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By Mitch Light
Champs Sports Bowl — Florida State vs. Notre Dame
These two tradition-rich programs were among the bigger disappointments in 2011. Florida State had significant injuries (most notably to quarterback E.J. Manuel), while Notre Dame’s biggest issue was its inability to protect the football. The Irish ranked 116th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.08 per game).
Notre Dame 31, Florida State 30
Alamo Bowl — Washington vs. Baylor
This figures to be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. Both quarterbacks — Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Washington’s Keith Price — are very talented and both defenses are suspect.
Baylor 41, Washington 34
Armed Forces Bowl — BYU vs. Tulsa
BYU won nine games but only beat one team (Utah State) that currently has a winning record. All of Tulsa’s four losses came to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at one point — Oklahoma, O-State, Boise State, Houston.
Tulsa 30, BYU 20
Pinstripe Bowl — Rutgers vs. Iowa State
Iowa State is the only team in the nation that played 11 BCS conference teams in the regular season. The Cyclones went 5–6 in those 11 games, with two of the wins coming in overtime, vs. Iowa and Oklahoma State.
Rutgers 24, Iowa State 20
Music City Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
Insight Bowl — Iowa vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will be coaching against his alma mater for the first time. His team will be more talented; just not sure how motivated the Sooners will be after their late-season struggles.
Oklahoma 28, Iowa 24
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas — Texas A&M vs. Northwestern
Texas A&M is likely the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. The Aggies lost two games in OT and three others by three points or less. Northwestern can be dangerous on offense, but the Cats’ defense will have problems with the A&M attack.
Texas A&M 38, Northwestern 24
Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech vs. Utah
Georgia Tech is 0–3 in bowl games under Paul Johnson and has scored a total of 24 points in those three losses. There’s pressure on the ’11 Jackets to prove that the option attack can be successful when the opponent has a month to prepare.
Georgia Tech 24, Utah 23
Liberty Bowl — Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati
This game features two of the most underrated tailbacks in the nation, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy (1,136 yards on an SEC-best 6.2-yard average) and Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead (1,110 yards).
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 23
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Illinois vs. UCLA
These two teams have a combined 13 losses and both head coaches have been fired. This is why some people believe there are too many bowls.
UCLA 24, Illinois 17
Chick-fil-A Bowl — Virginia vs. Auburn
Auburn will take the field without Gus Malzahn calling the plays for the first time since 2008. Maybe it’s not as big of a loss as we think: The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and currently rank 104th in the nation in total offense.
Virginia 21, Auburn 17
TicketCity Bowl — Houston vs. Penn State
Penn State has not played a Conference USA team since it hosted Southern Miss in November 2001. The Nittany Lions won that game, 38–20, and should win this one as well due to their outstanding play on defense.
Penn State 31, Houston 20
Capital One Bowl — Nebraska vs. South Carolina
South Carolina is flying under the national radar — pretty surprising for a Steve Spurrier team — but the Gamecocks have won 10 games and bring the nation’s fourth-ranked defense to Orlando. This should be an entertaining matchup.
South Carolina 17, Nebraska 13
Outback Bowl — Michigan State vs. Georgia
Georgia won 10 games this season, but has only defeated two teams with a winning record — Auburn (7–5) and Georgia Tech (8–4). Michigan State is known for its defense, but the Spartans averaged 38.6 points in their last five games.
Georgia 28, Michigan State 20
Gator Bowl — Florida vs. Ohio State
It’s the Urban Meyer Bowl. Florida (6–6 overall) needs to win this game to avoid its first losing season since 1979, when Charley Pell’s first Gator team went 0–10–1. Ohio State, also 6–6, hasn’t had a losing season since 1988.
Ohio State 20, Florida 16
GoDaddy.com Bowl — Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois
Times are good at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves went 8–0 in the Sun Belt Conference and somehow convinced Gus Malzahn to take over as the head coach after Hugh Freeze bolted for Ole Miss after one season.
Arkansas State 37, Northern Illinois 34
BBVA Compass Bowl — Pittsburgh vs. SMU
Times are tough at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are returning to the BBVA Compass Bowl — despite their objections — and they are doing so without a head coach. Todd Graham left after only one season to take over at Arizona State, forcing to Pitt to undergo its third coaching search in the past 12 months.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24
Cotton Bowl — Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Arkansas averaged 41.8 points in its 10 wins and 15.5 points in its two losses — at Alabama and at LSU, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. Kansas State ranks 74th in total defense and 71st in scoring defense.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 23
Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon
Two of the nation’s best and most-balanced offenses — both Wisconsin and Oregon average over 200 yards per game rushing and passing — will be on display at the Rose Bowl. This game features some serious star power, as well, with each team featuring an All-America-caliber running back (UW’s Montee Ball and UO’s LaMichael James) and dynamic playmakers at the quarterback position (Russell Wilson and Darron Thomas).
Oregon 34, Wisconsin 31
Sugar Bowl — Virginia Tech vs. Michigan
Brady Hoke did a tremendous job in his first season at Michigan. On the surface, a three-game improvement in the win column (both overall and in the league) is impressive, but when you dive into the numbers you really get an indication of how much better Michigan was in 2011. Last year, the Wolverines were outgained by an average of 1.4 yards per game in Big Ten play. In ’11, they were statistically dominant in the league, outgaining their opponents by an average of 130.7 yards per game. That is a staggering improvement in one season.
Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21
Orange Bowl — Clemson vs. West Virginia
Clemson, which won an ACC title for the first time since 1991, averaged 39.4 points in its 10 wins and 14.3 points in its four losses. The Tigers rebounded from a late-season swoon — they lost three of the final four regular-season games — and pounded Virginia Tech, 38–10, in the ACC Championship Game. This is an explosive offensive team that can be very difficult to stop once it gets rolling.
Clemson 38, West Virginia 20
Fiesta Bowl — Oklahoma State vs. Stanford
Oklahoma State will react in one of two ways: The Cowboys, feeling snubbed by the BCS, play with a chip on their shoulder to prove that they, not Alabama, deserved a shot at LSU in the national title game. Or, the Pokes, feeling jilted by the BCS, are lethargic and fail to recapture the magic that made them one of the most entertaining teams throughout the 2011 season. My guess: The former.
Oklahoma State 34, Stanford 27
BCS National Championship — LSU vs. Alabama
The two SEC West superpowers meet in a winner-take-all rematch for the national title. LSU won the first fight, 9–6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa, but the Tigers weren’t necessarily the better team. Yes, they won the game, but the better team doesn’t always win. Alabama hasn’t faced quite as difficult of a schedule as LSU, but the Crimson Tide’s numbers on defense are scary good; they are giving up less than 200 yards per game (60 yards fewer than the No. 2 team, LSU) and only 3.4 yards per play. The offense has been more than good enough to win every game that wasn’t against LSU and did a decent job moving the ball against the Tigers (295 total yards) in its only loss.
Alabama 20, LSU 17
‘Tis the season for year-end awards in the NFL. This year, there are more players deserving of recognition than trophies to hand out. These are the select few Athlon Sports believes to be award-worthy:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
There’s no need for a “Discount Double-Check” on this one; Rodgers has posted historically efficient and prolific stats — completing 68.3 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,643 yards, a career-best 45 TDs and a career-low six INTs for a 122.5 passer rating, which if maintained, would break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 121.1 in 2004. The Super Bowl XLV MVP has also led the Packers to a 14–1 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The leader of the Big Easy band has been putting on a show this year. With one more gig on the regular season schedule, Brees has already broken Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record — throwing for 5,087 yards, 41 TDs and 13 INTs.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
In just his second season, JPP has become one of the most-feared pass-rushers and playmakers in the NFL. The 6'5", 278-pound athletic freak has 81 tackles, 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one safety and one block of a potential game-winning field goal.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The Heisman Trophy-winning BCS national champion out of Auburn has taken the NFL by storm since going No. 1 overall in the draft — passing for 3,893 yards, 20 TDs and 16 INTs, and rushing for 674 yards and 14 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Denver edge-rusher Von Miller also deserves consideration. But Peterson takes the prize after posting 60 tackles, two INTs, one sack and an NFL record-tying four punt return TDs — including a walk-off game-winner.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
The oft-injured signal-caller threw for 4,518 yards, 36 TDs and 14 INTs, while leading the Lions to their first playoff berth since 1999 — starting 15 games, compared to the 13 starts he totaled over his first two seasons.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshake controversy and Thanksgiving loss to older bro, John, aside, Harbaugh’s first year with the 49ers has been solid gold. San Francisco is 12–3 this year — its first winning season since 2002.
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Athlon Sports predicted the Georgia Bulldogs would win the East in 2011, and we got absolutely hammered by South Carolina fans. We understood why. We were out on a limb. The Gamecocks were the reigning Eastern Division champs with the best running back in the nation and a stellar defensive line returning.
However, one major aspect of our Dawgs-to-Atlanta prediction was the schedule. Now, South Carolina didn’t have to play Alabama or LSU either in 2011, but Georgia didn’t have to make that trip to Fayetteville to play Arkansas. South Carolina did – and got housed, in effect, giving the SEC East to Mark Richt and Georgia in the process.
I don’t think much will change in 2012. The SEC released its first 14-team schedule in history this morning. With Missouri and Texas A&M adding more intrigue to what is already the most powerful conference in football, the announcement made for some anxious moments.
So what conclusions can we draw about the potential outcome of the 2012 season? Since the SEC will be going for its seventh straight BCS national championship, the schedules that were released today just might have a small impact on the national landscape next fall:
Related: Very Early 2012 Athlon Sports Top 25
Beasts of the…West?
As I mentioned, South Carolina and Georgia were the picks in the East in 2011 because neither had to face Alabama or LSU. With those two teams still likely atop the West once again in 2012 — and Arkansas an easy pick to be the top challenger to those two — who has the good fortune to miss all three? Georgia misses all three (again) with Auburn (Nov. 10) and Ole Miss (Nov. 3) as its crossover games. Ole Miss should be picked last, and Auburn is replacing both coordinators after a poor showing this season and should be picked no higher than fourth in the West. It will be hard to take the first-team All-SEC quarterback and his defending SEC East champion Bulldogs off the top slot in the 2012 preseason.
Vanderbilt also misses all three of the Western powers. The Dores, too, get Ole Miss (Nov. 10) and Auburn (Oct. 20) in the crossover contests, and that is why Athlon Sports preseason magazine could pick Vandy ahead of Tennessee in the East for the first time since 1976.
Can The Razorbacks Unseat the Champs?
Entering 2012, Alabama and LSU will have claimed three of the last five BCS National Championships. And the two national powers combined to defeat Arkansas by an average of 24 points in 2011. So can Tyler Wilson and Bobby Petrino wedge their way into the SEC West title race? Certainly, they will be the clear challenger to the Tigers and Tide — especially with Knile Davis returning from injury. But most importantly, the schedule sends both LSU and Alabama on the road to face Arkansas. The Hogs also get lowly Kentucky and South Carolina in their crossover games. All of their four road games are winnable considering how the Hogs played the last time they visited the Gamecocks: at Texas A&M (Sept. 29), Auburn (Oct. 6), South Carolina (Nov. 10) and Mississippi State (Nov. 17).
Where Hogs fans will be watching some of these games, however, is still yet to be determined. The LSU game has been played in Little Rock in the past, and the site of the season finale has yet to be deteremined. Arkansas will play five games in Fayetteville and two in Little Rock. Either way, the schedule sets up for 2012 to be the year Arkansas finally challenges the balance of power in the West.
South Carolina Will Not Win the East
The good news is that the Gamecocks get key divisional swing games against Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee at home. However, their crossover opponents are possibly the toughest in the entire conference: At LSU (Oct. 3) and Arkansas at home (Nov. 10). Additionally, trips to Florida and Vanderbilt won’t be easy either. With this schedule the Gamecocks cannot be considered the favorite to win the East in 2012. A trip to Kentucky (Oct. 29) is the only guaranteed win on the ’12 Gamecock schedule — though don't forget that South Carolina lost to UK in its last trip to Lexington.
Welcome to the SEC, Texas A&M
Texas A&M averaged 39.3 points in conference play in 2011 with big wins over Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor. They scored 50 in a loss to Kansas State and 31 in an overtime loss to Missouri. Anyone think Kevin Sumlin is excited about having to face Florida and Arkansas to start SEC play? Or how about three consecutive road games on three consecutive weekends against Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama with a home test against LSU as the appetizer to the road trip? This is probably the toughest SEC schedule of any of the 14 teams. Best of luck, Aggies.
Missouri’s Split Stats
The Tigers, much like the Aggies, didn’t get any favors either. But at least Mike Slive gave Truman the Tiger a chance to be competitive. At least, early on. Four of the first five SEC games in Mizzou history will be played at home, with a visit to South Carolina (Sept. 22) the only road test before November. In fact, Gary Pinkel was given a great opportunity to make an early statement and swing the balance of power in the East with division favorite Georgia coming to Missouri to start the SEC Era in Columbia. You can bet that atmosphere will be electric.
However, the Tigers’ maiden voyage through SEC play will finish with three of the toughest venues in all of college football: At Florida (Nov. 3), at Tennessee (Nov. 10) and at Texas A&M (Nov. 24). None should be picked to challenge for the league title, but all three have massive home-field advantages — unlike most stadiums the Tigers are accustomed to in the Big 12. Dealing with 100,000-seat atmospheres after slugging it out in the SEC for the first time could prove extremely difficult.
Alabama Gets No Road Favors
If you are trying to pick out the subtle difference between LSU and Alabama — and who to pick to win the West next year — look no further than the road games for the Tide. The road slate for Alabama is brutal. The SEC opener at Arkansas (Sept. 15) will seriously test a revamped Nick Saban defense. Trips to Missouri (Oct. 13) and Tennessee (Oct. 20) will also feature two of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. And then there is that little visit to the Bayou and LSU late in the year (Nov. 3). Alabama’s totally reworked defense (which is still loaded with elite talent) and a Trent Richardson-less offense will have to defeat three of the top five teams in the league on the road if it expects a return trip to the BCS title game. The only comfort is a relatively easy slate of home action. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn all visit the Capstone and all will be picked fourth or worse in the West.
Colonel Reb Is Crying
How about this for a road slate in 2012 for Ole Miss: At Alabama (Sept. 29), at Arkansas (Oct. 27), at Georgia (Nov. 3) and at LSU (Nov. 17). In case you missed it, those are likely to be the best four teams in the conference in 2012. Well, at least they have never lost a party in The Grove.
Ranking the SEC Schedules (from easiest to toughest):
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Face Ole Miss and Auburn in crossover and play only three true road games in weaker East.
2. Vanderbilt Commodores
Face Ole Miss and Auburn in crossover with Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee at home.
3. Mississippi State Bulldogs
LSU and Bama are losses anyway and both on the road, but five of other six are winnable games.
4. Arkansas Razorbacks
Plays managable road slate; gets Bama and LSU at home and Kentucky in crossover.
5. Missouri Tigers
Four of first five are at home with winnable road trips to Tennessee and Texas A&M.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
No LSU or Arkansas in crossover helps with Florida and Mizzou at home.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Brutal road slate – at LSU, Arkansas and Missouri — with a much easier home schedule.
8. Kentucky Wildcats
At Hogs and Mississippi State at home in crossover. Trips to Mizzou, Florida and Tennessee.
9. Florida Gators
At Texas A&M and LSU at home is tough crossover. But only three true road games
10. Auburn Tigers
Toughest games at home and trip to Bama. Winnable road games at Ole Miss, Vandy and Mississippi State.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
LSU (road) and Arkansas (home) in crossover, with trips to Florida and Vandy in division.
12. LSU Tigers
Florida (road) and South Carolina (home) is a tough crossover. Visits A&M, Auburn and Arkansas as well.
13. Ole Miss Rebels
Hmmm: At Bama, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at LSU?
14. Texas A&M Aggies
Will play five of the top seven teams in the league — and Auburn, Mississippi State.
2012 SEC Conference Schedules:
Sept. 15: at Arkansas
Sept. 29: OLE MISS
Oct. 13: at Missouri
Oct. 20: at Tennessee
Oct. 27: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Nov. 3: at LSU
Nov. 10: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 24: AUBURN
Sept. 15: ALABAMA
Sept. 29: vs. Texas A&M
Oct. 6: at Auburn
Oct. 13: KENTUCKY
Oct. 27: OLE MISS
Nov. 10: at South Carolina
Nov. 17: at Mississippi State
Nov. 24: LSU
Sept. 8: at Mississippi State
Sept. 22: LSU
Oct. 6: ARKANSAS
Oct. 13: at Ole Miss
Oct. 20: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 10: GEORGIA
Nov. 24: at Alabama
Sept. 8: at Texas A&M
Sept. 15: at Tennessee
Sept. 22: KENTUCKY
Oct. 6: LSU
Oct. 13: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 27: vs. Georgia (Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: MISSOURI
Sept. 8: at Missouri
Sept. 22: VANDERBILT
Sept. 29: TENNESSEE
Oct. 6: at South Carolina
Oct. 20: at Kentucky
Oct. 27: vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: OLE MISS
Nov. 10: at Auburn
Sept. 22: at Florida
Sept. 29: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 6: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 13: at Arkansas
Oct. 20: GEORGIA
Oct. 27: at Missouri
Nov. 3: VANDERBILT
Nov. 24: at Tennessee
Sept. 22: at Auburn
Oct. 6: at Florida
Oct. 13: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 20: at Texas A&M
Nov. 3: ALABAMA
Nov. 10: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Nov. 17: OLE MISS
Nov. 24: at Arkansas
Sept. 29: at Alabama
Oct. 6: TEXAS A&M
Oct. 13: AUBURN
Oct. 27: at Arkansas
Nov. 3: at Georgia
Nov. 10: VANDERBILT
Nov. 17: at LSU
Nov. 24: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 8: AUBURN
Oct. 6: at Kentucky
Oct. 13: TENNESSEE
Oct. 27: at Alabama
Nov. 3: TEXAS A&M
Nov. 10: at LSU
Nov. 17: ARKANSAS
Nov. 24: at Ole Miss
Sept. 8: GEORGIA
Sept. 22: at South Carolina
Oct. 6: VANDERBILT
Oct. 13: ALABAMA
Oct. 27: KENTUCKY
Nov. 3: at Florida
Nov. 10: at Tennessee
Nov. 24: at Texas A&M
Aug. 30: at Vanderbilt
Sept. 22: MISSOURI
Sept. 29: at Kentucky
Oct. 6: GEORGIA
Oct. 13: at LSU
Oct. 20: at Florida
Oct. 27: TENNESSEE
Nov. 10: ARKANSAS
Sept. 15: FLORIDA
Sept. 29: at Georgia
Oct. 13: at Mississippi State
Oct. 20: ALABAMA
Oct. 27: at South Carolina
Nov. 10: MISSOURI
Nov. 17: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 24: KENTUCKY
Sept. 8: FLORIDA
Sept. 29: vs. Arkansas
Oct. 6: at Ole Miss
Oct. 20: LSU
Oct. 27: at Auburn
Nov. 3: at Mississippi State
Nov. 10: at Alabama
Nov. 24: MISSOURI
Aug. 30: SOUTH CAROLINA
Sept. 22: at Georgia
Oct. 6: at Missouri
Oct. 13: FLORIDA
Oct. 20: AUBURN
Nov. 3: at Kentucky
Nov. 10: at Ole Miss
Nov. 17: TENNESSEE
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Champs Sports Bowl
Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)
Date: Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
In terms of name value, this bowl should be one of the most-anticipated non-BCS bowl matchups this season.
Notre Dame and Florida State both began the year with preseason top 10 hopes, but both teams struggled to meet expectations.
The Seminoles opened the year 2-0, but suffered a handful of key injuries in a 23-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. After losing to the Sooners, Florida State lost its next two games (Clemson and Wake Forest), before winning six out of the final seven contests.
With 16 starters returning and the second season under coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was expected to improve off its 8-5 record from 2009. The Irish seemed to have trouble getting out of their own way, especially early in the season. Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the season opener against South Florida and its defense collapsed in the final seconds of a 35-31 loss to Michigan. Although the Irish won eight out their next 10 games, the 0-2 start turned any BCS bowl hopes into a longshot.
These two teams have played six times, with Florida State owning a 4-2 edge in the series. The Seminoles and Irish met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with Florida State winning 31-26.
Considering both teams return most of its core next season, this game could be a springboard for another run at a top-10 finish in 2012.
WHEN FLORIDA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Injuries have affected the Seminoles’ offense in 2011, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior missed one game and was limited in others due to a shoulder injury suffered against Oklahoma. Manuel finished the year with 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns, but should be closer to 100 percent for the matchup against Notre Dame.
Not only has Manuel battled injuries most of the year, but his receiving corps has also been banged up. The injuries and youth prevented the Florida State passing attack from finding its rhythm most of the year. Freshman Rashad Greene leads the team with 33 receptions, while Rodney Smith ranks first with 527 receiving yards. Kenny Shaw, Bert Reed and Christian Green are all key contributors and each has at least 25 receptions this year. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another young weapon for Manuel, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked 34th nationally in pass defense, but much of their success on defense starts up front. The Irish averaged only 1.7 sacks a game, but there are a handful of potential gamechangers up front. Freshman Aaron Lynch finished second on the team with four sacks and also recorded one forced fumble. Linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the best in the college football and he collected 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles this year.
The Achilles’ heel for the Florida State offense this season has been the offensive line and rushing attack. The Seminoles ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense and averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. The offensive line also gave up 36 sacks – the worst total in the ACC.
Freshman Devonta Freeman leads the team with 531 yards and eight rushing scores. Jermaine Thomas ranked second on the team with 279 rushing yards, but has been ruled academically ineligible for this game. Freeman will see the bulk of the carries, but James Wilder and Ty Jones will also figure into the mix.
The Irish defense ranks 58th nationally against the run, but considering Florida State’s struggles in the trenches, they should be able to win this matchup.
Although the Seminoles don’t want to ignore their rushing game, they need to spread the field and take advantage of their speed and depth in the receiving corps.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL:
Just like Florida State, the Irish have dealt with question marks on offense for most of 2011.
Inconsistency at quarterback has prevented the Irish from finding their rhythm, as three players have taken snaps under center. Tommy Rees is expected to start the bowl game, but he was benched during the regular season finale at Stanford and tossed four picks over his final four games. Andrew Hendrix has thrown only 29 passes this season, but thanks to his mobility, gives Notre Dame’s offense a different look. Don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks see time.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have produced solid numbers this year. Floyd caught 95 yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert chipped in 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Cierre Wood became the first Irish back since Darius Walker in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns. With Jonas Gray out due to a torn ACL, receiver Theo Riddick may see more touches out of the backfield to spell Wood.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been solid all year, but it will be tested by Florida State’s defensive front. The Seminoles recorded 36 sacks this year, led by Brandon Jenkins (seven) and Bjoern Werner (six).
Considering the Irish’s struggles with turnovers, getting pressure on Rees or Hendrix is going to be crucial for Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles rank 19th nationally in pass defense, so passing opportunities for Rees will be limited.
Although Florida State is allowing only 81.8 yards per game on the ground, Notre Dame has to try to establish its rushing attack and limit the pressure on Rees.
The edge in this department goes to Florida State.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins was a Groza finalist after connecting on 20 of 25 field goals. He nailed 6 of 9 attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Shawn Powell was one of the best in the nation this year, averaging 47 yards per punt and placing 21 inside of the 20.
The Seminoles are in great shape on returns, as Greg Reid is averaging 11.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a touchdown. Reid, Karlos Williams and Lamarcus Joyner will see time on kickoffs, with each averaging over 24 yards per return.
Notre Dame isn’t as strong as Florida State on special teams, but this isn’t a complete weakness either.
Kicker David Ruffer has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year, while punter Ben Turk is averaging 40.2 yards per punt.
Freshman George Atkinson III has ignited the Irish kickoff returns this season, averaging 27.4 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Notre Dame has struggled to get anything going on punt returns, which could open the door for Michael Floyd to see more time in this department.
The defenses should control the tempo of this game, which should make points at a premium.
Although Florida State hasn’t been perfect in the turnover department, it has been better than Notre Dame. Expect the Seminoles’ defense to force a few turnovers, putting their offense in short-field situations.
Notre Dame’s edge in the front seven will harass EJ Manuel, but the Seminoles’ offense will do just enough to win.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 20
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 3:20 p.m. ET
Location: Yankee Stadium, New York City, N.Y.
The second annual Pinstripe Bowl will feature two teams that have never met on the college gridiron. Both Iowa State and Rutgers missed out on a postseason experience in 2010 but have returned to the bowl scene in 2011. Iowa State, who is 3-7 all-time in bowl games, beat Minnesota 14-13 in the 2009 Insight Bowl its last trip to a bowl while Rutgers topped UCF 45-23 in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl the last time the Knights went to the postseason. The Knights have won four straight bowl appearances and are 4-2 all-time — with five of those showing coming under current head coach Greg Schiano.
However, both teams enter the bowl season on the skids. The Cyclones lost its final two games of the regular season to Oklahoma and Kansas State after the monumental home upset of Oklahoma State. Rutgers, who will play its second game at Yankee Stadium this year, got inexplicably blown out by UConn 40-22 in the final regular season contest.
In the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, Syracuse topped Kansas State 36-34 in one of the most exciting (and unfortunate) games of the bowl season last winter. With two of the worst offenses in the postseason, last year’s offensive fireworks are highly unlikely.
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Steele Jantz began the season as a cult hero in Ames after a triple-overtime thriller over Iowa in which he threw four touchdowns. But in the process of another stellar win over UConn, Jantz sprained his foot and was never the same — turning the ball over five times in the next three games. With Jantz struggling, coach Paul Rhoads turned to redshirt freshman Jared Barnett. The dual-threat won his first three starts including the miracle upset of Oklahoma State in which he accounted for 376 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and three total touchdowns.
Barnett rushed for 348 yards in his five starts and brings the ability to move the ball on the ground as well as through the air. He is responsible for leading the two best offensive performances of the season for Iowa State (568 yards against Oklahoma State and 512 against Texas Tech). Combined with the team's leading rusher, James White (701 yards, 8 TD), the Cyclones will undoubtedly look to take advantage of the Big East’s worst rush defense. At over 180 yards per game on the ground, this is easily the strength of the Iowa State attack.
That said, Iowa State finished last in the Big 12 in passing efficiency and will have to complete passes against the Knights’ conference leading pass defense if it expects to win. Rutgers has allowed a stingy, Big East-best 18.8 points per game in 2011.
WHEN RUTGERS HAS THE BALL:
To say that running the football was a struggle for the Knights in 2011 would be an understatement. As a team, Rutgers rushed for five total yards or less on four different occasions this season and miraculously won two of those games. Schiano will turn to a number of players to attempt to improve on the -9 total yards rushing Rutgers posted in the season finale loss to UConn. The good news? Iowa State is ranked 100th nationally at over 195 yards allowed per game. Look for a heavy dose of Jawan Jamison, who rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts in the 20-3 win over Cincinnati on November 19.
While Rutgers has struggled on offense all season (and Iowa State the same on defense), one player who has proven his talent is Knights’ wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The physically superior star athlete finished sixth in the nation at over nine catches per game (109 for the season) and will be a nightmare match-up for any Cyclone. Look for whoever is under center, be it sophomore Chas Dodd or freshman Gary Nova, to get the ball to No. 6 early and often.
Neither team will have much of an advantage in the third phase of the game. Both struggle to return or cover punts while both teams are solid in the kickoff return game. Although, Iowa State may have a slight advantage when it lines up for field goals. Cyclone kicker Zach Guyer only missed 25% of his attempts (9 of 12 FGM) this season where Rutgers’ San San Te missed 10 field goal kicks (18 of 28 FGM).
Don’t expect a bunch of beautifully executed big plays on offense in this one. At least three quarterbacks figure to see the field and points should be a premium. This feels like a sloppy affair with Rutgers winning behind one big play from the best player on either team: Mohamed Sanu.
Rutgers 17, Iowa State 14
by Mark Ross
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Date: Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Former conference foes will meet up once again when BYU and Tulsa face off on Dec. 30 at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas. From 1996-99 the two schools were in the WAC together and this game represents the eighth time they will play each other.
BYU is finishing its first season as a FBS Independent and come into this game having won eight of its nine and have scored 41 points or more in its last three contests. Tulsa had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Houston in its final game of the regular season and during that streak averaged 42 points per game. So by all accounts, there should be plenty of offensive firepower on display, fittingly, at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.
This is the seventh straight year BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to a postseason appearance in his seven years at the helm. The Cougars are 4-2 in bowl games under Mendenhall, including last year’s 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This is the second straight bowl appearance for Tulsa, who defeated Hawaii 62-35 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane’s first under head coach Bill Blakenship, who took over the reigns from Todd Graham this season. Tulsa also has won the last three bowl games it has played in, averaging 56.6 points per game during this streak.
BYU comes into this game with one more win than Tulsa, but of the Cougars’ nine wins only one of them was against a team that is playing in a bowl. The Cougars went 1-3 against bowl teams this season, defeating Utah State (who is playing in the Potato Bowl), while losing to TCU (Poinsettia), Texas (Holiday), and Utah (Sun).
On the other hand, Tulsa played six bowl teams and went 2-4 against them with all four of their losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time — Boise State (playing in the Las Vegas Bowl), Houston (TicketCity), Oklahoma (Insight) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta). So at least on paper, Tulsa has played the much more difficult schedule.
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL:
BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Riley Nelson. Nelson, a junior, assumed the starting role from sophomore Jake Heaps halfway through the season and hasn’t relinquished it since. Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes on the season for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Nelson suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, forcing him to the following week’s game. He returned for the Cougars’ season finale against Hawaii and set career highs for pass attempts (37), completions (25) and yards (363) to go along with three touchdowns in BYU’s 41-20 win on the road.
Nelson appears healthy and primed to take advantage of a Tulsa defense that’s given up an average of 289.3 passing yards per game. That ranks the Golden Hurricane 118th out 120 FBS schools in the nation.
Overall, BYU’s offense is averaging 410.8 yards per game. Of that total, 165.8 yards per game are gained on the ground. The Cougars’ rushing attack is more of a committee with five different players having more than 200 yards on the season, including Nelson, who has rushed for 376 yards.
The leading rusher is senior running back J.J. Di Luigi who has 546 yards and three touchdowns. Di Luigi has combined with sophomore Michael Alisa to rush for 1,001 yards and six scores. Senior running back Brian Kariya leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Much like the ground game, the Cougars’ aerial attack is fairly balanced as well with nine different players having at least 11 receptions and 10 with at least one touchdown reception.
BYU’s leading pass catcher is sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 821 yards. Hoffman also has seven touchdowns, second to freshman wideout Ross Apo’s nine. Four different Cougar tight ends have caught touchdowns as well, further evidence of BYU’s tendency to spread the ball around.
The Cougars’ offensive line has done a good job of keeping the quarterback as they are tied for 25th in the country for fewest sacks allowed with just 14 on the season. The line will need to maintain this consistency against Tulsa’s defense, which is averaging two sacks per game, and especially since Nelson is just over a month removed from sustaining those lung and rib injuries.
Someone BYU’s offense should keep a close eye on is Tulsa linebacker Curnelius Arnick. The senior is a tackling machine as his 91 solo tackles were the third highest total in the nation and his 142 total stops were tied for fifth. Not surprisingly, Arnick was named first team All-Conference USA.
WHEN TULSA HAS THE BALL:
Tulsa has the 24th-ranked offense in the country when it comes to total offense, averaging more than 450 yards per game. It’s a fairly balanced attack, one that averages 204.6 yards rushing and 249.8 yards passing per contest.
The Golden Hurricane attack is led by senior quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne has started 37 consecutive games and is 23-14 as the Golden Hurricane’s starter. The 2010 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kinne currently ranks second in Tulsa history in total offense and touchdown passes and is third in passing yards.
This season Kinne, a second team all-conference selection, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kinne, like BYU’s Nelson, is also a capable runner, having gained more than 400 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Kinne is one of three Tulsa playmakers with 108 or more carries this season. The team’s leading rusher is sophomore Ja’Terian Douglas, who has 884 yards on just 108 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average leads the entire nation.
Trey Watts leads the team with 147 carries and is second in rushing yards with 843 yards. Together Douglas, Watts and Kinne have combined for 2,132 rushing yards, which is more than BYU has as a team (1,990). And that number doesn’t include junior running back Alex Singleton, who has 279 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
Just like BYU, Tulsa likes to spread the ball around. Fourteen different Tulsa players have caught at least one pass this season and the team’s leading receiver is a running back. Junior H-back Willie Carter has nearly five times as many receptions (61) as he does carries (13) this season. He finished sixth in Conference USA in receiving yards (868) and he also caught seven touchdowns. Watts also has caught three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Junior wide receiver Bryan Burnham leads the way with eight touchdown receptions and is second on the team in catches (50) and yards (737). Tight end Clay Sears also is a popular target for Kinne and comes into this game with 35 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns.
BYU’s defense comes into this game ranked No. 17 in the nation, surrendering less than 317 yards per game. The Cougars have given up less than 119 yards on the ground and 200 yards through the air on average.
This season BYU has faced two other teams that are averaging close to Tulsa’s 454.4 yards per game in TCU (443.9) and Utah State (458.7). The Cougars went 1-1 in those games, defeating Utah State 27-24 and losing to TCU 38-28. The interesting thing is that they actually gave up more yards to the Aggies (406) than they did to the Horned Frogs (283), but in both games they held the opponent to less than their season averages. It remains to be seen if they can do the same thing to the Golden Hurricane.
Neither BYU’s nor Tulsa’s special teams units stand out, statistically speaking. BYU has returned one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown, while Tulsa has one special teams touchdown on a 94-yard kickoff return by Watts.
Tulsaappears to have the edge when it comes to placekicking with first team All-Conference USA kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior was the conference’s most accurate kicker, missing just two of his 17 field goal attempts, and made all three of his attempts from 50 yards and longer. On the other side, BYU’s Justin Sorensen made all 45 of his PAT attempts, but only 14 of 24 field goal attempts.
BYU comes into this game with more wins, but Tulsa played a more difficult schedule, both non-conference and as a Conference USA member, than the Independent Cougars. BYU’s defense has played well and has the statistics to support this; including giving up just over 20 points per game, but containing Tulsa’s potent offense will be a difficult task.
On the other hand, BYU’s offense has been productive in its own right and its overall numbers (410.8 yards and 30.6 points per game) aren’t too far behind those of Tulsa.
The difference lies with the defenses. Tulsa’s defense comes into this game surrendering more than 420 yards and nearly 28 points per game, and is the third-worst in the nation when it comes to defending the pass.
It is fair to say that Tulsa comes from a conference known for offenses which, along with its own offensive philosophy and production, could explain some of its defensive numbers. But the flip side of that is other than Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa hasn’t played any teams known for their defense, either. So the real question is this — is BYU’s defense more likely to slow down Tulsa’s offense or can the Cougars feast on the Golden Hurricane’s defense?
In the end, I think it will be a little of both as BYU will gain plenty of yards and points on the board on offense, while the defense will slow down Tulsa just enough and come up with a big play of its own in the fourth quarter to help seal a close, hard-fought victory.
BYU 34, Tulsa 31
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
National Signing Day 2012 is just over one month away.
With 11 of the top 20 players in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 — and exactly one-third of the entire list — still left uncommitted, the furious finish to the 2012 recruiting cycle could be one of the more memorable in history.
There is still plenty of room for upward (and downward) movement for many of the top classes in the nation. Teams like Clemson and USC always seem to finish with a flurry of success, so these team rankings are merely markers at the three-quarter poll. And with so much talent still left on the board, there will be plenty of late Christmas presents this season.
"I think one team to really keep an eye on is Ohio State. They’ve already jumped from outside the top 20 to inside the top five in the team rankings and I think there’s a chance they could climb higher," 247Sports.com national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons told Athlon Sports. "It’s a perfect storm in a lot of ways having a home-run hire like Urban Meyer who also has good ties in a talent-rich state like Florida. Meyer always closed strong at Florida; I expect this year to be no different."
"On the west coast, UCLA has a chance to hit it out of the park down the stretch," Simmons continued. "Jim Mora has hired an all-star recruiting staff, and the Bruins have built some real momentum. The best recruiters from Washington, Arizona State and SMU are all in Westwood now, and prospects in California have taken notice."
However, it appears one team may stick atop the ’12 team recruiting rankings.
Note: Team rankings by Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPNU and 247Sports.com in parentheses. AC100: Top 100 prospect by Athlon Sports, National Recruit: Top 300 prospect by Athlon Sports
1. Texas Longhorns (Rivals: 1, Scout: 1, ESPN: 1, 247: 2)
Total Commitments: 25
AC100: 6, National Recruits: 14
No team gets the recruiting train rolling quicker and more effectively than Texas. No team has more Athlon Consensus 100 commitments and national recruits than the Horns. Three of the top 25 players nationally, including tailback Jonathan Gray (AC100 No. 7), and the nation’s No. 3-rated quarterback, Connor Brewer (AC100 No. 64), make this another stacked collection for Mack Brown. With the recent struggles on offense for Texas, it should come as good news that this group is heavy on offensive skill talents. Three elite wideouts, the aforementioned Brewer and Gray and four versatile “athletes” add some play-making spark to the Burnt Orange roster that desperately needs some juice on offense.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (Rivals: 2, Scout: 2, ESPN: 3, 247: 1)
Total Commitments: 24
AC100: 6, National Recruits: 13
No team has more Top-100 commitments than the Crimson Tide (tied with Texas). A recent defection from AC100 star tailback T.J. Yeldon (No. 61) pushed the Tide into the No. 2 slot on this list. Few teams could withstand the loss of talent the Tide will be experiencing from its linebacking corps and secondary, but Nick Saban has totally restocked the cupboard. Four of his six AC100 verbals will play in the back seven of the defense, including the nation’s No. 2 and No. 7 defensive backs in Eddie Williams (No. 12) and Geno Smith (No. 42). This five-man linebacking class is one of the best in the nation.
3. Michigan Wolverines (Rivals: 3, Scout: 3, ESPN: 6, 247: 3)
Total Commitments: 24
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 9
Brady Hoke’s first season on the recruiting trail for the Maize and Blue has to be considered a massive success thus far. He has attacked the line of scrimmage, as 10 of his 24 commitments look to be headed to the trenches — a place where Rich Rodriguez lost ground to the rest of the Big Ten. This group is led by the top two players in this class, offensive lineman Kyle Kalis (No. 44) and Erik Magnuson (No. 86). Four linebackers and four defensive backs shore up the back seven of the defense in a class clearly focused on the line of scrimmage and the defense. Only six of his 24 verbals will touch the football on the next level.
4. Florida Gators (Rivals: 4, Scout: 6, ESPN: 4, 247: 7)
Total Commitments: 18
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
This is not a vintage star-studded Urban Meyer-type class, but Will Muschamp has proven in short order that he will, at least, maintain the Gators' dominance on the recruiting trail. A very balanced group is led by the offensive line of scrimmage as the top three players in this class will play along the offensive line in some capacity. D.J. Humphries (No. 17) and Jessamen Dunker (No. 43) are two of the top-rated blockers in the nation, and America’s No. 1 tight end, Kent Taylor (No. 80), should help solidify a major area of weakness for Florida of late. Nationally recruited lineman Omari “Dante” Phillips (No. 138) could land along the O-Line as well, further bolstering the struggling offensive line. At 6’3 and 220 pounds, nationally rated tailback Matt Jones (No. 109) could also put a serious jolt into the running game as well.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes (Rivals: 6, Scout: 5, ESPN: 10, 247: 5)
Total Commitments: 19
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 8
Few coaches have ever had the instant impact on the recruiting trail like Urban Meyer has on Ohio State. This class was outside of the Top 25 when he took over as the head coach in Columbus. After stealing AC100 talents Adolphus Washington (No. 23), Tommy Schutt (No. 52) and Se’Von Pittman (No. 93) out from underneath Big Ten rivals Penn State and Michigan State, he landed a gem in defensive end Noah Spence, the nation’s No. 3-rated player. All four of these AC100 prospects will play along the defensive line as Meyer attempts to recreate those stellar Gator D-Lines up north. Spence may be the best pass rusher in the nation. With a few more slots left to fill and plenty of talent ripe for the picking, don’t be surprised if Meyer pulls another upset or two before NSD.
6. Florida State Seminoles (Rivals: 7, Scout: 12, ESPN: 2, 247: 8)
Total Commitments: 15
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 9
Jimbo Fisher claims four of the top 30 players in the nation, including prep football’s top quarterback prospect in Jameis Winston (No. 10) and the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit in end Mario Edwards. This isn’t a very deep class at the moment other than along the defensive line, where Fisher boasts one of college football’s top incoming classes. Edwards, with ends Chris Casher (No. 29) and Dante Fowler Jr. (No. 30), gives an already ferocious front seven three of the top five defensive end prospects in the nation. Sprinkle in one of the most complete running backs in the nation, Mario Pender (No. 35), and the Noles are looking at yet another top-ten class.
7. LSU Tigers (Rivals: 5, Scout: 5, ESPN: 14, 247: 4)
Total Commitments: 22
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
There seems to be some discrepancy when trying to evaluate the Bayou Bengals’ haul for 2012. Prior to Gunner Kiel announcing on Tuesday in favor of LSU, Rivals already saw this group as a top-five class, while ESPN barely had them ranked in the top 15. Scout immediately bumped the Tigers from No. 7 to No. 5, 247Sports moved LSU from No. 9 to No. 4 and Athlon jumped LSU one spot from eighth to seventh. The nation's No. 2 quarterback bolsters and already potent Tiger class as Kiel attempts to follow in former Hoosier State product Matt Mauck's footsteps. Their ten national recruits are among the most in the nation; however, only four land in the top 200. Yet, there are few weak spots in Les Miles' ’12 haul. The offensive line class is deep and talented, headlined by Vadal Alexander (No. 107) who just missed landing in the AC100. The No. 2 player in this group is Patrick Peterson’s little brother Avery Johnson (No. 67). The talented wide receiver will be joined on offense by three stellar skill talents each hailing from Breaux Bridge High School: Lamar Louis, Travin Dural and Kavahra Holmes.
8. Oklahoma Sooners (Rivals: 8, Scout: 10, ESPN: 9, 247: 4)
Total Commitments: 18
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 8
The focus of this group is obvious: Restock the offense with talented skill players and provide some protection. Four of the six top-rated players in this class, including both AC100 talents — running back Alex Ross (No. 60) and wideout Durron Neal (No. 62) — will play either running back or wide receiver. The loss of Ryan Broyles clearly hurt this offense, but Bob Stoops should have plenty of firepower on the outside in the form of arguably the best pass-catching class in the nation. In addition to Neal, receivers Derrick Woods and Sterling Shepard are nationally ranked, while 2011 AC100 talent Trey Metoyer will finally arrive on campus after a year of prep school. A pair of talented tight ends also should make Landry Jones’ job, should he return for his final season, easier in 2012 than it was post-Broyles this fall.
9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Rivals: 17, Scout: 9, ESPN: 12, 247: 10)
Total Commitments: 16
AC100: 5, National Recruits: 8
Only Alabama and Texas have more AC100 recruits committed than Brian Kelly. And again he is making serious headway on the defensive side of the ball. After one of the nastiest defensive line classes in history last cycle, Kelly once again has reeled in a talented group along the line. AC100 tackles Jarron Jones (No. 32) and Sheldon Day (No. 94) fortify the interior, while AC100 defensive backs Ronald Darby (No. 51) and Tee Shepard (No. 55) strengthen the back end of the Irish defense. A solid trio of receivers headlined by Deontay Greenberry (No. 92) will help fill the void left by a strong departing class of pass catchers.
10. Clemson Tigers (Rivals: 10, Scout: 11, ESPN: 5, 247: 11)
Total Commitments: 20
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 10
After an outstanding linebacking and offensive skill class a year ago, Dabo Swinney filled in the gaps with plenty of line of scrimmage help in 2012. Five outstanding blockers — three of whom are nationally ranked — will help solidify the front line on offense while five defensive linemen — led by AC100 talent Carlos Watkins (No. 91) — bolster an always potent D-Line. While ten of the 20 future Tigers will play in the trenches, the secondary isn’t without skill. The top-rated prospect in the class is standout DB Travis Blanks (No. 33), who leads a secondary class that could be as large as five should the “athletes” land on defense. Jim Kelly’s nephew, quarterback Chad Kelly (No. 103), barely missed the AC100, and wideout Germone Hopper (No. 69) merely adds to the embarrassment of riches in what is already one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
11. Texas A&M Aggies (Rivals: 9, Scout: 4, ESPN: 8, 247: 6)
Total Commitments: 23
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 5
This class does not have the star power of some of the other top classes, but it more than makes up for it in quantity and balance. This class claims two top 100 and only three top 200 recruits, but it has depth at nearly every position. Five defensive backs, five offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, four wide receivers and two elite ball carriers (one of whom will be under center) give new head coach Kevin Sumlin plenty to work with next fall. Tailback Trey Williams (No. 41) and dual-threat quarterback Matt Davis (No. 88) are the gems of the class. Davis is already enrolled at College Station.
12. Miami Hurricanes (Rivals: 11, Scout: 8, ESPN: 11, 247: 12)
Total Commitments: 28
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 7
Al Golden has put together one of the largest and deepest classes in the nation for 2012. No team ranked in the top 15 has as many commitments as the Canes’ 28. This group is headlined by a pair of elite offensive playmakers in tailback Randy “Duke” Johnson (No. 49) and wide receiver Angelo Jean-Louis (No. 76). These two top an offensive skill class that will feature three quarterbacks, five wide receivers, two tailbacks and a tight end. The defense wasn’t ignored by any stretch, as this outfit includes four linebackers, five defensive backs and four defensive ends — including AC100 talent Jelani Hamilton (No. 84).
13. Auburn Tigers (Rivals: 12, Scout: 15, ESPN: 13, 247: 17)
Total Commitments: 16
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 9
Losing AC100 talent Yeldon to Bama certainly didn’t help, but Gene Chizik still has an outstanding group of incoming freshman slated to join his roster on NSD. The class isn’t incredibly deep, but each position is represented equally, adding depth to a roster that is very young at nearly every spot on the field. Quarterback Zeke Pike (No. 82), receiver Ricardo Louis (No. 87) and tight end Ricky Parks (No. 89) are the top-rated players in this class, and all three should help whoever is the new offensive coordinator on the Plains.
14. Georgia Bulldogs (Rivals: 19, Scout: --, ESPN: 7, 247: 16)
Total Commitments: 15
AC100: 3, National Recruits: 5
There is only one team in the nation with two of the top ten recruits currently committed, and that team is the Dawgs. Mark Richt has only 15 verbal pledges, but he has the nation’s No. 1 running back in Keith Marshall (No. 6) and country’s No. 3 blocker in John Theus (No. 8) ready to sign in February. The defensive line is stacked with elite prospects as well. AC100 talent Jonathan Taylor (No. 36) could play either side of the ball, and nationally ranked John Atkins and Leonard Floyd bolster an already loaded D-Line in Athens. With the depth of the 2011 class, and the star quality of this smaller group, Richt's Dawgs could be the class of the SEC East for the next few years.
15. USC Trojans (Rivals: 15, Scout: --, ESPN: 18, 247: --)
Total Commitments: 11
AC100: 2, National Recruits: 7
The Trojans get knocked by the computers due to the lack of total numbers in this small but very talented group. Seven of the 11 total commitments (four of whom have already signed) are ranked nationally, giving USC arguably the best “quality” of any team in the nation. With a few more upsets (Arik Armstead, Shaq Thompson, Eddie Goldman for example), Lane Kiffin could find himself in the top ten. This group is currently led by linebacker Jabari Ruffin (No. 47) and offensive lineman Jordan Simmons (No. 54).
16. Tennessee Volunteers (21 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
17. South Carolina Gamecocks (20 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
18. Oregon Ducks (17 total, 0 AC100, 4 National)
19. Virginia Cavaliers (25 total, 1 AC100, 4 National)
20. Virginia Tech Hokies (27 total, 0 AC100, 3 National)
21. Texas Tech Red Raiders (23 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
22. Cal Golden Bears (14 total, 2 AC100, 5 National)
23. Arkansas Razorbacks (22 total, 0 AC100, 0 National)
24. Stanford Cardinal (15 total, 1 AC100, 3 National)
25. TCU Horned Frogs (19 total, 1 AC100, 3 Naitonal)
Surprise, surprise. Tim Tebow's followers want to bring down HBO after an atheist made a blasphemous joke about the annointed Denver quarterback. Tebow, who is devoutly religious (he has a knack for putting Bible scripture on his eye black) has been a polarizing figure since he came to the NFL is at the center of another debate surrounding his combination of poor quarterbacking skills and Hall of Fame-worthy worship skills.
On one hand, he's not a great traditional quarterback. He's not great at throwing or doing the things you'd expect a quarterback to do, but he somehow manages to win games (his defense and kicker help a lot, too), so that makes the pundits mad that they can't explain his success. On the other, his fervent religiousness has made him a poster child for lots of Christians who have insinuated that God is pulling for the Broncos now that Tebow is behind the helm, and that makes everyone else mad.
So when Bill Maher tweeted "Wow, Jesus just f---- #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler "Hey, Buffalo's killing them" it really made Tebow's Christian followers very, very angry. Maher, who is a devout atheist and star of his documentary "Religulous" probably couldn't be more pleased to tweak the religious right with a single tweet.
Was the tweet in bad taste? It depends on which side of the Tim Tebow fence you fall on. But regardless, there are calls to boycott HBO, which broadcasts Bill Maher's "Real Time" show.
But, as usual, the outraged have missed the point. Maher is a devout and vocal atheist. Do you really expect anything else from him? And if you hate what he says so much, you're only bringing attention to him and his show by calling for boycott's of it. Guess what all this controversy and furor is going to do for Maher's ratings when his show returns in January? They're going to be higher than ever because people are going to tune in to see what he's going to say next.
And what do you really care what he says about Tim Tebow? If you don't like his show, don't watch it. Or, if you really want to do Bill a favor, picket it. Start a petition and get the word out about what a horrible and controversial show Maher does. Because there's a pretty good chance if Christians are boycotting his show, it's win-win for Bill. He gets tons of free publicity without losing any of his audience.
There's really not much that needs to be said about this video titled Don Cherry's Piano Desk. It is what it is -- Genius. For those of you who don't know who Don Cherry is, he's Canada's answer to Glenn Beck. He's a loudmouth red neck who says a lot of wacky stuff on Hockey Night in Canada. But since he's Canadian, he's way more more loveable than Beck.
And plus, he has that sweet piano desk. Who wouldn't want that?
With the recent state of politics, there seems to be a parallel between the major players in the Republican and Democratic parties and some major figures in the sports world. So we made a list comparing them. We're just hoping that before our economy crashes and we're all left jobless and homeless that the politicians realize that we need them to be held to a higher standard than we hold a guy who gets a bucket of Gatorade dumped on him when he's successful.
Newt Gingrich is Rex Ryan
How They're Similar: Sure, both of them are fat (clearly) but they both also have egos that match their enormous size. And they both also have sketchy/disgusting sexual histories, with Gingrich reportedly ditching his cancer-ridden wife while she was on her deathbed, and Rex filming foot fetish videos with his wife. We're pretty sure Newt's is worse, but forcing us to envision whatever it is Rex Ryan does to his wife's feet is a really close second.
Newt Gingrich Quote: "I have enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it. I am now a famous person. I represent real power."
Rex Ryan Quote: "We're going to win the Super Bowl."
Rick Perry is Les Miles
How They're Similar: Have you ever heard what comes out of Rick Perry's mouth when he's trying to explain...well, anything? Have you ever watched Les Miles try and answer a straight forward question during an LSU press conference? It's like these guys are sharing the same mouth. And while both have been successful with big programs (Perry with the state of Texas, Miles with LSU), they both do their best work when there's no microphone around.
Rick Perry Quote: "Oops."
Les Miles Quote: "I can only tell you that the only fit to me for those players on this campus is extremely good."
Michele Bachmann is The Runaway Cart
How They're Similar: I'm not sure which one is crazier. On one hand you've got Michele Bachmann, who said an FDA-approved vaccine is making people retarded, Democrats are responsible for the flu, and gave us her insane eyes on the Newsweek cover. And on the other hand you've got that runaway cart that mowed down lots of people at Cowboys' Stadium. Let's call it a draw.
Michele Bachmann Quote: "If we took away the minimum wage, we could potentially, virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs on any level."
Runaway Cart Quote: "I'm a runaway cart! No one's driving me! I'm mowing people down!"
Ron Paul is Bill Snyder
How They're Similar: Both Ron Paul and Kansas State's football coach Bill Snyder are crazy old guys who say and do things that fly in the face of convention. For example, Ron Paul will say that a young man without health insurance should die (not the most politically savvy thing to say), and Snyder once tried to hypnotize himself to compress a full night's sleep into a one-hour trance. But guess what, there's a bit of truth on what these old codgers are going on about. Paul (who says a lot of common sense stuff between his libertarian black and white view of the world) is currently leading the Republican polls in Iowa and Snyder was just named the Sporting News' Coach of the Year after turning around the Kansas State football program. Take that non-crazy young people.
Ron Paul Quote: “With politicians like these, who needs terrorists?”
Bill Snyder Quote: "We practice in the rain. We ought to be able to play better in the rain."
Herman Cain is The Penn State Football Program
How They're Similar: Oh, ya know, that whole thing where they both tried to cover up decades-long sex scandals and then dropped out of sight while meakly proclaiming their innocence.
Mitt Romney is Bill Belichick
How They're Similar: Mitt made hundreds of millions in business while using cut throat practices of sending jobs overseas, while Belichick won three Super Bowls, routinely ran up the score on his opponents and was caught cheating in the Spygate scandal. And, yet, for as ruthless as both of them have been, they both have the personality of lukewarm water when someone is asking them questions in front of a camera. I'm not sure what's worse, getting stuck talking to Mitt Romney at a party, or having him send your job to the Philippines.
Mitt Romney Quote: "Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings, my friend."
Bill Belichick Quote: “We’re playing for 60 minutes, I don’t give a [expletive] what the score is.”
Rick Santorum is Tim Tebow
How They're Similar: Both of these guys are super religious, and they each have an interesting phenomenon named after them (Tim has "Tebowing" and if you don't know what "Santorum" is, go ahead and google it). But they're also similar in that we have no idea why we're still hearing so much about either one of them. Tebow is a 4th-rate quarterback and Santorum is the guy who will finish 6th in the Republican primaries. (In addition, this time next year, they will both be known as "Remember that guy?")
Rick Santorum Quote: "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts."
Tim Tebow Quote: "As iron sharpens iron, men sharpen men."
Barack Obama is Ryan Leaf
How They're Similar: So much promise, so much hope. And then when it came to game time, they both threw more balls to the opposing team than they did to their own.
Barack Obama Quote: "I will close Guantanamo Bay."
Ryan Leaf Quote: "I'm looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego.''
Joe Biden is Dana Holgorsen
How They're Similar: It's mostly the hair.
Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I've never been able to get into cricket. Not only do the matches take weeks, but when something does happen, it's basically just a piece of wood falling off a stick. It's rare for their to be a diving catch or a bone-crushing collision.
And there's tea breaks. Don't get me wrong, I like tea as much as the next guy, but should you stop a sporting event to sip something that grandmothers drink before bed?
Or maybe it's more civilized. Either way, this video of a camerman crashing his segway is pretty enjoyable. If this happened more often, I might spend some time to understand cricket.
Drew Brees is now the king of the NFL's quarterback mountain after passing Dan Marino for most passing yards in a single season. And Brees has one game left to increase his record even more.
And while the Saints demolished the Falcons on Monday Night football to clinch the NFC South division title, the story of the night was Brees. He's had arguably one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of all time.
Arguably because this is an NFL based around passing much more than it was in Marino's time. But those who point to that as a way of taking away from what Brees did are way off base, because defenses are infinitely more complex now than they were 20 years ago.
In a show of class, Dan Marino (who you know is not happy about his record getting broken) tweeted, "Great job by such a special player."
But there's also something different about Brees record now. In the past, football records didn't really matter all that much. The rushing record was the sexy one, but after that, not a lot of people gave much thought to NFL records. It was baseball's immortal stats that really held the public's attention.
But with the steroid scandal that permeated through that sport over the last 15 years, no one knew what to think of baseball's record book. Every feat had a dark cloud of questions hanging over it. And now, with Barry Bonds who everyone almost guarantees took steroids, holding his sport's most hallowed record, it has lessened not only the home run record, but all the others as well.
And Drew Brees is the exact opposite of Barry Bonds. A super nice guy who does tons of charity work and has never been labeled a prima donna. He's the perfect player to own one of the NFL's most important records and should help turn around the public's interest in NFL's highest achievements.
And Brees breaking of the record was dramatic, as he did it on his last throw of the game. Brees edged him by 3 yards and now has 5,087 yards to Marino's 5,084. Brees is also the first player in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in more than one season, havig thrown for 5,069 in 2008.
And as if that wasn't enough, Brees' four touchdown passes against the Falcons brought him to ninth on the all-time touchdown list with with 276, passing Joe Montana (273) and Vinny Testaverde (276).
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The 2012 preseason college football top 25 is already starting to take shape. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has decided to return for another season, making the Trojans one of the early favorites to win the national title next season. Athlon has already released a very early top 25 for 2012, but as expected, underclassmen entering the NFL Draft will have a major impact on how the next release of the poll looks in mid-January.
Here some key players to watch as the underclassmen deadline approaches on Jan. 15, 2012 and how it could impact the national title race next season:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball put together a monster junior campaign, rushing for 1,759 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 20 receptions for 255 yards and six scores. Ball is regarded as a likely second-round pick if he declares for the draft.
If Ball leaves: Wisconsin always seems to crank out productive running backs, so losing Ball isn’t going to completely shut down the rushing attack. James White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but compiled only 683 yards and six scores in 2011. White will get first crack at replacing Ball, but Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis will also figure into the mix.
If Ball stays: Wisconsin is losing quarterback Russell Wilson and will have to replace the right side of the line. However, if Ball returns, it would give the Badgers a workhorse at running back and someone who can carry the offense until a new quarterback settles into the position. Also, with Ohio State’s bowl ban next season, Wisconsin is the early frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu garnered the Heisman hype, but Claiborne might be the better cover corner. He picked off a team-high six passes and broke up six others. Claiborne also recorded 46 tackles.
If Claiborne leaves: Even if Claiborne leaves for the NFL, the LSU secondary will remain one of the best in college football. Mathieu will likely earn All-American honors in the preseason, while safeties Eric Reid, Craig Loston and Tharold Simon are all solid contributors. Losing Claiborne is a big blow, but the LSU defense will remain strong.
If Claiborne stays: It’s early to etch this in stone, but if Claiborne stays, LSU should have the best defensive backfield in the nation. Claiborne and Mathieu should be one of the top cornerback tandems, while the safety position remains in good shape with Loston, Reid and Simon returning.
Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor
Griffin raised the bar at Baylor, leading the Bears to their first nine-win season since 1986. He passed for 3,998 yards and 36 scores, while adding 644 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Griffin claimed the school’s first Heisman trophy and earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If Griffin leaves: Thanks to coach Art Briles, Baylor is in a better position to absorb the loss of any player. The Bears have earned back-to-back bowl bids, and Griffin’s successor will have talent to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Nick Florence will likely get the call to start if Griffin departs, but Bryce Petty will also get a chance to compete. If Griffin leaves, Baylor won’t start 2012 in the preseason top 25.
If Griffin stays: If Griffin returns, Baylor should begin the year in many preseason top 25 rankings. The Bears were ranked No. 21 in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. Repeating as Heisman winner won’t be easy, but Griffin will have a chance, especially with Baylor expected to compete for a finish in the top four or five of the Big 12. The offense will miss dynamic receiver Kendall Wright, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson is a good trio to build around.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Even after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, James led the nation with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game. He finished with 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with posting an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. James also earned first-team All-Pac-12 conference honors.
If James leaves: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that James is leaving. What else can he really accomplish? Although he has yet to win a Heisman or national title, James has recorded 746 carries in his career and there’s only so much workload a running back can handle in his career. The Ducks are in great shape at running back, with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson returning. The Ducks will miss James’ explosiveness, but the offense shouldn’t drop off too much.
If James stays: If James makes the surprising decision to stick around in Eugene, Oregon’s offense will be one of the best in college football. He will also earn preseason first-team All-America honors and should be one of the frontrunners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery’s 2011 production didn’t live up to the preseason hype. He caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine scores in 2010, but watched his production slump to 45 receptions for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. The dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia significantly contributed to Jeffery’s decrease in catches this season.
If Jeffery leaves: The Gamecocks have talent in the receiving corps, but there’s no go-to guy like Jeffery waiting in the wings. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones would have to pickup more slack for quarterback Connor Shaw. If Jeffery departs, expect South Carolina to lean even more on running back Marcus Lattimore to carry the offense.
If Jeffery stays: Give Shaw and Jeffery an offseason to work and this connection should be much better in 2012. If he returns, Jeffery could begin next season on many first-team All-SEC ballots. The Gamecocks will be in contention for the SEC East title next season and getting Jeffery back will be a huge boost to those championship hopes.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last season, Jones had a disappointing 2011 campaign. He threw 4,302 yards and only 28 touchdowns, while tossing 14 picks. Also, he did not throw a touchdown pass in the final three regular season games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners began 2011 as one of the top picks to win the national title. However, a 9-3 record was a major disappointment for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
If Jones leaves: With Matt Barkley’s decision to stick around at USC, Jones has to be moving up the quarterback draft boards for NFL scouts. Will that be enough to convince him to leave early? Blake Bell saw limited action for Oklahoma this season and would be the early frontrunner to replace Jones. The Sooners are the very early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012, but without Jones, they could lose their grip on the top spot.
If Jones stays: Considering how poorly Jones performed over the final three regular season games, there’s a strong chance he returns for 2012. If he comes back, the Sooners should be the early favorite to win the Big 12. However, Jones can’t do it all alone and needs receivers other than Kenny Stills to step up next year.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is one of college football's most physical cover corners. He earned first-team All-American honors by the FWAA and recorded 26 tackles and nine passes broken up this year.
If Kirkpatrick leaves: The Alabama secondary is already getting hit hard by departures, as safety Mark Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will expire their eligibility at the end of the year. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are already going to be dealing with some key losses in this group next year, so Kirkpatrick's departure will only add more concern for coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Assuming Kirkpatrick is gone, Dee Milliner and John Fulton will have to take on a bigger role in the defensive backfield.
If Kirkpatrick stays: Kirkpatrick is considered a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft and will be among the first 15 picks off the board. Considering where Kirkpatrick is expected to go, it will be a major surprise if he returns in 2012. However, if he returns to Tuscaloosa, Kirkpatrick will be a lock for preseason All-American honors and help to keep Alabama's secondary among the best in the nation.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington (Declared for draft on Jan. 2)
Polk has quietly been one of the most impressive running backs in college football over the last three seasons. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, totaling 3,902 yards and 25 rushing scores during that span. Polk has also caught 77 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns in his career.
If Polk leaves: Polk is believed to be 50-50 on whether to return to school or enter the NFL Draft. Losing Polk would be a blow to a Washington team that is poised to contend for a spot in the top 25 next season. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey combined for 451 yards and two scores this season and would get first crack at replacing Polk. Deontae Cooper is another name to watch, but has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries.
If Polk stays: The Huskies are poised to crack the top 25 next season – if Polk sticks around. The offense will be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with quarterback Keith Price and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returning. If Polk returns, he should be a lock for first-team All-Pac-12 honors and deserves preseason All-American honors.
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Richardson was the workhorse for the Alabama offense in 2011, rushing for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also added 27 receptions for 327 yards and three scores and finished third in Heisman voting.
If Richardson leaves: Losing Richardson would be a huge setback for the Alabama offense, but not something unexpected. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler combined for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and would be forced to take on a bigger role in 2012. Dee Hart missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL, but his return will add a speedy, change of pace option into the backfield. If Richardson leaves as expected, look for quarterback AJ McCarron to carry more of the offense next year.
If Richardson stays: The chances of Richardson returning are very, very small. The junior is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and other than winning a Heisman, doesn’t have much left to accomplish. Just like other running backs considering making the jump, there’s only so much wear and tear and carries they can make in their career. If Richardson decides to stay, it will be a boost to Alabama’s national title hopes next season. The Crimson Tide would have one of the top backfields in college football, and Richardson would begin the year as a preseason first-team All-American running back.
David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
In his first full season as Virginia Tech’s No. 1 back, Wilson rushed for 1,627 yards and nine scores. He also added 21 receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown. With a new quarterback (Logan Thomas) starting this year, the Hokies leaned heavily on Wilson early in the year. He was named the 2011 ACC Player of the Year.
If Wilson leaves: There’s a strong chance Wilson enters the NFL Draft, and the backfield depth (or lack thereof) behind him is a little scary. Tony Gregory has 129 yards in two seasons and would figure to get the first opportunity to win the No. 1 running back spot. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes will also figure into the mix, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen. Quarterback Logan Thomas played better as the year progressed and if Wilson leaves, he will become the focal point of the offense.
If Wilson stays: Virginia Tech has claimed the Coastal Division title four out of the last five years and should be the favorite in 2012. And Wilson returning would certainly solidify the Hokies place atop the division. There’s very little proven depth behind Wilson, so his return would boost Virginia Tech’s offense and chances of playing for the national title next year.
Five More Names to Watch
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama - Hightower is one of the leaders for Alabama's defense, especially helping to get everyone aligned and in position before the snap. He led the team with 81 tackles and collected 9.5 tackles for a loss. Hightower will be a first-round pick if he decides to leave early and his departure would be a huge blow for Alabama's defense.
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech - Hosley earned second-team All-ACC honors this year, after collecting 59 tackles and picking off three passes. He also helped Virginia Tech rank first in the conference pass efficiency defense. Hosley will likely go in the first round if he declares for the 2012 NFL Draft. He declared for the NFL Draft after the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State - Jenkins has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in college football over the last two years, registering 20.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss. Although Bjoern Werner has emerged as a solid defensive linemen for Florida State, Jenkins will be a big loss if he declares.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama - Jones is one of the most valuable and versatile linemen in the nation. He announced his intentions to return to Alabama in late December and could move to center next season.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College - The 2011 Butkus Award winner is the heart and soul of the Boston College defense. Kuechly is a lock for first-team All-American honors should he return to the Eagles in 2012.
Other Underclassmen that Could Declare for the 2012 NFL Draft
Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
Robert Lester, S, Alabama
Ronnell Lewis, DE, Oklahoma
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Already Declared for 2012 NFL Draft
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
Marcus Forston, DT, Miami
Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest
Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Terrell Manning, LB, NC State
Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina
Nick Perry, DE, USC
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Chris Polk, RB, Washington
Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida
Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
Brandon Washington, OG/OT, Miami
Returning to College in 2012
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Texas (7–5) vs. California (7–5)
Date: Dec. 28, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Will the Holiday Bowl be Mack Brown’s last game as head coach at Texas? Following back-to-back mediocre seasons, the additional pressure of the ESPN Longhorn Network venture and no near- or long-term solution at quarterback, Brown retirement rumors have been swirling around burnt orange country lately.
Those rumors are not true, however, according to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. “Anything you are hearing, absolutely nothing about it is true,” Dodds told The Associated Press. “I’ve never seen him more energized and excited about the future.”
The 60-year-old former BCS national champ has a 2–1 record in the Holiday Bowl since taking over at Texas in 1998 — defeating Washington, 47–43, in 2001; losing to Washington State, 28–20, in 2003; and taking down Arizona State, 52–34, in 2007.
On the other side, Jeff Tedford is 1–1 in the Holiday Bowl since arriving at Cal in 2002 — falling to Texas Tech, 45–31, in Aaron Rodgers’ last collegiate game in 2004 and dominating Texas A&M, 45–10, in 2006.
WHEN TEXAS HAS THE BALL:
Neither Case McCoy (1,034 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs) nor David Ash (937 yards, 3 TDs, 8 INTs) will make anyone forget about Vince Young or Colt McCoy — a pair of UT gunslingers who spoiled the fan base during their unbelievable BCS bowl-laden seven-year reign. The Horns have the nation’s 85th-ranked passing offense and, as a team, have thrown more INTs (15) than TDs (14) this season.
Texas’ most dangerous playmakers are true freshmen. Running back Malcolm Brown (707 yards, 5 TDs) is the team’s leading rusher. But turf toe tackled Brown late in the season, causing the frosh to miss three of the final five games and limiting him to just 72 yards in the two games he did play. Receiver Jaxon Shipley — Jordan’s little brother — also missed three of the last five contests with a knee injury. But he bounced back with a four-catch, 121-yard effort in a loss to Baylor in the season finale and should be good to go in the bowl.
Cal has the 36th-ranked rush defense, allowing 130.33 yards per game and 16 rush TDs this season. Texas’ ground attack — led by Brown, Joe Bergeron (454 yards, 5 TDs), Fozzy Whittaker (386 yards, 6 TDs), D.J. Monroe (326 yards) and Cody Johnson (5 TDs) — could give the Golden Bears trouble. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks and end Trevor Guyton lead a Cal defense that held three Pac-12 opponents to 10 or fewer points.
WHEN CALIFORNIA HAS THE BALL:
Tedford is known for his quarterbacks but the offensive guru also keeps a top-flight running back on his roster at all times. Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) follows in the fleet footsteps of Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch.
The one-two punch of Sofele and C.J. Anderson (343 yards, 8 TDs) may have a tough time running against Texas’ 11th-ranked rush defense, which allows just 103.67 yards per game. First-year UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is one of the top young assistants in the game and his stop-unit will be counted on to carry the Longhorns. Take away Texas’ three blowout losses — to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor — and Diaz’s defense allowed an average of only 15.3 points in their nine other games.
But Texas was susceptible to the pass — O-State, OU and Baylor were the nation’s second-, fourth- and fifth-best passing offenses. First-team All-Pac-12 receiver Keenan Allen (1,261 yards, 6 TDs) could be the X-factor. If quarterback Zach Maynard (2,802 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs) can find Allen and Marvin Jones (758 yards, 3 TDs) down the field, the Bears could claw the Horns’ defense and scratch out a win in the Holiday Bowl.
Texas’ neon-Nike’d kicker and punter Justin Tucker has been a hero all season long and was carried off the field following his 40-yard game-winning boot to beat Texas A&M as time expired in the Aggies’ final Big 12 game before joining the SEC. Tucker is 17-of-20 on field goals, with a long of 52. If the game comes down to a kick, the wild child senior has proven capable of coming through in the clutch.
Cal punter Bryan Anger is the best in the west, with a 44.6-yard average and 18-of-46 punts dropping inside the 20-yard-line. With field position being crucial to Texas’ plodding offense, Anger’s ability to flip the field could make him the MVP.
Texas’ stingy, swarming defense keeps the Longhorns in the game until the end, putting Tucker in position to nail another game-winning field goal. Brown will end 2011 with a win. The question is whether or not the Holiday Bowl will be his last victory wearing burnt orange and leading Longhorn Nation?
Texas 26, California 24
by Nathan Rush
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Toledo (8–4) vs. Air Force (7–5)
Date: Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: RFK Stadium, Washington D.C.
High-flying Toledo heads to the nation’s capital with one of the most explosive offenses in college football. The Rockets, however, will not have their (former) coach, Tim Beckman, who was hired last week to replace Ron Zook at Illinois. The man in charge now is 32-year-old Matt Campbell, who was promoted to the top job after a successful two-year run as UT’s offensive coordinator. Campbell will lead a confident Toledo team that has won seven of its past eight games. The Rockets tied for the MAC West title with a 7–1 record but lost the tie-breaker to Northern Illinois. Toledo lost earlier in the year at Ohio State by five points and would have defeated Syracuse if not for a botched call on an extra point.
Air Force is back in a bowl game for the fifth straight year, but the 2011 season was a bit of a disappointment for the Falcons. Expected to be a factor in the Mountain West, AFA went 3–4 in league play to finish alone in fifth place. The Falcons won seven games but did not defeat a team that ended the season with a winning record. Their best win was over rival Navy, which went 5–7. The main issue for Troy Calhoun’s team has been on defense. Air Force can’t stop the run (113th in the nation) and have trouble generating big plays (118th in tackles for a loss and 93rd in sacks).
WHEN TOLEDO HAS THE BALL:
The Rockets averaged 42.3 points per game for the season (first in the MAC and eighth in the nation) and an incredible 52.8 over the final six games. The offense is balanced; Toledo is one of only two teams (Nevada is the other) that averaged over 220 yards rushing and over 270 yards passing. The Rockets played two quarterbacks for much of the season — juniors Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin — but Owens got all of the snaps in the final two games while Dantin recovered from a concussion. Both are available for the bowl game.
Adonis Thomas leads the rushing attack. He ran for 963 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing three full games and the majority of another with a broken arm. He averaged 162 yards in his final four games
As mentioned, Toledo can beat you through the air or on the ground, but expect to see a heavy dose of the ground game against an Air Force defense that was torched for 348 yards rushing in its season-finale against Colorado State and 259 the week before vs. UNLV.
WHEN AIR FORCE HAS THE BALL:
As expected, Air Force does most of its damage on the ground. The Falcons rank second in the nation in rushing (320.3 ypg) and 113th in passing (138.5 ypg). Quarterback Tim Jefferson was relatively efficient throwing the ball (60.1 percent, 12 TDs, six INTs), but that is simply not a big part of the team’s attack. Only twice this season was Jefferson asked to throw the ball more than 16 times, and, not surprisingly, the Falcons lost both of those games.
Jefferson was solid on the ground (492 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns), but the Falcons were led by halfback Asher Clark, who ran for 1,134 yards and six touchdowns, and fullback Mike DeWitt, who added 543 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Toledo’s defense was strong against the run in 2011, allowing only 123.2 yards per game, but the option figures to pose a big challenge.
Toledo’s kickers, Ryan Casano and Jeremiah Detmer, combined to make 15-of-18 field goal attempts. Casano made all 10 of his tries from inside 40 yards while Detmer was 3-of-3 from 40 and beyond. Air Force, too, was solid in the kicking game, with junior Parker Herrington connecting on 15-of-18. Neither team does anything that stands out in the return game.
Air Force has won two straight bowl games, beating a pass-first team in Houston in 2009 and a run-based option team in Georgia Tech in ’10. Toledo might not be as talented as either the ’09 Houston Cougars or ’10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but the Rockets’ balance on offense will be too much for the Falcons to stop.
Toledo 35, Air Force 27
Here’s something you’ve probably heard before: New York is the greatest city in the world.
Depending on whether or not you can name the five boroughs in between bites of your hero (no, not your hoagie, grinder or submarine), that’s a statement you likely whole-heartedly agree with or reject completely.
Of course, no New Yorker can verify their claim of urban supremacy. Most of us have never been to Paris or Rome or grabbed a bite at In ‘N Out Burger, one of the few meals that, allegedly, can’t be matched in the City. (And let’s be real, there is only one City.) And oh, sure, we hear Pittsburgh is a nice place to live. But…Pittsburgh over New York? Next you’ll be telling me I should grab a Morton’s rib-eye over a Peter Luger porterhouse, or that deep dish is better than neopolitan. And you’ll be wrong, of course. Because everything is better in New York. Including our sports teams.
Except for one.
I mean, a lot of our sports teams are bad. The Jets and Giants are about to go head-to-head in the MetLife-Who-Sucks-Less Bowl, Fred Wilpon is probably cashing a welfare check as we speak, and yeah, sure, the Rangers haven’t done much since the ’94 Cup, but that’s hockey. It doesn’t really count.
There’s only one franchise – correction: one team – that we’ll admit isn’t as good as everyone else’s. It’s the one that plays in the Greatest Arena in the World (wink, wink) and that’s gone through a bit of a 38-year rough patch lately.
This may come as a surprise, but New York sports fans harbor a bit of a superiority complex. The Yankees have always been The Best, a symbol of sports royalty, the team of the decade, most successful franchise of the century. (Thank you, Bob Costas.) Yet, World Series titles wouldn’t become a Bronx birthright until King George issued his doctrine saying so. Now, perennial ticker-tape parades are the 21stcentury equivalent of Manifest Destiny. Except manifesting destiny involves less Native American genocide and more hanging Chuck Finley breaking balls.
Once Jesus Steinbrenner’s sermon became gospel, it began to trickle down to the rest of the New York sports teams and their fan bases. The idea of an “all or nothing” philosophy jived with New Yorkers, who already believed they were better than everyone else. It only made sense that their sports teams should be too.
As this insanity began to infect the rest of the city (most notably following 9/11, when the ‘Team of Destiny’ HAD TO win the World Series), the Knicks were god-awful. And they continued to be god-awful throughout the decade. As the pressure of ‘all or nothing’ continued to grip the Yankees, the Jets and Giants moved in the right direction. The Jets’ hiring of Eric Mangini and their subsequent free agency/Brett Favre binge was viewed as a masterstroke at the time. Then Rex and San-chize stole the town before they got lambasted for not stealing the country.
The Giants won a Super Bowl and now endure a chorus of boos every time they show signs of not being the best team in football.
Yet the Knicks were left in the dust. After all, the Knicks have always been a conundrum, never quite as ‘storied’ as we liked to believe. They haven’t won a title since the Nixon Administration. The best players in franchise history are probably Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. Neither would make MJ’s knee’s quake, and both were on that pre-Watergate title team.
But the last decade? Roll out the caution tape.
Nothing to see here, people. Just eight coaching changes, one winning season (last year) and $11.6 million in punitive damages, none of which went to Jerome James. Move along.
So for the last five years, Knicks fans have been harboring delusions of grandeur. We believed with every fabric of our being that the Knicks would have a chance to contend As Soon as Isiah Was Gone. And then, when he was and we weren’t, we believed that we DESERVED a winner, and that that winner would come real soon, and that it would come in the form of some salary cap and logic bending messiah that magically transformed a decade old doormat into a fucking minx rug.
We believed LeBron would come for no other reason than he COULD. He could be the guy to finally put New York back on top! This is NEW YORK after all…So, uh, why not?
(Perhaps because his second best teammate would have been Toney Douglas or some overpaid/overhyped/underinsured/injury-prone amalgam of Joe Johnson, Amare, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh, you Famous Original Ray’s-gobbling buffoon.)
Of course, we never let logic get in the way. Even if LeBron didn’t end up in Miami, there was no reason to believe the Knicks were next on his list. (The guy didn’t even mention the ‘Bockers when he rattled off his list of suitors during The Decision.That’s true. Check the tape.)
So we moved on. Soon, we were SO SURE Chris Paul or Dwight Howard would “revive B-Ball in the Big Apple,” even as some salary cap expert from ESPN or FoxSports or SI rolled out column after column outlining how excruciatingly unlikely this was. Um, maybe if Jimmy Dolan decides to unload Amare OR Chris Paul decides he wants to take (INSERT DOUBLE DIGIT NUMBER HERE) million dollars less to play in New York…
So there’s a chance!
Eventually, reality hit us in the face like an errant pass from Stephon Marbury. With Chris Paul cursed with a We-All-Know-It’s-Coming ACL injury in Los Angeles and Dwight Howard more likely to ball in Brooklyn than Manhattan, our dreams of a Big Apple Big Three have evaporated. In its stead is a Big Two-Point-Five, or a Big Two or perhaps something less – depending on where you stand on Tyson Chandler, Carmelo’s defense and how many games Amare has left before his knees implode.
We’ve absorbed this pretty rosy reality fairly quietly, as far as New Yorkers go.
Have any of your Knicks fans friends been crowing lately? Did SportsCenter cover the Tyson Chandler press conference for more than 3.2 seconds? Who’s being talked about on WFAN right now: Carmelo Anthony or Eli Manning?
Somehow, given our decade of pain, Knicks fans really aren’t THAT excited/enthusiastic/confident about this year’s Knicks team.You see, we could have sworn we were getting a Ferrari for Christmas. So that Audi parked in the driveway doesn’t look too hot by comparison.
But that makes absolutely no sense. It’s still a fucking Audi. We’ve been through ten years of sports fan hell that we wouldn’t wish on anyone outside of Boston. Now, finally, we emerge with the best frontcourt in the league and a true contender…and we’re sitting in the corner, twiddling our thumbs and being complacent!?
Who cares if the Knicks were supposed to get LeBron? They didn’t. They also didn’t get Chris Paul, and they’re not snatching Dwight Howard unless Dwight is willing to sign for the veteran minimum.
The Steinbrenner Doctrine states that winning a championship is the goal in any given year, implying that not winning a championship constitutes a failure. So in order to not be viewed as a “failure,” any team that adheres to The Doctrine must win a championship EVERY YEAR.
The only way to not be bitterly disappointing is to be dynastic. That perspective is unrealistic enough for an efficiently run franchise with bottomless pockets. It’s an absolute pipe dream for the Knicks.
Sure, the Knicks’ dynastic dreams were thwarted. But those dreams were self-defeating in the first place.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re a Knicks fan, and you’re not unfathomably, incredibly, undeniably excited for the next few months of basketball, then head to Peter Luger and go choke on a piece of the Best Steak in the World. Because, with or without Gilbert Arenas or Baron Davis or whatever other half-corpse Mike D’Antoni pull out of his casket to play point, this is far and away the best team the Knicks have fielded in a long, long time. Sure, they’re not going to win a title, but so what? That’s not the goal.
The Knicks will be decent. They will be fun to watch. At least there will be hope of something more than a low playoff seed and a first-round exit. And what exactly is the problem with hope, a commodity Knicks fans haven’t exactly had in spades and that T’Wolves fans would kill – no, actually – David Kahn for?
Eddy Curry was The Guy as recently as four years ago. Shawne Williams and Jared Jeffries were our Men in the Middle in 2010. Shouldn’t the idea of the Knicks being a contender – even if they’re not THE contender – be enough?
Heck, it should be more than enough. It should be the best thing that’s happened…since, well, New York.
So go down to DiFara’s, grab a few slices, and start yelling from the rooftop of your favorite skyscraper. It’s time to get excited again. The Knicks are back, baby, and better than we ever could have expect them to be.
Camila Alves and Matthew McConaughey are engaged. The "Dazed and Confused" and "We Are Marshall" star popped the question to his model and TV host girlfriend, who also happens to be the mother of two of his children.
Camila has been the host of "Shear Genius" as well as a model.
Their marriage isn't that big of a surprise, but McConaughey, who's known to run shirtless through most of LA has always been considered one of the biggest bachelor's on the Hollywood market.
Camila and Matthew have been dating since 2006, but since he had never had the cojones to commit and pop the question to Camila, no one knew how serious he was about settling down. But no one really cares about that. So here's what you really want, some of the hottest photos of Camila.
Now, whether Camila and Matthew stay married is a whole other question. It seems like McConaughey was dragged into the marriage thing (he didn't exactly jump at the chance to marry the woman who had not one, but TWO of his children.) But who knows, maybe he needed to wait to make sure he was making the right decision. Do you really care? No, so just enjoy the photos.
The NFL playoffs are less than two weeks away. Which means you need more than an abacus to figure out if your team still has a chance to make the NFL postseason (we can't all be Packers fans.) So here's a breakdown of what each team that's still in the running for the playoffs needs to happen to either win their division, secure a first round bye or eke out a wild card spot to keep their dreams alive of making it to the Super Bowl.
Hey, last year the Packers won it from the last wild card spot, so anything can happen. Well, anything to any team not named the Colts, Rams, Vikings, Bucs, Jaguars and all the other crappy teams with a less than .500 record.
CLINCHED: New England Patriots -- East Division and a first-round bye.
Houston Texans -- South Division.
Baltimore Ravens -- wild-card spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- wild-card spot.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) NE win or tie
2) BAL loss or tie + PIT loss or tie
Baltimore clinches AFC North Division and a first-round bye with:
1) BAL win
2) BAL tie + PIT loss or tie
3) PIT loss
Baltimore clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) BAL win + NE loss
Pittsburgh clinches AFC North Division and a first-round bye with:
1) PIT win + BAL loss or tie
2) PIT tie + BAL loss
Pittsburgh clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) PIT win + BAL loss or tie + NE loss
Denver clinches AFC West Division with:
1) DEN win
2) DEN tie + OAK loss or tie
3) OAK loss
Oakland clinches AFC West Division with:
1) OAK win + DEN loss or tie
2) OAK tie + DEN loss
Oakland clinches a wild-card spot with:
1) OAK win + CIN loss + TEN loss or tie
2) OAK win + CIN loss + NYJ win
Cincinnati clinches a wild card spot with:
1) CIN win or tie
2) NYJ loss or tie + OAK loss or tie
3) NYJ loss or tie + DEN loss or tie
NEW YORK JETS
NY Jets clinch a wild card spot with:
1) NYJ win + CIN loss + TEN loss or tie + OAK loss or tie
2) NYJ win + CIN loss + TEN loss or tie + DEN loss or tie
Tennessee clinches a wild-card spot with:
1) TEN win + CIN loss + NYJ win + OAK loss or tie
2) TEN win + CIN loss + NYJ win + DEN loss or tie
3) TEN win + CIN loss + NYJ loss or tie + OAK win + DEN win
CLINCHED: Green Bay Packers -- North Division and home-field advantage.
San Francisco 49ers -- West Division.
New Orleans Saints -- wild-card spot.
Detroit Lions -- wild-card spot.
Atlanta Falcons -- wild-card spot.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Green Bay clinched home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
San Francisco clinches a first-round bye with:
1) SF win
2) SF tie + one NO loss or tie
3) one NO loss
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinched NFC South Division
New Orleans clinches a first-round bye with:
One NO wis + SF loss or tie
NEW YORK GIANTS
NY Giants clinch NFC East Division with:
1) NYG win or tie
Dallas clinches NFC East Division with:
1) DAL win
The two biggest disappointments not on this list have got to be the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers. Two teams a lot of pundits picked not only to make the playoffs, but to win the Super Bowl have been eliminated two weeks before the playoffs even start.
Lance Moore, will continue his great year as he is officially active for the New Orleans Saints on Monday night.
Moore tweaked his hamstring on Friday and was held out of practice on Saturday, but it seems as though this was more of a precautionary measure. According to reports, Moore was fine in pre-game exercises and looks like he's ready to go.
And the Saints are going to need all the offensive help they can get. As Drew Brees is just 305 yards away from breaking Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season, the Saints are without running back Mark Ingram, OT Will Robinson, TE Mike Higgins and WR Adrian Arrington. The loss of Higgins and Arrington shouldn't affect Brees' high-powered attack too much, and the Saints are so stacked at running back (with Ivory and Sproles) that their running game shouldn't miss a beat, but anytime an offensive lineman goes down, could be a cause for concern.
And this game is important to both the Saints and the Falcons (Brees' record aside). Both teams are jockeying for playoff position. The Saints have a postseason spot sealed up, as do the Falcons after last night's Bears loss, but the Falcons and Saints are vying for the division crown.
The Saints seal it with a win or tie in either one of their remaining games, while Atlanta needs the Saints to lose both games and win both their remaining games. An uphill battle for the Falcons, but a win tonight against New Orleans could make next week's games much more interesting.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers likely tied a bow on this year’s MVP award during a 35–21 victory over the Bears on Christmas night. The 184th meeting of the NFL’s oldest rivals was the only game in town on Sunday, and the Super Bowl XLV MVP made the most of his time with the spotlight to himself — completing 21-of-29 passes for 283 yards, a career-best five TDs and zero INTs in front of the 300th consecutive sellout at Lambeau Field. The victory locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and eliminated Chicago from postseason contention.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts
In what may have been his final game as a member of the Colts at Lucas Oil Field, Wayne had eight catches for 106 yards — only his third 100-yard game of a disappointing season — and the game-winning one-yard TD from Dan Orlovsky with 19 seconds remaining in a 19–16 upset win over the AFC South champion Texans on Thursday night. In the final year of his contract, the 11th-year veteran has snagged two of his four TD catches in Indy’s two straight wins following an 0–13 start this season.
Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots
While Wayne continues to wait for a new deal, Mayo inked a five-year, $50-million contract prior to playing arguably his best game of the season. The 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro middle linebacker had a season-high 13 tackles and a career-best two sacks as the Patriots rallied from a 17–0 halftime deficit to defeat the AFC East rival Dolphins, 27–24. New England has now won seven consecutive games and appears to be a contender once again coming down the stretch.
David Akers, K, 49ers
The 37-year-old veteran kicker hit four FGs — from 53, 29, 44 and 39 yards, respectively — including the go-ahead boot with 2:57 left in a 19–17 defensive win at Seattle. In the process, the 13th-year man, who signed as a free-agent from Philadelphia this offseason, set an NFL record with his 42nd made FG of the season. With one game remaining, Akers is 42-of-49 (85.7 percent) on FGs, with a long of 55 yards, and 30-of-30 on PATs, accounting for a career-best and league-leading 156 points — which is 18 points ahead of the second-best scorer, Saints kicker John Kasay (138).
by Rob Doster
Little Caesars Bowl
Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
Date: Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: Ford Field, Detroit. Mich.
Purdue has a chance to post its first winning season since 2007, and the Boilers face a similar challenge to the one they encountered that season: needing a win in Detroit over a MAC team with a potent offense. That year, Purdue beat Central Michigan 51–48 in the Motor City Bowl, and the Boilers may need a similar offensive output this time around. Purdue, which never won as many as two games in a row during the regular season, ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed (26.4 ppg) but did earn a couple of clutch wins down the stretch to eke out bowl eligibility, most notably a 26–23 overtime win over Ohio State, finishing third in the Leaders Division at a respectable 4–4. Now they face a Western Michigan team that averaged 49.3 ppg over its last four outings, a 3–1 stretch marred only by a 66–63 loss to Toledo.
The game presents an intriguing contrast in styles: Western Michigan's all-out aerial assault against a Purdue team that prefers a more balanced approach. Boilers coach Danny Hope will be feeling the pressure to get that elusive seventh win to turn down the simmering heat starting to build in West Lafayette.
WHEN WESTERN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:
Broncos quarterback Alex Carder is the best player you may never have heard of. The strong-armed junior threw for 3,434 yards and 28 touchdowns, including four games of 400-plus yards and a 548-yard, seven-touchdown performance in the loss to Toledo. Carder, who's battling a shoulder injury, keys a passing attack that produced 329 yards per game, many of them coming on throws to receiver Jordan White, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision in receptions (127) and yards (1,646) and caught 16 touchdown passes. The Broncos' air-oriented offense managed only 127.4 yards per game on the ground, so look for Purdue to try to disguise coverages and dial up pressure packages to hurry Carder into mistakes.
WHEN PURDUE HAS THE BALL:
Stoppable force meets movable object; Purdue ranked 79th nationally in total offense, while Western Michigan ranked No. 100 in total defense. Quarterback Caleb TerBush had an up-and-down season highlighted by a two-touchdown performance in a 21–14 over then-No. 23 Illinois, the Boilers' first win over a ranked opponent of the Danny Hope era. But the Boilers will be wise to establish the ground game to chew clock and keep Carder off the field. Purdue averaged a respectable 174.7 yards per game on the ground and will be facing a run defense that ranked No. 107, yielding 215.9 ypg. However, the Boilermakers will be without running back Ralph Bolden, who suffered a torn ACL in the season finale.
The Broncos' White is a dangerous punt returner as well as receiver, averaging 13.1 yards per return. Purdue's Raheem Mostert ranked eighth nationally in kickoff returns (31.0). Both teams boast reliable kickers in John Potter (Western Michigan), who was 15-of-21, and Carson Wiggs, who was 16-of-21, including a 4-of-4 performance in the bowl-clinching 33–25 win over Indiana.
Western Michigan hasn't beaten a Big Ten team since 2008, losing its last six against its BCS big brothers. That's a significant mental obstacle to overcome, even though this is an eminently winnable game for the Broncos. Look for the Boilers to try to control the game on the ground and limit Carder's opportunities.
Purdue 31, Western Michigan 28
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Louisville (7–5) vs. NC State (7–5)
Date: Dec. 27 at 8 p.m.
Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
We knew Charlie Strong could recruit, and we knew he could run an outstanding defense. Now, we know the man is a terrific head coach. In his second season at Louisville, Strong guided a team that was predicted by most to finish near the bottom of the Big East to a share of the league title. The Cardinals overcame a slow start — they were 2–4 with home losses to FIU and Marshall after six games — and won five of their final six regular-season games, including their final three on the road. An offense that stagnated early in the year scored 27 points or more in four of the final five games.
NC State, too, played well late in the season — and the Pack beat some quality teams along the way. In a five-week span, Tom O’Brien’s club won at Virginia, shut out rival North Carolina, 13–0, and pounded eventual ACC champ, 37–13. This late-season push quieted rumors about O’Brien’s job security; he lost seven games in each of his first three seasons but is 16–9 since the start of the ’10 campaign.
WHEN LOUISVILLE HAS THE BALL:
Strong handed the offense over to true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in early October. The Cards lost Bridgewater’s first three starts — though he played well statistically — then got on a roll in late October beginning with a win at home vs. Rutgers. Bridgewater’s overall numbers won’t wow you — 1,855 yards passing with 12 TDs and nine INTs — but he did a solid job running the offense and did not throw more than one interception in any of his final eight starts.
The Cardinals used three tailbacks throughout the 2011 season, with Dominique Brown (131 attempts), Vic Anderson (99) and Jeremy Wright (72) all getting significant work at various points. Wright was the only U of L back to have more than 100 yards in any game (108 vs. Rutgers). NC State had trouble stopping the run early in the season but did a much better job late in year, holding North Carolina to three yards, Boston College to 72 and Clemson to 34. It will be important for Louisville to run the ball well to take pressure off of Bridgewater, who will be operating against an NC State defense that led the nation with 24 interceptions.
WHEN NC STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Mike Glennon had a fine season, but he is not Russell Wilson — something that NC State fans were reminded of on a weekly basis. Glennon, a junior, threw for 2,790 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first full season as the starter. He was forced to carry much of the load because the Pack struggled to get the running game going. With Mustafa Greene out for the year with a foot injury, James Washington emerged as the primary ball-carrier. He had his moments — 131 yards vs. Georgia Tech, 110 vs. UNC — but he averaged a rather ordinary 4.0 yards per carry.
Statistically, Louisville was among the stingiest defensive teams in the nation, allowing only 19.2 points and 327.8 yards per game, but the Cards did not face too many top-flight offenses. The Pack should be able to move the ball.
Louisville struggled in the return game, averaging only 5.2 yards on punt returns and 22.8 yards on kickoff returns. Chris Philpott converted 11-of-16 field goal attempts.
NC State’s T.J. Graham was one of the top special teams weapons in the ACC. He led the league with a 12.1-yard average on punt returns and ranked fifth in kickoff returns at 22.5.
Bowl games are often about motivation, and both teams should be motivated to play well at the Belk Bowl. NC State has to be feeling pretty good about itself after beating Clemson by 24 and rallying from 27 down in the third quarter to beat Maryland in the final two weeks of the season. Louisville has a ton of momentum as well and is well-positioned for future success in the Big East. The talent level is pretty even between these two teams. If Bridgewater can protect the football, the Cardinals have a great opportunity to win a bowl game for the second straight season.
Louisville 27, NC State 20
Ryan is one of my best friends. He has been an avid sports fan his entire life. Originally from New York, he sticks to his hometown roots when it comes to his favorite teams. In return, I hate them all (with good reason).
You see, while Ryan seems to know his stuff about sports, he seems to lack any and all logical reasoning when it comes to his own teams. Every offseason I hear, “Did you see that move we just made? Dude, no way we don’t win it all.” Seriously, ever single season. Even yesterday as we watched his beloved Knicks on Christmas day, I had to sit and listen to him yap about Melo, Stoudemire, Chandler, and Davis being the best four players in the league. “Dude the NBA finals are ours!”
There’s another Ryan from New York who seems to fit this exact same mold—none other than the New York Jets’ head coach, Rex Ryan.
Over the past few years, Ryan has become infamously known for his pre-game rants about how good his team is and how they are going to kick the other teams a**. No joke, last year before a matchup with the Patriots he claimed he “came [to the Jets] to kick [Bill] Belichick’s a**.”
He continued to display this nonsense we’ve come all too familiar with before Saturday’s game against their inner-city rival, the New York Giants.
“I recognize that they’re an excellent football team,” he said. “But I think we’re better.” It didn’t end there.
“And that’s the truth…I don’t care about Tom Coughlin or anybody else. I know what I believe and I don’t care if it’s acceptable and everybody—I really don’t care. I’m worried about my opinion…I could care less what anybody thinks.”
My point exactly. It’s gotten to the point where Ryan consumes himself with his own opinion. He cares more about what he is going to say to the media than what he will say to his own players. It’s one thing to act cocky in the locker room, I know you have to do that as a head coach, but is it really necessary to publicly guarantee a victory every week?
The past two years, Ryan has told reporters that the Jets will win the Super Bowl. But why bother? We know that is what you are aiming for; every team is trying to win it all. The problem is that Ryan’s trash talking is exactly that—trash. Nothing he says matters anymore.
The Giants ended up beating the Jets, 29-14. After the game, Giants running back, Brandon Jacobs, bumped shoulders with Ryan. The two exchanged some unpleasant words and still did not have pleasant things to say after the altercation.
"They got a big-mouthed coach, a big mouth and a big-bellied coach that talks too much and now it's finally time to shut up," Jacobs said when asked about the incident.
Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ head coach, ignored everything Ryan had to say. “Talk is cheap,” he said. After the game he put it best. “We won the game, and that’s the statement.” Short, sweet, and most importantly, the truth.
The Jets fell to an 8-7 record after the loss. With the final week of the regular season approaching, they no longer control their own destiny for a playoff berth. It’s a long shot to say the least. First, the Jets have to beat the Miami Dolphins who have come alive these last few weeks. Second, they need to start saying some prayers. They need the Bengals to lose to the Ravens AND the Titans to lose to the Texans AND the Raiders to lose to the Chargers. The other way the Jets are in is if the Bengals lose AND the Titans lose AND the Broncos lose to the Chiefs.
You think Rex Ryan will guarantee a playoff berth now?
by Mark Ross
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5)
Date: Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. ET
Location: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
When Missouri and North Carolina meet up on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, La., it will represent more than just the season finale for these two schools. For Missouri, it will be its last game as a member of the Big 12 Conference as the Tigers are headed to the SEC next season. For North Carolina, this will serve as interim head coach Everett Withers’ last game at the helm as former Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora was hired in early December to take over the reigns.
Missouri will enter the SEC next season with a string of seven consecutive bowl appearances, while this represents a fourth straight bowl bid for North Carolina. The Tigers are 3-3 in their previous six bowl games and have lost their lost two, including a 27-24 defeat to Iowa in last year’s Insight Bowl. The Tar Heels are just 1-2 in their last three postseason games with that lone win coming in last year’s Music City Bowl when they beat Tennessee 30-27 in overtime.
Although their overall records are the same at 7-5, Missouri fared better in conference than North Carolina with the Tigers going 5-4 in the Big 12 compared to the Tar Heels’ 3-5 mark in the ACC. The Tigers also are riding a three-game winning streak headed into this game, while the Tar Heels have dropped four of their last six.
Statistically speaking, Missouri comes in with the more productive offense, especially when it comes to the running the ball, while North Carolina’s defense is a little stingier, especially when it comes to stopping the run. See a developing trend here?
Missouri also holds the historical advantage, having beaten North Carolina the previous two times they have played, but the teams have not met since 1976.
WHEN MISSOURI HAS THE BALL
Missouri comes into this game averaging 472.4 yards of total offense, good for 12th in the nation, with it split 50/50 between the run (236.2 yards per game) and pass (236.2 ypg). The Tigers boast the 11th-ranked rushing attack, but will be without its best ball carrier. Sophomore Henry Josey, the team’s leading rusher and a first team All Big 12 selection, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 12 against Texas. Even though he missed more than two games, Josey still led the Big 12 and finished 12th in the nation in rushing with 1,168 yards on just 145 carries, good for a mind-boggling 8.1 yards per carry.
With Josey gone, the rushing duties fall to junior back Kendial Lawrence and sophomore dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. Franklin leads the team in carries with 199 and has gained 839 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. Lawrence has rushed for 263 yards on 50 carries (5.3 ypc) with two touchdowns since becoming the Tigers’ lead running back.
North Carolina has done a good job of stopping the run, giving up an average of 106.2 yards per game, which ranks 14th in the nation. If the Tar Heels can contain the Tigers’ running attack, they will have a better chance of slowing down this potent offense. Key to that effort are defensive linemen Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell. Coples was named All-ACC first team for the second year in a row and with Powell the duo has combined for 96 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 8.5 sacks.
As Missouri’s quarterback, Franklin came into this season having to fill the big shoes of the departed Blaine Gabbert, but the sophomore signal caller has more than shown himself to be capable. Franklin has more touchdown passes (20 to 16), a higher yards/attempt average (7.7 to 6.7), a higher passer rating (141.2 to 127.0), despite attempting more than 120 fewer passes than Gabbert did in 2010.
Franklin also has posted the same completion percentage (63.2 to 63.4) this season when compared to what Gabbert, the 10th overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft, did last season. Add the rushing element and you get the nation’s 15th-ranked player in total offense (297.7 yards per game) and the North Carolina’s primary reason for concern when it comes to defensive game planning.
The Tigers have two viable pass-catching threats in wide receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew. Moe’s numbers are down considerably from last season, when he caught 92 passes for 1,045 yards, but the junior still leads the team with 54 receptions for 649 yards and has scored four times.
Egnew earned first team All Big 12 honors after catching 47 passes for 484 yards with three touchdowns. The senior has the size (6-6, 245), talent and ability to play on Sundays next year and will be a tough test for Carolina’s linebackers and secondary to contain. The Tigers also have Marcus Lucas, a sophomore wideout with good size (6-5) and who led the team with five touchdown receptions.
North Carolina has been susceptible to the pass, giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air, so it will need to stay strong against the run in hopes of keeping Missouri’s offense as one-dimensional as possible. With a dual-threat quarterback like Franklin, however, that is far easier said than done.
WHEN NORTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL
North Carolina’s offense revolves around quarterback Bryn Renner, running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Dwight Jones. Renner, just a sophomore, has established himself as the Tar Heels’ leader in his first season as starter.
He ranks ninth in the country in passing efficiency (161.2 rating), having completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,769 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has bounced back from a two-interception effort against NC State to throw for nearly 500 yards with four touchdowns and just one pick in his last two games combined.
Jones is Renner’s primary target as the senior led the ACC with 79 receptions, was third in receiving yards with 1,119 and tied for the conference lead with 11 touchdown catches. The Tar Heels also have a pair of big play threats on the other side in junior receivers Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd, who have combined for 54 catches, 846 yards and eight touchdowns.
This trio, who each stand 6-2 or taller, has combined to average 14.8 yards per catch. Their size, combined with their speed could prove troublesome for Missouri’s secondary, which has just one defensive back taller than 6-1 listed on its depth chart. Missouri, like Carolina, has also struggled to defend opponents’ aerial attack, giving up a near-identical average of close to 250 passing yards per game.
As far as Carolina’s ground game goes, its head battering ram, if you will, is redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard. He has made quite a first impression as he finished third in the ACC in rushing with a school freshman record 1,222 yards. He has averaged 5.4 yards per carry, rushed for 100 yards or more in seven games and scored a total of 14 touchdowns. Put it all together and you get just the second freshman tailback in school history to earn first team All-ACC honors.
Missouri has been fairly solid against the rush and will need to maintain that consistency to try and limit Bernard and not allow the Carolina offense to sustain drives and stay on the field. Leading the defensive charge for the Tigers is a pair of senior defensive lineman in Jacquies Smith and Dominique Hamilton. Together, they combined for 89 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Across the board, special teams appear to be fairly even with neither team standing out in any one category. Missouri punter Trey Barrow was first in the Big 12 conference and ninth in the nation averaging 45.0 yards per punt, while Carolina’s punter, Thomas Hibbard, averaged 38.4 yards on his punts. However, when you take into consideration net punting averages, the two teams are separated by less than two yards — 37.0 for Missouri, 35.4 for Carolina.
Barrow also took over the placekicking duties after Grant Ressel missed the final five games due to a hip flexor injury. Combined Barrow and Ressel have made just 14 of 23 field goal attempts, with seven of those misses coming from 40 yards or longer. Like Barrow, Carolina’s Casey Moore took over the placekicking duties from Casey Barth early in the season and also has struggled with his accuracy (5 of 9).
Missouri is the better team statistically when it comes to punt returns, averaging 8.9 yards per return compared to Carolina’s meager 4.1. The Tar Heels have the edge when it comes to kickoff returns as their 24.4 yards per return ranks 13th in the nation, while the Tigers are 68th with 21.2 yards per return. North Carolina’s T.J. Thorpe returned a kickoff against Clemson 100 yards for a score, while Missouri’s returned a punt 44 yards for a touchdown against Western Illinois.
Both teams do a good job of limiting return yardage, so unless someone breaks a big one, most of the yards in this game figure to be generated by the offenses.
Besides having the same record (7-5), these two teams are very similar in a number of statistics. They both come into this game giving up an average of 23.5 points per game and aren’t that far apart in scoring offense either (32.2 points per game for Missouri, 28.3 for Carolina). They also are separated by a mere 13 yards per game when it comes to their respective passing attacks.
Missouri’s offense has generated more yards, while Carolina’s defense has surrendered less. Missouri’s running game has been more productive to this point, but the Tigers will be without their all-conference running back, while the Tar Heels will have theirs and also have done a good job of defending the run.
This game most likely will come down to which team’s quarterback plays better and makes fewer mistakes. While both Franklin and Renner have been accurate and productive passers, Franklin brings an additional element with this running ability, similar to two ACC quarterbacks that Carolina faced earlier this season — Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.
In those two games, Boyd and Thomas combined for 602 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns, and not surprisingly, Carolina lost both of these games. Expect a similar script and outcome in this game too.
Missouri 31, North Carolina 24