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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
Ben Roethlisberger has a bad ankle. He didn't blame it for his poor, 3-interception performance against the 49ers last week, but it's going to cause him to be on the bench for the Steelers Week 16 game against the St. Louis Rams.
It's a mixed blessing for Roethlisberger owners. If you somehow managed to pull out a win after his crappy showing last week, at least this week you don't have to struggle with the decision to start him this week and can put all your eggs in your back-up quarterback's basket.
But this also affects Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Charlie Batch will start in Roethlisberger's place. Normally this week, Steelers wide receivers would be salivating to go up against the Rams horrible secondary. All year opposing wideouts have been running up and down the field at will against St. Louis.
Batch is a serviceable quarterback, but he doesn't have the timing that Ben has with his starters. They should do something here and there and put up some points, but not the kind of points you would hope for on championship week.
But, on the flipside, this is great news for Rashard Mendenhall owners. No Ben Roethlisberger means that the Steelers are going to run the ball against a very sketchy run defense all day long. And Mendenhall can put a lot of fantasy teams on his back and take them to a fantasy football crown.
Felix Jones has had an up and down fantasy football season in 2011. And the Cowboys running back is back on a down trend in week 16 against the Eagles.
With Felix Jones' hamstring injury calling him a game-time decision, the Cowboys staff is saying that he won't even play a snap if the Giants win their 1pm game against the New York Jets.
Due to playoff implications, if the Giants win, the Cowboys' game against the Eagles is meaningless, so they'd rather not test him. And as a fantasy owner, you just can't wait to roll the dice on Felix getting on the field.
And even if you could, he wouldn't be a good play given that he's a 50-50 shot to even play. And that has to hurt a lot of fantasy owner's hearts because the Eagles running game has been giving up giant chunks of yards this year to opposing running backs. And when most of them drafted him in the 3rd round of this year's draft, they probably assumed that he would be a big part of their team, especially when it came down to Championship week.
Sammy Morris will play a "significant role" according to Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones, but he's only an option if you are desperate. And if you're that desperate, there's probably a good chance that your team isn't still in the running for a Fantasy Football crown in week 16.
But this is just par for the course for Dallas' running back situation all year. It will be interesting to see how next year's drafts view the worth of Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray.
Since becoming a major player in the New York Giants offense in Week 3, receiver Victor Cruz had his second-lowest output of the season in Week 15 against the Washington Redskins. Not the best time to have a dud for fantasy owners counting on him in their semifinals. But Cruz could be 2-for-2 in coming up short when the Giants face the Jets in Week 16.
Cruz had just 44 yards on five catches and nine targets against the 13th-ranked pass defense of the Redskins. His other dud was a two-catch, 12-yard game against Buffalo in Week 6.
Now Cruz and the Giants face the Jets and their seventh-ranked pass defense.
It is a pass defense that has only allowed nine touchdowns to receivers all season. Two of those came in the Week 1 game against Dallas, three came against Buffalo in Week 12 and only Kansas City’s Jerheme Urban has scored against them in the last three weeks.
Buffalo’s Steve Johnson is the only receiver to gain 70 or more yards on New York since its Week 8 bye. Johnson caught three balls for 84 yards in the Week 9 meeting and 77 yards and a score on four catches in Week 12. Outside of Johnson, Dwayne Bowe came closest to 70 yards when he needed 10 targets to grab six balls for 69 yards in Week 14.
Just since the Jets’ Week 8 bye, here are how a few totals for standout receivers not named Steve Johnson’ totals read out: Vincent Jackson 1-for-15, Wes Welker 6-for-46, Demaryius Thomas 2-for-37, Santana Moss 5-for-42, Jeremy Maclin 3-for-57 and DeSean Jackson 2-for-28.
The Week 15 dud ended a run for Cruz where he had not dipped below double digits since the Week 6 dud. In the seven games between, he scored 124 fantasy points for a 17.7-point per game average.
It’s hard to sit a receiver that has produced 17.7-points per game for a long stretch of the season and had two games above 24 points prior to that, but lower your expectations for Cruz against a Jets team that has been extremely stingy against receivers for a long stretch of the season as well.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Tired of rolling with Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson? Me too.
I’ve held out for as long as I can — you know, until there was one game left in the majority of fantasy football leagues — hoping for the big runs, the string of big games and it just has not happened. Now he’s battling an ankle injury that, while is not expected to keep him out of the Week 16 game against visiting Jacksonville, surely doesn’t give optimism to using arguably fantasy football’s biggest bust of the 2011 season.
As Johnson struggled through the first half of the season, optimists like myself kept saying “just wait until the back half of that schedule and he will go off.” The first seven games he averaged 8.5 fantasy points per game in Athlon’s half-PPR scoring format; the last seven he’s averaged 12.1. A 3.6-point improvement is not the “going off” I was anticipating.
Johnson’s had four games above 100 yards — three coming since Week 10 — but he’s also had nine games below 60 yards — three coming since Week 10.
Last week’s dud against the Indianapolis Colts’ 30th-ranked run defense was the last straw for me — even before news of the ankle injury. And now he faces a Jacksonville team, ranked 14th against the run, which he opened the season against with a nine-carry, 24-yard day. His six catches for 25 yards is the only thing that saved you from a complete bomb from your RB1 in the opening week of the season — and that’s only if you are in PPR leagues.
If you are in PPR leagues, Johnson’s pass-catching abilities have somewhat eased the pain, but not enough to justify how high a draft pick he was in most leagues. He has a career-high 53 catches for 369 yards and no scores.
The only fantasy players probably getting any bang for their draft buck are the ones that drafted early in August while Johnson was in the height of his holdout this summer. They were able to get him in the late second, early third rounds.
Here’s a look at what Johnson’s holdout for $53 million has produced for you in three types of leagues thus far:
Non-PPR: 151.9 (10.85 ppg)
Athlon’s half-PPR: 179.4 (12.8 ppg)
Full-PPR: 205.9 (14.7 ppg)
This is after two years in which he scored 254.9 (15.9 ppg) and 374.7 (23.4 ppg) fantasy points in the Athlon format — and the 254.9 was considered a down year as he was a top-three pick in 2010 drafts.
So starting Johnson against the Jaguars this week comes down to what do you want from him? He’s on a bum ankle that he reportedly is having trouble cutting on, his home field is not the best track to be playing on this time of year and he averages just 12.8 points per game in Athlon’s half-PPR format.
Jacksonville is allowing 16.1 points per game to opposing teams’ lead ball carriers since Week 8. And if it’s worth anything, the only other team Johnson’s faced twice this season is the Colts, who held him to 55 yards last week and 34 in Week 8. So seeing a team a second time didn’t work out too well the first time this season for CJ.
Start Johnson at your own risk, but I’m done waiting on him.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
It’s championship week in fantasy football and we apparently have trust issues with the best back in the NFL. Well, it’s not so much trusting him as much as it is how the team uses him and what is actual health is.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson came back for the first time in three games when the Vikings played host to the New Orleans Saints in Week 15. He had been sidelined due to a high ankle sprain, and was limited to just 10 carries for 60 yards and a six-point fantasy day.
This week, Peterson travels to play a Washington team that has held the last two teams it has played in check rushing wise — New York Giants (91 yards) and New England (71) — but allowed 88 yards and three scores to Shonn Greene three weeks ago, 111 yards rushing and a receiving TD to Marshawn Lynch in Week 12, 47 yards and two scores to Reggie Bush in Week 10 and 107 yards to Frank Gore in Week 9 and 120 yards by Fred Jackson in Week 8.
So the question is two fold: What kind of run defense will the Skins provide and what kind of Peterson will we see?
There were mixed signals about how Peterson would be used heading into the Week 15 game. Coach Leslie Frazier said “we’ll have to kind of work him in there,” and “we’ll have to monitor how he’s doing.” Peterson acknowledged that he wanted to make good for fantasy players that had lost out on the game’s best back during a crucial stretch of the season, and sounded on his end like he was ready to go.
But 10 carries and six points are not going to get it done, particularly when it’s the semifinals of most fantasy football leagues. I guess it was better than the zero he gave us in Week 15 of last season when he was unexpectedly a scratch 45 minutes before kickoff of a Monday night game, leaving owners with a baron RB spot on the roster.
Last week turned out to lean more toward Frazier’s prophecy than Peterson’s assurance that he was ready for a full load. Yes, the Vikings got down early to the Saints and the team wanted to protect Peterson’s ankle, but who’s to say that won’t happen again today in Washington.
Minnesota has the third-highest scoring offense in the first quarter this season with 91 points, but it also allows the second-most first quarter points (92). And 63 of those 92 points allowed have come in the last six games, while the Vikings have mustered just 18 of their 92 first quarter points in the last six games.
That’s a troubling trend to get your running game going.
Peterson has 30 touches for 137 yards in the Vikings’ last six games. So he’s fresh, but is it healthy fresh? He reportedly didn’t look to have the same speed when he broke off a 39-yard run against New Orleans last week. He’s not on the injury report but he also hasn’t said he’s at 100 percent yet — of course no player really is after Week 1.
So last week was the “work him in there” quote about Peterson and this week came another Frazier gem that should scare fantasy owners: “We'd like to give him a few more carries for sure," Frazier said of Peterson. "But we do also want to mix Toby (Gerhart) in there. He did a good job for us. But we do want to get Adrian more carries."
We’d like to? We want to mix in Gerhart? You’re the coach. Just give Peterson the ball, please.
With the lack of conviction I’m hearing from Frazier in getting Peterson the full workload, admittedly wanting Gerhart to get more work than he had when the two backs were healthy, Minnesota possibly getting behind early again like it has in a big way the last six weeks and the Washington defense being relatively solid against fantasy RBs, particularly shared backfields. Peterson is quite a risk this week.
Like I said last week, if he’s out there and going to finish the game you can’t sit the NFL’s best at the position. But if he’s getting 10 carries and not getting into the end zone, under 10 points in the championship game from my No. 1 RB is not what I’m looking for.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Tom Coughlin’s seat isn’t necessarily hot. It’s more like lukewarm heading into the final two games of the NFL season. His bosses don’t want to fire him, and they might use any excuse to keep him.
It’s also possible that they’ll have no choice if he loses his last two games.
That’s the precarious position Coughlin has put himself in with two games to go in the Giants’ season gone wrong, which started at 6-2 and is now in the throes of what Justin Tuck called an “historical” collapse. They are 1-5 in the second half, coming off a hideously pathetic, 23-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. They head into their Christmas Eve showdown against the Jets, facing humiliation and possible elimination.
Coughlin can still survive. There’s a possibility he can even survive if this injury-riddled team doesn’t make the playoffs. But what he can’t survive is the spectre of his team quitting on him down the stretch, the way they did two seasons ago. When they pushed the Green Bay Packers to the final minute and followed that up with a season-saving win in Dallas, it sure didn’t look like they had any quit in them.
Now? Who knows? They’ve been a Jekyll and Hyde team all year long. They’re certainly capable of completely unraveling down the stretch.
And if they do, John Mara and Steve Tisch, the stability-loving owners of the Giants, could be forced into making the decision they don’t want to make. They love Coughlin. They admire his work ethic and preparation. They believe (correctly) the post-2006 version is respected by his players. His teams, for the most part, play the right way and stay in contention. He runs a tight, disciplined ship that rarely gets any unwanted attention.
Sometimes it’s just time for a change, though. But if Mara and Tisch do it, they better have an answer to these two questions:
Is there somebody out there who is a better coach than Coughlin? Do they really think someone could have done any better with this flawed, battered and overrated team?
If they believe the answers are yes, then the shortlist to replace Coughlin could be an incredibly short one -- and really only two or three of the potential candidates have any real appeal. They’d have to look at all the big names, of course, because it’ll be hard to fire a coach with a ring off a near-playoff season and replace him with an unknown assistant. In Pittsburgh, you can do that and cross your fingers that you’ve found Mike Tomlin. In New York you can’t take the chance that you’ve landed Ray Handley instead.
That said, here’s a look at five of the most popular names being kicked around as candidates, mostly outside of the organization. One look at this list, though, and the conclusion might be that if these are the guys on the shortlist, the Giants are better off with what they already have:
He’s No. 1 on everyone’s list outside the organization and he’s likely high on the theoretical list inside, too. He not only has a Super Bowl ring – which seems like a must when you’re replacing a Super Bowl-winning coach -- but he has a high profile and he worked for the Rooney family in Pittsburgh, which isn’t insignificant given the Rooney’s close (and family) ties to the Mara’s. He would bring instant stability, respect, credibility and he can coach, too.
Maybe the only other candidate that fits the Giants’ profile. He coached for a long, long time in Tennessee and showed a remarkable resiliency. Whenever his teams seemed to be on a downward spiral, he found a way to turn things around. He never won a Super Bowl, but he got there (and got within a yard of winning it). Mara also knows him well from their years serving together on the NFL’s Competition Committee. The only worry is that his long term in Tennessee included a battle with a general manager and ended with him fighting with his owner over a franchise quarterback he didn’t want.
He’s the last of the Big Three on the market – the three replacement coaches the fans seem to talk about most – but he seems to be the least likely. He certainly can coach, but he brings some baggage that includes the ugly end of his tenures in both Oakland and Tampa Bay. There wasn’t a lot of winning near the end in Tampa, either. But the thing that might frighten the Giants away the most is that he’s outspoken and a bit high-octane. They prefer a more quiet, professional perception of their coach.
There was a time when many people assumed he’d be the next coach of the Giants when Coughlin retired, and the Giants’ owners still like and respect “Spags.” He might even be a candidate to return as defensive coordinator if Coughlin stays and fires defensive coordinator Perry Fewell (which seems to be a longshot). The problem with Spagnuolo as head coach is the Giants can’t fire a Super Bowl-winning coach and replace him with a lesser coach who failed to win in St. Louis in the wide-open NFC West.
OK, they’re probably not going to hire a 64-year-old coach to replace a 65-year-old coach. But you know why he makes sense? Because he fits the Giants’ profile. Their hires over the last 30 years have either been high-profile head coaches from elsewhere (Dan Reeves) or former Giants assistants they got to know and respect while they were in New York (Bill Parcells, Ray Handley, Jim Fassel, Tom Coughlin). Things have changed in the organization – most notably ownership, because this would be the first hire since Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch passed away – but Crennel did get an interview when the Giants hired Coughlin and could get a look again. Of course, he’d only be a short-term solution, and he might end up as the head coach of the Chiefs. But he does fit the old profile, and since John Fox and Sean Payton have jobs and will keep them, very few other candidates do.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and now Matt Barkley. USC’s recent tradition of quarterbacks sticking around for their senior season continued on Thursday with Matt Barkley’s announcement that he will return for one more year in Los Angeles.
After throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns, there was a lot of doubt that Barkley would return for another season. However, the opportunity to contend for a national title was too much to pass up. Barkley was expected to be the No. 2 quarterback selected in the 2012 draft, but could move to the top of the wishlist for teams wishing to take a signal-caller in 2013.
Barkley’s decision to return to the Trojans is huge for their national championship hopes. USC’s two-year bowl ban is over and with most of its core returning, this may be the Trojans best shot at winning a title until the scholarship reductions are over. USC didn’t make it through the offseason without a few departures to the NFL. Two key players - offensive tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry - will enter the draft.
Although the Trojans have to replace Kalil, four starters return on the offensive line. Also, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods headline one of the nation’s top receiving corps. The defense showed big improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin, and the back seven will remain intact. Replacing Perry and defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris are going to be the biggest question marks entering the 2012 season.
In Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012, USC checks in at No. 2. The Trojans aren’t without flaws, but considering what is coming back, they look like one of the team’s to beat next season. Could we see a Lane Kiffin vs. the SEC in the national title? It certainly isn't out of the question. Additionally, USC is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South.
USC’s 2012 Schedule
Non-Conference: Hawaii, Syracuse (at New Jersey) and Notre Dame
Conference Home: Arizona State, California, Colorado and Oregon
Conference Away: Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington
Here’s an early outlook for the rest of the teams in the Pac-12 South for 2012:
Arizona: New coach Rich Rodriguez was a terrific hire, but it may take a year or two to get his players in place. The Wildcats will have to transition from a pass-first offense, but Matt Scott is a good building block at quarterback. Rodriguez has yet to hire a defensive coordinator, which will be the most important addition to his staff. The Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rush, total and scoring defense – something that cannot happen if they want to contend for the conference title in 2012. Considering the change in schemes, it may be difficult for Arizona to compete with USC for the Pac-12 title next year.
Arizona State: After a promising 6-2 start, the Sun Devils finished the year with a dud, which also cost coach Dennis Erickson his job. New coach Todd Graham is bringing his brand of high-octane football from Pittsburgh and there are some nice pieces in place for the offense next season. Quarterback Brock Osweiler should get better with another set of spring practices, and running back Cameron Marshall is also back for his senior year. The defense loses some key players, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict will likely declare for the NFL Draft. Just like rival Arizona, the Sun Devils may need a year or two to adjust to Graham’s schemes. However, if Osweiler and Marshall quickly pick up the offense, Arizona State should contend for a finish in the top three of the Pac-12 South.
Colorado: After a 3-10 season, coach Jon Embree has a lot of work to do in his second year in Boulder. The Buffaloes have a lot of holes to fill, starting on offense with the departure of quarterback Tyler Hansen. Running back Rodney Stewart has also finished his eligibility. Receiver Paul Richardson is a good building block on offense, but can Colorado get him the ball? The Buffaloes also need to show improvement on defense if they want to make a bowl. Although it’s very early, Colorado is likely to be picked last in the Pac-12 South next season.
UCLA: If there’s a mystery team to watch in the Pac-12 South, the Bruins would be the choice. New coach Jim Mora does not have any collegiate head coaching experience, but is putting together quite a staff. Can UCLA put everything together and contend for the conference title next season? It’s unlikely the Bruins can beat out USC, but there is talent returning. Settling on a quarterback for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread offense is going to be critical for UCLA next season.
Utah: The Utes’ first year in the Pac-12 wasn’t bad (7-5), but losing to Colorado in the regular season finale cost them a chance to play in the conference title game. Although the division wasn’t overwhelmingly difficult, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit, especially after losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the season. The Utes have some holes to fill, starting with offensive coordinator, as Norm Chow has departed to be the head coach at Hawaii. Although the quarterback position needs to be sorted out, running back John White is back after rushing for 1,404 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The offensive line also loses both tackles. Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and this unit figures to rank among the best in the conference next season.
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 16, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Texans (10-4) at Colts (1-13)
In Week 1, Houston handed Indianapolis its first of 13 consecutive losses, with a 34–7 blowout. But the Colts ride into this Thursday nighter fresh off their first victory, while the Texans had their seven-game win streak snapped.
Texans by 6
Broncos (8-6) at Bills (5-9)
Tim Tebow goes on the road again, where the frequent-flying Superman is a perfect 5–0 — with eight passing TDs and zero INTs.
Broncos by 4
Dolphins (5-9) at Patriots (11-3)
Miami lost to New England, 38–24, in Week 1; this may be déja vu all over again for the Fins.
Patriots by 10
Browns (4-10) at Ravens (10-4)
Baltimore must bounce back after a 34–14 loss at San Diego on Sunday night. A visit from the Browns — a rival the Ravens beat 24–10 in Week 13 — will cure what ails Ray Lewis.
Ravens by 9
Raiders (7-7) at Chiefs (6-8)
Kansas City interim coach Romeo Crennel is 1–0 after knocking off the Packers. But the likeable defensive guru needs to win out if he hopes to remain the head Chief at Arrowhead.
Chiefs by 1
Vikings (2-12) at Redskins (5-9)
Adrian Peterson is toughing it out for his fantasy team owners; but he might want to rest his left ankle for his real team owner Zygi Wilf.
Redskins by 4
Cardinals (7-7) at Bengals (8-6)
Two top rookies — Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson and Cincy wideout A.J. Green — go toe-to-toe in a matchup of future Pro Bowlers.
Bengals by 3
Rams (2-12) at Steelers (10-4)
St. Loser aims to match its season-opening, season-long six-game losing streak this week.
Steelers by 11
Buccaneers (4-10) at Panthers (5-9)
Three weeks ago, Cam Newton marched to Tampa Bay and handed the Bucs a 38–19 loss. Get ready for the rookie’s first season sweep.
Panthers by 9
Giants (7-7) at Jets (8-6)
The battle of the Big Apple is technically an “away” game for the Giants, even though it will be played in the same stadium Big Blue plays their home games in. This is a must-win for both of East Rutherford, New Jersey’s teams.
Giants by 2
Jaguars (4-10) at Titans (7-7)
Tennessee gave Indianapolis its first win of the season; the Titans need to avenge that defeat plus their 16–14 Week 1 loss at Jacksonville.
Titans by 8
Chargers (7-7) at Lions (9-5)
The Bolts are surging in December once again, shocking the league with a three-game win streak after a six-game slide earlier this year.
Lions by 2
Eagles (6-8) at Cowboys (8-6)
Big D can win and get in (with a Giants loss). A Boys loss (and G-Men win) would result in a playoff play-in next week in the season finale.
Cowboys by 1
49ers (11-3) at Seahawks (7-7)
Before Niners boss Jim Harbaugh had his postgame handshake issues with the Lions’ Jim Schwartz, the former Stanford coach was asked “What’s your deal?” at midfield after upsetting then-USC coach Pete Carroll. These two bring a collegiate energy to an NFC West rivalry.
49ers by 5
Bears (7-7) at Packers (13-1)
The only Christmas Sunday game on the NFL schedule is the league’s oldest rivalry — but not necessarily this season’s best matchup. The 184th meeting of the Bears and Packers is a rematch of a Week 3 contest Green Bay won 27–17 against a Chicago club that had a healthy Jay Cutler. Following their first loss of the year, the Packers will be eager to Lambeau Leap as many times as possible on Xmas.
Packers by 11
Falcons (9-5) at Saints (11-3)
Atlanta coach Mike Smith was widely criticized by Monday morning, armchair quarterbacks after going for it, and subsequently failing to convert, on 4th-and-1 in overtime of a 26–23 loss to New Orleans in Week 10. Since then, the Falcons are 4–1; but the Saints are 4–0.
Saints by 7
Last week: 9-7 // Season: 151-73
Stephen A. Smith spends a lot of time on ESPN's First Take arguing with Skip Bayless. For those of you who have seen Skip, you can see why he can try Stephen A's patience (although Stephen A. also holds his own in the patience-trying department.)
So here's a gallery of Stephen A. Smith's various faces he makes as he's trying to argue or listen to Skip Bayless. Most of these screenshots are from ESPN First Take. As you can see, his face ranges from exasperated to angry to completely perplexed at what comes out of Skip's mouth.
Stephen A. Smith should go into acting because he's got the facial expression range of a classically trained actor. I've never seen a face express so much emotion and pain, and he's only talking about sports. But I guess Skip Bayless can do that to someone.
-by Braden Gall (follow him @BradenGall)
The BCS is wrapping up its 14th season of action and Athlon Sports is continuing its series of BCS rankings. We ranked the best performances of each BCS bowl game and we ranked the best teams of each BCS conference. Now, we break down the top defensive units of the BCS era (1998-present).
Statistics, awards, championships and NFL talent were all considered and evaluated in order to label the Top 10 defenses of the BCS era. Teams from 2011 were not eligible, otherwise the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide (with a win over LSU in the title game) might be the best defense of the BCS Era. They lead the nation in every major defensive team statistic — and have allowed more than 60 fewer yards per game than the outstanding LSU unit it will be facing in New Orleans. Their 8.8 points allowed per game are the best of the BCS era thus far.
Related: The Worst BCS Bowl Performances
Related: The Greatest BCS Offenses of the BCS Era
Related: The Greatest Non-BCS Offenses of the BCS Era
Others receiving votes: 1998 Ohio State, 1999 Nebraska, 2000 TCU, 2001 Texas, 2002 Kansas State, 2002 USC, 2004 USC, 2005 Virginia Tech, 2006 LSU, 2007 Virginia Tech, 2008 Florida, 2009 Texas
10. TCU Horned Frogs, 2010 (13-0)
Head Coach: Gary Patterson
Rushing Defense: 99.7 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 128.8 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 228.5 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 12.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 22 (59th)
Sacks: 2.1 spg (54th)
NFL Draft Picks: Colin Jones (6th, 2011), Malcolm Williams (7th, 2011)
You have to throw the "little guy" a bone after one of the best defensive seasons by any team ever. TCU held eight opponents to 10 points or less including four who failed to score a touchdown. Led by Rose Bowl MVP and All-America linebacker Tank Carder, the Frogs topped Big Ten champ Wisconsin in the 21-19 Granddaddy of Them All. By holding Johnny Unitas Award winner Scott Tolzien to 159 yards and no scores, TCU finished the best season in school history unbeaten and ranked first in the nation in scoring and total defense.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2009 (10-4)
Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Rushing Defense: 93. 1 ypg (9th)
Passing Defense: 178.9 ypg (18th)
Total Defense: 272.0 ypg (7th)
Scoring Defense: 10.4 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 28 (21st)
Sacks: 3.1 spg (2nd)
NFL Draft Picks: Ndamukong Suh (1st, 2010), Phillip Dillard (4th, 2010), Larry Asante (5th, 2010), Prince Amukamara (1st, 2011), Dejon Gomes (5th, 2011), Eric Hagg (7th, 2011)
You could make the case that the 1999 version of the Black Shirts could be on this list as well. But from a talent perspective, it is tough to argue with the way the 2009 group played, as they finished one second away from defeating National runner-up Texas in the Big 12 title game. The D-line included Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick, Barry Turner and Pierre Allen. The linebacking corps featured Phillip Dillard and Larry Asante, and the secondary featured Eric Hagg, Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard. This team allowed more than 20 points only one time and ten times did Nebraska hold the opposition to 13 or fewer points. Six players have already been drafted off of the 2009 defense. This team led the nation in scoring defense and finished second in sacks.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes, 2007 (11-2)
Head Coach: Jim Tressel
Rushing Defense: 82.9 ypg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 150.1 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 233.0 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 12.8 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 19 (93rd)
Sacks: 3.3 spg (6th)
NFL Draft Picks: Vernon Gholston (1st, 2008), Larry Grant (7th, 2008), Malcolm Jenkins (1st, 2009), James Laurinaitis (2nd, 2009), Donald Washington (4th, 2009), Marcus Freeman (5th, 2009), Thaddeus Gibson (4th, 2010), Doug Worthington (7th, 2010), Kurt Coleman (7th, 2010), Austin Spitler (7th, 2010), Cam Heyward (1st, 2011), Chimdi Chekwa (4th, 2011), Jermale Hines (5th, 2011), Brian Rolle (6th, 2011), Ross Homan (6th, 2011)
The nation's best defense was one great performance away from being immortalized in Ohio State lore. With a roster loaded with NFL talent, the Buckeyes held LSU to only 326 yards in the BCS National Championship game, but fell short 38-24. Nagurski Trophy (2006) and Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis set a BCS bowl record with 18 tackles in the loss. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock won the Broyles Award and corner Malcolm Jenkins went on to win the Thorpe Award the following year. This defense featured 15 draft picks, including three first-rounders.
7. Florida Gators, 2006 (13-1)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Rushing Defense: 72.5 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 116.3 ypg (33rd)
Total Defense: 466.9 ypg (6th)
Scoring Defense: 13.5 ppg (6th)
Turnovers Forced: 29 (17th)
Sacks: 2.4 spg (35th)
NFL Draft Picks: Reggie Nelson (1st, 2007), Jarvis Moss (1st, 2007), Ray McDonald (3rd, 2007), Marcus Thomas (4th, 2007), Joe Cohen (4th, 2007), Ryan Smith (6th, 2007), Brandon Siler (7th, 2007), Derrick Harvey (1st, 2008), Jermaine Cunningham (2nd, 2010), Brandon Spikes (2nd, 2010)
The 2006 Gators defense put together one of the greatest BCS Championship game performance against the favored Buckeyes and Heisman winner Troy Smith. Smith threw for 35 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and was sacked five times. An NFL-laden defense held the OSU rushing attack to 47 yards on 23 carries. Ohio State totaled 82 yards of offense in the 41-14 beatdown as the Gators claimed the Crystal Ball. Derrick Harvey led the way with the No. 12-rated BCS Championship Game performance with a BCS NCG record three sacks to go with his four solo stops and a forced fumble. This team featured seven defensive draft picks the following spring in 2007.
6. Tennessee Volunteers, 1998 (12-0)
Head Coach: Phil Fulmer
Rushing Defense: 93.9 ypg
Passing Defense: 209.1 ypg
Total Defense: 303.0 ypg
Scoring Defense: 15.3 ppg
Turnovers Forced: 16 INT
NFL Draft Picks: Al Wilson (1st, 1999), Steve Johnson (6th, 1999), Corey Terry (7th, 1999), Shaun Ellis (1st, 2000), Raynoch Thompson (2nd, 2000), Dwayne Goodrich (2nd, 2000), Deon Grant (2nd, 2000), Darwin Walker (3rd, 2000), Eric Westmoreland (3rd, 2001), Will Overstreet (3rd, 2002)
Possibly the most talented Tennessee team in program history finished a dream season by winning the Fiesta Bowl 23-16 over Florida State in the first-ever BCS Championship Game. A front seven that featured eventual draft picks Shaun Ellis, Darwin Walker, Corey Terry, Billy Ratliff and Will Overstreet along the line and Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson and Eric Westmoreland in the linebacking corps held 10 opponents to 18 points or less — including No. 2 Florida, No. 7 Georgia, No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State.
5. USC Trojans, 2008 (12-1)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll
Rushing Defense: 87.4 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 134.4 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 221.8 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 9.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 29 (20th)
Sacks: 2.2 spg (40th)
NFL Draft Picks: Clay Matthews (1st, 2009), Brian Cushing (1st, 2009), Rey Maualuga (2nd, 2009), Fili Moala (2nd, 2009), Kaluka Maiava (4th, 2009), Kyle Moore (4th, 2009), Cary Harris (6th, 2009), Kevin Ellison (6th, 2009), Taylor Mays (2nd, 2010), Kevin Thomas (3rd, 2010), Everson Griffin (4th, 2010), Jurrell Casey (3rd, 2011), Shareece Wright (3rd, 2011), Malcolm Smith (7th, 2011)
There were eight NFL draft picks who departed from this defense following the near national championship campaign of 2008. Fourteen total players have found their way to the NFL, and that number is only going to increase next spring. An early road upset at the hands of Oregon State kept the best linebacking corps of the BCS era from claiming a spot in the BCS NCG. This group pitched three shutouts and held the opposition to 10 points or less eight times; only three times did a team score more than 10 points. The 9.0 points per game are a current BCS era scoring record (Alabama could break that this season). Team leader Rey Maualuga claimed the Chuck Bednarik Award.
4. Oklahoma Sooners, 2000 (13-0)
Head Coach: Bob Stoops
Rushing Defense: 108.2 ypg (23rd)
Passing Defense: 170.8 ypg (9th)
Total Defense: 278.9 ypg (8th)
Scoring Defense: 16.0 ppg (7th)
Turnovers Forced: 33 (5th)
NFL Draft Picks: Torrance Marshall (3rd, 2001), Roy Williams (1st, 2002), Rocky Calmus (3rd, 2002), Andre Woolfolk (1st, 2003), Jimmy Wilkerson (6th, 2003), Teddy Lehman (2nd, 2004), Derrick Strait (3rd, 2004)
This team was not the most impressive statistically, but featured two Butkus Award winners (Rocky Calmus, Teddy Lehman), two Thorpe Award winners (Roy Williams, Derrick Strait), a Nagurski winner (Williams), and what was probably the best defensive championship performance of all time. The Sooners held the nation's No. 1 overall offense and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke to zero points and only 301 yards of offense (nearly 250 yards below their season average). Linebacker Torrance Marshall led the way with No. 4-rated BCS NCG game performance with six tackles and an interception en route to the Orange Bowl MVP trophy. Safety J.T. Thatcher and linebacker Calmus were All-Americans, while Lehman was a freshman All-American. Williams was one of the most impactful and hardest-hitting college players this writer has ever seen.
3. LSU Tigers, 2003 (13-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Rushing Defense: 67.0 ypg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 185.0 ypg (18th)
Total Defense: 252.0 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 11.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 33 (9th)
NFL Draft Picks: Marquise Hill (2nd, 2004), Chad Lavalais (5th, 2004), Marcus Spears (1st, 2005), Corey Webster (2nd, 2005), Travis Daniels (4th, 2005), Kyle Williams (5th, 2006), Melvin Oliver (6th, 2006), LaRon Landry (1st, 2007)
One of the nastiest defensive lines ever assembled featured NFL draft picks Marquise Hill, Chad Lavalais, Marcus Spears, Kyle Williams and Melvin Oliver. At 11.0 points per game, LSU led the nation in scoring defense, allowing only one team (Arkansas, 24) to score more than 19 points in any game. Only Florida (19) scored more than 14 points against this defensive unit. In the biggest game for the Bayou Bengals in 40 years, this defense squared off against Heisman winner Jason White of Oklahoma and flat-out dominated. White averaged 292 yards per game in '03, but mustered only 102 yards on 13-of-37 passing with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions — one of which Spears returned for a touchdown that eventually proved to be the game-winner.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2009 (13-0)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Rushing Defense: 78.1 ypg (2nd)
Passing Defense: 166.0 ypg (10th)
Total Defense: 244.1 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 11.7 ppg (2nd)
Turnovers Forced: 31 (10th)
Sacks: 2.3 spg (40th)
NFL Draft Picks: Rolando McClain (1st, 2010), Kareem Jackson (1st, 2010), Javier Arenas (2nd, 2010), Terrence Cody (2nd, 2010), Marquis Johnson (7th, 2010), Brandon Deaderick (7th, 2010), Marcell Dareus (1st, 2011)
The undefeated national champions won big in 2009 because of a stacked NFL defense. This outfit was led by Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain and a stellar defensive line headlined by Mount Cody and Marcell Dareus. Do-everything corner Javier Arenas not only covered the opponent's top receiver and snagged five interceptions, but he also was a dyanamic pass-rusher (five sacks) and game-changing return specialist. Despite knocking Colt McCoy out of the National Championship game and claiming the Crystal Ball, the signature performance by this unit came against an unbeaten Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators team in the SEC title game. The Tide held the Gators to only 88 yards rushing, 13 first downs and only 13 points in a title-clinching win. This defense has already seen seven players drafted, and that number will continue to rise this spring as Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron (who led the SEC in INTs in 2009), Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw could all grade out as early round picks.
1. Miami Hurricanes, 2001 (12-0)
Head Coach: Larry Coker
Rushing Defense: 132.7 ypg (40th)
Passing Defense: 138.2 ypg (2nd)
Total Defense: 270.9 ypg (6th)
Scoring Defense: 9.4 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 45 (1st)
NFL Draft Picks: Phillip Buchanon (1st, 2002), Ed Reed (1st, 2002), Mike Rumph (1st, 2002), James Lewis (6th, 2002), Jerome McDougle (1st, 2003), William Joseph (1st, 2003), Andrew Williams (3rd, 2003), Jamaal Green (4th, 2003), Matt Walters (5th, 2003), Sean Taylor (1st, 2004), Jonathan Vilma (1st, 2004), Vince Wilfork (1st, 2004), D.J. Williams (1st, 2004), Darrell McClover (7th, 2004), Alfonso Marshall (7th, 2004), Antrel Rolle (1st, 2005)
Imagine trying to design a passing attack to beat a secondary that featured Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Phillip Buchanon, Mike Rumph, James Lewis, Alfonoso Marshall and Antrel Rolle. How about a rushing attack to penetrate a D-Line with Jerome McDougle, William Joseph, Vince Wilfork, Matt Walters, Jamaal Green and Andrew Williams? And to top it all off, the linebackering corps running around between the two boasted names like Vilma, Williams and McClover. Simply put, this team is one of the greatest groups ever assembled. They started things off by going to Happy Valley and dominating Penn State 33-7, which tied the record for the Nittany Lions’ worst home loss under Joe Paterno. Later on, the Canes defeated No. 14 Syracuse and No. 12 Washington in consecutive weeks at the Orange Bowl with a combined score of 124-7, which set the NCAA record for largest margin of victory over consecutive ranked opponents. They capped things off by dismantling the No. 4 Nebraska Cornhuskers 37-14 in the Rose Bowl, in a game where they held a 34-0 lead in the first half. Miami pitched three shutouts and held eight opponents to seven points or fewer. Later, the Canes claimed 10 first-round draft picks on defense.
2011's Top 5 Defenses:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1)
Rushing Defense: 74.9 ypg (1st)
Passing Defense: 116.3 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 191.3 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 8.8 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 18 (85th)
Sacks: 2.2 spg (36th)
Key Player: Courtney Upshaw finished second in SEC in TFL and fourth in sacks.
2. LSU Tigers (13-0, 9-0*)
Rushing Defense: 85.5 ypg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 166.6 ypg (9th)
Total Defense: 252.1 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 10.5 ppg (2nd)
Turnovers Forced: 30 (9th)
Sacks: 2.9 spg (13th)
Key Player: Morris Claiborne led the team in INTs and marked the opponents top player.
3. Michigan State Spartans (10-3, 7-2*)
Rushing Defense: 104.3 ypg (12th)
Passing Defense: 168.4 ypg (12th)
Total Defense: 272.7 ypg (5th)
Scoring Defense: 17.5 ppg (9th)
Turnovers Forced: 22 (49th)
Sacks: 3.1 (7th)
Key Player: Jerel Worthy earned first-team All-America honors.
4. Florida State Seminoles (8-4, 5-3)
Rushing Defense: 81.8 ypg (2nd)
Passing Defense: 192.8 ypg (19th)
Total Defense: 274.6 ypg (6th)
Scoring Defense: 15.2 ppg (4th)
Turnovers Forced: 20 (65th)
Sacks: 3.0 (9th)
Key Player: Brandon Jenkins led the team in sacks and TFL.
5. Georgia Bulldogs (10-3, 7-2*)
Rushing Defense: 103.4 ypg (9th)
Passing Defense: 165.1 ypg (8th)
Total Defense: 268.5 ypg (3rd)
Scoring Defense: 19.6 ppg (17th)
Turnovers Forced: 29 (13th)
Sacks: 2.6 spg (22nd)
Key Player: Jarvis Jones led SEC in sacks and TFL.
Athlon Sports Ranks the Best Teams in Every BCS League:
The Top 10 Big East Teams of the BCS Era
The Top 10 ACC Teams of the BCS Era
The Top 10 Big Ten Teams of the BCS Era
The Top 10 Pac-12 Teams of the BSC Era
The Top 10 Big 12 Teams of the BCS Era
The Top 10 SEC Teams of the BCS Era
Athlon Sports Ranks the Top Performances from each BCS Bowl:
We rank enough players at each position to appease everyone from those in 8-team leagues to 16-team leagues, those that can start two QBs, two TEs, three RBs and four WRs. We cut out the rest, because if you're looking at who the 50th-best running back or the 17th-best kicker is for that week, you need more help than any Website can give you. Click here for all of our fantasy football rankings each week.
These rankings are our suggestions, but of course as always: You are responsible for setting your own lineup.
2011 NFL Week 16 Fantasy Football Rankings
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
0 points allowed = 12 points
1-6 points allowed = 10 points
7-13 points allowed = 8 pts
14-20 points allowed = 6 points
21-27 points allowed = 2 pts
28+ points allowed = 0 points
Safeties = 2 points
Fumbles recovered = 2 points
Interceptions = 2 points
Sacks = 1 point
Defensive/Special Teams TDs = 6 points
PATs = 1 point
39 yards and under = 3 points
40-49 yards = 4 points
50-59 yards = 5 points
60+ yards = 6 points
by Nathan Rush
Southern Miss (11–2) vs. Nevada (7–5)
Date: Dec. 24, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Well, Southern Miss and Nevada will do just that when the Hawaii Bowl kicks off as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
This is the 10th anniversary of the Hawaii Bowl. Nevada is making its third appearance — having defeated Central Florida, 49–48 in overtime, in 2005 and lost to SMU, 45–10, in 2009. Meanwhile, this is Southern Miss’ first postseason trip to the island of Oahu.
The stars come out to shine in the Hawaii Bowl, whose past MVPs include local Hawaii record-breaking quarterbacks Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, as well as Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, Central Florida’s Brandon Marshall and East Carolina’s Chris Johnson, who broke the NCAA bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards in 2007.
USM coach Larry Fedora will pace the sidelines for the final time for the Golden Eagles before taking over at North Carolina. On the other side, 65-year-old Chris Ault still has a few bullets left in the old Pistol offense in his 27th non-consecutive season leading the Wolf Pack. Although Ault has a 226–102–1 record all-time — leading Nevada from Division II to I-AA to I-A in the Big Sky, Big West and WAC — he is only 2–6 in bowl games.
WHEN SOUTHERN MISS HAS THE BALL:
The Conference USA champs ran circles around the nation’s No. 1-ranked offense, Houston, winning 49–28 en route to Southern Miss’ first Conference USA title since 2003.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Austin Davis leads a balanced attack that features several athletic playmakers. Davis passed for 3,331 yards, 28 TDs and 11 INTs this season, while scrambling for another 332 yards and four scores on the ground. Davis was recently awarded the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given annually to the nation’s top player who started his career as a walk-on.
Top receiver Ryan Balentine (742 yards, 8 TDs) and leading rusher Jamal Woodyard (683 yards) are impressive, but the Golden Eagles’ top all-around threat is Tracy Lampley, who accounted for 999 total yards and six TDs this season — saving his best performance for crunch time, with six catches for 125 yards and two TDs, and 14 carries for 71 yards in the title-clinching win at Houston.
The Wolf Pack ranked 52nd in total defense and 58th in scoring defense (25.25 ppg) this season. Senior end Brett Roy has been a terror off the edge, with 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. But Nevada has produced little pressure (22 total sacks) outside of Roy. But corners Khalid Wooten (4 INTs) and Isaiah Frey (5 INTs) have proven capable cover men and ball-hawks.
WHEN NEVADA HAS THE BALL:
After losing all-everything quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who was a second-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers after becoming the only FBS quarterback in history to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards — there were many question marks surrounding the Wolf Pack offense heading into this season.
But the QB combo of Cody Fajardo (1,647 passing yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs; 680 rush yards, 11 TDs) and Tyler Lantrip (1,496 passing yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs) proved effective. A left ankle injury kept star freshman Fajardo out of the season finale, allowing Lantrip his Senior Night start — which he made the most of, completing 24-of-31 passes for 340 yards, four TDs and zero INTs in a 56–3 win over Idaho.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the ball is going to star wideout Rishard Matthews, who had 91 catches for 1,364 yards and eight TDs this year. On the ground, Lampford Mark (728 yards, 8 TDs) will be more of a feature back following the dismissal of Mike Ball (704 yards), the team’s second leading rusher.
As usual, Southern Miss has fringe-SEC talent and speed on defense. Sophomore cornerback Deron Wilson likely will be lined up on Matthews. Wilson has made teams pay for testing his side of the field, with four INTs for 114 return yards and two TDs — his second straight season with two defensive TDs. All of the Eagles know how to fly to the house, however, as USM has 18 total INTs for 513 return yards (28.5 ypr) and eight pick-sixes this season.
Southern Miss scored on a blocked punt against Houston, and notched three punt-return TDs by three different Eagles this year. Kick coverage has been an issue, as USM allowed two kick return TDs. Kicker Danny Hrapmann is inconsistent and has limited range.
For Nevada, Matthews is a dangerous punt returner, with a 13.3-yard average and one TD. Field goal kicking is a weakness for the Wolf Pack, with three kickers combining to connect on 13-of-19, while going just 2-of-7 from 30 or more yards.
The Golden Eagles are soaring into the Hawaii Bowl as unexpected Conference USA champs. The Wolf Pack should just be happy to hang their stockings on a coconut tree while vacationing on Christmas Island. Fedora’s final game at Southern Miss will end in a Gatorade bath.
Southern Miss 38, Nevada 27