for the SEC and national title?

Quarterback AJ McCarron was a key factor in Alabama’s national title win over LSU and he will be the focal point of the offense in 2012. McCarron threw only five picks and completed 66.8 percent of his throws in 2011. The junior will have to adapt to a new offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) next year with Jim McElwain’s departure to Colorado State. With receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks out of eligibility, the Crimson Tide needs Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood to become the go-to weapons for McCarron, especially while a talented freshman class learns the ropes. Replacing Trent Richardson’s production at running back likely won’t come down to one player. Look for Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler to share the initial workload in the backfield, while incoming freshman T.J. Yeldon will have an opportunity to work his way into the mix. The offensive line has to replace stalwart center William Vlachos, but Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Anthony Steen are back.

After finishing first nationally in rush, total, scoring and pass defense, it’s nearly impossible to expect a repeat of those numbers in 2012 – especially with the loss of several key contributors. Coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart will have their work cut out for them this offseason, as the defense loses linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, while Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and DeQuan Menzie all depart from the secondary. Jesse Williams and Damion Square return on the line, but the Crimson Tide needs to find a new nose guard with Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry departing. There’s no shortage of young talent, but it may take five or six games for the right pieces to fall into place for this defense.

3. Arkansas

Key Returnees: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, OG Alvin Bailey, C Travis Swanson, DE Tenarius Wright, DT Byran Jones, LB Alonzo Highsmith, CB Tevin Mitchell, CB Isaac Madison, S Eric Bennett

Key Losses: WR Joe Adams, WR Jarius Wright, OG Grant Cook, OT Grant Freeman, DE Jake Bequette, LB Jerry Franklin, LB Jerico Nelson, CB Isaac Madison, S Tramain Thomas

The Razorbacks are coming off back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1988-1989. Now that Arkansas seems to have closed the gap on LSU and Alabama, can it win the SEC West in 2012?

There’s a mixture of good and bad news for the Razorbacks’ offense next year. Running back Knile Davis is back after missing all of 2011 due to a leg injury, which should provide a spark for the rushing attack. However, Arkansas must replace three receivers, including playmakers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams. Quarterback Tyler Wilson turned down an opportunity to enter the NFL Draft and he should contend for first or second team All-SEC honors next year. The offensive line struggled at times during the 2011 season but figures to be improved in 2012.

If the Razorbacks want to close the gap and play for the SEC Championship next season, the defense has to continue to improve. New coordinator Paul Haynes did a good job containing Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, but he will lose some of the unit’s key performers. End Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas will be missed and won’t make Haynes’ job any easier next year. Arkansas still trails LSU and Alabama in defensive strength, but it will be interesting to see how Haynes fares with a full year on the job.

4. Auburn

Key Returnees: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, C Reese Dismukes, DE Corey Lemonier, DE Nosa Eguae, LB Daren Bates, LB Jake Holland, CB Chris Davis, CB T’Sharvan Bell, S Demetruce McNeal, S Erique Florence

Key Losses: RB Michael Dyer, RT Brandon Mosley, LB Eltoro Freeman, S Neiko Thorpe

One year after winning the national title, the Tigers slipped back to the pack, finishing with an 8-5 record and a victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia. After losing so many key players from the 2010 team, there was no doubt Auburn was due to for a fall. The Tigers will enter 2012 with new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a roster that is still one of the youngest in the conference.

Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense (and Cam Newton) was a big reason why Auburn claimed the 2010 national championship. However, Malzahn departed to be the head coach at Arkansas State, which certainly raises the question of whether or not the Tigers will continue with a similar offensive scheme in 2012. Regardless of scheme, settling the quarterback position is going to be crucial to Auburn’s success in 2012. Clint Moseley, Kiehl Frazier and incoming freshman Zeke Pike will compete for the job in spring practice. With the quarterback position in flux, the Tigers will lean heavily on the rushing attack in 2012. Michael Dyer also departed for Arkansas State, leaving Onterio McCalebb, Florida transfer Mike Blakely and Tre Mason to battle for carries. The offensive line loses tackles A.J. Greene and Brandon Mosley, but center Reese Dismukes is coming off a solid freshman campaign.

Youth and inexperience played a huge role in Auburn’s defensive struggles last season, but this group never really seemed to show much progress throughout the year. The Tigers ranked near the bottom of the SEC in rush, pass, total and scoring defense last season. Coach Gene Chizik made a good move when he decided to hire Brian Van Gorder from the Falcons to coordinate the defense. Van Gorder has some nice talent to work with on the defensive line, as Corey Lemonier, Jeffrey Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Nosa Eguae are all returning. The secondary has been a source of criticism over the last two years, but could benefit from a better pass rush.

5. Texas A&M

Key Returnees: RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, RT Jake Matthews, DE Spencer Nealy, DT Eddie Brown, LB Jonathan Stewart, LB Sean Porter, LB Steven Jenkins, LB Damontre Moore

Key Losses: QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Cyrus Gray, WR Jeff Fuller, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, CB Coryell Judie, CB Terrence Frederick, S Trent Hunter, K Randy Bullock

2012 represents a new era for Texas A&M athletics. The Aggies decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, joining the nation’s toughest conference for college football. While this is a big challenge, Texas A&M has the resources necessary to eventually compete in the SEC West. Could this move help the Aggies on the recruiting trail versus Texas? Only time will tell, but for 2012, Texas A&M has a lot of work to do in order to reach the postseason.

Along with the move to the SEC, the hire of coach Kevin Sumlin has built some positive momentum in College Station. Sumlin’s spread offenses at Houston were among the best in the nation, but the going will certainly be tougher in the SEC. Quarterback is a huge question mark entering spring practice, as Matt Joeckel, Matt Davis, Johnny Manziel and Jameill Showers will compete to replace Ryan Tannehill. With a young quarterback taking over, look for the Aggies to lean on the rushing attack and offensive line. Running back Christine Michael returns after missing the final four games due to a torn ACL. Michael will anchor the backfield, but Ben Malena will be a nice change of pace option. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have a solid group of receivers to throw to, including All-SEC candidate Ryan Swope.

It will be interesting to see how Texas A&M’s defense transitions to a 4-3 under coordinator Mark Snyder in 2012. After running the 3-4 under Tim DeRuyter, the switch may take a year or two to get the right bodies in place. Losing end Tony Jerod-Eddie is a tough blow for the line, but Spencer Nealy and Eddie Brown Jr. earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last season. The coaching staff needs to decide if Damontre Moore fits at end or linebacker, especially after he recorded 8.5 sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps should be a strength, as Jonathan Stewart, Sean Porter and Steven Jenkins return. The secondary was a weakness in 2011 and will be losing cornerbacks Terrence Frederick and Coryell Judie and safety Trent Hunter. Even though the SEC has struggled to get great quarterback play across the board, the secondary is going to be under fire early and often in 2012.

6. Mississippi State

Key Returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, WR Chad Bumphis, LG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, DT Josh Boyd, LB Cameron Lawrence, LB Deonte Skinner, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Corey Broomfield, S Nickoe Whitley

Key Losses: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, LT James Carmon, RG Quentin Saulsberry, RT Addison Lawrence, DE Sean Ferguson, DT Fletcher Cox, LB Brandon Wilson, SS Charles Mitchell, FS Wade Bonner

The Bulldogs have emerged as a solid bowl team under coach Dan Mullen, but can the program take it to the next level? Mississippi State has yet to beat any SEC West team outside of Ole Miss under Mullen’s watch, which is something that has to change if the Bulldogs want to contend for a spot among the top three in the division.

While Mississippi State has made progress under Mullen, the going won’t get any easier in 2012. With Texas A&M joining the SEC West, the Bulldogs have another difficult obstacle to get bowl eligible. And there are a lot of question marks for this team going into spring practice. Quarterback play was an issue in 2011, with Chris Relf and Tyler Russell both getting significant snaps. Relf has expired his eligibility, leaving Russell as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Running back Vick Ballard must be replaced, but LaDarius Perkins has averaged 5.3 yards per carry during his career and should be a solid replacement. Additionally, three starters must be replaced on the offensive line.

The Bulldogs allowed only 20 points a game last season, but ranked seventh in the SEC in rush defense, allowing 153.5 yards per game. The defense was dealt a blow when tackle Fletcher Cox decided to leave for the NFL, but fellow tackle Josh Boyd is back for his senior year. The Bulldogs caught a break when cornerback Johnthan Banks decided to return for his senior year, but the secondary must replace safety Charles Mitchell. This unit shouldn’t suffer too much of a drop-off, but could struggle to stop the run without one of its key defenders on the interior of the line.

7. Ole Miss

Key Returnees: RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Nickolas Brassell, LB Mike Marry, LB D.T. Shackelford, FS Charles Sawyer, P Tyler Campbell

Key Losses: RB Brandon Bolden, LT Bradley Sowell, RT Bobby Massie, DE Kentrell Lockett, S Damien Jackson

A disastrous 2011 season brought change to Oxford. Out is Houston Nutt as the Rebels’ coach and in is former Arkansas State head coach (and Ole Miss assistant) Hugh Freeze. The new coaching staff has a lot of work to do to get the Rebels back in a bowl game and considering the returning personnel, it may be a year or two before that happens.

Three quarterbacks received snaps in 2011, but none performed well enough to claim the job entering spring practice. Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti all return for 2012, but will face competition from incoming JUCO Bo Wallace. Jeff Scott is the team’s top returning rusher (529 yards), but at 5-foot-7, the Rebels don’t want to give him 250-300 carries. The receiving corps has some promising youth returning, as Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell – both freshmen last year – ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in catches last year. The offensive line will be a concern next year, especially with Bradley Sowell out of eligibility and Bobby Massie declaring for the draft.

As if the offensive struggles weren’t enough last year, the Rebels were one of the worst in the SEC in defense. New co-defensive coordinators Dave Wommack and Wesley McGriff have to figure out ways to generate a pass rush after the Rebels averaged only one sack a game in 2011. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford missed all of 2011 due to a knee injury and his return should add some much-needed punch to the run defense. 

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early ACC 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Pac-12 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

<p> Athlon releases its very early SEC predictions for 2012.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 20, 2012 - 07:46
Path: /college-football/gunner-kiel-indiana-lsu-notre-dame-indecision

By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

It happens every year during college football’s recruiting season. Top gridiron prospects “verbally commit” to one school, and then change their mind (multiple times in some cases) before attending another school. The infamous “verbal commitment” label that the recruiting services use has sadly become a joke for many kids. They “commit” to one program to hopefully hold a roster spot, and then are still pursued by other coaches and often are swayed to another school at the last minute. We saw a very high-profile example of this trend earlier this week when one of the top quarterback recruits in the AC100, Gunner Kiel of Columbus, Ind., reneged on his promise to attend LSU and changed to Notre Dame at the 11th hour. Of course, his LSU decision came after reneging on his commitment to Indiana back in the fall. The number of these de-commitments goes up each year, as a sadly increasing number of recruits and college coaches show that their word means little to nothing.

So who or what is to blame for all of the recruiting confusion: youthful indecision, egotistical or gullible players, bad parents and/or advisers who put their self-interest above the kid’s, shady football coaches, insistence of ravenous fans and recruiting websites to put a label on prospects or just a lack of character across society? Obviously each case is separate and should be analyzed that way. Kiel’s story will be more publicized because he is a signal caller and it involves major programs, but he is far from alone.

Most football recruits sign a letter-of-intent on National Signing Day (February 1 this year) which officially binds them to that school. Before that, it’s all just a verbal promise. In the case of Kiel and the growing number of top football prospects who graduate high school early and then enroll in college in January, their “official” decision is made when they attend the first class. Kiel was supposed to enroll at LSU this week but then switched to going to classes at Notre Dame. Many have said his mother in Indiana did not want him go far from home, which is understandable. But then why the LSU “commitment”? If the parents had that much influence over the decision, they should keep their son from basically lying (very publically) once again. In the end, LSU fans will probably think that Kiel was scared of their depth chart or SEC defenses, while Irish fans will think his indecision is just a factor of age and no big deal. That’s how these things work.

We do have to remember these are 18-year-old kids, and they have very persuasive and powerful adults — whether it’s parents, coaches from other schools, advisers, etc. — in their ear constantly. That’s not a fun or healthy reality for many of us. We want to trust people and think that their word has meaning, but the world of recruiting seems to take us in a different and sad direction. Many fans direct anger and internet vitriol towards recruits who spurn their school, as they make the argument that you’re an adult at 18 and can make independent decisions. And while the recruits aren’t totally innocent, it’s hard to get too angry at them when you see the example being set by many adults.

There was an uncomfortable story this week in the AJC regarding Alabama coach Nick Saban and running back recruit Justin Taylor from North Atlanta. While recruits often change their commitments, some prominent coaches like Saban are infamous for oversigning recruits (which the SEC has tried to address with new rules), forcing non-contributing upperclassmen out of their scholarships for medical reasons or not honoring their earlier offers. Saban reportedly told Taylor, who had been committed to the Tide since last February, that he could not sign him this year. So Taylor will just attend another school, right? Nope. Apparently Saban had convinced Taylor to not sign elsewhere, to stay at home in Georgia and that Bama would help him find a job. That’s a scary amount influence to have over a player who does not fit into your plans.

Saban is not the only coach with that type of reputation. It has been reported often that new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will tell prospects almost anything (and the Buckeyes have shockingly spiked in the recruiting rankings since he took over). We all know about the recent scandals at USC, Ohio State, Penn State and North Carolina, and they all show that positively influencing and educating new students is a long way down the priority list for way too many of the adults involved.

Will it ever stop? Probably not. There is just so much money at stake for coaches and big-time recruits that character is going to take a back seat. Kids like Kiel and Vanderbilt’s Patton Robinette need to quit “committing” so early, when they are obviously not sure about what they want. The last-minute changes by these players harms their reputation, and that can be a painful thing to deal with in the internet/college football world. Here’s to hoping that recruits and coaches will find a way in the future to be more honest throughout the entire process. However, for that last thought, I probably need to be committed.

<p> Heralded quarterback prospect switched commitments from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame.</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 07:20
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-acc-predictions

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 ACC Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State

Key Returnees: QB EJ Manuel, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Rashad Greene, WR Rodney Smith, DE Brandon Jenkins, DE Bjoern Werner, DT Everett Dawkins, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Christian Jones, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Greg Reid, FS Lamarcus Joyner, K Dustin Hopkins

Key Losses: WR Bert Reed, LT Zebrie Sanders, LB Nigel Bradham, CB Mike Harris, P Shawn Powell

The question facing the Seminoles every offseason seems to the same: Is Florida State back? We won’t know until next December if the Seminoles are truly a contender for the national title, but on paper, this group has the pieces to finish among the top 5-10 teams in the nation.

Quarterback EJ Manuel had his moments in his first year as the starter, but a shoulder injury suffered in the third game of the season seemed to stall the offense’s development. Manuel has plenty of young weapons at receiver to throw to, but Florida State’s offensive outlook rests solely on its line. The Seminoles had several underclassmen see valuable playing time up front, but this will be a question mark all season long. Largely due to the struggles of the offensive line, the rushing attack never really got going in 2011. If the line play stabilizes, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder should find more running lanes in 2012.

Mark Stoops was reportedly courted by Auburn for its defensive coordinator position, but chose to stay in Tallahassee for another year. That’s great news for a Florida State defense that should be among the best in college football next year. The Seminoles bring back a plethora of talented linemen, including ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but Christian Jones, Vince Williams and Jeff Luc are ready to step up. The secondary figures to be near the top of the ACC once again, especially with Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid returning at cornerback.

2. Clemson

Key Returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WR Sammy Watkins, WR DeAndre Hopkins, C Dalton Freeman, LB Corico Hawkins, LB Jonathan Willard, S Rashard Hall, S Xavier Brewer

Key Losses: TE Dwayne Allen, LT Phillip Price, RT Landon Walker, DE Andre Branch, DT Brandon Thompson, DT Rennie Moore, CB Coty Sensabaugh

Coming off a 6-7 season, there was plenty of doubt about Clemson in 2011. The Tigers were picked by most to finish in the second tier of the ACC Atlantic, but all of the pieces fell in the right place. Hiring Chad Morris as offensive coordinator turned out to be one of the best coaching moves of the offseason, while the Tigers crushed Virginia Tech 38-10 to make their first BCS bowl appearance.

Morris’ offense was a smash hit in Death Valley last season and most of the key pieces return for 2012. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will be one of the top pass-catch combinations in college football, while running back Andre Ellington should rush for 1,000 yards. The biggest question mark facing Clemson’s offense will be the line, where three new starters will step in. If the Tigers successfully replace tackles Phillip Price and Landon Walker, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2012.

After giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was shown the door. And in his place comes former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables - a home run hire as Clemson's new defensive coordinator. The Tigers finished the season ranked 70th or worse in rush, total and scoring defense and generated only 1.7 sacks per game. Not only will the defense have a new coordinator, but must replace three key starters on the line, including All-ACC selections in Brandon Thompson and Andre Branch. The Tigers have recruited well, but the defense may be a year away from showing much improvement in the stat column.

3. NC State

Key Returnees: QB Mike Glennon, RB Mustafa Greene, RB James Washington, WR Tobais Palmer, LT R.J. Mattes, C Camden Wentz, CB David Amerson, S Brandan Bishop, S Earl Wolff

Key Losses: WR T.J. Graham, TE George Bryan, DT J.R. Sweezy, DT Markus Kuhn, LB Audie Cole, LB Terrell Manning

Last offseason wasn’t exactly quiet in Raleigh, but after closing with wins in four out of their final five games, coach Tom O’Brien should be feeling good about his team going into 2012.

Breaking up with quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t easy, but Mike Glennon quietly turned in a solid season. The junior threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, while tossing 12 interceptions and adding one score on the ground. Glennon will only get better with another offseason to work with the coaching staff, but the Wolfpack has to replace key receivers T.J. Graham and Jay Smith and tight end George Bryan. Running back should be a position of strength, as James Washington returns after rushing for 897 yards and Mustafa Greene is back after missing all of 2011 due to injury. With four starters returning, the Wolfpack offensive line should be able to cut down on the amount of sacks this group allowed in 2011 (34).

Keeping Jon Tenuta on the defensive staff was a huge coup for O’Brien, especially after finishing fourth in the ACC in total defense in 2011. However, the Wolfpack suffered some key losses from this group, especially in the front seven. Tackles Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy and linebackers Dwayne Maddox, Audie Cole and Terrell Manning are all gone. While the front seven will be a question mark, the secondary is a strength, especially with cornerback David Amerson returning.

4. Wake Forest

Key Returnees: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, WR Michael Campanaro, NG Nikita Whitlock, LB Mike Olson, CB Merrill Noel

Key Losses: RB Brandon Pendergrass, WR Chris Givens, LG Joe Looney, DE Tristan Dorty, LB Kyle Wilber, SS Cyhl Quarles, S Josh Bush

The Demon Deacons started 5-2, but cooled off in the second half of the year to finish with a 6-7 record. Although that tally isn’t overwhelmingly impressive to some, the record represented a solid year of improvement for coach Jim Grobe. Wake Forest won only three games in 2010 with a core composed mostly of young players, which was a valuable learning experience for the team in 2011 and once again for 2012.

Quarterback Tanner Price emerged as one of the top passers in the ACC last year, throwing for 3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Price returns in 2012, but will have to find a new go-to target with receiver Chris Givens moving onto the NFL. Michael Campanaro figures to be Price’s new favorite target after catching 73 passes for 833 yards last year. Running back Josh Harris was limited due to a hamstring injury in 2011, but could threaten 1,000 yards with 150-175 carries in 2012. Expect the offensive line to get plenty of attention in the spring, as the Demon Deacons have to replace four starters, including tackle Dennis Godfrey and All-ACC guard Joe Looney.

Seven starters return on defense for Wake Forest next season, but this unit ranked eighth or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last year. There aren’t a ton of significant losses for 2012, but replacing All-ACC safety Josh Bush won’t be easy. With the returning group of players, Wake Forest figures to make some improvement on defense in 2012. The Demon Deacons would benefit from more of a pass rush, as they finished 115th nationally in 2011.

5. Boston College

Key Returnees: QB Chase Rettig, RB Montel Harris, WR Colin Larmond, DT Kaleb Ramsey, DT Dominic Appiah, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB Steele Divitto, CB Al Louis-Jean

Key Losses: C Mark Spinney, DE Max Holloway, LB Luke Kuechly, CB Donnie Fletcher

The Eagles are coming off their first losing season since 1998. After starting off 1-6, the team showed some progress, winning three of their final five games to finish with a 4-8 record. Coach Frank Spaziani enters 2012 on the hot seat and some new faces on the coaching staff. Spaziani hired former Kent State coach Doug Martin to coordinate the offense, while former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman will work with the offensive line.

Spaziani hopes Martin can find some answers for offense that was one of the worst in the ACC last year. Quarterback Chase Rettig tossed 12 touchdowns, but completed only 53.6 percent of his throws. Rettig needs more help from his receiving corps, as the offense would benefit from more big plays in 2012. Montel Harris has rushed for 3,735 yards and 27 scores in his career and was granted an extra year of eligibility after missing most of 2011 due to a knee injury. While getting Harris back will help the ground attack, Boston College also needs more help from its offensive line.

The defense was respectable last year, as the Eagles finished 43rd nationally in scoring defense and allowed 17 or fewer points in each of their final three games. However, this group suffered some key losses, including Butkus Award winner Luke Kuechly. Look for Kevin Pierre-Louis to emerge as the leader in the linebacking corps and should challenge for all-conference honors. The defensive line gained some extra help over the winter when tackle Kaleb Ramsey was granted an additional year of eligibility.

The Eagles aren’t ready to challenge for the division title, but the pieces are in place to contend for a bowl bid. Improving the offense is priority No. 1 this offseason for Spaziani and if this unit struggles in 2012, Boston College will likely be looking for a new head coach by December.

6. Maryland

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Brown, WR Kevin Dorsey, DT Joe Vellano, LB Kenny Tate, LB Demetrius Hartsfield, CB Dexter McDougle, S Eric Franklin

Key Losses: RB Davin Meggett, WR Quintin McCree, RT R.J. Dill, CB Cameron Chism

Only one word seems to correctly summarize coach Randy Edsall’s first year at Maryland: Disaster. Coming off a 9-4 season, the Terrapins appeared to have the pieces in place to contend for a finish among the top three in the ACC Atlantic. Instead, Maryland hit rock bottom, finishing with just two victories and going winless in conference play. The 2-10 debacle prompted changes on the coaching staff, including new offensive and defensive coordinators.

After turning in a terrific freshman campaign, quarterback Danny O’Brien was one of the most disappointing players in the ACC last year. O’Brien decided to transfer, leaving C.J. Brown as Maryland's No. 1 quarterback for spring practice. Running back Davin Meggett has finished his eligibility in College Park, leaving Justus Pickett and incoming freshman Albert Reid and Wes Brown to compete for carries. Tackle R.J. Dill decided to transfer to Rutgers for his senior year, leaving a void on the right side of the line.

There were few positives for the Terrapins on defense last season, finishing last in the ACC in rushing, total and scoring defense. New coordinator Brian Stewart is moving this defense to a 3-4 look, and there is some solid returning personnel in place for this transition. Linebacker/safety Kenny Tate was injured early in the year, but should be in contention for All-ACC honors in 2012. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano is coming off a terrific season, but the Terrapins need to figure out if he can anchor the middle of the 3-4 look or if he is better suited for the outside.

There’s nowhere to go but up for Maryland next season. However, there are plenty of concerns and question marks facing this squad. 


1. Virginia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Logan Thomas, WR Marcus Davis, WR D.J. Coles, DE James Gayle, DE J.R. Collins, DT Derrick Hopkins, LB Bruce Taylor, LB Tariq Edwards, CB Kyle Fuller, S Antone Exum

Key Losses: RB David Wilson, WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Danny Coale, LT Andrew Lanier, LG Greg Nosal, RG Jaymes Brooks, RT Blake DeChristopher, CB Jayron Hosley, FS Eddie Whitley

The Hokies have claimed back-to-back ACC Coastal titles and despite some heavy losses, will enter 2012 as the favorite once again. With the rest of the division facing a lot of uncertainty, Virginia Tech could be the only team from the Coastal to be ranked in preseason top 25 polls.

With running back David Wilson and four starters departing on the offensive line, it’s up to quarterback Logan Thomas to carry the Virginia Tech offense in 2012. The junior made big progress as a passer as the season progressed, but will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps next season. Replacing Wilson won’t be easy, especially with a cast of running backs with very little experience in place. Tony Gregory has the most carries (39) of returning running backs, but averaged only 3.3 yards per touch. Don’t be surprised if freshmen play a key role in the Hokies’ backfield next season.

While the offense will be undergoing some renovations, the defense could be among the best in college football. The line is stacked with proven commodities, including likely All-ACC selections in end James Gayle and J.R. Collins, while tackle Derrick Hopkins looks to build off his 2011 campaign (50 tackles, 3 sacks). Linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow missed time due to injuries, but will anchor a solid group in 2012. Losing cornerback Jayron Hosley and safety Eddie Whitley is a big blow, but Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller is a good starting point for the secondary for next season.

2. Georgia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Tevin Washington, RB David Sims, RB Orwin Smith, OG Omoregie Uzzi, LB Julian Burnett, LB Jeremiah Attaochu, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Louis Young, S Isaiah Johnson

Key Losses: WR Stephen Hill, DE Jason Peters, DT Logan Walls, LB Steven Sylvester, S Rashaad Reid

What a difference a year makes. Coming into 2011, Georgia Tech was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and coach Paul Johnson’s option attack was being questioned once again. Instead of continuing to slide back to mediocrity, the Yellow Jackets responded with a 6-0 start and finished with an 8-5 record. Although Georgia Tech had a late-season slide, it is poised to be a contender for the ACC Coastal title in 2012.

Quarterback Tevin Washington led the team with 987 rushing yards and 14 scores, but will face spring competition from Synjyn Days for the No. 1 spot. Washington needs to be more consistent as a passer, but the offense suffered a tough blow when receiver Stephen Hill left early for the NFL Draft. The Yellow Jackets lack a go-to back, but David Sims and Orwin Smith combined for 1,313 yards and 18 scores in 2011. Four starters are back on the offensive line, including All-American candidate Omoregie Uzzi at right guard.

Adapting to the 3-4 scheme wasn’t an overnight process, but the Yellow Jackets are making progress. Linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu, Quayshawn Nealy and Julian Burnett will be one of the top trios in the ACC next season. Finding an anchor at defensive tackle is key for any 3-4 defense and the Yellow Jackets have to replace Logan Walls in the middle next year. T.J. Barnes has the necessary size, but has not started for a full season. The secondary finished second in the ACC in pass defense in 2011 and returns four starters for 2012. If coordinator Al Groh can sort out the defensive line in spring practice, this defense should take another step forward in 2012. 

3. Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Michael Rocco, RB Perry Jones, RB Kevin Parks, WR Tim Smith, LT Oday Aboushi, DT Will Hill, LB Steve Greer, LB LaRoy Reynolds, CB Demetrious Nicholson

Key Losses: WR Kris Burd, LG Austin Pasztor, C Anthony Mihota, DE Cam Johnson, DT Matt Conrath, CB Chase Minnifield, S Rodney McLeod, S Corey Mosley

The Cavaliers were one of the biggest surprises in the ACC, going from 4-8 in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011. Coach Mike London claimed the conference’s coach of the year honors for the turnaround and leading the Cavaliers to their first postseason trip since the 2007 season. The future is bright for Virginia and another eight-win season should be within reach in 2012.

The offense had its share of ups and downs but finished No. 4 in the ACC with an average of 399.8 yards per game. Quarterback Michael Rocco had only one touchdown pass through the first four games, but finished with 12 over his next nine. He tossed 12 interceptions, which is something London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor want to see him cut in 2012. The bread and butter of the Virginia offense is the one-two punch of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks at running back. The duo combined for 1,624 yards and 14 scores in 2011 and will lead the offense once again in 2012. The offensive line played a key role in the rushing attack’s success and loses two key players next year – guard Austin Pasztor and center Anthony Mihota.

The Cavaliers improved statistically against the run and in overall points allowed this season, but must replace some key contributors in 2012. The defensive line loses three starters, including tackle Matt Conrath and end Cam Johnson. The linebacking corps should be a strength, as Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds could contend for all-conference honors. Losing Chase Minnifield is a huge blow for the Virginia secondary, but freshman Demetrious Nicholson started all 13 games in 2011 and is a future star. Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley will form a solid combination at safety next season.

4. North Carolina

Key Returnees: QB Bryn Renner, RB Giovani Bernard, WR Erik Highsmith, LT James Hurst, LG Jonathan Cooper, DE Kareem Martin, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick, FS Tre Boston

Key Losses: WR Dwight Jones, DE Quinton Coples, DE Donte Paige-Moss, DT Tydreke Powell, LB Zach Brown, CB Charles Brown

The cupboard wasn’t left completely bare for new coach Larry Fedora. After a successful stint at Southern Miss, Fedora takes over a Tar Heel squad that finished 7-6 after starting 5-1. North Carolina has won at least seven games in each of the last four years, but has failed to contend for the Coastal title.

Fedora’s specialty is on offense and will have some talented personnel to work with next season in Chapel Hill. Quarterback Bryn Renner is back after throwing for 3,086 yards and 26 scores. Renner is more of a dropback passer, but Fedora has run a spread offense at his previous stops. Although Renner may not be a perfect fit, expect Fedora to mold his offense around his strengths. Running back Giovani Bernard is another solid building block, returning to Chapel Hill after a strong freshman season. Bernard led the team with 1,253 yards and 13 rushing scores, while catching 45 passes for 362 yards and one touchdown. All five starters on the offensive line will return in 2012, making this group one of the best in the ACC.

With a handful of key departures on defense, the offense will have to carry the Tar Heels in 2012. The Tar Heels must replace two starters on the line, including end Quinton Coples and tackle Tydreke Powell. Linebacker Zach Brown will be missed, but Kevin Reddick and Darius Lipford return. The secondary will be under the microscope next season, as the Tar Heels ranked 10th in the ACC in pass defense in 2011. Making matters worse in the defensive backfield is the departure of safety Jonathan Smith and cornerback Charles Brown. 

5. Miami

Key Returnees: WR Allen Hurns, OT Seantrel Henderson, DE Anthony Chickillo, DT Darius Smith, LB Denzel Perryman, LB Jimmy Gaines, S Vaughn Telemaque, S Ray-Ray Armstrong

Key Losses: QB Jacory Harris, RB Lamar Miller, C Tyler Horn, OG Brandon Washington, DE Olivier Vernon, DT Micanor Regis, LB Sean Spence, S JoJo Nicolas

Al Golden is the right coach for the job in Miami, but he is about to embark on a difficult road the next few seasons in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes are waiting for any penalties regarding a recent NCAA investigation, which could result in the loss of scholarships. Miami sat out the 2011 postseason hoping to avoid any future bowl ban as a result of the investigation, but it is unclear if the NCAA will prevent the Hurricanes from playing in a bowl game in 2012.

Even if you put aside the NCAA concerns, the Hurricanes enter spring practice with a handful of question marks. Quarterback Jacory Harris has finished his eligibility, leaving Stephen Morris, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and incoming freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Crow to compete for the job. Morris has the edge in experience, so it would be a surprise if he didn’t start the first game of the year. Losing running back Lamar Miller to the NFL was a huge blow to the offense, but the Hurricanes have some experience returning, including Mike James and Eduardo Clements. Incoming freshman Duke Johnson could also compete for playing time. Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin are gone in the receiving corps, which leaves Allen Hurns and tight end Clive Watford as the go-to weapons for the new quarterback. The offensive line also enters spring practice with issues, as Brandon Washington, Harland Gunn and Tyler Horn all depart.

Considering the offense will need a lot of work, the defense figures to be the strength. End Anthony Chickillo and linebacker Denzel Perryman are ready to build off strong freshmen seasons, while the secondary is a strength with safeties Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong returning. Replacing Sean Spence at middle linebacker will be one of the top priorities for defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. 

6. Duke

Key Returnees: QB Sean Renfree, RB Juwan Thompson, WR Conner Vernon, WR Brandon Braxton, LB Kelby Brown, CB Ross Cockrell, S Walt Canty

Key Losses: WR Donovan Varner, TE Cooper Helfet, LT Kyle Hill, NG Charlie Hatcher, S Matt Daniels

Progress has been slow to come by at Duke under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils won nine games in Cutcliffe’s first two years, but have claimed only six over the last two seasons. It’s not easy to win at Duke, but the team has yet to make the jump most expected to see under Cutcliffe. There’s some promising talent returning to Durham in 2012, but it’s hard to see a finish outside of the cellar in the ACC Coastal.

If Duke wants to make any improvement in the win column, the rushing attack (seemingly a problem every year) has to take a step forward in 2012. The Blue Devils averaged only 94.1 rushing yards per game in 2011, putting too much pressure on quarterback Sean Renfree to win games. The senior quarterback threw for 14 scores and 2,891 yards last year, but also tossed 11 picks. Renfree has a good group of receivers to throw to, as Conner Vernon, Brandon Braxton and Jamison Crowder return. The offensive line returns mostly intact, but has to replace valuable tackle Kyle Hill.

Just like the rushing attack, the defense has been an issue for a handful of years in Durham. The Blue Devils ranked 11th or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last season. Unfortunately for the defensive staff, the going won’t get any easier with the departure of safety Matt Daniels and nose guard Charlie Hatcher. There’s enough returning players to expect improvement, but each level of the defense has concerns heading into 2012.

2012 ACC Championship Game: Florida State vs. Virginia Tech

The Hokies should have their offensive line question marks sorted out by December, but Florida State's defense will likely be the difference in this game. Of course, it's only January, so all predictions are subject to change when Athlon updates the picks for the 2012 preseason annuals. 

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the ACC for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 06:03
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-pac-12-predictions

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Very Early 2012 Pac-12 Predictions

Pac-12 North

1. Oregon Ducks (4 home, 5 road conference games)

Key Returnees:
RB Kenjon Barner, RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, DL Dion Jordan, DL Taylor Hart, LB Michael Clay, LB Kiko Alonso, DB John Boyett, DB Avery Patterson, K Alejandrio Maldonado, P Jackson Rice

Key Losses: QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei, TE David Paulson, OL Mark Asper, DL Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, LB Dewitt Stuckey, CB Cliff Harris, S Eddie Pleasant

Darron Thomas’ strange decision to leave school early creates a void at the most important position on the field. Most believe that Brian Bennett is capable, but until the bright lights are on, he has to be considered a relative unknown. Replacing 71 touchdowns and a 23-3 record at quarterback doesn’t happen over night. With Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff to help, however, he shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire offensive load. Chip Kelly’s offense won’t be as dynamic as it has been the last two seasons, but should still be plenty potent to win the North.

Defensively this team should be better. Oregon finished 67th nationally in total defense and 52nd in scoring defense, but there is solid talent returning to all three levels of the defense as only six total players depart from the defensive two-deep.

The schedule also sets-up for a hot start for with an easy non-conference schedule and five of the first six at Autzen Stadium, including North contender Washington. The schedule gets interesting in the second half with trips to Arizona State, Cal and Oregon State for the Civil War. However, the Game of the Century in the Pac-12, and possibly nationally, will be when Oregon heads to L.A. to battle USC on November 3. If Oregon wants to win its fourth-straight Pac-12 title, it will need to beat USC at least once, if not twice next fall.

2. Washington Huskies (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Keith Price, RB Jesse Callier, WR Kasen Williams, WR James Johnson, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, DL Josh Shirley, DL Andrew Hudson, DL Hau’oli Jamora, LB Princton Fuimaono, LB John Timu, S Sean Parker, CB Desmond Trufant, DB Justin Glenn

Key Losses: RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Devin Aguilar, OL Senio Kelemete, DT Alamada Ta’amu, LB Cort Dennison

Steve Sarkisian didn’t liked what he saw from his defense in 2011. Anyone who watched the 777-yard, 67-point debacle in the Alamo Bowl to Baylor understood that. So he made sweeping changes that not only improved his staff but sent ripples down the West Coast. He hired Justin Wilcox to coach the defense and gave him two rising stars to work with in linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and line coach Tosh Lupoi (from Cal) — both of whom are considered elite recruiters. There is a lot of work that has to be done on that side of the ball if the Huskies expect to remove Oregon from the top of the North Division.

Sarkisian also hired Cal’s Eric Kiesau as his new offensive coordinator and QB coach. And he will have a good one to work with as Keith Price is back under center for the second year in a row. Losing Chris Polk will hurt the ground game but there is loads of talent left for Price in the form of Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Three starters should be back along the offensive line as well.

The schedule basically begins with what could be deemed the toughest non-conference game any preseason Top 25 will play when Washington heads to LSU in Week 2. Additionally, the Huskies have to face what should be the best three teams from the South: USC and Utah at home and at Arizona. It also has to battle Oregon and Cal on the road as well. Washington is making strides and is clearly committed to becoming a top-10 program. But with a brutal schedule and defense that needed a major facelift, Washington is likely still one year away.

3. California Golden Bears (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Zach Maynard, RB Isi Sofele, RB C.J. Anderson, WR Keenan Allen, OL Matt Summers-Gavin, DL Aaron Tipoti, LB David Wilkerson, LB Cecil Whiteside, LB Chris McCain, DB Josh Hill

Key Losses: WR Marvin Jones, TE Anthony Miller, OL Mitchell Schwartz, OL Justin Cheadle, DE Trevor Guyton, DL Ernest Owusu, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, DB D.J. Campbell, S Sean Cattouse, K Giorgio Tavecchio, P Bryan Anger

This fall will be a huge year for Jeff Tedford in Berkeley — despite being the school’s all-time winningest coach and being responsible for eight of Cal’s 21 bowl appearances (and five of its 10 wins). His job hasn’t gotten any easier over the past week as North rival Washington has stolen two of its star coaches in Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau. Filling those holes will be key heading into National Signing Day 2012.

Offensively, this team needs quarterback Zach Maynard to become more efficient and having half-brother Keenan Allen back to catch passes will go a long way to that end. Tailbacks Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson should be able to take some pressure off the inconsistent passer as well. Plugging holes along the offensive line will be the key to Tedford’s offense.

Defensively, this was the top unit in the Pac-12, but has big voids left by all-conference performers Mychal Kendricks and Trevor Guyton. Kendricks was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and other honorable mention candidates D.J. Campbell, Sean Cattouse and D.J. Holt will need to be replaced as well. There is plenty of talent in the linebacking corps and Tedford has recruited well over the last few years.

The schedule will be bittersweet for Cal fans. Trips to Ohio State, USC and Utah will be very challenging, but the Golden Bears’ top contenders from the North — Oregon, Washington and Stanford — will all have to visit Tightwad Hill.

4. Stanford Cardinal (4 road, 5 home)

Key Returnees: RB Stepfan Taylor, RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Anthony Wilkerson, WR Ty Montgomery, WR/PR Drew Terrell, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OL Cameron Fleming, OL David Yankey, DL Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov, LB Jarek Lancaster, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB Trent Murphy, K Jordan Williamson

Key Losses: QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, WR Griff Whalen, TE Coby Fleener, OL Jonathan Martin, OL David DeCastro, DL Matthew Masifilo, LB Chase Thomas, S Delano Howell, DB Michael Thomas

In year one A.L. (After Luck) and year two A.H., David Shaw will have his work cut out for him. The North appears to be getting stronger and the top four players on his offense are departing, including the best player in the nation. Finding a replacement that can even attempt to fill the void left by Andrew Luck will be virtually impossible. There is a solid stable of backs and tight ends still to work with, but the offensive line will have to continue to develop young talents like Cameron Fleming and David Yankey.

The return of linebacker Shayne Skov should help ease Stanford into the post-Luck era. Skov is an absolute stud and will be the heart of this defense in 2012. In fact, this linebacking corps could be on the league’s best and will have to make up for losses along the line and in the secondary.

Stanford does have to face two of the top three from the south, but gets USC and Arizona at home. However, the those are the only favors the schedules affords as the Cardinal will have to visit Notre Dame as well as the top three North contenders Oregon, Cal and Washington.

5. Washington State Cougars (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Jeff Tuel, QB Connor Halliday, RB Ricky Galvin, RB Carl Winston, RB/PR Leon Brooks, WR Marquess Wilson, OL John Fullington, DL Travis Long, LB C.J. Mizell, LB Sekopi Kaufusi, DB Deone Bucannon, DB Tyree Toomer, DB Casey Locker, DB Damante Horton, K Andrew Furney

Key Losses: QB Marshall Lobbestael, WR Jared Karstetter, WR Isiah Barton, OL David Gonzalez, OL B.J. Guerra, DL Brandon Rankin, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, P Dan Wagner

Fans have to be excited about the Mike Leach era beginning in Pullman. And they won’t have to wait long for fireworks as the pieces are in place for Leach to build an incredible offense in year one. Quarterback, running back and receiver should be well-stocked for Leach’s spread attack. Facing BYU in Week 1 on the road will set the tempo for a team that is craving postseason play. If Wazzu can return from Provo with a win, it could easily start 4-0.

There is a lot of experience returning to the defense, but major improvements will have to be made to a unit that ranked 82nd nationally in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. Should this unit show growth and toughness, the Cougars could easily be bowling in 2012.

A 4-2 record is reasonable heading into the Week 7 bye week. Therefore, late season road trips to Stanford, Utah and Arizona State packaged around home games with UCLA and Washington will likely determine if the Cougs can reach a bowl for the first time in nearly a decade. Either way, with Leach in town, this team will once again be a blast to watch push for the postseason.

6. Oregon State Beavers (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Sean Mannion, RB Malcolm Agnew, RB Jovan Stevenson, RB Terron Ward, RB Jordan Jenkins, WR Markus Wheaton, WR Jordan Bishop, WR Brandin Cooks, DL Scott Crichton, DL Dylan Wynn, DL Rusty Fernando, LB Feti Unga, LB Michael Doctor, LB Rueben Robinson, DB Anthony Watkins, DB Jordan Poyer, K Trevor Romaine

Key Losses: WR James Rodgers, TE Joe Halahuni, OL Grant Johnson, CB Brandon Hardin, DB Cameron Collins, S Lance Mitchell, P Johnny Hekker

Mike Riley is coming off arguably his worst season in Corvallis. The good news is he found a quarterback in sophomore-to-be Sean Mannion. The freshman posted 3,328 yards last fall and will have a plethora of young, talented running backs behind him in the backfield. Wideouts Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks give him plenty of depth at wideout as well. Filling holes along the line will be the key to offensive improvement.

The defense returns plenty of names with loads of playing time. However, many of those names were responsible for the Pac-12 worst rush defense and 84th total defense nationally. Riley will have to improve on his 30.1 points allowed per game if he expects to return to a bowl game.

And the schedule isn’t offering him any favors. Two non-conference games against Big Ten power Wisconsin at home and a road trip to BYU make it difficult to see a postseason trip for the Beavers. The conference road slate includes Washington, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA with Utah, Oregon, Cal, Arizona State and Wazzu visiting Corvallis.

Pac-12 South

1. USC Trojans (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Barkley, RB Curtis McNeal, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, TE Randall Telfer, C Khaled Holmes, DE Wes Horton, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Nickell Robey, S T.J. McDonald

Key Losses: LT Matt Kalil, DE Nick Perry, DT Christian Tupou, DT DaJohn Harris

2012 represents an interesting point for USC football. The Trojans are finished with their two-year postseason ban, but are about to embark on the reduction of 30 scholarships over the next three seasons. Although the scholarship losses are huge for 2013 and 2014, it won’t slow the Trojans down in 2012.

Coach Lane Kiffin got an early Christmas present when quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return for another year in Los Angeles over the NFL. The senior will be one of the frontrunners to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy and is expected to have the Trojans in the mix for the national title. Barkley has plenty of weapons to choose from on offense, as Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are two of the best receivers in college football. Sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is also an up-and-coming threat for the USC passing attack. The Trojans have to be concerned about the depth behind starting running back Curtis McNeal, particularly after Amir Carlisle’s decision to transfer to Notre Dame. The offensive line brings back four starters, but losing Matt Kalil to the NFL was a huge loss.

The Trojans struggled mightily on defense in Lane Kiffin’s first year (2010), but showed progress in 2011. The defense ranked 18th against the run and ranked third in the Pac-12 by allowing 23.6 points a game. Although this unit made some improvement last year, there are concerns heading into 2012. End Nick Perry decided to bolt for the NFL, while DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou have finished their eligibility. Replacing three key contributors up front is going to be coordinator Monte Kiffin’s biggest task in spring practice. The freshman linebacker trio of Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard should be among the best in the Pac-12 next year. The secondary ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12, but returns all four starters in 2012, including All-American safety T.J. McDonald.

2. Utah Utes (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: QB Jordan Wynn, RB John White, WR DeVonte Christopher, C Tevita Stevens, DT Star Lotuleiei, LB Trevor Reilly, CB Ryan Lacy, FS Eric Rowe, SS Brian Blechen

Key Losses: LT John Cullen, RT Tony Bergstrom, DE Derrick Shelby, LB Matt Martinez, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

Despite losing quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the year, the Utes nearly won the Pac-12 South Division and a trip to Eugene to play in the conference title game. Considering Utah nearly won the South with a backup quarterback, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit for the 8-5 record and a Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The Utes’ coaching staff suffered a blow this offseason, as offensive coordinator Norm Chow became the head coach at Hawaii.

Wynn is expected to return for spring practice, which is good news for a Utah offense that needs a full year from him. Wynn was averaging only 181.8 passing yards per game before his injury, but he is an upgrade over backup Jon Hays. The receiving corps should be a strength for Utah next season, as DeVonte Christopher is back after catching 42 passes in 2011, while Josh Gordon is eligible after transferring from Baylor. The heart and soul of the Utes’ offense is 5-foot-8 running back and workhorse John White. The former JUCO transfer carried the offense in 2011, rushing for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns on 316 attempts. The offensive line returns three starters, but losing tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom is a big blow for this group.

The Utes led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2011, allowing only 20.2 points a game and return most of their core for 2012. Nose tackle Star Lotulelei dominated opposing offensive lines on his way to earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and will anchor the defense in 2012. The Utes need to replace Derrick Shelby’s production at end, but will have one of the top defensive lines in the Pac-12. Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker depart at linebacker, but Trevor Reilly could be one of the top breakout players in the conference next year. The secondary loses cornerback Conroy Black, but returns promising safeties Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen. 

3. Arizona Wildcats (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Matt Scott, RB Ka’Deem Carey, WR Dan Buckner, C Kyle Quinn, LB Jake Fischer, CB Shaquille Richardson, DB Tra’Mayne Bondurant, S Adam Hall

Key Losses: QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner, WR David Douglas, LB Derek Earls, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade, S Robert Golden

USC and Utah seem to be the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams returning in the conference for 2012, but ranking the rest of the division is anyone’s guess at this point. The early nod goes to the Wildcats, who scored one of the top coaching hires in former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.

Moving from a pass-first offense to more of a spread-rush attack will be an interesting transition for Arizona, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. In order for Rodriguez’s offense to click, the Wildcats a big year from quarterback Matt Scott. After redshirting in 2011, this is Scott’s team for 2012. Running back Ka’Deem Carey had a solid freshman year and will become the go-to guy in the rushing attack. All five starters are back on the offensive line, but this group will be the under the microscope with the scheme changes.

If hiring Rodriguez was a grand slam, then pulling defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from West Virginia was a home run. Casteel will be bringing a 3-3-5 scheme to Arizona, which should fit well with the returning personnel in 2012. The Wildcats’ secondary loses cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Robert Golden, but regain the services of Adam Hall and cornerback Jonathan McKnight, who missed all or nearly all of 2011 due to injury. Two starting linebackers depart, but Arizona landed Akron transfer Brian Wagner and Jake Fischer is back from injury, which should prevent any drop-off in play from this group.

4. UCLA Bruins (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: QB Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Shaq Evans, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, LB Eric Kendricks, CB Andrew Abbott, CB Aaron Hester, S Tevin McDonald

Key Losses: RB Derrick Coleman, WR Nelson Rosario, C Kai Maiava, LB Sean Westgate

Change is in the air at UCLA. Despite claiming the Pac-12 South crown, a 6-6 regular season record cost coach Rick Neuheisel his job. The Bruins made a run at some big names, but ultimately ended up hiring former NFL head coach Jim Mora. Although Mora hasn’t coached in college since 1984, he pieced together a terrific staff, including ace recruiter Adrian Klemm and former Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

The cupboard isn’t bare for Mora, but how well the Bruins adapt to the new coaching staff remains to be seen. Quarterback Kevin Prince has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley and senior Richard Brehaut this spring. Even if UCLA gets improved quarterback play, the rushing attack should be the strength of this team, as Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones are back. Replacing receiver Nelson Rosario and developing the line will be the top priority for the offensive staff this spring.

Mora’s background is on defense, but it will be interesting to see how his NFL mentality works against the spread offenses in the Pac-12. The Bruins struggled on defense in 2011, ranking eighth or worse in the Pac-12 in scoring, rush and total defense. The good news for Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is nearly everyone returns. Expect the defensive line to get a lot of attention in spring practice, as the Bruins registered only 14 sacks in 2011.  

There’s a lot to like about UCLA next season, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty. The Bruins figure to be the biggest wild card in 2012 Pac-12 predictions this summer. 

5. Arizona State Sun Devils (4 home, 5 road)

Key Returnees: RB Cameron Marshall, WR Jamal Miles, DE Junior Onyeali, DE Davon Coleman, LB Brandon Magee, CB Osahon Irabor, CB Deveron Carr

Key Losses: QB Brock Osweiler, WR Gerell Robinson, WR Aaron Pflugrad, C Garth Gerhart, DE Jamaar Jarrett, DT Bo Moos, LB Colin Parker, LB Shelly Lyons, LB Vontaze Burfict, FS Clint Floyd, SS Eddie Elder

With a 6-2 record going into November, all signs seemed to point toward the Sun Devils clinching the Pac-12 South and earning a spot in the conference title game. What a difference a month can make. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, Arizona State lost its last four regular season games and was crushed 56-24 by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The collapse cost coach Dennis Erickson his job, with Todd Graham coming over from Pittsburgh to replace him.

Graham wants to run an up-tempo offense, but was dealt a blow when quarterback Brock Osweiler declared for the NFL Draft. Sophomores Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank will battle to replace Osweiler this spring. With an untested quarterback stepping in, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on running back Cameron Marshall next season. The backfield will also get a boost with the return of Deantre Lewis, who missed all of 2011 due to injury. Although the Sun Devils have one of the Pac-12’s top running back combinations, the offense line returns only two starters.

Just like the offense, the defense is going to be dealing with some significant personnel losses in 2012. The defensive line must replace key contributors Jamaar Jarrett and Bo Moos, while Vontaze Burfict, Oliver Aaron, Colin Parker and Shelly Lyons all depart at linebacker. Brandon Magee missed 2011 due to injury and figures to step in as one of the leaders in the linebacking corps for 2012. The secondary was hit hard by injuries last year, but could be the strength of this unit next season.

6. Colorado Buffaloes (5 home, 4 road)

Key Returnees: WR Paul Richardson, LT David Bakhtiari, DE Will Pericak, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, LB Doug Rippy, LB Jon Major, CB Greg Henderson, S Ray Polk

Key Losses: QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Toney Clemons, OG Ryan Miller, OG Ethan Adkins, DL/LB Josh Hartigan

Jon Embree knew he had a lot of work to do when he took over this job and 2012 is likely to be another struggle in the win column for the Buffaloes. Colorado closed out 2011 by winning two out of its final three games, including a 17-14 victory over Utah, which knocked the Utes out of the Pac-12 title game.

Although Embree and his staff did a good job keeping the Buffaloes on track despite a 1-9 start, the bigger test will start in 2012. The offense will be replacing its best two players in quarterback Tyler Hansen and running back Rodney Stewart. Nick Hirschman was expected to push Texas transfer Connor Wood for the starting quarterback job this offseason, but he will miss spring practice due to a foot injury. Replacing Stewart looks to be a wide-open battle, as Tony Jones, Josh Ford and Malcolm Creer all received carries in 2011. Left tackle David Bakhtiari could be one of the top linemen in the Pac-12 next year, but the line has to replace guards Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller. Paul Richardson should be one of the top receivers in the Pac-12 next year, but needs Hirschman or Wood to quickly settle into the starting role.

The Buffaloes finished 2011 ranked 100th or worse in total and scoring defense, while ranking eighth in the Pac-12 against the pass. Needless to say, this side of the ball has some work to do in 2012. There are pieces to build around, especially in the front seven, where Will Pericak and Chidera Uzo-Diribe will anchor the defensive line. Linebackers Doug Rippy and Jon Major could contend for all-conference honors next season. The secondary will return mostly intact, which includes the return of Greg Henderson, a freshman who started 12 games.

2012 Pac-12 Championship Game: USC vs. Oregon

Washington's offseason coaching staff moves have helped to close the gap on Oregon, but the Ducks are still the team to beat in the North next season. USC and Oregon will meet during the regular season in Los Angeles and should meet a second time in the Coliseum for the conference title game. Expect this to be a high-scoring affair, but the Trojans get the early edge, especially with a potential trip to the national title on the line. 

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early Big Ten 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions

Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Pac-12 for 2012.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /nfl/afc-nfc-championship-game-previews

A quick preview of both the AFC and NFC Championship Games, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:

Ravens (13-4) at Patriots (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 3:00 pm ET, CBS

Many thought Mr. Gisele Bundchen had gone Hollywood. After all, Tom Brady hasn’t won a Super Bowl ring since after the 2004 season. But Touchdown Tom has never looked better — or more focused — than he did during his record-breaking performance in a 45–10 blowout of the Broncos. Brady completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 363 yards, six TDs and one INT.

This is Brady’s team. Athletic tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are dangerous weapons, slot receiver Wes Welker is a first-down maker and the running back by committee is effective. But the Patriots begin and end with Brady, who carries a 15–5 career record in the playoffs with a 3–1 mark on Super Sunday.

Brady has struggled against the Ravens recently, however, posting season-low passer ratings against Baltimore in each of the last two seasons — throwing one TD and two INTs for a 69.5 rating in a 23–20 Week 6 win last year, while tossing two TDs and three INTs for a 49.1 rating in a 33–14 defeat in the Divisional Round of the playoffs following the 2009 season.

On the other side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco may have been joking when he said, “If we win, I’ll have nothing to do with why we won,” but there is some truth to that statement. The Fu Manchu mustache-wearing signal-caller rarely gets credit for wins but almost exclusively takes blame for Baltimore losses. In the Ravens’ 13 wins, Flacco has thrown 17 TDs and six INTs; in their four losses, he has five TDs and six INTs. Obviously, Flacco must play well in New England.

But the real focus will be on Baltimore’s defense, which is led by future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, as well as current All-Pros in edge-rusher Terrell Suggs and run-stuffer Haloti Ngata. If coach John Harbaugh’s strongest side of the ball is unable to slow down New England’s potent passing attack and, namely, Brady, then the Ravens have no chance to beat the Patriots.

Running back Ray Rice is the X-factor. If the defense can force FGs and turnovers, the offense must be able to control the clock with Rice.

New England coach Bill Belichick has been putting band-aids on his defense’s secondary all season, mixing and matching personnel based on the situation. The Pats’ pass rush doesn’t have to necessarily sack Flacco, but pocket-collapsing nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Co. cannot give him time to find home run hitter Torrey Smith or physical veteran Anquan Boldin downfield.

Patriots by 7

Giants (11-7) at 49ers (14-3)
Sunday, Jan. 22, 6:30 pm ET, FOX

New York’s playoff formula has mirrored the one that the G-Men used en route to winning Super Bowl XLII just four seasons ago. The potent combination of Eli Manning on offense and a devastating Big Blue Wrecking Crew front four on defense has been the secret to success and will continue to be.

Manning has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 607 yards, six TDs and only one INT in wins over the Falcons and Packers. His go-to guy during that stretch has been Hakeem Nicks, who has hauled in 13 catches for 280 yards (21.5 ypc) and four TDs — including a momentum-shifting jump ball as time expired on the first half in the upset at Lambeau Field. Manning-to-Nicks (or breakout wideout Victor Cruz) will need to continue their tear in San Francisco.

The No. 1 overall pick the year after Manning, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a statement performance in a win over the Saints. Even so, Smith must avoid doing too much and continue to protect the ball.

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s club made it this far with a blue-collar approach — bludgeoning opponents with running back Frank Gore on offense and suffocating teams with a hard-hitting defense led by All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis and end Justin Smith. San Fran’s stop-unit ranked No. 1 against the run (77.2 ypg), No. 2 in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) and No. 4 in total defense (308.2 ypg) during the regular season. Until giving up 32 points to the Saints in the Divisional Round, the Niners had not allowed more than 27 points this season; only four teams hit the 20-point mark against the 49ers, who are 14–3 overall and 8–1 at home under Harbaugh.

A low-scoring game favors San Francisco. But big plays — like the ones tight end Vernon Davis provided vs. New Orleans — must come from somewhere in order to keep up with the explosive Giants.

Since Week 16, New York is 4–0 with an offense averaging 30.3 points and a defense that is allowing just 12.5 points in must-win games over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. If terrorizing pass-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are able to pressure Smith into making costly mistakes, Big Blue could make a big splash in the Bay.

The 49ers beat the Giants, 27–20, in Week 10. That game went down to the final seconds, as Manning’s fourth-down pass from the 10-yard-line was batted down by Smith. The rematch could be just as close.

Giants by 1

Last week: 2-2 // Season: 179-85

<p> A preview of the Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and the New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, plus the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 16:03
Path: /college-football/very-early-2012-big-ten-predictions

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 Big Ten Predictions

Leaders Division

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Key Returnees: QB Braxton Miller, RB Jordan Hall, RB Jamaal Berry, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Corey Brown, TE Jake Stoneburner, OL Jack Mewhort, OL Andrew Norwell, DT John Simon, DL Jonathan Hankins, LB Storm Klein, LB Ryan Shazier, DB Christian Bryant, DB Bradley Roby, DB C.J. Barnett, K Drew Basil

Key Losses: RB Boom Herron, WR DeVier Posey,  OL J.B. Shugarts, OL Michael Brewster, OL Mike Adams, LB Andrew Sweat, DB Tyler Moeller

The Ohio State Buckeyes should not only be the class of the Leaders Division but might finish with the best overall record in the conference in 2012. Unfortunately for Scarlet and Gray faithful — and new head coach and immediate cult hero Urban Meyer — tOSU cannot play for the Big Ten Championship or in a bowl game. But that does not mean that the Bucks won't ruin a few seasons along the way.

The non-conference slate is highlighted by a visit from Cal, and Ohio State will have to visit Michigan State and host Nebraska in a tough cross-over schedule. With Michigan visiting the Horseshoe in the finale, OSU has the chance to knock off what should be the other three top teams in the league.

With the entire defense returning largely intact and Braxton Miller looking to take another big step in his already stellar development, Meyer has the makings of a championship squad in 2013. And with the way he is burning down the recruiting trail in Columbus right now, things are only getting better on the Banks of the Olentangy's.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

Key Returnees: RB Montee Ball, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OL Ricky Wagner, OL Travis Frederick, DL Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, DB Shelton Johnson

Key Losses: QB Russell Wilson, WR Nick Toon, OT Josh Oglesby, OG Kevin Zeitler, OC Peter Konz, FB Bradie Ewing, CB Antonio Fenelus, S Aaron Henry, K Philip Welch, P Brad Nortman,

The Badgers were two passes away from a magical season in Madison. But it wasn't to be and they lost their second straight Rose Bowl. What's worse, is losing the star quarterback-receiver duo and three-fifths of a stellar offensive line heading into 2012. Rebuilding the offense will be no easy task, however, Montee Ball, James White, Jacob Pedersen and Jared Abbrederis offer whoever the new quarterback is plenty of offensive weaponery. Replacing offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is the head coach at Pitt now, however, might be the biggest issue facing this team.

The non-conference schedule is easy as usual with the possible exception of a trip to Corvallis, Ore., to face the Beavers. Facing Nebraska in Lincoln and hosting Michigan State won't be easy tests in cross-divisional play either. They also will get Ohio State at home in the penultimate contest of the season.

This team has a chance, by default, to land in its second straight Big Ten title game, but will have to do so with its defense. A solid front seven, led by the Big Ten's top two returning tacklers Chris Borland (143 tackles, the Original Honey Badger) and Mike Taylor (150 tackles), will be the strength of this entire team. If Bret Bilema can fill major holes on his coaching staff — Matt Canada was hired as the new OC — then UW has a chance to reach the title game once again.

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

Key Returnees: RB Silas Redd, WR Justin Brown, WR Devon Smith, DL Jordan Hill, DL Sean Stanley, LB Glenn Carson, LB Gerald Hodges, K/P Anthony Fera

Key Losses: WR Derek Moye, WR Chaz Powell, OL Johnnie Troutman, OL Quinn Barham, DL Jack Crawford, DL Devon Still, DL Chima Okoli, LB Nathan Stupar, DB Drew Astorino, DB D'Anton Lynn

Where should we begin? First, Joe Paterno will not be roaming the sidelines at Beaver Stadium for the first time since 1950. And Bill O'Brien cannot devote his full attention to recruiting until the Patriots finish up their little romp through the NFL playoffs. But at least this football team can move forward and will do so in true Nittany Lion fashion: By running the football on offense and playing stout defense.

The biggest issue facing this team is still at quarterback, but all three may be in jeopardy of missing time in 2012. Robert Bolden could transfer out, Matt McGloin was involved in a locker room fight and Paul Jones has academic issues. If this position can be solidfied under new offensive guru O'Brien, and the holes along the defensive line can be filled, this team could push the Badgers for a bid in the title game.

While reaching the Big Ten title game certainly isn't out of the question, 2012 will more than likely be a year of transition and struggles. Recruiting has obviously taken a big hit amidst the worst scandal in college football history. The schedule includes a trip to a feisty Virginia squad and crossover opponents Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern. And the holes at QB and along the D-Line make it tough to pick Penn State over Wisconsin — even with the Badgers visiting Happy Valley in the season finale.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Key Returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, WR Spencer Harris, WR Ryan Lankford, OL Graham Pocic, DL Akeem Spence, DL Michael Buchanan, DL Glenn Foster, DL Justin Staples, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Houston Bates, DB Justin Green, DB Terry Hawthorne, DB Steve Hull, DB Supo Sanni, P Justin DuVernois

Key Losses: WR A.J. Jenkins, OT Jeff Allen, OL Jack Cornell, RB Jason Ford, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, S Trulon Henry, K Derek Dimke

There was a lot of positive momentum for Illinois in 2011. And six weeks into the season, the unbeaten Fighting Illini had apparently proven that the preseason hype was warranted. However, Ron Zook's squad lost six straight games to finish the season and former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman is now the head coach in Champaign-Urbana.

Beckman has some nice pieces to work with on offense despite the loss of Jason Ford and A.J. Jenkins. Nathan Scheelhaase needs to get back to 2010 form and the offensive line needs to fill holes left by Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell. But Beckman's Rockets posted big numbers in the MAC and Scheelhaase has all of the tools needed to be successful.

Losing the NCAA sack leader (Mercilus) will hurt, but the defense is young, talented and deep at nearly every position. Look for this unit to lead the team early against a brutal first half of the season. Illinois will play at Arizona State, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan before the bye week in Week 8.

5. Purdue Boilermakers

Key Returnees: QB Caleb TerBush, RB Akeem Shavers, RB Ralph Bolden, WR Antavian Edison, WR O.J. Ross, WR, Gary Bush, WR Raheem Mostert, OL Jesse Schmitt, OL Rick Schmieg, DL Kawann Short, DL Bruce Gaston, DL Ryan Russell, LB Dwayne Beckford, LB Will Lucas, CB Ricardo Allen, DB Josh Johnson, DB Max Charlot, P Cody Webster

Key Losses: OL Ken Plue, OL Dennis Kelly, OL Nick Mondek, OL Kevin Ballinger, DL Adam Brockman, DL Gerald Gooden, LB Chris Carlino, DB Joe Holland, DB Albert Evans, DB Logan Link, K Caron Wiggs

There will be a weird vibe eminating from West Lafayette this off-season. Purdue won its first bowl game since 2007 but most fans are treading water on Danny Hope's future as the head coach. He returns Caleb TurBush at quarterback and a collection of talented offensive skill names. If the reworked offensive line can hold up, this offense as a chance to be better than it has been in years.

On defense, Ricardo Allen returns to lead a secondary that has experience but ranked 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense. The front four also needs to show improvement as they ranked 9th in the Big Ten in rushing defense and 77th nationally in getting to the opposing quarterbacks. However, the top three sack masters return to the roster and three of the top four tacklers return as well. This unit needs to show improvement across the board if it expects to sneak into the Leaders Division race that appears to be wide open at this stage.

6. Indiana Hoosiers

Key Returnees: QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, LB Mark Murphy, DB Lawrence Barnett, DB Greg Heban, KR Shane Wynn, K Mitch Ewald, P Adam Pines

Key Losses: WR Damarlo Belcher, LB Jeff Thomas, LB Leon Beckum

No one named Kiel will be under center as Kevin Wilson missed out on Gunner and has watched Dusty transfer. However, Tre Roberson added a spark to the Hoosiers offense in the second half of 2011. He rushed for 72.8 yards per game over the last five contests and took one of the worst rushing offenses in the league (118.8 ypg) to a team rolling up over 160 yards per game. With Stephen Houston back at tailback, expect Wilson to lean on his running game all season long.

On defense, two of the top four tacklers are gone as the linebacking corp will need to be reworked. The secondary returns plenty of talent but the bottom line, the worst rushing, total, scoring and pass efficiency defense needs to improve in all facets if the Hoosiers are going to return to the postseason since 2007 — its only bowl trip since 1993.

Legends Division

1. Michigan Wolverines

Key Returnees: QB Denard Robinson, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, WR Jeremy Gallon, OL Taylor Lewan, DL Craig Roh, LB Kenny Demens, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, DB Thomas Gordon, S Jordan Kovacs, DB J.T. Floyd, K Brendan Gibbons

Key Losses: WR Junior Hemingway, OC David Molk, DT Mike Martin, DL Ryan Van Bergen, CB Troy Woolfolk,

All signs are go in Ann Arbor in 2012. This team will likely be the preseason favorite to win the conference as Brady Hoke returns the most electric and atheltic quarterback in the nation in Denard Robinson. And he will have plenty to work with as emerging star Fitzgerald Toussaint also returns to carry the load. The offensive line and receiving corps should be plenty capable of leading this team to a Big Ten title.

The only issues will come along the defensive line, where the Wolverines must replace three starters including all-everything Mike Martin. With the back-seven returning largely intact and still relatively young, Greg Mattison's defense should maintain status quo in 2012.

If all things fall into place, the Maize and Blue should be thinking not only Big Ten title but National Championship heading into next fall. However, those dreams could be shattered right out of the gate as Week 1 features a huge test against the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. If they somehow get past Bama, a trip to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State still loom with home tests against rivals Michigan State and Iowa sprinkled in. Make no mistake, however, Shoelace has this team thinking South Beach.

2. Michigan State Spartans

Key Returnees: RB Le'Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, OL Chris McDonald, DE Williams Gholston, DL Marcus Rush, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, LB Denicos Allen, DB Isaiah Lewis, DB Darqueze Dennard, DB Johnny Adams, K Dan Conroy, P Mike Sadler

Key Losses: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, WR Keshawn Martin, OL Joel Foreman, DT Jerel Worthy, DL Kevin Pickelman, S Trenton Robinson

The biggest question heading into 2011 for Michigan State was its offensive line. There will be no such problem for the Spartans heading into 2012 as the front line on offense should be the strength of the team. This time, however, it has to find a replacement for the school's all-time touchdown king and unquestioned leader in quarterback Kirk Cousins as well as the school's all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham. With a talented backfield and strong front line, it should be easier for Mark Dantonio to break in a new quarterback.

On defense, losing Jerel Worthy hurts but William Gholston and a stacked group of front seven defenders give this team a chance to contend for the third year in a row. The defense, as is the case under most Dantonio teams, will be stellar, but will be tested early.  The season opener features Boise State and Week 3 provides a visit from Notre Dame. While neither are expected to be elite squads, the non-conference slate will clearly set the tone for Sparty in 2012.

Michigan State also gets no favors in its cross-over schedule. It has to face Ohio State at home and travels to Madison to take on Bucky.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Key Returnees: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Kenny Bell, TE Ben Cotton, OL Spencer Long, DL Cameron Meredith, DL Baker Steinkuhler, LB Will Compton,  DB Daimion Stafford, K/P Brett Maher,

Key Losses: OL Marcel Jones, OL Mike Caputo, OL Marcel Jones, DE Jared Crick, LB LaVonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DB Austin Cassidy

Once again the Nebraska Cornhuskers' upside will hang on quarterback Taylor Martinez's shoulders. With superstar tailback Rex Burkhead back to take the pressure off Martinez, the third-year starter's ability to develop into an efficient passer will determine if Nebraska loses four games for the fourth straight year under Bo Pelini or if the Big Red can challenge the state of Michigan for Big Ten supremacy.

The defense loses its three biggest stars from each level of the unit but will return with plenty of depth and a new face calling the plays. Longtime Pelini understudy John Papuchis will be charged with improving a run defense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten a year ago. If the front seven can return to its 2009 form, Nebraska could contend for a conference title.

Magnifying all of the question marks for the Huskers is a brutal cross-over schedule that includes a visit from Wisconsin and a trip to Ohio State in the first two conference games of the year. Later, Penn State will visit Lincoln, meaning NU will face the top three teams in the Leaders once again in 2012.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

Key Returnees: QB James Vanderberg, WR Keenan Davis, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, OL James Ferentz, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, DB Tanner Allen, DB Micah Hyde, K Mike Meyer

Key Losses: WR Marvin McNutt, RB Marcus Coker, OL Riley Reiff, OL Markus Zusevics, DL Mike Daniels, DL Broderick Binns LB, Tyler Nielsen, CB Shaun Prater

In a league loaded with elite level dual-threat quarterbacks, James Vandenberg is easily the top returning pure passer in the Big Ten. Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz will have to replace the loss of record-setting wideout Marvin McNutt and troubled tailback Marcus Coker. Even with those losses, this offense has a chance to be solid if the offensive line can develop. The Hawkeyes struggled mightily to run the football or protect the quarterback in 2011, so improvement in this area will be imperative for head coach Kirk and starting center James Ferentz.

On the defensive side of the ball, Ferentz has no trouble developing linebackers and this should be the strength of the unit again. Filling holes along the defensive line in the a league that features more power rushing attacks than any other league will be key. The Hawkeyes will also have a new defensive coordinator, as veteran Norm Parker decided to retire following the 2011 season.

The rivalry game against Iowa State is always tight and has the added motivation of revenge in 2012. The cross-over schedule gives reason for optimism, however, as Iowa misses both Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Hawks face Purdue, Indiana and Penn State from the Leaders.

5. Northwestern Wildcats

Key Returnees: QB Kain Colter, RB Treyvon Green, WR Demetrius Fields, OL Brian Mulroe, LB Damien Proby, LB David Nwabuisi, DB Ibraheim Campbell, K Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams

Key Losses: QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, OL Al Netter, DE Vince Browne, DB Jordan Mabin, DB Brian Peters

The Dan Persa era is officially over and the Kain Colter era has officially begun — at least, under center. Colter, who has excelled as a receiver will be given the reins to one of the more quarterback-friendly offenses in the nation. Not having Jeremy Ebert or Drake Dunsmore to throw to will be an issue Pat Fitzgerald will need to address in spring ball, but the offense should once again over achieve in 2012.

As a former linebacker, Coach Fitz always seems to find quality talent to play his former position and Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Ibraheim Campbell have as much potential as any group on the league. Filling a few holes in the secondary will be important.

The non-conference schedule offers some intriuging tests as the Wildcats will face three BCS conference teams in Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. But missing Wisconsin and Ohio State in cross-over play helps as Northwestern gets Indiana, Illinois and Penn State from the Leaders.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Key Returnees: QB MarQueis Gray, RB Donnell Kirkwood, DL D.L. Wilhite, DL Ra'Shede Hageman, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper, DB Brock Vereen, DB Kyle Henderson

Key Losses: RB Duane Bennett, WR Da'Jon McKnight, WR Brandon Green, TE Eric Lair, OL Chris Bunders, LB Gary Tinsley, S Kim Royston, DB Christyn Lewis

After years of longing for his superb physical talent to bubble to the surface — and changing positions — quarterback MarQueis Gray is poised for a huge season. He rushed for 966 yards and six scores and capped his junior season with back-to-back 160+ yards games — including a second Big Ten win over Illinois. Jerry Kill needs to fill some holes on the offense but has his leader at quarterback and appears to have put his stamp on the program by the way his team competed at the end of 2011.

Defensively, this team will return plenty of experience throughout the defense as three of the top four sack masters and four of the top six tacklers return to action. If this group can build on its stellar defensive finale against Illinois, in which it allowed a season-low 78 yards passing and seven total points, the Gophers might be able the pull the upset. It also posted its best defensive conference performance against the run as Illinois rushed 32 times for 82 yards.

2012 Big Ten Championship Game: Michigan vs. Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Badgers return to the Big Ten title game, but do so by default. Ohio State will finish with the best record in the Leaders but the nod will go to a slightly better than average UW team. Michigan, meanwhile, will ride its senior quarterback to the big game and handle the overmatched Badgers with relative ease.

Related 2012 Content:

Very Early Big East 2012 Preseason Predictions
Very Early Big 12 2012 Preseason Predictions

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Big Ten Conference for 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Indianapolis Colts, News
Path: /news/11-candidates-replace-jim-caldwell-colts-coach

by Mark Ross

Regardless of whether either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck or both will be on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster next season, this much is clear — the head coach won’t be Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was fired earlier today, joining former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, who was general manager, as a casualty of a disastrous 2-14 season.

Overall, Caldwell was 26-22 in three seasons as the Colts’ head coach, taking over the reigns when Tony Dungy retired in January 2009, but a winning record and 10 years with the team wasn’t enough to save his job. Owner Jim Irsay hired Ryan Grigson to be the new general manager last week, and just as may be the case at quarterback, the Colts will be under new leadership next season.

So just who will be calling the shots for the Colts next year? Here are some names to consider:

Pete Carmichael, New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator — long-time assistant coach with offensive pedigree, Carmichael’s spent the last six seasons working with Drew Brees. That alone makes him a solid candidate to either direct Manning’s comeback attempt or tutor the Colts’ next franchise quarterback, presumably Luck.

Clyde Christensen, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator — with the departure of Caldwell, who began his tenure with the Colts as quarterbacks coach in 2002, Christensen is one of the longest tenured coaches remaining on staff and the one who knows the offense the best. With the questions surrounding the quarterback position, Irsay could turn to Christensen for continuity, or he could be looking to wipe the slate clean and go in a completely different direction.

Tom Clements, Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach — like Carmichael, Clements has spent the past six seasons working with two elite quarterbacks of his own, first Brett Favre and currently, Aaron Rodgers. Clements also spent two seasons (2004-05) as the Bills’ offensive coordinator, so the “jump” to head coach wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

Bill Cowher, current CBS Sports commentator — Cowher’s name has been mentioned with other openings and every time he has publicly stated he’s content in his current working situation. Still, until he shuts the door completely, you have to at least throw his name out there, don’t you?

Jack Del Rio, former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach — Del Rio is certainly familiar with the division and the Colts’ roster, and if anything, he would bring a lot more “personality” to the sideline than Caldwell ever displayed.

Tony Dungy, current NBC Sports commentator — I know, I know – been there, done that. But if you’re Irsay, don’t you at least have to reach out to Dungy to see if there’s any interest in a second tour of duty? I don’t think Colts fans would mind if he did.

Jon Gruden, ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst — like Cowher, Gruden has expressed in the past he’s happy in his current situation. However, “Chucky” also has professed in the past his respect and admiration for Manning, and to a degree, Luck, so would this be the opportunity to lure him back to the sidelines?

Hue Jackson, former Oakland Raiders head coach — offensive-minded and highly respected, many think Jackson got a raw deal in Oakland. Would Irsay be willing to give him a second chance?

Mike McCoy, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator — one of the hot names in the NFL coaching search circles these days thanks to his work with Tim Tebow. How curious is Irsay in seeing what McCoy could do with Manning and/or Luck, both of which are more “polished” passers.

Marty Mornhinweg, offensive coordinator Philadelphia Eagles — former Lions head coach, Mornhinweg also has ties to new Colts GM Grigson, who came from the Eagles organization. Could second time be the charm?

Jim Tressel, Indianapolis Colts consultant — Tressel may seem like the longest shot on the list, but with Irsay calling the shots, I don’t think you can rule it out. He has head coaching experience, albeit on the college level, but really it comes down to one thing. Who doesn’t want to see the sweater vest (Ditka anyone?) return to the NFL? 

<p> Regardless of whether either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck or both will be on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster next season, this much is clear — the head coach won’t be Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was fired earlier today, joining former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, who was general manager, as a casualty of a disastrous 2-14 season</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 14:37
Path: /news/tattoo-tim-tebow-tebowing-teberrible

So, it's happened. Someone finally got a tattoo of Tim Tebow Tebowing. With an oversized Bronco riding over a Denver sky to boot. 

Aside from the minor issue that the Tim in this tattoo isn't properly Tebowing--his fist should be on his forehead--can we just say that it's probably not a very good idea to get a tattoo of a trend or fad.

I have a hard enough time buying a jersey of a relatively young player I like, for fear that his next season will be a dud and I will have blown $150 on someone I will hate in a year (I'm looking at you Curtis Enis). But to go full tattoo on a player who is pretty close to statistically the worst quarterback in history is a level of either stupidity or faith that is unprecedented.

What happens if Tebow plays like he plays this year, but his defense and kicker doesn't bail him out of games. What happens if Tebow goes 3-13? What good is a tattoo of a quarterback if he's benched mid-season? I can take off that Curtis Enis jersey. But you can't really take off a tattoo that covers 30% of your back.

Let this be a lesson, kids. If you're going to go through with getting a tattoo, make sure it's of a guy who's already reached legend status.

<p> This tattoo is probably going to be a bad idea a year from now</p>
Post date: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 10:28