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

The start of the 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to take a look at the schedules and examine some of the key matchups and notes for each team. The Big East is the final BCS conference to release its schedule, and due to conference realignment and trouble finding a FBS opponent, Temple may only play 11 games in 2012. 

Here's a look at the schedule and some interesting notes, observations and games to watch for each of the Big East teams in 2012:

Cincinnati 

Sept. 1 Bye Week
Sept. 6 Pittsburgh
Sept. 15 Delaware State
Sept. 22 Bye Week
Sept. 29 Virginia Tech (Landover)
Oct. 6 Miami, Ohio
Oct. 13 Fordham
Oct. 20 at Toledo
Oct. 27 at Louisville
Nov. 3 Syracuse
Nov. 10 at Temple
Nov. 17 Rutgers
Nov. 23 USF
Dec. 1 at Connecticut

* Things get started in odd fashion for Cincinnati. The Bearcats start the year with a bye week (never a good thing) before opening the year against conference contender Pittsburgh on a Thursday night. To top it off, Cincy gets its second bye week out of the way by Week 4 of the season. This gives Butch Jones 10 straight weeks of football — all starting with a visit from ACC frontrunner Virginia Tech.

* Of the four other top conference contenders, Cincinnati plays only Louisville on the road. The Bearcats get USF, Pittsburgh and Rutgers at home this fall. In fact, Jones’ squad will only leave the confines of Nippert Stadium four times and will leave the state of Ohio only three times all season.

* If it expects to compete for a Big East title, Cincinnati will have to get work done early. It will face Pitt and Louisville in the first two conference games of the year. Syracuse, Temple and Connecticut — and two home games against USF and Rutgers — are the final five games of the season. An 0-2 start in league play could seal the Bearcats fate.

Connecticut 

Aug. 30 UMass
Sept. 8 NC State
Sept. 15 at Maryland
Sept. 22 at Western Michigan
Sept. 29 Buffalo
Oct. 6 at Rutgers
Oct. 13 Temple
Oct. 19 at Syracuse
Oct. 27 Bye Week
Nov. 3 at USF
Nov. 9 Pittsburgh
Nov. 17 Bye Week
Nov. 24 at Louisville
Nov. 29 Cincinnati

* Connecticut will play one of the more interesting non-conference slates in the Big East this fall. Buffalo and UMass likely won’t present much of a challenge but Western Michigan was a bowl team and NC State is coming off a bowl win and first-weekend game against Tennessee — which will have them riding high or very angry in Week 2…

* However, the non-conference game with the most appeal is clearly a trip to Maryland to face former head coach Randy Edsall. Connecticut certainly won’t be overlooked by the man who built the Husky program and is in hot water in College Park.

* The bye weeks seem to be “interestingly” placed for the Huskies. This is a team that plays one of the tougher non-conference slates in the league, so getting two bye weeks in a four-week span after playing on eight straight weekends to start doesn’t seem right. An early bye week would have helped this team more.

* That said, the good news is the off-weekends come within the heart of the conference slate against top Big East contenders Pittsburgh, Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati.

* Connecticut will play three games on days other than Saturday. The Huskies will open the season on a Thursday night and has two Friday night contests late in the year (at Syracuse, Pittsburgh at home).

Louisville

Sept. 1 Kentucky
Sept. 8 Missouri State
Sept. 15 North Carolina
Sept. 22 at FIU
Sept. 29 at Southern Miss
Oct. 6 Bye Week
Oct. 13 at Pittsburgh
Oct. 20 South Florida
Oct. 26 Cincinnati
Nov. 3 Temple
Nov. 10 at Syracuse
Nov. 17 Bye Week
Nov. 24 Connecticut
Nov. 29 at Rutgers

* The Cardinals snapped a four-game losing streak to in-state rival Kentucky last season and will host the Wildcats in the season opener for 2012. The Cardinals have not defeated Kentucky in Louisville since 2006. However, all of the momentum is with Charlie Strong’s program after the Wildcats finished 5-7 last year.

* Louisville and North Carolina will match up for the second consecutive season. These two teams met in Chapel Hill last year, with the Tar Heels winning 14-7. The all-time series between Louisville and North Carolina is tied at three.

* You can bet revenge is on the mind of Louisville on Sept. 22. The Cardinals lost to FIU last season and won’t overlook the Golden Panthers this year. Although FIU must replace receiver T.Y. Hilton, this team will still be picked near the top of the Sun Belt and won’t be an easy out in their home stadium.

* A road trip to Southern Miss won’t be easy, but the Golden Eagles lost some of the key pieces from last season’s 12-2 team. Louisville has played Southern Miss two out of the last three years, and the Cardinals have a five-game winning streak over the Golden Eagles.

* If there’s an under-the-radar Big East game to keep an eye on, it’s the Oct. 13 date at Pittsburgh. The Panthers have a new coaching staff and some personnel questions, but this team could be a sleeper to finish among the top three in the conference. The Cardinals need to get off to a good start in Big East play, but a road date at Pittsburgh won’t be easy. Making matters even more difficult – Louisville has a four-game losing streak to the Panthers.

* Winning the Big East title is priority No. 1 for coach Charlie Strong, but the Cardinals are also hungry to snap a four-game losing streak to rival Cincinnati. The Cardinals host the Bearcats this season, and with the personnel losses for Cincinnati, this should be the year that streak ends.

* Louisville will have four conference home games and three on the road.

* The Big East usually schedules its expected top teams to meet in the season finale and 2012 is no different. Louisville will travel to Rutgers in a Thursday night showdown for a game that could decide the Big East crown. The Scarlet Knights lost coach Greg Schiano, but will remain one of the top teams in the conference. The Cardinals have won two in a row over the Scarlet Knights.

Pittsburgh

Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 6 at Cincinnati
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Oct. 5 at Syracuse
Oct. 13 Louisville
Oct. 20 at Buffalo
Oct. 27 Temple
Nov. 3 at Notre Dame
Nov. 9 at Connecticut
Nov. 17 Bye Week
Nov. 24 Rutgers
Dec. 1 at South Florida

* The Panthers will play two FCS teams, which means Pittsburgh will need seven wins to get bowl eligible in 2012.

* The Sept. 15 date between Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh will be the first meeting between these schools since 2003. The Panthers have won three in a row over the Hokies, including the last two in Pittsburgh.

* Although Pittsburgh takes on Big East preseason favorite Louisville in early October, the Panthers’ position in the final standings could largely be shaped by the final two weeks of the season. Pittsburgh takes on Rutgers on Nov. 24 and South Florida on Dec. 1 – both teams expected to push Louisville for the top spot in the Big East.

* Future ACC. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will likely meet for the final time as Big East members on Oct. 5. Although the Big East has previously mentioned it would hold the teams to the 27-month exit agreement, all signs point to the Orange and Panthers joining the ACC in time for the 2013 season.

* Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have met for each of the last four seasons, with each team winning two matchups. Can the Panthers go into South Bend and get a victory? If Pittsburgh can’t knock off Virginia Tech on Sept. 15, this would be its best opportunity to score a marquee non-conference victory.

* As mentioned previously, Pittsburgh’s game with South Florida should be one of the conference’s key games for 2012. However, the Panthers have won four in a row over the Bulls, but the last two games in Tampa have been decided by seven points (2010) and five in 2008. 

Rutgers

Sept. 1 at Tulane
Sept. 8 Howard
Sept. 15 at USF (date subject to change)
Sept. 22 at Arkansas
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 Connecticut
Oct. 13 Syracuse
Oct. 20 at Temple
Oct. 27 Kent State
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 Army
Nov. 17 at Cincinnati
Nov. 24 at Pittsburgh
Nov. 29 Louisville

* The most glaring aspect of the Scarlet Knights’ schedule is the final three weekends of the year. New coach Kyle Flood can point to back-to-back road games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before the season finale at home against Louisville as the defining stretch of action for his squad. It makes the early season game against USF that much more important…

* If the USF games stays put in Week 3, a key domino in the Big East title hunt will topple nearly as early as the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game (Week 2). Other than an impossible trip to Fayetteville to face SEC contender Arkansas, every other game before November 17 is winnable…

* This is due in part to a weak non-conference slate that features Tulane, Howard, Kent State and Army. When mixed with home games against Connecticut and Syracuse as well as a road trip to Temple, the Knights could be looking at a 8-1 start if they can somehow go down to Tampa and win — a place the Knights have won two out of three all-time. USF is 2-5 all-time against Rutgers.

* The Knights will play six road games in 2012.

South Florida

Sept. 1 Chattanooga
Sept. 8 at Nevada
Sept. 15 Rutgers (date subject to change)
Sept. 22 at Ball State
Sept. 29 Florida State
Oct. 6 at Temple
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Louisville
Oct. 27 Syracuse
Nov. 3 Connecticut
Nov. 10 Bye Week
Nov. 17 at Miami, Fla.
Nov. 23 at Cincinnati
Dec. 1 Pittsburgh

* South Florida wins the marquee match-up award from its schedule makers. With the possible exception of Virginia Tech’s early visit to Pitt, there are few other key non-conference games for this league to prove itself. Arkansas will crush Rutgers, Syracuse will not challenge USC or Missouri, NC State will handle UConn with ease and Temple won’t play Penn State as tough in Happy Valley as it did last season in Philadelphia. The Bulls’ schedule features games against in-state rival Miami on the road (a place USF won in 2010) and Florida State at home, as well as an early road trip to Nevada. USF might have the best shot at a Big East defining non-conference win.

* Three road trips — Miami, Ball State, Nevada — and a visit from Florida State gives USF one of the tougher non-conference slates in this league.

* The bye weeks fall at perfect locations — the week before visiting Louisville on October 20 and the week before visiting Miami on November 17. These two games are “resume-building” wins for a team that hopes to contend for a conference title in 2012. Getting an extra week of preparation for those two marquee showdowns could prove large.

* The season finale, a visit from Pittsburgh, won’t ever be able to replace the Backyard Brawl (let’s get on that, Athletic Directors), but it might be a defacto conference title game. In that same week (Thursday), Louisville will visit Rutgers and both teams could know exactly what is at stake when they match-up in the New Sombrero — a BCS bowl bid.

Syracuse

Sept. 1 Northwestern
Sept. 8 USC (East Rutherford)
Sept. 15 Stony Brook
Sept. 22 at Minnesota
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 5 Pittsburgh
Oct. 13 at Rutgers
Oct. 19 Connecticut
Oct. 27 at South Florida
Nov. 3 at Cincinnati
Nov. 10 Louisville
Nov. 17 at Missouri
Nov. 23 at Temple

* For a team that will likely be fighting for bowl eligibility, the Orange has a rather tricky non-conference slate. Northwestern won’t be an easy out in the opener, although Syracuse knocked off the Wildcats 37-34 in the Carrier Dome in 2009. After taking on Northwestern in the opener, the Orange will play a neutral site affair against USC – arguably the No. 1 team in the nation. A date against Stony Brook should provide a victory, but a road date at Minnesota and against Missouri in November are two huge swing games for this team.

* Syracuse’s matchup with Temple is its first since a 34-24 loss to the Owls in 2004.

* Although the Big East previously stated its intentions to hold Syracuse and Pittsburgh in the Big East until 2013, there’s a good chance both teams depart after this season.

* In addition to Syracuse’s difficult non-conference slate, it has four Big East road games and only three at home in conference play. Considering the Orange will likely be fighting for a finish in the middle tier of the Big East, road games at Rutgers, South Florida and Cincinnati will be difficult challenge for this team as it tries to get bowl eligible.

Temple

Aug. 31 Villanova
Sept. 8 Maryland
Sept. 15 Bye Week
Sept. 22 at Penn State
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 South Florida
Oct. 13 at Connecticut
Oct. 20 Rutgers
Oct. 27 at Pittsburgh
Nov. 3 at Louisville
Nov. 10 Cincinnati
Nov. 17 at Army
Nov. 23 Syracuse

* For the third consecutive season, the Owls will open with rival Villanova in the battle for the Mayor’s Cup. Temple has won two in a row over Villanova, including a blowout 42-7 victory last season.

* Week 2 should be a good barometer test for Temple and Maryland. The Owls dominated the Terrapins 38-7 in College Park last season, but Temple loses a handful of key players from that team. Maryland expects to be better in Randy Edsall’s second year, but this is a very winnable game for Temple.

* The biggest challenge in the non-conference slate is clearly the Sept. 22 date at Penn State. The Owls nearly defeated the Nittany Lions last season (14-10), but have to try to pull off the upset on the road this time.

* Temple has only 11 games scheduled and may not play a 12th game in 2012.

* The Oct. 6 date against South Florida will be Temple’s return to the Big East. The Owls were a member of the Big East from 1991-2004, but were booted from the conference due to low fan support and struggling to be competitive.

* The Owls get four conference home games and three on the road.

Related Big East Content

Ranking the Big East Coaches for 2012
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Athlon breaks down the schedules for the 2012 Big East season.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 08:23
Path: /news/virginia-tech-hokies-2012-spring-preview
Body:

— By Mark Ross

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Virginia Tech Hokies 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 11-3, 7-1 ACC

Spring practice: March 28-April 21

Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 8

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Logan Thomas: 234 of 391, 3,013 yards, 19 TDs, 10 INTs
Rushing: Logan Thomas: 153 car., 469 yds., 11 TDs
Receiving: D.J. Coles: 36 rec., 480 yds., 3 TDs
Tackles: Antone Exum, 89
Sacks: James Gayle, 7
Interceptions: Tariq Edwards and Kyle Fuller, 2

Redshirts to watch: DT Kris Harley, LB Griffin Hite, RB Michael Holmes, WR Demitri Knowles, DE Dadi Nicholas, TE Darius Redman, DE Matt Roth, DE Justin Taylor

Early Enrollees: DE Dewayne Alford, RB J.C. Coleman, DB Donaldven Manning

2012 Schedule

Sept. 3 Georgia Tech
Sept. 8 Austin Peay
Sept. 15 at Pittsburgh
Sept. 22 Bowling Green
Sept. 29 vs. Cincinnati (Landover, Md.)
Oct. 6 at North Carolina
Oct. 13 Duke
Oct. 20 at Clemson
Nov. 1 at Miami
Nov. 8 Florida State
Nov. 17 at Boston College
Nov. 24 Virginia

Offensive Strength: Logan Thomas is one of the ACC’s top Logan Thomas is one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks and is a legitimate dual threat with both his arm and legs. Virginia Tech’s offense is in good hands with Thomas, who should continue to improve entering his second season as the Hokies’ starting quarterback.

Offensive Weakness: The offense returns just three starters and Virginia Tech faces the daunting task of replacing running back David Wilson, the ACC Player and Offensive Player of the Year in 2011. The offensive line must be rebuilt as well with center Andrew Miller the only starter returning. The returning wide receivers also must take the next step in their development to help Thomas and the passing game.

Defensive Strength: Virginia Tech returns eight starters from a unit that finished second in the ACC and top 10 in the nation in both total and scoring defense last season. The defensive line is fairly deep and the linebacking corps will get back its leader, Bruce Taylor, who missed the final six games of the 2011 season because of a foot injury. The Hokies also have two of the ACC’s top defensive backs in Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller.

Defensive Weakness: Although Taylor returns to bolster the linebacking corps, the unit is relatively young and will be without Tariq Edwards this spring. Edwards, who was the team’s third-leading tackler in 2011, will be out the next four months as he recovers from leg surgery. Outside of Exum and Fuller, the secondary is inexperienced and will be a focus of the coaching staff during spring practice.

Spring Storylines Facing the Hokies

1. All David Wilson did last season was rush for a school-record 1,709 yards, accounting for 65 percent of the ACC’s second-best rushing attack all by his lonesome. With Wilson off to the NFL, the opportunity is there for someone to take advantage of the opportunity and become the next in a long line of productive Virginia Tech running backs. The question is who? Daniel Dyer and Tony Gregory are the returning running backs with the most experience, but they combined for a grand total of 57 yards last season. Thomas is the team’s leading returning rusher, but the quarterback can’t expected to do it all, so the Hokies are really hoping someone stands out during spring practice. That someone could be either redshirt freshman Michael Holmes or early enrollee J.C. Coleman.

2. Virginia Tech’s offensive line was one of the best in the ACC last season, as it gave up the second-fewest sacks per game in the conference and ranked 22nd in the nation. Four starters, including three who received All-ACC recognition, are gone with center Andrew Miller the lone returning starter. It’s no secret that the Hokies have big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing the departed Wilson in their backfield, but the work the coaching staff will need to do along the offensive line should not go unnoticed. The good news is it appears the staff does have some potential building blocks to work with including senior Nick Becton, junior David Wang and Georgia transfer Brent Benedict. If Virginia Tech is unable to find the right mix along the offensive line, it may not matter if a new running back emerges or not.

3. Virginia Tech returns eight starters on defense, which is good, but some of those starters will be acclimating themselves to new positions this spring and depth will be a point of emphasis at linebacker and in the secondary. The return of Bruce Taylor to lead the linebacking corps is huge, but the loss of Tariq Edwards to injury and the dismissal of Telvion Clark are the latest blows to the unit’s depth and experience. In the secondary, cornerbacks Exum and Fuller should contend for all-conference and maybe even some All-America honors, but the makeup of the rest of the unit is unknown at this point. Sophomores Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett will get first crack at earning the starting safety jobs and will need to make the most of their opportunities this spring. The secondary is one of the key components to defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s schemes and game plans, as evidenced by the number of former Hokie defensive backs who went on to play in the NFL.

4. With the uncertainty at both running back and offensive line, the success of Virginia Tech’s offense in 2012 will depend largely on Logan Thomas. One of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, Thomas will need several wide receivers to step up to replace the production of Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Together, the duo combined for 121 receptions, 1,665 yards and eight TDs in 2011. The talent is there in D.J. Coles and Marcus Davis, along with Dyrell Roberts, who missed most of last season with a broken arm, but they lack the experience and chemistry Thomas had with Boykin and Coale. Spring practice will be a great opportunity for the receivers and Thomas to get on the same page, as the passing game will probably play a bigger role in the Hokies’ offense in 2012 due to the questions surrounding the backfield.

5. Virginia Tech has won 10 or more games in eight straight seasons and in 11 of the last 13 overall. The Hokies have won four of the last eight ACC titles and played in five BCS bowls in that same span. Under Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech has established itself among the premiere programs in college football. The Hokies have come so far that fans have started to take the team’s year-in year-out success for granted and raised the level of their expectations. Anything short of a spot in the ACC Championship game and a BCS bowl bid is labeled a disappointment. Even though Beamer and his coaching staff are having to replace eight starters on offense, including the ACC’s top player in 2011 and rebuild one of the conference’s best offensive lines, the fans’ expectations for 2012 remain the same. Championships may not be won or lost during the spring, but these next three weeks will be critical to laying the groundwork for the fall. After all, “rebuilding” is not a word Virginia Tech fans are used to hearing.

Related College Football Content

Ranking the ACC's Head Coaches
Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2012

College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 ACC Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas will be the focal point of a offense that must replace eight starters in hopes of running the Hokies' streak of consecutive 10-win seasons to nine in 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 08:13
Path: /college-football/tennessee-volunteers-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Tennessee Volunteers 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC

Spring Practice: March 26-April 21

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 8

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Tyler Bray, 147-of-247, 1,983 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Marlin Lane, 75 att., 280 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Da'Rick Rogers, 67 rec., 1,040 yards, 9 TD
Tackles: A.J. Johnson, 80
Sacks: Prentiss Waggner, 2
Interceptions: Prentiss Waggner and Eric Gordon, 2

Redshirts to Watch: OL Alan Posey, OL Mack Crowder, S Geraldo Orta

Early Enrollees:

Cody Blanc, ATH (6-1, 200), Knoxville (Tenn.) Central
Alden Hill, RB (5-11, 180), Alliance (Ohio) Marlington
Justin Meredith, TE (6-5, 225), Anderson (S.C.) T.L. Hanna
Nathan Peterman, QB (6-3, 210), Fruit Cove (Fla.) Bartram Trail
Darrington Sentimore, DL (6-2, 273), Norco (La.) Destrehan (Gulf Coast C.C.)
Trent Taylor, DL (6-2, 271), Lakeland (Fla.) Lake Gibson
Tino Thomas, DB (5-11, 195), Memphis (Tenn.) Melrose

2012 Schedule

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis

Aug. 31 NC State
Sept. 8 Georgia State
Sept. 15 Florida
Sept. 22 Akron
Sept. 29 at Georgia
Oct. 6 Bye Week
Oct. 13 at Mississippi State
Oct. 20 Alabama
Oct. 27 at South Carolina
Nov. 3 Troy
Nov. 10 Missouri
Nov. 17 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 24 Kentucky

Offensive Strength: The passing game. Quarterback Tyler Bray and wideouts Da'Rick Rogers (maybe) and Justin Hunter form one of the most talented QB-WR combos in the nation. Toss in an elite recruiting class at wideout and tight end Mychal Rivera and the Vols boast one of the best passing attacks in the country.

Offensive Weakness: Everything else. The running game was seriously lacking last fall and will once again be an area of concern for the Big Orange faithful. Finding a feature back and linemen who can create holes will be the top priority for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

Defensive Strength: The secondary. At least, the depth and experience in the defensive backfield. Veteran Prentiss Waggner is on the move from safety to corner. The top ten DBs from a year ago return to Knoxville.

Defensive Weakness: The linebackers, and more specifically, the pass rush are a major concern. New coordinator Sal Sunseri will be installing a new 3-4 scheme and needs to find playmakers to fill the starting linebacker positions.

Spring Storylines Facing the Volunteers:

1. Dealing with the Dooley drama. Head coach Derek Dooley is squarely on the hot seat after two losing seasons in Knoxville. He dealt admirably with a massive coaching exodus (more on this in a moment) by rebuilding his staff with quality coaches. And for the first time in years, this program returns a deep, talented and experienced roster. The expectation to win has to weigh heavy on not just Dooley but every member of the Vols program. The circus surrounding his tenure isn't going to slow anytime soon, so the quicker he can answer questions the better his team will be. 

2. Stabilizing and integrating seven new coaches into the program. With 19 starters back, it will be the coaching staff that needs to get acclimated, not the players. Chaney is still in place as the OC, but new running backs coach Jay Graham and offensive line coach Sam Pittman will have their hands full trying to restablish the dormant Big Orange rushing attack. There is plenty of talent to work with on that side of the ball, however, and the quarterback position is stable. With the implementation of the new 3-4 scheme, it is the defensive coaching staff that has the most work to do this spring. New DC Sal Sunseri brings an extraodinary track record with him to Knoxville in terms of developing linebackers — something that could be the difference between a bowl game and sitting at home this winter (and an employment check for everyone). Additionally, Sunseri and defensive line coach John Palermo will need to develop a scheme that can somehow put pressure on opposing quarterbacks (Tennessee finished 11th in the SEC in sacks, 100th nationally).

3. All of the above issues would be helped with much-needed growth and maturity from team leaders like Bray. Dooley and Sunseri can lead the horse to water, but it is up to the horse to actually drink. Names like Bray need take it upon themselves to prove that they can make others around them better by leading by example. The Corey Millers (currently dealing with academic issues) and Jacques Smiths need to live up to the massive recruiting hype and develop into every down performers. The last two seasons featured so much youth and inexperience, that mental mistakes — both on and off the field — were almost expected. This will not be the case in 2012 and it should not just be the coaching staff holding the team accountable — it needs to be the players. The star quarterback even admitted as much in his first media session of the spring, "Last year I wasn't the smartest guy. Kind of dumb. This year I'm trying to get my act together and trying to get this team where it needs to be."

4. Settling on a linebacker rotation and getting pressure on the quarterback is the top priority for Sunseri and Palmero. Smith seems to possess a perfect skillset for the Jack Back position, but will be pushed by Willie Bohannon. Youngsters A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt had quality first seasons, but have to adjust to the new scheme. Maggitt might be one of the biggest hitters in the SEC and is apparently loving his shift inside to the Mike position. His recognition skills now need to catch-up with his physical ability. He will be pushed by the contact-craved Herman Lathers, who returns after sitting out an entire year from a severe ankle injury. Former strong safety Brent Brewer, who tore his ACL in November, is gaining weight in order to play backer and also feels more comfortable because of it. Former fullback Channing Fugate might be making the biggest adjustment after being shifted to weakside linebacker. This was a thin position coming into spring and the shift to a 3-4 only puts added pressure on the depth chart. There are some nice pieces to this puzzle but Sunseri must implement a new system with players at new positions without wearing out his first stringers.

5. Helping the backers will be the new three-man front line. Maurice Couch needs to play the way he appears to be capable of more consistently on the interior. He has the ability to stabilize the front and allow for names like Miller, Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood to develop. Organizing this group will go a long way in helping to stabilize the totally reworked linebacker rotation. Junior college transfer — and former Crimson Tider in his own right — Darrington Sentimore might be the most intriguing new piece to the puzzle to watch this spring.

6. Dooley wants a feature back. There is only one issue - he may not have one on the roster. Marlin Lane is the leading returning rusher and might be the most talented, but is generously listed at 6-0, 205 pounds. He will most certainly split time with more physical Raijon Neal. Look also for diminutive sophomore Devrin Young (5-8, 171) to also get plenty of chances as well. Graham and Dooley know that 90.1 yards per game — where the Vols finished 2011, good for 12th in the SEC — is completely unacceptable in Knoxville. With another year of growth, an offensive line that has collectively become an upperclass unit together must develop into a strength for this team.

Related Content Links

2012 Recruiting Class: No. 20 Tennessee Vols
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Volunteers 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 08:01
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-4-phil-mickelson
Body:

 

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 4: Phil Mickelson

Born: June 16, 1970, San Diego, Calif.  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 40 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,763,488 World Ranking: 15

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Only eight players in history have won more PGA Tour events than Phil Mickelson, and only 18 golfers have won more majors. The 2012 Hall of Fame inductee will go down as one of the best golfers of all time even if he never wins another event — and given his age (41) and the fact that he was diagnosed with arthritis in 2010, some look at this as the sunset of his career. Putting woes in 2011 gave a stronger voice to his critics, but he still has the length, the right trajectory, the scrambling skills and the savoir faire that make him a threat in any event, and especially the majors.
 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 77
Wins: 4

2011 Performance:
Masters - T27
U.S. Open - T54
British Open - T2
PGA Championship - T19

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - 1st (2004, 2006, 2010)
U.S. Open - 2nd/T2 (1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009)
British Open - T2 (2011)
PGA Championship - 1st (2005)
Top-10 Finishes: 32
Top-25 Finishes: 44
Missed Cuts: 7

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter. 

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 10:12
Path: /news/iowa-hawkeyes-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Iowa Hawkeyes 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten

Spring practice: March 24-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Returning Leaders:

Passing: James Vandenberg, 237 of 404, 3,022 yds., 25 TD, 7 INTs
Rushing: Jordan Canzeri, 31 car., 114 yds., 0 TDs
Receiving: Keenan Davis, 50 rec., 713 yds., 4 TDs
Tackles: James Morris, 110
Sacks: Dominic Alvis, 1.5
Interceptions: Two players tied with 3

Redshirts to watch: OG Austin Blythe, OG Jordan Walsh, DE Dean Tsopanides, DE Melvin Spears, DT Darian Cooper, DE Riley McMinn, LB Cole Fisher

Early Enrollees: OL Eric Simmons, QB Cody Sokol

JUCO Transfers to Watch: OL Eric Simmons, QB Cody Sokol

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Sept. 8 Iowa State
Sept. 15 Northern Iowa
Sept. 22 Central Michigan
Sept. 29 Minnesota
Oct. 13 at Michigan State
Oct. 20 Penn State
Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Nov. 3 at Indiana
Nov 10 Purdue
Nov. 17 at Michigan
Nov. 23 Nebraska

Offensive Strength: Quarterback James Vandenberg should be one of the top signal-callers in the Big Ten this year. Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 scores last season and tossed only seven interceptions. The senior will have a quality group of receivers to throw to, led by Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley.

Offensive Weakness: The Hawkeyes are usually strong in the rushing game, but that may change in 2012. The offensive line returns only two starters and last season’s returning rusher (Marcus Coker) left the team. Iowa usually churns out running backs, but it may take a group effort to match Coker’s production in 2012.

Defensive Strength: Even with the departure of Tyler Nielsen, the Hawkeyes will be among the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten. James Morris garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year, picking up 110 tackles and one interception. Christian Kirksey also returns after matching Morris’ 110 stops last year.

Defensive Weakness: Coach Kirk Ferentz has to be concerned about the glaring hole on the defensive line this spring. Four key contributors from last season's group depart - including second-team All-Big Ten selection Broderick Binns - which will create plenty of competition from some inexperienced candidates in the preseason.

Spring Storylines Facing the Hawkeyes

1. Has the program gone stale? That’s the big question Iowa fans are asking this spring. Although Kirk Ferentz has won 96 games with the Hawkeyes, the win total has declined over the last three seasons. There’s some fresh blood on the coaching staff for 2012, as offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe took a job in the NFL and defensive coordinator Norm Parker decided to retire. Ferentz appointed former Texas playcaller Greg Davis as the team’s new offensive coordinator, while veteran Iowa assistant Phil Parker will call the shots on defense. Brian Ferentz moves from the NFL ranks to join his father in Iowa City as the team’s offensive line coach, while LeVar Woods was picked as the team’s new linebacker coach. Will the staff changes inject some energy into the program? Davis was criticized during his tenure with Texas, but also coordinated some solid offenses. It’s important for this coaching staff to jell this spring and get the players adjusted to any changes in scheme on both sides of the ball.

2. Running the ball is usually not an issue for Iowa. However, there’s a major concern over the running back position in 2012. Marcus Coker left the team after the 2011 season, leaving behind a handful of inexperienced candidates to fill his shoes. Three sophomores have the early lead for playing time, with Jordan Canzeri the frontrunner to open the season as the No. 1 back. Canzeri rushed for only 114 yards last year, while fellow sophomores Damon Bullock and De’Andre Johnson chipped in 99 yards. Incoming freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill will also figure into the mix this fall. The Hawkeyes should be fine in this area, but they need to find someone who can consistently take 20-25 carries a game. Developing some type of rotation and pecking order in the preseason will be crucial to Iowa’s offense in 2012.

3. Even with the question marks at running back and the departure of receiver Marvin McNutt, the position with the most issues on offense is the line. Left tackle Riley Reiff decided to bolt a year early for the NFL, while stalwarts Adam Gettis and Markus Zusevics expired their eligibility. Iowa has two returning starters up front, including honorable mention All-Big Ten center James Ferentz. Sophomore Brandon Schreff has the inside track to start at left tackle and has three starts under his belt. However, he will get a push from fellow sophomore Andrew Donnal, while former starter Nolan MacMillan is healthy and back to compete for a spot on the right side. There’s some solid pieces in place, and Iowa’s track record suggests this position won’t be too big of an issue during the season. However, it will remain a question mark until the Hawkeyes settle on a front five and that group gives Vandenberg enough time to throw during the Big Ten play.

4. 2011 was not a banner year for the Iowa defense, as the Hawkeyes ranked seventh or worse in the Big Ten in rush, scoring, total and pass defense. New defensive coordinator Phil Parker certainly has his work cut out for him this spring, as only five starters return and major question marks exist about the defensive line. Tackles Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis are expected to play a significant role in the middle, but both will miss spring practice with knee injuries. There’s also very little experience returning at end, as three redshirt freshmen cracked the two-deep for spring practice. Although this is a position Iowa usually finds players, the recovery of Alvis and Davis will be crucial to the line’s success. Not only is establishing a rotation of linemen important, Parker needs to figure out how to generate a pass rush that was mediocre last year.

Related Content Links

Ranking the Big Ten's Head Coaches
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Iowa Hawkeyes 2012 spring preview.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 09:15
Path: /college-football/michigan-state-spartans-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Michigan State Spartans 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten

Spring practice: March 22-April 20 

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 8

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Andrew Maxwell, 18-of-26, 171 yards, TD
Rushing: Le'Veon Bell, 182 att., 948 yards, 13 TD
Receiving: Dion Sims, 12 rec., 99 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Max Bullough, 89
Sacks: Denicos Allen, 11
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis, 4

Redshirts to watch: DE Shilique Calhoun, S R.J. Williamson, WR A.J. Sims, LB Lawrence Thomas, WR Juwan Caesar, LB Darien Harris, CB Trae Waynes

2012 Schedule

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Aug. 31 Boise State
Sept. 8 at Central Michigan
Sept. 15 Notre Dame
Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 29 Ohio State
Oct. 6 at Indiana
Oct. 13 Iowa
Oct. 20 at Michigan
Oct. 27 at Wisconsin
Nov. 3 Nebraska
Nov. 10 Bye Week
Nov. 17 Northwestern
Nov. 24 at Minnesota

Offensive Strength: The running game. Four starters are back along the offensive line and both Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper return with five total years of experience in the backfield. This Spartan rushing attack could be as productive as the dynamic Javon Ringer-Jehuu Caulcrick combo of 2007.

Offensive Weakness: Not having the school's all-time leading touchdown thrower Kirk Cousins under center will hurt. But losing the school's all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham, as well as all-purpose dynamo Keshawn Martin and Hail Mary hero Keith Nichol, leaves the passing game with very little returning experience. All-league tight end Brian Linthicum is gone as well.

Defensive Strength: These linebackers are outstanding. Sparty legacy Max Bullough leads the team in tackles and is the heartbeat of the defense. Denicos Allen is the team's top sack master. Chris Norman is an all-conference performer in his own right as well. Toss in Tyler Elsworth, Taiwan Jones, Steve Gardiner and redshirt freshman Lawrence Thomas and Mark Dantonio boasts one of the nation's top units.

Defensive Weakness: Few defensive lineman in the nation were better than Jerel Worthy last fall. His loss, combined with All-Big Ten honorable mention tackle Kevin Pickelman and Blake Pacheco, leaves a literal and figurative massive void at defensive tackle.

Spring Storylines Facing the Spartans:

1. Replacing Kirk Cousins has to be considered the biggest obstacle of spring practice in East Lansing. Andrew Maxwell has already been tabbed as the starter and he has all the physical tools to be an excellent heir to Cousins' thrown. His mental acumen, leadership and poise were all things that Cousins had in droves and can only come with time spent under center. Maxwell has patiently waited his turn to take the helm of the Sparty ship and how he handles the pressure can only come with game experience. A fortified front line and powerful running game will help, but Maxwell needs to prove that he is more than simply a big arm and an excellent athlete. He needs to become one of the team leaders if Michigan State is going to continue its in-state domination of the Maize and Blue.

2. Finding playmakers to catch Maxwell's passes will go a long way in helping the new quarterback settle into place in the offense. Wide receivers Tony Lippett, who also started five games at cornerback in 2010, Keith Mumphrey and Bennie Fowler return a total of eight catches and no touchdowns from 2011. A healthy Juwan Caesar would help this group. Dion Sims is a solid player with some experience who will fill the void left by Linthicum and Garrett Celek at tight end. He will be joined by converted defensive end Denzel Drone at tight end. However, the big news will be the NCAA's ruling on Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. If he becomes eligbile to play right away, he instantly becomes the Spartans' most talented wide receiver.

3. Filling the massive void at defensive tackle is really the only major issue facing Pat Narduzzi and the Spartans defense. Worthy, Pickelman and Pacheco are all gone, leaving little experience on the interior of the defensive line. Luckily, the defensive end position is loaded and can afford to push Tyler Hoover, who has bulked up after missing the 2011 season to injury, to the tackle position. Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge, Anthony Rashad, Corey Freeman and a number of redshirt freshmen should compete for playing time at tackle. This was one of the best defensive lines in the nation a year ago after allowing a Big Ten's best 100.5 rushing yards per game. If Narduzzi expects the same type of performance this fall, he will need to plaster the holes on the interior of his D-Line this spring.

4. The only other major loss for the Green Machine was first-team All-Big Ten free safety Trenton Robinson. Kurtis Drummond and Jairus Jones should get plenty of reps this spring but don't look for either to be asked to lead the secondary. Three starters return with some sort of all-conference recognition and Dantonio has already pinpointed cornerback Darqueze Dennard as a potential team captain and leader. Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams also return with plenty of snaps and second-team All-Big Ten honors. This is a deep group that can afford to send Lippett to wide receiver on more of a full time basis if the coaching so chooses.

Related Content Links:

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions

Teaser:
<p> Michigan State Spartans 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/tiger-woods-man-again
Body:

 

Guess who’s peaking just in time for the trip down Magnolia Lane? Tiger Woods earned his first PGA Tour win since 2009 with a dominant showing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his seventh win at Bay Hill. The “process” that we’ve heard so much about — and occasionally mocked, if we’re being honest — seems to have borne fruit at just the right time. 
Every aspect of Woods’ game is better than it’s been in a long, long time. Tiger leads the Tour in total driving, ranking 20th in distance and 14th in accuracy. He’s hitting 3-woods stingers 300 yards off the tee. His speed on the greens was flawless at Bay Hill, and he made his share of clutch putts, the most glaring flaw in his game of late. In fact, he ranks 10th on Tour in strokes gained, putting. After a brief Achilles scare, his body seems hale and hearty.
Most importantly, though, he’s confident on the course again. The mental toughness that seemed to have deserted Woods is back in full bloom, and he’s enjoying the game like he hasn’t done in years. All in all, a dangerous combination heading to Augusta. Consider him the favorite at The Masters. 
"I’ve gone into Augusta with wins and without wins," he said. "You’re looking for one week, that’s all. You know, just hopefully everything comes together for that one week.
"I understand how to play Augusta National, and it's just a matter of executing the game plan. 
They made a couple little subtle changes out there, but overall the golf course is still basically the same.  So looking forward to it."
Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 14:16
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-5-sergio-garcia
Body:

 

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 5: Sergio Garcia

Born: Jan. 9, 1980, Castellon, Spain  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 7 (10 on European Tour) | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 2 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,524,091 World Ranking: 21

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Only 11 players made the cut in all four majors in 2011, and Sergio Garcia was one of them. Of those 11 players, only Charl Schwartzel had a lower cumulative total than the Spaniard. His once-suspect short game was dazzling last season, as he led the European Tour in scrambling (65.2%) and was 13th in putts per green in regulation (1.75). Plus, he was as consistent as ever tee to green. Twice a winner in Europe, Garcia proved that he was still one of the most explosive players in the game by winning the Castello Masters by 11 strokes. 
Sergio is at his best on the toughest venues, and with his renewed confidence with the putter, his wait for that elusive major title could finally end in 2012.
 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 53
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - T35
U.S. Open - T7
British Open - T9
PGA Championship - T12

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T4 (2004)
U.S. Open - T3 (2005)
British Open - 2nd (2007)
PGA Championship - 2nd/T2 (1999, 2008)
Top-10 Finishes: 17
Top-25 Finishes: 24
Missed Cuts: 14

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter. 

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 12:51
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-6-adam-scott
Body:

 

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 6: Adam Scott

Born: July 16, 1980, Adelaide, Australia  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 8 (8 on European Tour) | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,764,797 World Ranking: 9

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

While Keegan Bradley was the first player in history to win a major with an anchored or “belly” putter, it was Adam Scott’s success with the controversial club that got everyone’s attention. His best-ever finish in a major came at the 2011 Masters due primarily to the fact that he averaged fewer than 28 putts a round for the first time in his career at Augusta National. 
Ranked sixth in the world at the beginning of this year, Scott possesses a rare combination of power and accuracy, and his ranking of second in the PGA Tour’s All Around category in 2011 speaks to his complete game.
 
 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 43
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - T2
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T25
PGA Championship - 7

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T2 (2011)
U.S. Open - T21 (2006)
British Open - T8 (2006)
PGA Championship - T3 (2006)
Top-10 Finishes: 6
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 15

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter. 

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 12:47
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-7-charl-schwartzel-0
Body:

 

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 7: Charl Schwartzel

Born: Aug. 31, 1984, Johannesburg, South Africa  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (7 on European Tour) | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 2 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,604,558 World Ranking: 6

 

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

One of only five players currently in their 20s who has won a major championship, Schwartzel is one of the game’s most consistent players. His worst finish in a major in 2011 was T16, and his current cut streak in the majors was stretched to nine last year. 
But for all the talk about his consistency, it’s Schwartzel’s ability to play his best when it matters most that made him a Masters champion in 2011. His final round scoring average is his best of his four rounds, and that was never more evident than when he birdied the final four holes to win at Augusta a year ago. That temerity combined with his talent makes him a threat at every venue.
 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 20
Wins: 1

2011 Performance:
Masters - Won
U.S. Open - T9
British Open - T16
PGA Championship - T12

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - 1 (2011)
U.S. Open - T9 (2011)
British Open - T14 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 2
Top-25 Finishes: 8
Missed Cuts: 7

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter. 

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 12:42
Path: /college-football/notre-dame-fighting-irish-2012-spring-preview
Body:

 

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 8-5

Spring practice: March 21-April 21

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Tommy Rees, 269 of 411, 2,871 yds., 20 TD, 14 INTs
Rushing: Cierre Wood, 217 car., 1,102 yds., 9 TDs
Receiving: Tyler Eifert, 63 rec., 803 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Manti Te’o, 128
Sacks: Aaron Lynch, 5.5
Interceptions: Three players tied with 1

Redshirts to watch: QB Everett Golson, WR DaVaris Daniels, CB Josh Atkinson, CB Jalen Brown

Early Enrollees: QB Gunner Kiel, DE Sheldon Day

Transfer to watch: OT Jordan Prestwood (Florida State), RB Amir Carlisle (USC)

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Navy (Dublin, Ireland)
Sept. 8 Purdue
Sept. 15 at Michigan State
Sept. 22 Michigan
Oct. 6 Miami (Chicago)
Oct. 13 Stanford
Oct. 20 BYU
Oct. 27 at Oklahoma
Nov. 3 Pittsburgh
Nov. 10 at Boston College
Nov. 17 Wake Forest
Nov. 24 at USC

Offensive Strength: There’s plenty to like about Notre Dame’s offense for 2012. Cierre Wood leads the ground attack after rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while the receiving corps is solid with the return of Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert. Two starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but left tackle Zack Martin, center Braxston Cave and guard Chris Watt return. But the offense won’t go anywhere unless…

Offensive Weakness: …The quarterback play is improved. Three quarterbacks received playing time last year and none were able to consistently move the offense. Dayne Crist decided to transfer to Kansas, leaving Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to battle for the starting spot.

Defensive Strength: By the end of the 2012 season, the Irish could have one of the best front sevens in college football. End Aaron Lynch had a solid freshman year, recording 5.5 sacks and 33 tackles. He will be joined by junior Louis Nix at nose guard and sophomore Stephon Tuitt at end to form a solid trio up front. Senior Manti Te’o turned down the NFL Draft and will anchor a Notre Dame linebacking corps that could be among the top 10-15 in the nation.

Defensive Weakness: The Irish need to hope the defensive line can consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks early and often in 2012, as both starting cornerbacks (Robert Blanton and Gary Gray) and safety Harrison Smith are gone. There’s some experience returning at safety, but cornerback is a bigger concern. While the defensive line is talented, depth is an issue.

Spring Storylines Facing the Fighting Irish

1. High expectations surrounded Notre Dame in 2011, but the team started off the year with a disappointing loss to South Florida in the season opener and a last-second defeat to Michigan in Week 2. The Irish finished a respectable 8-5, but still fell short of preseason expectations, which pegged Notre Dame as a likely BCS bowl team. Going into Brian Kelly’s third season in South Bend, it’s important for this team to show progress. Is Notre Dame back on track or should Kelly be on the hot seat entering 2013? Needless to say, only one of those questions can be answered this year for the Irish. The schedule isn’t particularly easy, as the Irish will face eight bowl teams and two others (USC and Miami) that would have played in the postseason if it wasn’t for NCAA investigations. Although the schedule will be a challenge, the Irish should be able to contend for nine victories in 2012.

2. Getting back to a BCS bowl in 2012 will largely hinge on what happens under center. Dayne Crist started the season opener against South Florida, but was pulled in favor of Tommy Rees. Although Rees started the remaining 12 games, he enters spring practice locked into a tight battle for the starting job. Crist decided to transfer to Kansas, leaving sophomore Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to battle for the No. 1 spot. Hendrix played some last year, rushing for 162 yards and one touchdown, while completing 18 of 37 passes for 249 yards and one touchdown. Golson and Kiel are both highly-regarded prospects, but have yet to take a snap. This should be a wide-open battle with the winner not likely to be announced until late in fall camp. Although Rees is the returning starter and most experienced quarterback on the roster, don’t be surprised if Hendrix or Golson takes the opening snap for Notre Dame in 2012.

3. The quarterback battle is going to get all of the attention in spring practice, but the Irish also need to find a replacement for receiver Michael Floyd. Theo Riddick and TJ Jones each caught 38 passes last season and will be counted upon to fill a bigger role in the passing attack this year. Robby Toma and John Goodman are capable weapons at receiver, but the return of tight end Tyler Eifert for his senior year is the biggest positive in the developing the passing attack for 2012. Freshman Davonte Neal is also expected to challenge right away for playing time, so the Irish should have plenty of options. However, Floyd was clearly the go-to guy. Is Riddick or Jones ready to be that type of player? Or will Eifert see more passes in his direction? The Irish should be fine in the receiving corps, but it’s not easy replacing a talent like Floyd.

4. As highlighted in the strengths and weaknesses, Notre Dame’s defensive line could be among the best in college football by the end of 2012. Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are a promising young trio and should wreck havoc on opposing offensive lines. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will provide veteran leadership and recorded 32 stops last season. However, there’s very little depth up front, which could require incoming freshmen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones to play right away. Although Notre Dame should be fine with its top four linemen, keep an eye on depth if an injury occurs during the season.

5. While the Irish are set in the front seven, all eyes will be on the secondary this spring. Cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, along with safety Harrison Smith have expired their eligibility, leaving the secondary with two returning starters – Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. While Slaughter and Motta should be a solid combination at safety, cornerback is the team’s biggest question mark. Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood are the team’s most experienced options, but neither is as proven as Gray and Blanton. The Irish expected incoming freshman Tee Shepard to play a key role at cornerback, but he decided to leave before spring practice started. Expect redshirt freshmen Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson and incoming freshman Elijah Shumate to see a lot of playing time at cornerback in 2012.

Related Content Links:

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> 2012 Notre Dame football spring preview.</p>
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 08:18
Path: /college-football/wisconsin-badgers-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Wisconsin Badgers 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record:  11-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Spring practice: March 17-April 28 

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Joe Brennan, 6-of-15, 48 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Montee Ball, 1,923 yards, 33 TD
Receiving: Jared Abbrederis, 55 rec., 933 yards, 8 TD
Tackles: Mike Taylor, 150
Sacks: Beau Allen, 4
Interceptions: Shelton Johnson, 4

Redshirts to watch: DL Jesse Hayes, TE Austin Traylor, WR A.J. Jordan, RB Melvin Gordon, LB Jake Keefer, DB Terrance Floyd

2012 Schedule

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Northern Iowa
Sept. 8 at Oregon State
Sept. 15 Utah State
Sept. 22 UTEP
Sept. 29 at Nebraska
Oct. 6 Illinois
Oct. 13 at Purdue
Oct. 20 Minnesota
Oct. 27 Michigan State
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 at Indiana
Nov. 17 Ohio State
Nov. 24 at Penn State

Offensive Strength: This one is fairly simple: Running backs. Only two players have ever scored 39 touchdowns in a single season before and Montee Ball is one of them. Packaged with third-year back James White and youngsters Jeffrey Lewis and Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin boasts one of the best tailback corps in the nation…again.

Offensive Weakness: Quarterback will be a huge concern for this team. Russell Wilson was a special talent and the best to ever play the position in Madison. Replacing him will be one of the most difficult tasks Bret Bielema has faced as the head coach of Wisconsin. The four players vying for the starting job totaled 15 pass attempts in 2011.

Defensive Strength: The heart of this defense will be the linebackers. With two first-team all-Big Ten performers returning, this unit has a chance to be not only the conference’s top group, but one of the best in the nation. That said, leader and middle linebacker Mike Taylor is recovering from hip surgery and isn’t likely to practice this spring.

Defensive Weakness: The secondary will have two big holes heading into spring football. The team’s top coverman, first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Anotnio Fenelus, and top safety, all-conference honorable mention Aaron Henry, will be sorely missed. They were the most talented defensive backs on the roster and their leadership needs to be replaced.

Spring Storylines Facing the Badgers:

1. Finding a replacement for Russell Wilson is the top priority for the coaching staff. In only one season, Wilson set school records for career completion percentage (72.8%), passing efficiency (191.8 – which was also an NCAA single-season record), single-season passing yards (3,175), touchdown passes (33), completions (225) and total offense (3,513). Best of luck Joe Brennan, Joel Stave, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips. Phillips (ACL) and Budmayr (arm) are the two most talented options on the roster but likely won’t see much time this spring as the duo is still recovering from injury. This leaves new offensive coordinator Matt Canada with Brennan and Stave as the only two healthy quarterbacks on the roster. These two will need to show marked improvement this spring to allow Bret Bielema to feel comfortable about his signal caller come fall. This dire situation could further influence the chase for former Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien.

2. How will the new coaching staff fit together? Canada is just one of six new faces on the Wisconsin coaching staff. Losing assistants is a double-edged sword that, over time, can cause serious issues to a program. It is a good thing to have highly-sought after coaches on the payroll, but replacing two-thirds of a staff in one year is a tall order. Bielema has shown the ability to reconstruct an excellent coaching staff, but dealing with attrition multiple years in a row will eventually take its toll at some point. Canada has the tallest task as he replaces departed offensive guru Paul Chryst, whose Big Red offenses have paced the Big Ten the last three years. Without a quarterback and having to rebuild one of the nation’s best offensive lines, this could be the year that the coaching turnover finally impacts the Badgers in a major way.

3. How many teams can lose three first-team all-conference offensive lineman and survive? That is what Montee Ball and Canada are going to have to do this spring. Josh Oglesby, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz have all moved on, leaving Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner as the only returning starters. Wisconsin recruits and develops the offensive line as well as any team in the nation, so fans shouldn’t be terribly worried about finding blockers in MadTown. Junior Ryan Groy appeared in all 14 games, senior Robert Burge played in 12, sophomore Rob Havenstein played in 12 and junior Zac Matthias played in nine contests. Having tight end Jacob Pedersen back should also help the blocking scheme develop over the next month. These are the names, among others, who will be asked to step up and produce this spring in the face of a major losses.

4. Replacing the leadership and talent lost in the secondary. Fenelus and Henry were the leaders of this unit and were recognized as two of the best defensive backs in the league last year. Shelton Johnson and Marcus Cromartie return with experience and ideally the recovery of Devin Smith will help with depth. Names like Dezman Southward and Peniel Jean need to step into bigger roles while the returning talent must provide leadership during the spring.

5. To a lesser extent, the defensive line needs to fill holes as well. All-conference tackle Patrick Butrym and top sackmaster Louis Nzegwu have moved on, but there is loads of depth within this group. High potential players like David Gilbert, who missed much of last year due to injury, and Brendan Kelly will fight with Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel for playing time at end while Jordan Kokout and Beau Allen will support Ethan Hemer on the interior. There are a lot of big bodies to work with up front, so the refining the the rotation and keeping healthy will be the top concern for the D-Line.

Related Content Links:

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions

Teaser:
<p> Wisconsin Badgers 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Monday, March 26, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: crossword, Monthly
Path: /monthly/april-2012-crossword-solution
Body:
Teaser:
<p> <img alt="" src="http://ath-clients.s3.amazonaws.com/athlon/AthlonSportsAprilSolution.jpeg" /></p>
Post date: Friday, March 23, 2012 - 16:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-auto-club
Body:

by Jay Pennell

 
The Sprint Cup Series rolls back across the country this weekend for the fifth race of the 2012 season at Auto Club Speedway. The 2-mile D-shaped oval is situated about an hour from downtown Los Angeles, taking the stars of NASCAR to Hollywood — a far cry from last week's race nestled in the mountains of Tennessee. 
 
Not only is the area surrounding the track much different from Bristol, but the action on the track will be dramatically different, as well.
 
The Auto Club Speedway has become known for long stretches of green flag racing, with fuel mileage always a concern. Thus, finding the perfect balance on the car is key to a successful day. Watch teams closely throughout the weekend as they work on walking that fine line between loose and tight.
 
One team that should have no problem walking a fine line is this week's fantasy favorites: the No. 48 team led by driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
 
When it comes to ACS, Johnson is right at home — and it's not just because he's a California native.
 
In 17 career starts, Johnson has an impressive record with five wins, an average finish of 5.1, with 12 top 5s, 13 top 10s, 849 laps led and zero DNFs. 
 
Impressive to say the least. 
 
Yet more importantly for the No. 48 team, this week Hendrick Motorsports scored a huge win over NASCAR. On Tuesday, the penalties and suspensions handed down by NASCAR for unapproved C-posts in Daytona were overturned by the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook. 
 
Now, instead of losing Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six weeks, they will remain at the track, leading the way for the No. 48 team. In addition, with the points reduction also overturned, the five-time champion sits 11th in the series standings.
 
A proven track record, a resounding win during the week to regain points and personnel, along with an impressive start to the 2012 season (two top 5s and three top 10s in four races) has Johnson as this week's fantasy favorite.
 
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart
 
While Johnson may be this week's fantasy favorite, you may want to add Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer to your starting roster. 
 
Although he has yet to visit Victory Lane in Fontana, Bowyer has a strong average finish of 10.6. In only 11 starts, he has score a solid seven top 10 finishes and has zero DNFs. 
 
Now driving for MWR and working with crew chief Brian Pattie, Bowyer is starting to work through the difficulties of adjusting to a new team. Despite a 30th-place finish in Phoenix, Bowyer has finished 11th or better in three of the first four races and sits eighth in points. 
 
For Pattie, the biggest thing the team needs to overcome in simple mistakes.
 
"Eliminating mistakes helps you run pretty decent — it’s a hell of a concept," he said. "We haven’t really done too much to get things going the right way. Everybody is understanding each other and Clint is understanding the cars more — and so am I. Hopefully we can keep Clint’s top-10 average at Fontana going this weekend.”
 
I expect them to do just that, leading to a solid day in the fantasy column. 
 
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman
 
Picking a darkhorse this weekend is more difficult than most. With many favorites in the field, choose your darkhorse driver carefully.
 
This weekend, I'm keeping my eye on Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton. Slated to make his 23rd career start at ACS, Burton has struggled recently on the intermediate track. In fact, the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has only one top 10 in last seven ACS races, that being a third in 2010. 
 
Yet, after a disappointing effort throughout the entire 2011 season, Burton is eager to get back into contention. One of the biggest issues the No. 31 team encountered last year was on the intermediate tracks. Making an effort to turn that around, RCR brought in new personnel and worked diligently to be a better team at each and every track. 
 
After recording their second top-10 finish of the year last Sunday in Bristol, Burton and his Drew Blickensderfer-led team have a bit of momentum on their side, and are looking to put their intermediate track struggles behind them this weekend.
 
"That was, without a doubt, our weakest point," Burton said, reflecting on their struggles last season. "One-and-a-half and two-mile tracks weren't RCR's strong point last season. We've worked really hard to be better on those tracks. You have to be competitive on these tracks. You can't expect to go and win the championship if you can't go to those tracks and run strong. There are just so many of them on the schedule."
 
Three Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski
 
Best Average Finish at Fontana (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.1 (5)
2. Carl Edwards  9.0 (1)
3. Matt Kenseth  9.9 (3)
4. Clint Bowyer  10.6 (0)
5. Jeff Gordon  11.2 (3)
6. Kyle Busch  12.0 (1)
7. Kurt Busch  12.9 (1)
8. Mark Martin  13.6 (1)
9. Tony Stewart  14.1 (1)
10. Kasey Kahne  14.9 (1)
 
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
Teaser:
<p> Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Southern California</p>
Post date: Friday, March 23, 2012 - 10:45
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-shortstop-rankings
Body:

Opening Day is just a few weeks away and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

Troy Tulowitzki remains the clear-cut leader at shortstop followed by Hanley Ramirez and his Marlins' teammate Jose Reyes.

Reports out of spring training are that Ramirez has not only embraced the move to third base due to the arrival of Reyes, but he also has looked good at the plate.

Whether you draft and use Ramirez at shortstop or third, when he becomes eligible there, early signs indicate that you may be getting the offensive force at the plate he was just two seasons ago (.342-24-106 with 101 R and 27 SB). One thing's for sure, if you draft Ramirez, who comes in at No. 19 overall on the Big Board, you certainly don't want a repeat of his 2011 injury-plagued campaign (.243-10-45 in just 92 games).

Overall, there's not a lot of changes in the shortstop positional rankings. Erick Aybar and J.J. Hardy both increased their standing in the Top 200 by at least eight slots, while Emilio Bonifacio went backwards 10 spots, resulting in the three of them swapping positions in the positional rankings.

Stephen Drew cracked the Top 200, but it's all but certain he will not be ready by Opening Day as he continues his recovery from the broken ankle he suffered last July. Drew will most likely start the season on the DL in hopes of returning sometime in May.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
OVR
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – CBSSportsline.com (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – FOXSports.com (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – MLB.com (as of 3/15/12)
RC – RotoChamp.com (updated 3/18/12)
RS – RotoSummit.com (updated 2/27/12)
USA — USAToday.com (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings**: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

**Positional rankings will be updated throughout the week

Rank OVR LR Player Team Pos AS CBS ESPN FOX MLB RC RS USA Y!
1 6 5 Troy Tulowitzki COL SS 4 9 6 5 6 15 8 6 4
2 19 20 Hanley Ramirez MIA SS 27 29 13 9 16 34 15 13 21
3 24 24 Jose Reyes MIA SS 18 32 21 31 18 61 19 14 19
4 45 43 Starlin Castro CHC SS 44 79 57 63 42 59 37 43 38
5 57 51 Elvis Andrus TEX SS 64 108 60 60 63 92 49 41 42
6 71 66 Asdrubal Cabrera CLE SS 97 86 63 47 54 97 56 92 64
7 81 81 Jimmy Rollins PHI SS 104 102 49 54 69 146 53 76 73
8 116 121 Derek Jeter NYY SS 125 118 113 101 97 - 94 105 118
9 118 123 Alexei Ramirez CHW SS 127 138 86 89 123 131 116 145 129
10 127 139 Erick Aybar LAA SS 153 127 129 95 112 - 131 111 135
11 133 141 J.J. Hardy BAL SS 140 168 111 91 129 191 170 90 134
12 135 125 Emilio Bonifacio MIA SS/3B/OF 124 114 213 83 - 109 142 172 119
13 138 147 Dee Gordon LAD SS 138 145 133 157 169 138 139 162 96
14 151 163 Jhonny Peralta DET SS 142 169 126 106 193 200 159 138 149
15 190 NR Stephen Drew ARI SS - - 160 152 - - 197 151 -
16 199 211 Yunel Escobar TOR SS 192 183 200 161 - - - 153 -
17 214 NR Marco Scutaro COL SS - - 169 - 171 - 182 198 -
18 238 222 Ian Desmond WAS 2B/SS 171 - - - - - - - -
19 256 NR Mike Aviles BOS 2B/SS/3B - - - - 191 - - - -

Other names to consider (in alphabetical order): Clint Barmes (PIT, SS), Willie Bloomquist (ARI, SS/OF), Jamey Carroll (MIN, 2B/SS), Alcides Escobar (KC, SS), Rafael Furcal (STL, SS), Alex Gonzalez (MIL, SS), Macier Izturis (LAA, 2B/SS/3B), Jed Lowrie (HOU, SS/3B), Sean Rodriguez (TB, 2B/SS/3B), Ruben Tejada (NYM, 2B/SS)

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 23, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers

 

For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

Teaser:
<p> Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki remains the clear-cut No. 1 shortstop in Athlon Sports' updated consensus fantasy rankings</p>
Post date: Friday, March 23, 2012 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-second-base-rankings
Body:

Opening Day is just a few weeks away and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

The top four at second base stay the same as Robinson Cano leads the way followed by Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Ben Zobrist.

Brandon Phillips and Michael Young have swapped places at fifth and seventh, respectively, with Dan Uggla falling in between them. Phillips slight move up the Top 200 could be attributed to Reds manager Dusty Baker's assertion that Phillips will star the season as his leadoff hitter. Phillips was moved to the leadoff spot last August and thrived there, hitting .350 with seven home runs, seven stole bases and a .417 on-base percentage.

Chase Utley dropped just a few spots in the Top 200, but that's subject to change as the Phillies' second basemen is dealing with issues with both knees. He left the Phillies' camp earlier this week to see a knee specialist and the team has already said his availability to be ready by Opening Day is in doubt.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
OVR
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – CBSSportsline.com (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – FOXSports.com (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – MLB.com (as of 3/15/12)
RC – RotoChamp.com (updated 3/18/12)
RS – RotoSummit.com (updated 2/27/12)
USA — USAToday.com (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings**: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

**Positional rankings will be updated throughout the week

Rank OVR LR Player: Team Pos AS CBS ESPN FOX MLB RC RS USA Y!
1 7 8 Robinson Cano NYY 2B 3 16 7 10 10 13 7 8 8
2 15 15 Dustin Pedroia BOS 2B 13 14 15 11 21 16 14 19 17
3 22 22 Ian Kinsler TEX 2B 28 30 19 26 14 35 20 15 20
4 50 52 Ben Zobrist TB 2B/OF 93 72 51 41 45 64 43 51 52
5 53 59 Brandon Phillips CIN 2B 39 101 54 49 49 71 52 47 55
6 55 57 Dan Uggla ATL 2B 100 103 42 52 64 50 45 55 48
7 59 53 Michael Young TEX 1B/2B/3B 74 56 95 43 101 26 57 75 61
8 75 64 Rickie Weeks MIL 2B 95 95 83 45 55 96 67 54 84
9 89 83 Chase Utley PHI 2B 68 100 76 71 98 - 74 67 71
10 90 90 Howard Kendrick LAA 1B/2B/OF 85 119 118 79 84 88 91 101 72
11 112 120 Michael Cuddyer COL 1B/2B/OF 96 152 92 123 156 139 98 121 70
12 123 129 Dustin Ackley SEA 2B 112 144 171 93 135 152 132 103 117
13 146 148 Neil Walker PIT 2B 141 157 167 104 - 117 154 144 147
14 152 146 Jason Kipnis CLE 2B 139 - 174 148 167 135 134 141 156
15 159 164 Ryan Roberts ARI 2B/3B 162 123 165 112 192 162 189 180 155
16 162 168 Danny Espinosa WAS 2B 182 185 189 113 166 140 165 155 160
17 167 186 Jemile Weeks OAK 2B 165 131 - 180 - 156 145 147 177
18 178 193 Kelly Johnson TOR 2B - 161 175 164 141 199 157 - 188
19 229 NR Aaron Hill ARI 2B - 198 - 168 - - - - -
20 256 NR Mike Aviles BOS 2B/SS/3B - - - - 191 - - - -
21 259 NR Darwin Barney CHC 2B - - - 194 - - - - -

Other names to consider (in alphabetical order): Jose Altuve (HOU, 2B), Gordon Beckham (CHW, 2B), Jamey Carroll (MIN, 2B/SS), Allen Craig (STL, 2B/OF), Mark Ellis (LAD, 2B), Orlando Hudson (SD, 2B), Macier Izturis (LAA, 2B/SS/3B), Daniel Murphy (NYM, 1B/2B/3B), Ryan Raburn (DET, 2B/OF), Brian Roberts (BAL, 2B), Sean Rodriguez (TB, 2B/SS/3B), Scott Sizemore (OAK, 2B/3B), Ruben Tejada (NYM, 2B/SS)

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 23, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers

 

For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports' updated consensus fantasy rankings at second base reveal no change at the top</p>
Post date: Friday, March 23, 2012 - 09:45
Path: /college-football/auburn-tigers-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Auburn Tigers 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 8-5, 4-4  SEC

Spring Practice: March 21-April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 9

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Clint Moseley, 66 of 108, 800 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Onterio McCalebb, 112 att., 641 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Emory Blake, 36 rec., 613 yards, 5 TD
Tackles: Daren Bates, 104
Sacks: Corey Lemonier, 9.5
Interceptions: Three tied at 2

Redshirts to Watch: OT Greg Robinson, OT Christian Westernman, ATH Kris Frost

Early Enrollees:

Zeke Pike, QB (6-6, 225), Edgewood (Ky.) Dixie Heights
Patrick Miller, OL (6-7, 275), West Palm Beach (Fla.) Dwyer
Shane Callahan, OL (6-6, 285), Parker (Colo.) Chaparral
Javiere Mitchell, LB (6-2, 209), Leeds (Ala.) High
Jay Prosch, FB (6, 250), Mobile (Ala.) UMS-Wright

2012 Schedule

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Clemson (Georgia Dome, Atlanta)
Sept. 8 at Mississippi State
Sept. 15 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 22 LSU
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 Arkansas
Oct. 13 at Ole Miss
Oct. 20 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27 Texas A&M
Nov. 3 New Mexico State
Nov. 10 Georgia
Nov. 17 Alabama A&M
Nov. 24 at Alabama

Offensive Strength: Offensive line depth. On a team that finished 100th in the nation in total offense, fans can't point to a clear strength. But the Tigers have recruited at an elite level along the offensive line, and this group, particularly the 2011 class, has loads of potential.

Offensive Weakness: Quarterback. There is a need to find athletes who can make big plays at wide receiver and running back, but there is no more important position on the field than under center. There is little experience and huge question marks exist with a talented sophomore, true freshman and physically limited junior battling for the starting gig this spring.

Defensive Strength: Overall depth, especially along the line of scrimmage. The top 10 players from the D-Line return in 2012 and this unit has a chance to lead this squad in the fall. Names like Corey Lemonier, Nosa Eguae and rising stars Gabe Wright and Jeffrey Whitaker should only continue to improve.

Defensive Weakness: Overall experience. While this unit is incredibly deep and highly-touted, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to develop some experienced leaders. Five of the top seven returning tacklers were sophomores a year ago. Look for leading tackler and rare senior starter Daren Bates to looked upon for leadership.

Spring Storylines Facing the Tigers:

1. Stabilize the coaching staff. In less than a year, the relationship between national championship head coach and star offensive coordinator soured to the point of divorce. Gene Chizik had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time in his Auburn career this offseason, but it appears that he might have broke even — if not upgraded both positions — when he hired Brian VanGorder from the Atlanta Falcons and Scot Loeffler from Temple. Getting these two heavy hitters, and their schemes, settled into place this spring should be top priority for Chizik. Both will bring what Chizik has apparently been craving for years, a pro-style attack on both sides of the ball. How quickly the deep but youthful defense and inexperienced offense take to these systems could be the difference between a .500 season and challenging for the division.

2. The quarterback position is clearly the biggest issue for new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler. Two of his three options were incredibly highly-touted prospects who player in SEC states and offer big frames and dual-threat ability. Kiehl Frazier threw just 12 passes during his freshman season and Loeffler has no idea if he can excel as a passer in the system. Zeke Pike brings a massive 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame and his own athletic ability to the position. However, he is a true freshman going through his first collegiate practices. Clint Moseley, the least touted prospect of the bunch, has the most starting experience after getting the nod in the final six games on '11. The fact that he hasn't separated himself since the end of the year has to be a concern. Don't expect Loeffler to make an announcement any time soon as he isn't likely to name a starter until deep into the summer months. But make no mistake, how each of the signal callers handles his new offense this spring will speak volumes to how he sets the pecking order.

3. Aside from the obvious issues at quarterback, Loeffler has stated that his "objective, besides running the football, is to find out who our playmakers are," the new OC told AL.com. Emory Blake is a solid place to start at one wide out position and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen can and should be a big part of the passing attack as well. Onterio McCalebb has big play ability but is the only running back with any significant experience whatsoever. Working out the Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Mike Blakely rotation will be key for the Tigers this spring.  In the passing game, names like Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton need to step up and help out whoever is playing quarterback.

4. VanGorder's job this spring to ensure the development of a plethora of talented youngsters. In a league where nine teams rank in the top 50 in total defense and the top 36 in scoring defense, Auburn stood (nearly) alone in defensive ineptitude last fall, beating only Ole Miss in both categories. There is no reason to believe, however, that this group won't show marked improvement in 2012. Chizik should see a seemless transition from Ted Roof's 4-3 system. VanGorder runs a similar 4-3 scheme with a desired emphisis on speed. Top tackler Bates returns for his final season as do a host of talented defensive front seven players: Lemonier, Wright, Eguae, Whittaker, Angleo Blackson, LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland, to name a few. Replacing Nieko Thorpe in the secondary and Eltoro Freeman at linebacker are the only two holes to fill on this unit. This spring is all about talent development and installing the new scheme. Like the offensive line, this is one of the most talented units in the nation and there is no reason why they should not be dramatically better in '12.

5. Only two starters are gone from the offensive line that formed the SEC's fourth-rated rushing attack. Much like the defense, development is the name of the game for this unit this spring. Youngsters Reese Dismukes, Chris Slade, Blake Burgess and Tunde Fariyike played every game last fall and will be joined by talented redshirt freshmen Greg Robinson and Christian Westernman in the rotation. Toss in veteran John Sullen and the Tigers have the makings of a tremendous collection of hog mollies. In fact, 16 of the 22 offensive linemen on the Auburn roster last season were underclassmen, so growth and maturation is the key to success for this group.

Related Content Links

2012 Recruiting Class: No. 12 Auburn Tigers
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012

Teaser:
<p> Auburn Tigers 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, March 23, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /columns/garage-talk/nascar-wrestling-awkward-realties-after-hms-penalty-overturned
Body:

by Tom Bowles

Are you a NASCAR fan? No? Well then this first paragraph doesn’t pertain to you. But if you’re a diehard, I want you to do me a favor. Pretend you’ve never heard about this sport, that the only “car going in circles” you know is your weird neighbor who does burnouts in his Mustang around the cul-de-sac. For a moment, pretend you’re brand new, a stranger curious about the biggest NASCAR story to happen this year that doesn’t have a GoDaddy.com logo plastered across its chest.

Take a deep breath, lose yourself in the course of your imagination and listen carefully as a perfect stranger trying to understand both NASCAR and the Chad Knaus penalty that wasn’t at Daytona:

Once upon a time, there was a five-time NASCAR champion driving for the richest team on the circuit whose car came to his sport’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, for pre-race inspection. You see, before each stock car ever goes onto the trac,k inspectors look at them to make sure they’re legal, using all sorts of technical tools from rulers to a gigantic, alien-looking claw that gets placed over the car. But before this particular Chevy, driven by Jimmie Johnson, ever turned a lap, the inspector looked at it from a distance, and said, “Something doesn’t look right.” That’s it; no detailed inspection, no claw-like tool to measure its accuracy, nothing. Just like that, the car was deemed illegal without running a lick of practice (not the race … practice) and Johnson’s team was forced to “fix” it and bring it back into line.

This time, the car passed, even fitting the Metallic Template of Doom and there were no other problems for the rest of Speedweeks. What ran during the sport’s big race, the Daytona 500, was as legal according to NASCAR as that enviro-friendly Toyota Prius you’re your mother-in-law just purchased. But NASCAR was really, really mad those eyeballs seemed to see “something that didn’t look right.” So they penalized Johnson 25 positions, almost the equivalent to a regular season defeat in the NFL, and suspended crew chief Knaus (think head coach) and car chief Ron Malec (associate head coach) for six weeks. The team, which is often compared to baseball’s New York Yankees, was also handed a $100,000 fine.

As you might imagine, team owner Rick Hendrick (NASCAR’s George Steinbrenner) didn’t much like that and filed an appeal. The next “court of justice” was composed of three people, none of which had been involved with the inspection process and were, at best, vaguely familiar with the rules in question. After all, two had been retired from racing for several years and one never even focused on stock car racing during his career. But these people all thought the eyeball test was good enough, kept the penalties and forced Mr. Steinbrenner (er, Hendrick) to make a final appeal to the Stock Car Racing Commissioner, John Middlebrook. This man, a retired General Motors executive (Hendrick runs a GM car in the series) who’s also an old friend of Hendrick heard the appeal on Tuesday and, like magic, some of the penalties went away.

But not all of them. Armed with little more than a paragraph statement, Middlebrook removed the suspensions, gave back the points but kept the fine intact in the most classic example of “mixed message” you’ll ever see. These people were found “guilty,” then “not guilty” all at once a month after the initial inspection. When asked to justify the verdict… um, well, you couldn’t ask Middlebrook because he wasn’t available for comment. The hearing also wasn’t publicized, so despite Hendrick’s claims that other cars were allowed to fix similar pre-race inspection problems, we will never really know what happened behind closed doors, who those cars were or the details of certain evidence presented in front of the judge.

There you have it. All of the information above is factually correct, details of NASCAR’s main publicity last month while the NCAA found Cinderellas, the NBA trade deadline buzzed and baseball prepared for opening day. If you were a perfect stranger, unfamiliar with stock car racing, would you be turned onto the sport over all alternatives? Would you go, “Oh, I want to see what happens next”?

A few of you circus-lovers and Desperate Housewives aficionados might. But if I’m guessing correctly, most would snicker in the corner or wonder how in the world this is a sport in the first place. That’s painful to write, especially considering I’ve covered NASCAR for six years and been following for 22. But this series of events presents an awkward reality, making NASCAR and everyone involved leave the courtroom sporting an ugly black eye. For a sport trying hard to find new fans, let alone win the old ones back, it’s not the storyline it anticipated to start 2012.

Consider Hendrick Motorsports, which has had to deal with the distraction over the last month that ultimately shouldn’t have been at all (according to the verdict). Were they guilty? It’s hard to tell when you keep a $100,000 fine on the record, even if that’s the type of money Hendrick carries around in his shoe.

Whether it’s fair or not, Knaus, accused now half-a-dozen times in his Cup career for major violations, has the fresh stain of “cheater” written on his uniform all over again. Johnson’s five titles, by the conspiracy theorists, will again be called into question the same way people will wonder if Lance Armstrong doped to win the Tour de France. Legitimacy on the line is never a good thing, for any sport under any circumstance. How many people now think this team can buy itself innocence? (And for the record, I’m one of those that thought these penalties were too harsh.)

Next up are the NASCAR inspectors, whose credibility was questioned in the wake of an eyeball test that was ultimately deemed a joke by Middlebrook. Rumors of Daytona favoritism now run rampant, that these officials allowed some cars to fix the same problem without ultimately reporting a violation. Does that mean they have to ultimately change their pre-race procedures in order to be taken seriously? How quickly will NASCAR adjust? And will teams laugh at them or cry foul whenever a possible violation is pointed out the next time? Failure to enforce a penalty like this one might even leave inspectors more hesitant to bring a future situation up, for fear of another stain on their resume. They needed the backing of their bosses, and ultimately (although it came through appeal) it didn’t happen.

Then there’s NASCAR itself, whose appeals process is now under fire for both the time it took and the people involved. How could Middlebrook, whose ties to Hendrick go back 20-plus years, not recuse himself from the case? How could NASCAR, knowing the possibility of this penalty being overturned, not expedite the process, considering the seriousness of the violation so the final decision came no longer than two weeks after the initial one? Thirty-plus days later would be a slight problem if the consequences were handed out at Homestead-Miami this November … don’t you think? For a sport that seemingly held momentum in its hand after last year’s thrilling finale, credibility is now the issue of the day. Somehow, through it all the art of competition has been lost in a season of parity (four winners, four races) and an amazing Daytona 500 that included a jet dryer explosion. Ratings are down, as are attendance and this major story is a PR nightmare.

And there’s Johnson himself, caught in the crossfire when all he did during the Daytona 500 was get wrecked on Lap 2. Yep, with all this controversy, the car — with new C-posts — only made one full circuit in the season’s biggest race. Who knew a 42nd-place finish could script more drama than your weekly wrestling match, the type of manipulation the sport’s brass is being compared with as a joke, again, following another hardly believable series of events.

What a mess. I think, no matter what side you’re on, we can agree on that.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles discusses the odd events surrounding the Chad Knaus penalty and how only part of it being overturned sends mixed — and confusing — signals.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 18:36
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-toughest-path-final-four
Body:

The editors at Athlon Sports debate some of the hot topics surrounding the NCAA Tournament.

What No. 1 seed has the toughest remaining path to the Final Four?

Nathan Rush: Syracuse has not been the same since Fab Melo was suspended. The Orange were lucky to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 in their nail-biter against UNC-Asheville. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team had the talent to advance to the Sweet 16, but beating a tough Wisconsin club and either Ohio State or Cincinnati will be too tall a task without the 7-foot Brazilian big man Melo on the floor.

Mitch Light: Tough call. I don’t think it’s North Carolina, even with Kendall Marshall’s injury. I will go with Michigan State. The Spartans will be tested by Louisville in the Sweet 16, but I’ll take Tom Izzo over Rick Pitino in the showdown of coaching legends. Then, Marquette — assuming it beats Florida — awaits. The Golden Eagles are very talented and are playing with a ton of confidence. The most intriguing matchup will be Jae Crowder vs. Draymond Green, two of the most versatile big men in the nation. Marquette was my Final Four pick out of the West before the Tournament began, and I’m sticking with Buzz Williams’ club.

Patrick Snow: I think it’s close between Michigan State and Syracuse, but the Spartans look to have a slightly more difficult road to New Orleans. First up for MSU is Louisville, a red-hot team with a coach who has taken three different schools to the Final Four. The Cardinals have been a very streaky team, and the Big East Tournament champions currently seem to be on a UConn-like tear from last season. If Tom Izzo’s bunch beats Louisville, it would face the winner of Marquette and Florida. The Golden Eagles have lost only three games since Jan. 11, and they have a pair of high-scoring seniors in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Meanwhile, the Gators destroyed their competition in the first two tourney games and have five players who average in double-figures. I still expect the Spartans to make the Final Four, but the Phoenix regional will be difficult.

Braden Gall: Easily the Syracuse Orange. Wisconsin lives and dies by the 3-point shot, and we all know the easiest way to beat a zone is to knock down shots from the outside. They are physical, experienced and won’t back down from the challenge. Jim Boehiem is also staring at a matchup with either Cincinnati or Ohio State in the Elite 8. The Buckeyes offer both the interior strength to take advantage of the Melo-less defense and the outside shooting and perimeter defense to slow the outstanding trio of Syracuse guards. Even the defensively minded Bearcats have played the Orange tough this season, losing a close one at home during the regular season and knocking off the Orange in the Big East tourney. North Carolina will likely have to face Kansas, and Michigan State is staring at a brutal match-up with Marquette, but no team faces a potential two-game combo like Syracuse could endure — all without the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

Mark Ross: Just as soon as North Carolina gets John Henson back against Creighton, Kendall Marshall fractures a bone in his right wrist in the win against the Bluejays. He hasn’t been ruled out of Friday’s game against Ohio, but even if Marshall does play, you have to assume he will be limited at the very least, perhaps even to the point of playing basically one-handed. As talented as the Tar Heels are, Marshall, who ranks second in the nation in assists, is clearly the engine that makes this offense run. Marshall has also been more assertive when it comes to scoring, as he has scored 11 or more points in each of the last six games. But Roy Williams doesn’t need Marshall to score — he needs him to run the offense, because the only options behind Marshall with any experience running the point are Stilman White and Justin Watts, who combined to average less than 12 minutes per game. Marshall, not surprisingly, leads the team at 33 minutes per game. Should Carolina get by Ohio, with or without Marshall, then an even tougher task looms against the winner of the Kansas-NC State tilt. Bottom line: The one time of the year you need to be at full strength is March and Carolina is anything but at this point.
 

Teaser:
<p> The editors at Athlon Sports debate some of the hot topics surrounding the NCAA Tournament.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 14:58
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /columns/garage-talk/backseat-drivers-fan-council-2
Body:

by Dustin Long

Thousands of empty seats on Sunday have created questions about Bristol and the racing there. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council discussed the matter and voted for which version of Bristol they liked the most — new Bristol or old Bristol. You might be surprised by the results on that and other issues in the sport, including if fans should be allowed to attend the drivers meeting as happened at Las Vegas.

Here’s what your fellow fans said on a variety of issues this week:

 

WHICH IS BETTER? NEW BRISTOL OR OLD BRISTOL?

38.7 percent said they were fine with either way
31.0 percent said they preferred the New Bristol
28.6 percent said they preferred the Old Bristol
1.7 percent said neither

What Fan Council members said:
• It really bothers me that people say if you liked the old Bristol you just like the wrecks. The old Bristol provided hard door-to-door racing much like the local short tracks. The new Bristol provides the same racing we will see this weekend in California — spread out 2-3 wide racing. There's nothing wrong with that but the schedule is full of these kinds of tracks. Besides, no one EVER complained about the old Bristol before 2007.

• While the one lane produces more wrecks it also slowed the race to a crawl at times. The new design lets drivers race, which is what fans pay to see

• I love short tracks. Period. I will take it any way I can get it.

• I'll repeat above — I love short track racing! Racing at Bristol, without wrecks, is the way it should be. Lots of exciting racing! A true race fan does not need to see wrecks, which take drivers out of competition and are expensive to owners.

• Sorry but the beating and banging was what separated Bristol from other races. Old school.

• Tired of feeling guilty because the new Bristol bores me. Bristol was different ... it was intense, it was suspenseful, it was fun, it was EXCITING. It is not that any longer, which is why you see a half-empty race there, something that would've been unheard of just a few years ago. It's not the economy. What made Bristol special and unique has been lost.

• I do miss beating and banging (not a fan of crashing)...

• How quickly we forget. I miss the beating and banging part, but the "old Bristol" was a one-lane conveyor belt, except when someone got impatient and bumped their way forward, usually causing a wreck. 

• The kind of racing we get now would be considered great if it happened at Michigan or California. The only problem with it is that it doesn't give us the high drama at the end that the old Bristol did. And that drama Bristol provided was one of the most highly-anticipated races of the season. The taking away of the highlight of the season to some is what is really driving the revolt against the new Bristol.

• I know there are a lot of people that don't like the new Bristol but coming from a long-time fan that LOVED the old style of Bristol, you gotta love the new racing once you get over the fact you are not going to see 10-15 cautions, but you are going to see lap after lap of side-by-side racing!

• 2- and 3-wide, as noted above, makes for a far more exciting race and allows for more tactics then simply move the guy in front out of the way...

• Bristol is BRISTOL!!! The way racing oughta be!!! The drivers love the New Bristol, why shouldn't we??? I would watch them race in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot!!!


RATING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT BRISTOL

58.6 percent called it Good
21.1 percent called it Fair
16.1 percent called it Great
4.2 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council members said:
• It was decent. Does the racing surface need to change? No. Does Goodyear need a better tire? Yes, remember in "Days of Thunder" when Cole ran 50 laps his way and 50 laps Harry's way? Harry's way was quicker. Let's get back to that where you can wear your tires out.

• It went too fast with all the green flag laps. Put the track back so we get more cautions.

• Loved it. Really wish hotel prices where not so high. I would love to add it to my list of tracks I visit. The racing is sooooo much better then in years past and a lot less wrecking.

• As a longtime area resident, it saddens me to see Bristol half full. Many people I know personally have given up their season tickets since the change in configuration. There was a reason Bristol was special. There was a reason people had it at the top of their favorite track list. There was a reason you couldn't get a ticket for years. Say all you will about side-by-side racing ... the reality is now the leader gets in front, runs away, and there's long boring green flag stretches. The intensity that made Bristol great is gone.

• It was a good race. There was a lot of passing, pit strategy, and other things that happened that kept me wondering what was going to happen.

• We used to have Bristol parties and cookouts, but our attendance suffered as well. That GREAT facility DESERVES a better product.

• I thought it was a really good race with lots of side-by-side racing and passing. I also really like it when the dominant cars are allowed to be dominant and put most of the field laps down. If a team hits on a good setup and the driver can drive, let them do what they can do.

• I want my Bristol back, and so does the vast majority of fans (evidenced by the half full track). I'm tired of everyone blaming the economy. It’s the track and lack of excitement. Gave my seats of 12 years up two years ago for no other reason other than the boring racing, and so did the group of nine I went with every year. Why change something that was perfect? No idiot would decide to take the banking out of Talladega, so why did some idiot decide to change Bristol? And to those who say they love that style of racing, I'm sure Michigan or Fontana or Atlanta would love to have you, but for me, I want MY OLD Bristol back.

• Great racing though sad the stands were so empty. Scary to think the outsiders who say we only like wrecks might be right, based on that

• Actually thought it was pretty boring. They need to tear up the track and repave it!


SHOULD FANS BE ALLOWED IN THE DRIVERS MEETING?
At Las Vegas earlier this month, the track set it up so that drivers meeting was outdoors and fans could attend. Some drivers were asked about what they thought of that the following week at Bristol and a few said they weren’t in favor of it. So, Fan Council members were asked if fans should be allowed to attend the drivers meeting:

53.3 percent said fans should NOT attend the drivers meeting
35.9 percent said SPEED and Sprint should broadcast the meeting to fans
7.3 percent said this should be an issue for each track. If they have room, allow fans
3.5 percent said fans SHOULD attend the drivers meeting

What Fan Council members said:
• I think the access the fans get is substantial. ... In recent years, fans have gotten near unlimited access. So, now they think they need it all. Some things aren't really needed to be given access to non-competing members.

• I think the drivers meeting should be for them and officials only!!!! This part of the race prep should be all business, not sure if guests should be included.

• This would add so much value to the pit pass. And did anyone notice how NOT full Bristol was? You gotta go the extra mile to pack those bleachers in the bad economy.

• I think the drivers meeting should be for drivers and crew members only. That also means no journalists/reporters in there, even though I know that's how we get most of our news.

• If NASCAR is going to attract younger fans, they need to be more transparent. The younger generation is used to knowing everything about everything. There are no more secrets when it comes to celebs and sports.

• By broadcasting the meeting, the drivers would have the intimate setting that they prefer and the fans would be able to see what is going on. It's a win-win for everyone.

• At Bristol, they broadcast it on the Jumbotron which to me was a nice touch while allowing the competitors the privacy they needed to get the information.

• This meeting is for drivers to clarify rules and ask for explanations. It was STUPID that it was out in the open for fans. I was even there, and it was a ridiculous zoo. Don't get me wrong — I am all for fan access, and nobody does it better than LVMS. BUT, the drivers need this meeting to help avoid costly mistakes and the fans certainly didn't contribute to that atmosphere.

• If the track can accommodate it, I think it's a good idea to have it open to the public. One of the major differences between NASCAR and other major sports in the access granted the fans. As long as it's not distracting to the drivers and teams, I think it's a good idea.


SPLIT SCREENS?
With the start of the NCAA basketball tournament at the same time as Bristol, Fan Council members were asked how the NCAA Tournament impacted their NASCAR TV viewing.

90.2 percent said it didn’t impact them — they watched all the NASCAR events they planned
5.2 percent said they watched a lot more of the NCAA Tournament than NASCAR
4.5 percent said they watched a little more of the NCAA Tournament than NASCAR

What Fan Council members said:
• Bristol race > NCAA Tournament. Now, California, I might have to skip to watch the game.

• NASCAR is my sport of choice. I have very little interest in basketball.

• NASCAR is on the top of my list when it comes to television programming. Until the NHL playoffs start, there isn't anything I'd watch over a NASCAR race.

• Sorry NASCAR ... This is the ONLY time of the year that I have to try to balance another sport vs races. Usually I tape Nascar and watch it between basketball games. Thankfully it's only for 2 or 3 weekends.

• I was hooked on the NCAA tournament the first couple of days, but when the Sprint Cup race came on it was all NASCAR for me.

• I have NO interest in stick and ball sports.

• I'm a college hoops junkie ... love it!! But have 3 TV's set up in the living room so I didn't miss anything from either side.

• As a race fan, it doesn't matter what else is on. I watch the racing first and only change the channel if the action, or lack of it, warrants a channel change


Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at dustinlong002@gmail.com.

Please include the following information: Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver. 

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its input on Bristol, whether fans belong in the Drivers Meeting and how the NCAA Tournament effects NASCAR.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 14:04
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-third-base-rankings
Body:

Opening Day is just a few weeks away and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get you ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

Jose Bautista still leads the way at third base, that is until Miguel Cabrera gains position eligibility at the hot corner.

Hanley Ramirez is also making the switch to third, and for what it's worth, he would come in behind Evan Longoria in these rankings. Neither he nor Cabrera appear below because they have not gained third-base eligibility at this point.

David Wright is someone to keep an eye on these next few weeks as he is dealing with a torn abdominal muscle in his left side. It's the same injury that fellow third baseman Ryan Zimmerman suffered during spring training last season.

Zimmerman originally tried to play it through, but was put on the DL shortly after the start of the season and ended up having surgery in early May. He finally returned in the middle of June, but it took him a few weeks to get going and he finished the season with career lows in both home runs (12) and RBIs (49).

Wright is trying to let his abdominal muscle heal with rest and treatment in hopes of avoiding surgery, but it's a situation that definitely bears watching.

Brett Lawrie has been tearing the cover off of the ball during spring training, which probably is part of the reason for his slight rise in the Top 200 and passing Michael Young in the third base rankings.

The biggest risers at third in the rankings are Martin Prado (No. 140 overall, up from No. 157) and David Freese (No. 166, up from No. 198).

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
OVR
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – CBSSportsline.com (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – FOXSports.com (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – MLB.com (as of 3/15/12)
RC – RotoChamp.com (updated 3/18/12)
RS – RotoSummit.com (updated 2/27/12)
USA — USAToday.com (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings**: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

**Positional rankings will be updated throughout the week

Rank OVR LR Player Team Pos AS CBS ESPN FOX MLB RC RS USA Y!
1 5 4 Jose Bautista TOR 3B/OF 11 2 5 6 3 6 5 5 5
2 18 17 Evan Longoria TB 3B 33 20 11 16 17 19 16 7 13
3 28 30 Adrian Beltre TEX 3B 31 37 27 34 29 53 23 29 26
4 34 29 David Wright NYM 3B 73 23 29 24 20 91 26 23 29
5 35 36 Ryan Zimmerman WAS 3B 29 42 34 42 32 60 47 24 33
6 39 48 Pablo Sandoval SF 3B 34 54 33 44 68 27 38 69 39
7 48 56 Brett Lawrie TOR 3B 71 55 46 67 44 33 63 71 45
8 59 53 Michael Young TEX 1B/2B/3B 74 56 95 43 101 26 57 75 61
9 62 61 Alex Rodriguez NYY 3B 98 66 67 50 53 83 72 58 46
10 69 72 Kevin Youkilis BOS 1B/3B 58 45 98 59 77 105 76 68 60
11 74 74 Aramis Ramirez MIL 3B 89 107 58 64 86 62 73 57 74
12 115 113 Mark Reynolds BAL 1B/3B 120 98 156 107 111 101 123 124 128
13 135 125 Emilio Bonifacio MIA SS/3B/OF 124 114 213 83 - 109 142 172 119
14 140 157 Martin Prado ATL 3B/OF 152 122 168 128 150 115 162 157 150
15 159 164 Ryan Roberts ARI 2B/3B 162 123 165 112 192 162 189 180 155
16 166 198 David Freese STL 3B 145 192 194 160 145 169 - 117 167
17 174 180 Mike Moustakas KC 3B 186 181 190 130 - 149 - 148 172
18 203 194 Edwin Encarnacion TOR 3B - - - 144 162 - - - 191
19 220 NR Chase Headley SD 3B - 179 - - - 188 - 184 -
20 256 NR Mike Aviles BOS 2B/SS/3B - - - - 191 - - - -
21 269 NR Pedro Alvarez PIT 3B - - - 200 - - - - -

Other names to consider (in alphabetical order): Lonnie Chisenhall (CLE, 3B), Chris Davis (BAL, 1B/3B), Macier Izturis (LAA, 2B/SS/3B), Chipper Jones (ATL, 3B), Jed Lowrie (HOU, SS/3B), Daniel Murphy (NYM, 1B/2B/3B), Placido Polanco (PHI, 3B), Sean Rodriguez (TB, 2B/SS/3B), Scott Sizemore (OAK, 2B/3B), Ian Stewart (CHC, 3B), Danny Valencia (MIN, 3B), Ty Wigginton (PHI, 1B/3B/OF)

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 21, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers

 

For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports' has updated its consensus fantasy rankings at third base</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 10:45
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-first-base-rankings
Body:

Opening Day is just a few weeks away and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

At first base, not much has changed in the updated positional rankings. Miguel Cabrera, who's moving to third this season, and Albert Pujols flip-flop places atop the first base rankings, followed by Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder, the reason why Cabrera is moving over to the hot corner.

The biggest changes are all injury or illness-related as Ryan Howard (Achilles), Ike Davis (lung infection), Justin Morneau (concussion-related symptoms and numerous surgeries) and Mark Trumbo (stress fracture in foot) all dropped in the rankings. Howard is out until at least May, if not longer, which is the main reason why he has fallen in the rankings. Davis and Trumbo were both limited early on in spring training by their situations, but appear to be back on track, while Morneau has struggled to find his timing and power at the plate.

There has been some positive news on the injury front, however. Kendrys Morales, who last played on May 29, 2010 due to a severely fractured ankle, has been making slow, but steady progress during spring training. He is scheduled to make his long-awaited return to game action later this week.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
OVR
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – CBSSportsline.com (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – FOXSports.com (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – MLB.com (as of 3/15/12)
RC – RotoChamp.com (updated 3/18/12)
RS – RotoSummit.com (updated 2/27/12)
USA - USAToday.com (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings**: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

**Positional rankings will be updated throughout the week

Rank OVR LR Player Team Pos AS CBS ESPN FOX MLB RC RS USA Y!
1 1 3 Miguel Cabera DET 1B 2 1 1 4 4 1 4 3 1
2 2 1 Albert Pujols LAA 1B 1 3 2 3 2 3 3 4 3
3 9 7 Joey Votto CIN 1B 16 12 10 12 9 5 9 10 7
4 10 9 Adrian Gonzalez BOS 1B 7 13 14 7 11 11 13 9 9
5 17 16 Prince Fielder DET 1B 17 26 18 15 12 7 18 18 14
6 23 21 Mark Teixeira NYY 1B 22 33 24 23 24 18 27 31 23
7 36 33 Carlos Santana CLE C/1B 52 17 52 30 35 32 46 40 41
8 38 38 Mike Napoli TEX C/1B 57 43 47 27 39 30 41 36 53
9 39 48 Pablo Sandoval SF 1B/3B 34 54 33 44 68 27 38 69 39
10 46 42 Paul Konerko CHW 1B 70 97 36 37 40 38 35 65 47
11 52 49 Eric Hosmer KC 1B 41 106 45 39 74 43 40 60 68
12 59 53 Michael Young TEX 1B/2B/3B 74 56 95 43 101 26 57 75 61
13 69 72 Kevin Youkilis BOS 1B/3B 58 45 98 59 77 105 76 68 60
14 70 79 Michael Morse WAS 1B/OF 103 83 71 53 82 42 70 83 62
15 77 76 Joe Mauer MIN C/1B 43 48 131 58 66 77 85 93 95
16 83 87 Lance Berkman STL 1B/OF 105 78 59 77 96 52 77 99 86
17 90 90 Howard Kendrick LAA 1B/2B/OF 85 119 118 79 84 88 91 101 72
18 98 98 Billy Butler KC 1B 55 111 102 129 153 37 121 85 123
19 109 107 Freddie Freeman ATL 1B 81 147 120 76 143 81 127 97 115
20 112 120 Michael Cuddyer COL 1B/2B/OF 96 152 92 123 156 139 98 121 70
21 115 113 Mark Reynolds BAL 1B/3B 120 98 156 107 111 101 123 124 128
22 141 149 Nick Swisher NYY 1B/OF 163 170 150 146 115 137 158 114 153
23 142 143 Paul Goldschmidt ARI 1B 136 - 182 150 117 126 192 113 98
24 145 136 Adam Lind TOR 1B 158 - 135 142 133 110 115 195 142
25 158 183 Gaby Sanchez MIA 1B 156 182 162 133 200 154 175 115 161
26 160 118 Ryan Howard PHI 1B 159 126 196 171 187 - 160 150 94
27 161 137 Ike Davis NYM 1B 157 149 208 172 152 - 168 140 111
28 165 153 Justin Morneau MIN 1B 59 191 - 176 181 - - 126 151
29 172 200 Carlos Lee HOU 1B/OF 161 - - 147 - 150 183 123 175
30 182 190 Kendrys Morales LAA 1B 154 - - - 168 122 - - 176
31 207 NR Lucas Duda NYM 1B/OF - - - - - 173 - 143 190
32 209 155 Mark Trumbo LAA 1B/OF - - - 155 - - 177 - 185
33 210 NR Brandon Belt SF 1B/OF - 197 - 190 186 192 - 154 -
34 218 NR Carlos Pena TB 1B - - 192 - 182 180 - 178 -
35 223 216 Yonder Alonso SD 1B/OF 181 - - - - 176 - - -
36 232 NR Mike Carp SEA 1B/OF - - - - - 166 - - -
37 236 NR James Loney LAD 1B - - - - - 168 - - -
38 253 NR Adam Dunn CHW 1B/DH - - - - 188 - - - -

Other names to consider (in alphabetical order): Chris Davis (BAL, 1B/3B), Todd Helton (COL, 1B), Aubrey Huff (SF, 1B/OF), Garrett Jones (PIT, 1B/OF), Adam LaRoche (WAS, 1B), Mitch Moreland (TEX, 1B/OF), Daniel Murphy (NYM, 1B/2B/3B), Justin Smoak (SEA, 1B), Ty Wigginton (PHI, 1B/3B/OF)

— by Mark Ross, updated on March 21, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers

 

For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports' updated consensus fantasy rankings reveal the AL's strength and depth at first base</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Luke Donald, Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-8-luke-donald-1
Body:

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 8: Luke Donald

Born: Dec. 7, 1977, Hemel Hempstead, England  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 5 (6 on European Tour) | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 4 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $6,683,214 World Ranking: 1

 

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

The reason I don’t have the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings ranked higher, or more likely to do well in the majors in 2012, is simple: He doesn’t drive the ball well enough. In 2011, Donald was 127th in total driving on the PGA Tour, and in 2010 he was 186th. This has been his problem throughout his career, and it is the reason that, despite being by far the best putter in the world and by far the best bunker player in the world, he struggles in the majors. For example, he never hit more than three fairways in a row at last year’s U.S. Open and never hit more than four in a row at the British Open, and he is not powerful enough to play from the rough. 
His best chance to win his first major is at The Masters, where he finished fourth last year and he has three top 10s in the last seven years.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 34
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - T4
U.S. Open - T45
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T8

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T3 (2005)
U.S. Open - T12 (2006)
British Open - T5 (2009)
PGA Championship - T3 (2006)
Top-10 Finishes: 6
Top-25 Finishes: 12
Missed Cuts: 11

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter. 

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 10:27
Path: /mlb/los-angeles-angels-2012-preview
Body:

Los Angeles Angels

Arte Moreno clearly doesn't like finishing second. After the Angels missed the playoffs in consecutive years (2010-11) for the first time in his ownership, Moreno fired GM Tony Reagins and a handful of long-time front-office employees in a thorough purge. Jerry Dipoto was hired as GM, bringing a fresh vision to an organization that had not made a significant front office addition from outside the franchise since 2003. After annually falling short in pursuit of their big-ticket offseason targets, Moreno handed Dipoto a blank check and a clear mandate to think big in upgrading the team. Fueled by a new TV deal that gave the franchise's bottom line a robust boost, the Angels splurged on the biggest single-day free agent expenditure in baseball history - a combined $331.5 million committed to first baseman Albert Pujols and left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson. Those two moves have transformed the Angels from a fading franchise trying to rebuild around young players into a serious threat to the Texas Rangers, the reigning power in the AL West and the American League.

Rotation
A starting rotation fronted by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana put up a 3.59 ERA in 2011, the second-lowest in the American League and fifth-lowest in the majors. Weaver (18-8, 2.41 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) had the kind of season that would have won him a Cy Young in most years not featuring Justin Verlander's dominant performance. But the Angels' rotation was very much a front-loaded group with a serious drop-off after that trio. The Angels were a very good team when Weaver, Haren or Santana started (58-42) with those three combining to go 45-30 with a 2.98 ERA and 568 strikeouts in 702.2 innings. When one of their big three didn't start, though, the Angels were not a very good team (28-34). So they signed the best starting pitcher available on the free agent market in Wilson, creating a rotation that might be the best in baseball in 2012. The left-handed Wilson (an Orange County native who grew up rooting for the Angels) gives the rotation balance and lets Jerome Williams and top prospect Garrett Richards fight it out for the fifth spot.

Bullpen
Angels relievers were among the least reliable in baseball last season, blowing 25 saves (tied for the most in the American League). Rookie closer Jordan Walden had 10 of those blown saves, tied with Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol for the most in the majors. Growing pains from a rookie closer are understandable. But as big a problem for the Angels was their inability to find any consistency in their setup crew beyond veteran Scott Downs (who was exceptional). A revolving group of relievers took turns earning manager Mike Scioscia's trust and then promptly losing it - from Kevin Jepsen and Michael Kohn to Fernando Rodney, Jason Bulger and Rich Thompson. Dipoto made the bullpen a high priority in the offseason but emerged only with veteran setup man LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen (on a minor league deal) added to Downs, Hisanori Takahashi, Bobby Cassevah and the remnants of last year's pen to build the bridge between the starting rotation and Walden.

Middle Infield
Manning the middle has been a three-man job over the past few years. Injuries, inconsistency and a search for the best lineup matchups prompted Scioscia to rotate the two jobs among three players — Howard Kendrick at second base, Erick Aybar at shortstop and Maicer Izturis at both positions. Kendrick (an All-Star in 2011) and Aybar (the American League Gold Glove winner at shortstop) are entering their primes and have stronger grips on the every-day duty. But Izturis remains a valuable and versatile role player who should see significant playing time at second, third and shortstop.

Corners
Pujols' average season (.328/.420/.617, 42 home runs, 126 RBIs and 123 runs scored) blows away anything the Angels have had in their lineup since Vlad Guerrero's prime. His arrival also creates a potential surplus at first base. The Angels are optimistic that Kendrys Morales can finally return from his fractured ankle in 2012. Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo returns for his sophomore season after leading the Angels in home runs (29) and RBIs (87). While Morales figures to make his return primarily at DH, Trumbo might have to become a utility player in order to get his at-bats this season. The Angels plan to try Trumbo at third base (in a part-time capacity), where he would join a co-op with Alberto Callaspo and Izturis. The Callaspo-Izturis combo provides little of the power expected from a corner infielder, but Callaspo did lead the team in batting average (.288) and on-base percentage last season.

Outfield
The Angels head into 2012 with six outfielders vying for playing time in three spots — seven if you count Trumbo, a man without a position. Two of those players represent the Angels' dynamic future - Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout. Three of those players are costly veterans in their declining years (Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu). Bourjos emerged as a Gold Glove-caliber defender, one of the best centerfielders in baseball. He was also the first player in franchise history and one of only two in the majors last season (along with Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson) to have at least 25 doubles, 10 triples, 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Hunter, Wells and Abreu, on the other hand, set career-lows almost across the board. Hunter bounced back in the second half and could be re-energized in a lineup bolstered by the addition of Pujols and the return of Morales, allowing him to slip back into a complementary role. A bounce-back for Wells is almost inevitable — it seems impossible he could be as bad as he was in his first season with the Angels (a .218 average and .248 on-base percentage). Ryan Langerhans will provide a lefty bat off the bench. Looming over all is the rising star Trout. He made the leap to the majors from Double-A last summer with limited success (a .220 average in 40 games). His electrifying skill set was apparent, though, and his time is coming.

Catching
Scioscia's love of defense from his catchers couldn't blind him forever to the offensive incompetence of Jeff Mathis. Things finally changed this winter with Mathis jettisoned by Dipoto (in a trade to the Blue Jays) and Chris Iannetta acquired to restore some much-needed balance to the position. The question now is whether Iannetta can carry his offense out of Coors Field and into the American League - his career splits heavily favor his former home. Iannetta's arrival also casts a shadow over Hank Conger as the Angels' catcher of the future. With the 28-year-old Iannetta likely to make 100 starts or more, Conger (a former first-round pick) will compete with Bobby Wilson for backup duty at best.

DH/Bench
In an ideal world for the Angels, Morales would return healthy in 2012 and ease back into things as their primary DH. However, as optimistic as the Angels are that Morales will be healthy on Opening Day, his health remains a question mark; Abreu lurks as a $9 million albatross with fading skills; and Trumbo is a second-year player with tremendous power but nowhere to play. Scioscia will piece together a DH out of that group with the remains (plus the idle half of his Callaspo-Izturis infield time-share) making up the meat of the Angels' bench.

Management
Dipoto has brought a new vision, surrounding himself with a group of evaluators and assistants with a distinctly analytical bent. With greater job security than any other manager in baseball, Scioscia had become a looming power in the organization, stifling dissent. That has clearly changed with the new power structure in the front office. Dipoto's offseason moves (aided by Moreno's decision to throw open the bank vault) reflect his philosophy, pushing the Angels toward greater regard for on-base percentage and pitchers who can “control counts.” It represents a new direction for a franchise that had begun to grow stale.

Final Analysis
The offseason splurge for Pujols and Wilson has upped the ante for this season. Anything short of a return to the top of the AL West (a division the Angels ruled with five first-place finishes in six seasons from 2004-09) might make them question their investment. It won't be easy. The Rangers remain a power, with a strong farm system and a deep team anchored by players entering their primes. The Angels-Rangers rivalry figures to be as competitive as any in baseball.

 

 

Batting Order
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Switch-hitter was much more dangerous from the left side — a .308 average, .341 OBP and seven home runs.
2B Howard Kendrick (R)
Added power (career-highs of 18 HRs and .464 slugging percentage) to .285 average last season.
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Contract includes $3 million bonus for 3,000th hit, $7 million for 763rd home run - has 2,073 hits, 445 homers.
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
Has missed 273 games since fracturing his left ankle on May 29, 2010.
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Reversed aging process in second half of 2011 - .324 average, 10 home runs, 31 RBIs after the end of July.
LF Vernon Wells (R)
Wells' .218 average, .248 OBP in 2011 were lowest of any major leaguer who qualified for batting title.
3B Alberto Callaspo (S)
Should share playing time with Maicer Izturis, possibly Mark Trumbo as well.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
Had OBPs of .390 and .370 in the only two seasons in which he played 100-plus games (2008, '11).
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Hit better against lefties (.289 average, .503 slugging) than righties; candidate for spot starts at leadoff.

Bench
INF Maicer Izturis (S)
One of Angels' smartest hitters, stayed healthy enough to play career-high 122 games in 2011.
C Bobby Wilson (R)
Caught Ervin Santana's no-hitter; penciled in to back up Chris Iannetta.
OF Bobby Abreu (L)
In serious decline but rare left-handed bat for righty-heavy Angels. He may serve as DH until Morales proves completely healthy.
OF Ryan Langerhans (L)
Veteran gives Angels another left-handed bat, provides solid defense at all three outfield positions
INF Mark Trumbo (R)
First rookie to lead Angels in homers (29) and RBIs (87) has to fight for at-bats now. Should get some work at third base in order to get his bat in the lineup.

Rotation
RH Jered Weaver
Only Cy Young winner Justin Verlander had a better year among AL pitchers in 2011.
RH Dan Haren
Durable and dependable, Haren has not missed a start since becoming a regular in 2005.
LH C.J. Wilson
In two seasons since converting to starter is 31-15 with 3.14 ERA, 376 strikeouts.
RH Ervin Santana
Went 7-1 with 2.18 ERA in July and August including no-hitter in Cleveland.
RH Jerome Williams
22-2 with 3.10 ERA in 206.1 IP combined in independent league, Triple-A, majors and winter ball last year.

Bullpen
RH Jordan Walden (Closer)
Had club rookie record 32 saves - and tied for MLB-high with 10 blown saves.
LH Scott Downs
Most reliable reliever in a shaky 2011 bullpen had 26 holds, a 1.34 ERA.
RH LaTroy Hawkins
Veteran joins his ninth team; gives Angels another veteran setup option with Downs.
RH Bobby Cassevah
Mike Scioscia grew to trust Cassevah's heavy sinker late in the 2011 season.
LH Hisanori Takahashi
A lefty specialist who fared better against righties (.206 average, .599 OPS) than lefties (.261, .733).
RH Rich Thompson
Never grabbed hold of a role in 2011 but did have 56 strikeouts in 54 innings.
RH Jason Isringhausen
The former Cardinals closer resurrected his career with the Mets last season, finishing with 19 holds, seven saves and just five blown opportunities. He's an inexpensive and dicey insurance plan for Walden.

Teaser:
<p> Fueled by a new TV deal that gave the franchise's bottom line a robust boost, the Angels splurged on the biggest single-day free agent expenditure in baseball history - a combined $331.5 million committed to first baseman Albert Pujols and left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson. Those two moves have transformed the Angels from a fading franchise trying to rebuild around young players into a serious threat to the Texas Rangers, the reigning power in the AL West and the American League.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 08:29
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-tens-college-football-coaches
Body:

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

Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference. 

Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten
Ranking the Coaches: SEC
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches (Fri.)

Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the Big Ten:

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State (First year)
Alma Mater: Cincinnati
Record: 65-15 (Florida, 2005-2010)
Record: 22-2 (Utah, 2003-04)
Record: 17-6 (Bowling Green, 2001-02)
Overall: 104-23

The resume is as complete as it gets: Two BCS National Championships, four conference titles, three conference Coach of the Year awards, one Heisman Trophy, one national Coach of the Year honor and the Sports Illustrated Coach of the Decade (2000-2009). Meyer’s success is unquestioned; he wins and he wins big. He built Bowling Green into a conference contender in only two seasons before taking Utah to a BCS bowl in two short years in Salt Lake City. In his second year at Florida, he earned his first BCS Crystal Ball. After a second title with the Chosen One under center, Meyer took a brief respite from the sideline in 2011. He returns to the coaching ranks renewed and reinvigorated — and back in his home state at the Big Ten program with the most natural and financial resources in the league. His ability to recruit was on full display at the close of the 2012 cycle and his offensive game plan is as proven a system as there is in the collegiate playbook. The only crack in his armor is the health concerns — aka his dedication. He coached only six years at what could be considered the second-best job in the nation, won championships, and simply walked away. Other than his long-term commitment, there are not too many better options in America.

2. Brady Hoke, Michigan (1 year)
Alma Mater: 
Ball State (1977-80)
Record: 11-2 (2011-present)
Record: 13-12 (San Diego State, 2009-10)
Record: 34-38 (Ball State, 2003-08)
Overall: 58-52 (9 years)

Deciding between Hoke and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio as the top coach in the Big Ten Legends Division is no easy task. Hoke has done a good job of resurrecting two programs that did not have much success prior to his arrival. In six seasons with Ball State, Hoke recorded a 34-38 mark, including an appearance in the MAC title game in 2008. The Cardinals also made two bowl games under Hoke’s watch. After a solid stint at Ball State, Hoke left for the West Coast, choosing to coach at San Diego State. The Aztecs won just nine games in the three years prior to his arrival, but led San Diego State to a 9-4 record and an appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl in 2010. After Rich Rodriguez was fired at Michigan, Hoke was an easy choice to become the Wolverines’ next coach, especially considering he coached in Ann Arbor from 1995-2002. Considering he was born in Ohio, Hoke isn’t necessarily a “Michigan Man.” However, he is a great fit for the Wolverines, has done a good job of rebuilding two struggling programs (Ball State and San Diego State) and led the Wolverines to a BCS bowl in his first season.

3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (6 years)
Alma Mater:
 South Carolina (1976-78)
Record: 44-22 (2007-present)
Record: 18-17 (Cincinnati, 2005-06)
Overall: 62-39 (9 years)

If Brady Hoke is the top coach in the Legends Division, Dantonio is really 1B. In six seasons in East Lansing, Dantonio has turned the Spartans from underachiever to Big Ten title contender. The Spartans won 22 games through his first three years, but has posted back-to-back seasons of 11 victories. And there’s one more feather in the cap for Dantonio and Michigan State to brag about – the Spartans own a four-game winning streak over rival Michigan. Dantonio has yet to lead Michigan State to a Rose Bowl appearance, but with the program on the right track, it’s only a matter of time before the Spartans make the trek to Pasadena. Dantonio’s success isn’t just limited to Michigan State, as he posted an 18-17 record in three years with Cincinnati and led the Bearcats to two bowl trips. Dantonio seems to be a perfect fit at Michigan State and should keep this program among the best in the Big Ten as long as he sticks around in East Lansing. 

4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (6 years)
Alma Mater: 
Northwestern (1993-96)
Record: 40-36 (2006-present)

Fitzgerald is the perfect coach for Northwestern and barring something unexpected, will likely be here until he retires. As a Northwestern graduate, Fitzgerald is well-aware of the culture and what it takes to win in Evanston. The former Wildcat linebacker has led Northwestern to four consecutive bowl games and just one losing season. Fitzgerald’s overall record over the last six seasons is a solid 40-36, but is still searching for his first bowl victory. Northwestern is not an easy place to win, but Fitzgerald has found the right formula and will continue to make the Wildcats a yearly threat to reach a bowl and pull off an upset or two along the way. 

5. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (6 years)
Alma Mater: 
Iowa
Record: 60-19 (2006-present)

Hand picked by Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez, few imagined Bielema had the talent to maintain the Badgers’ level of success. After six years of Meyer-esque winning percentages, those concerns have definitively been squashed. His back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances were the first for Wisconsin since 1998 and 1999, and despite not winning either game, the Badgers can hang their hats on back-to-back conference titles. In fact, Bielema’s bowl record might be his only weakness. He is 2-4 in postseason play and is likely the only thing keeping him from being ranked higher on this list. That, and the fact he was handed the keys to a program that functions in a vastly different manner than it did in late '80s. Alvarez took UW from an also-ran, bye week program and turned it into a $100-million Midwest football powerhouse. Bielema hasn’t recruited at an elite level — aka Top 25 nationally — but has done an incredible job evaluating and developing talent. Without a single top-25 recruiting class to his name, the Badgers’ head man has sent 11 players into the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since 2006. He has never experienced a losing season as a head coach and earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors back in 2006 when he led Wisconsin to a 12-1 record in his first season. Iowa Hawkeye leg tattoo aside, fans in Madison are very happy to have transitioned so seamlessly from Alvarez to Bielema.

6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (13 years)
Alma Mater: 
Connecticut (1974-76)
Record: 96-66 (1999-present)
Record: 12-21 (Maine, 1990-92)
Overall: 108-87 (16 years)

Ferentz got off to a slow start as Iowa’s head coach, posting a 4-19 record through the first two years. However, the Hawkeyes went on to reel off five consecutive winning seasons, including an appearance in the Orange Bowl and victories in the Outback and Capital One bowls. Iowa has claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title two times and has missed out on a bowl game only once since 2001. Ferentz has had his share of ups and downs, and the Hawkeyes are just 15-11 over the last two years. Although Ferentz has accumulated 96 victories – second-most in Iowa history – there are concerns from the Iowa fanbase that the program has gone stale. Ferentz’s track record suggests the Hawkeyes will get back on track, but a couple more seven-win seasons won’t sit too well in Iowa City.

7. Bo Pelini, Nebraska (4 years)
Alma Mater: 
Ohio State (1987-90)
Record: 39-16 (2003, 2008-present)

Pelini had an interesting path to become Nebraska’s head coach. After Frank Solich was fired following the 2003 season, Pelini served as the Cornhuskers’ interim coach in the Alamo Bowl, recording a 17-3 victory over Michigan State. Although Pelini led Nebraska to a victory, he was passed over in favor of Bill Callahan and instead of sticking around in Lincoln, chose to work with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 2004. After one season in Norman, Pelini left for LSU from 2005-07, helping to lead the Tigers to a national title in the 2008 BCS Naitonal Championship. Despite being passed for the job just a few seasons before, Pelini returned in Lincoln in 2008 to become Nebraska’s head coach. There’s no question Pelini is one of the top defensive minds in college football, but he is still looking to take this program to the next level. Nebraska has at least nine victories in each of Pelini’s four seasons at the helm, but is still searching for its first BCS appearance. Pelini is a solid coach and has the Cornhuskers back on the right track to emerging as a national title contender once again. However, the Big Ten is crowded at the top and Pelini needs to push Nebraska higher to be ranked ahead of some of the other names on this list.

8. Jerry Kill, Minnesota (1 year)
Alma Mater: 
Southwestern (1979-82)
Record: 3-9 (2011-present)
Record: 23-16 (Northern Illinois, 2008-10)
Record: 55-32 (Southern Illinois, 2001-07)
Record: 11-11 (Emporia State, 1999-2000)
Record: 38-14 (Saginaw Valley State, 1994-98)
Overall: 130-82 (18 years)

Considering Kill’s successful track record, a 3-9 record in his first year with Minnesota was somewhat surprising. Although the Golden Gophers weren’t expected to challenge for 10 wins, the schedule was favorable enough to contend for a bowl appearance. Minnesota pulled off two upsets to finish last season, but also lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. Kill also dealt with health issues last year, which certainly had some impact on the team and coaching staff. Kill has an impressive resume at four different stops, which includes leading Southern Illinois to five playoff appearances and posting a 23-16 record in three seasons with Northern Illinois. Although Kill’s debut season didn’t go according to plan, his successful track record at four other schools suggests it won’t be long until the Golden Gophers emerge as a consistent bowl team.

9. Tim Beckman, Illinois (First year)
Alma Mater: 
Findlay
Record: 21-16 (Toledo, 2009-2011)

After learning under Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, Beckman got his first chance at the big chair in 2009. After five years of tremendous success under Tom Amstutz, Toledo had eroded into one of the MAC’s worst programs. Three straight losing seasons (5-7, 5-7, 3-9) got Beckman into town. He proceeded to improve the team’s win total in three consecutive seasons from three to five to eight to nine. He has been responsible for developing such prominent MAC stars as Eric Page and Adonis Thomas and is now charged with another rebuilding project at Illinois.

10. Danny Hope, Purdue (4 years)
Alma Mater: 
Eastern Kentucky
Record: 16-21 (2009-present)
Record: 35-22 (Eastern Kentucky, 2003-2007)
Overall: 51-43

After 20 years as an assistant at both the college and high school levels, Hope got his first chance at running a program when his alma mater hired him in 2003. He never had a losing season at Eastern Kentucky and eventually got the Colonels into the NCAA playoffs after an Ohio Valley Conference championship in 2007. Purdue was familiar with Hope due to a solid five-year stint as the offensive line coach under Joe Tiller and Drew Brees during the Boilers most recent heyday (1997-2001). After one year as the assistant head coach in 2008, Hope was given the top job in 2009. It took him three seasons, but Purdue experienced its first winning season and subsequent bowl appearance since 2007 when PU beat Western Michigan in last year’s Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. His Boilermakers have been one of the most injury-riddled programs in the nation of late and appear to be snake-bitten. However, that hasn’t kept Hope from pulling off a few massive upsets over perennial Big Ten powers (we're looking at you Columbus).

11. Bill O’Brien, Penn State (First year)
Alma Mater: 
Brown
Record: First Year

Romeo Crennel is 26-41 as a head coach. Charlie Weis is 35-27 as a head coach. Josh McDaniels is 11-17 as a head coach. Bill Belichick assistants have gone on to win 45.8% of their games as head coaches on both the college and NFL level. This is one of the few concrete pieces of statistical evidence available to evaluate Penn State’s hiring of the Patriots offensive coordinator. Much like the relatively unsuccessful Nick Saban assistants (Derek Dooley, Wil Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher), it can be a double-edged sword hiring a Belichick protégé. First, Belichick, like Saban, doesn’t hire bad personnel. You have to be a hard worker who is willing to grind out wins in the toughest of circumstances. Check. Yet, shockingly, the assistants never seem to be as good without the sage leadership of the head honcho to guide them. The only other piece of concrete evidence is O’Brien’s undeniable experience and knowledge of college football on the East Coast. He has coached at Georgia Tech (1995-2002), Maryland (2003-2004) and Duke (2005-2006). He has recruited up and down the Atlantic seaboard and this aspect of his resume should help him ease into what could be the most difficult situation in the history of college football. 

12. Kevin Wilson, Indiana (1 year)
Alma Mater:
 North Carolina
Record: 1-11 (2011-present)

Wilson deserves credit for creating one of the nation’s best offenses while at Oklahoma. Under his watchful eye from 2002 to 2010, the Sooners churned out 3,000-yard passers and conference championships. His offensive prowess in Norman culminated with the 2008 Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach and a trip to the BCS title game. While Indiana fans don’t expect Oklahoma-level success in Bloomington, Hoosiers fans deserve more than one win over an FCS opponent. In fact, the win over South Carolina State last fall was Wilson’s first and only career win as a head coach at any level. He went 0-10 in one season as the head coach of Fred T. Foard High School in 1989, giving him an all-time record of 1-21 as a head coach. Wilson showed marked improvement in one area last fall, however, as his rushing attack showed major promise in the second half of the season. Yet, losing out on the nation’s No. 2 quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel during the winter months didn’t lengthen the leash at all. There is still much to be proven for the former Sooner assistant.

Related Content Links:

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its spring preview by ranking the coaches in the Big Ten.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 07:50

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