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Path: /college-football/florida-gators-2012-spring-preview
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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.

Florida Gators 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC

Spring practice: March 14-April 7

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 11

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Jacoby Brissett, 18 of 39, 206 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: Mike Gillislee, 56 att., 328 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Andre Debose, 16 rec., 432 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Jon Bostic, 94
Sacks: Ronald Powell, 6
Interceptions: Matt Elam and De'Ante Saunders, 2

Redshirts to watch: WR JaJuan Story, S Valdez Showers

Early Enrollees:

Willie Bailey, DB (6-1, 167), Hallandale (Fla.) High
Jessamen Dunker, OL (6-4, 320), Boynton Beach (Fla.) High
D.J. Humphries, OL (6-6, 271), Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek
Damien Jacobs, DL (6-3, 310), Scooba (Miss.) East Miss. C.C.
Antonio Morrison, LB (6-1, 209), Bollingbrook (Ill.) High

JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Damien Jacobs

2012 Schedule

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Bowling Green
Sept. 8 at Texas A&M
Sept. 15 at Tennessee
Sept. 22 Kentucky
Sept. 27 Bye Week
Oct. 6 LSU
Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20 South Carolina
Oct. 27 Georgia
Nov. 3 Missouri
Nov. 10 UL-Lafayette
Nov. 17 Jacksonville State
Nov. 24 at Florida State

Offensive Strength: On a unit that has struggled ever since Urban Meyer left town, is it okay to say none? There is still plenty of offensive skill depth and versatility, but none of those hefty recruiting rankings have panned out. It's not to say that there is loads of potential, especially in the receiving corps. There is plenty of speed with Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond on the outside while Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard were two of the most highly-touted tight ends in the nation. This group can only improve.

Offensive Weakness: Since this entire offense was "highly-touted" and has yet to stabilize in any sense of the word, really every position could be listed as a weakness. However, the offensive line could feature two true freshman this fall and therefore gets the nod as the biggest area of concern. But make no mistake, the quarterbacks or running game (or receivers for that matter) aren't in much better shape.

Defensive Strength: All areas of this defense are supremely talented and return intact, but if one area is the strength it would have to be the defensive line. Fourteen players registered a sack last fall for Florida and 12 of them are returning, including six of the top seven D-Linemen. This is an active, explosive, versatile and extremely talented front line. Fans have high expectations for uber-recruits Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter and Sharrif Floyd.

Defensive Weakness: This unit is quite the opposite of the offense. With 11 starters returning, there really isn't a glaring weakness. Finding tall corners that fit Wil Muschamp's scheme might be an area of focus for the spring. Developing a physical Alabama-esque edge in the extremely athletic linebacking corps is important. And adding bulk up front are small areas of development for a defense that could be the SEC East's most talented unit.

Spring Storylines Facing the Gators

1. Stablizing the offensive coaching staff had to be Muschamp's top priority this offseason. With the hiring of former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to call plays, the Gators will be featuring its fourth OC in four seasons. Hardly stable. Yet, Pease helped develop one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the nation in Boise and is charged with the continued shift from Meyer spread to Muschamp pro-style. There are a lot of moving parts on the offense and figuring out how they all fit together needs to be done quickly if Pease expects to complete the transition to the more traditional power offense.

2. Finding a quarterback will be Pease's main focus this spring. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Gators truly have no clue who will be the starting quarterback on September 1. Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are dripping with talent, arm strength and size. Yet, both are young, inexperienced and need development. Additionally, Pease has no loyalty to either as he didn't recruit them to Gainesville. It is a quarterback competition in its truest form and the winner of the job will get the keys to one of the most prolific offensive programs in the modern history of college football.

3. Does there seem to be a developing theme with Florida football this spring? With a new coordinator and new quarterback, the next step for the Gators is to develop the offensive line. Both in pass pro and the running game, the Gators front line struggled mightily a year ago. So even though 50 starts return to the O-Line, Pease knows he needs an influx of young talent to advance this bunch. Look for incoming freshmen and early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the No. 1 offensive lineman recruit in the nation, and Jessamen Dunker to push for starting spots in the trenches. These two big-time recruits cannot be asked to step in and be stars right away, but if they can simply play effective football, it should press the incumbents to improve. For a team that finished 73rd in the nation in rushing and 105th nationally in total offense, it all starts up front.

4. Last but not least is the running game. If the new coordinator can design an effective game plan, the quarterback can protect the football and the offensive line can develop, it will fall to the undistinguished ball carriers to pick up the tough yards in SEC play. Ironing out who will be will get the lion's share of the touches is completely up in the air. Mike Gillislee is likely the most dependable. Trey Burton might be the most physical (and best suited for a pro-style attack) but is more of a fullback and H-Back than tailback. And sophomore Mack Brown might have the most upside. Someone in the backfield has to step up after the loss of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps — who didn't really fit Muschamp's desired power scheme anyway despite their success. All three should be pressing in spring camp as they may simply be keeping the seat warm for 6-foot-2, 213-pound star recruit Matt Jones (who is definitely keeping the seat warm for 2013 superstar Kelvin Taylor).

Related Content Links

Athlon Sports No. 3 Recruiting Class: Florida Gators
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> Florida Gators 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:43
Path: /college-football/north-carolina-tar-heels-2012-spring-preview
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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.

North Carolina Tar Heels 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Spring practice: March 15-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Bryn Renner, 239 of 350, 3,086 yards, 26 TDs, 13 INTs
Rushing: Giovani Bernard: 239 car., 1,253 yds., 13 TDs
Receiving: Erik Highsmith: 51 rec., 726 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Kevin Reddick, 71
Sacks: Kareem Martin, 4
Interceptions: Tre Boston, 3

Redshirts to watch: DL Devonte Brown, OL Kiaro Holts, QB Marquise Williams, S Darien Rankin, OL Jarrod James

Early Enrollees: TE Terrance Knox, LB Shakeel Rashad

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Elon
Sept. 8 at Wake Forest
Sept. 15 at Louisville
Sept. 22 East Carolina
Sept. 29 Idaho
Oct. 6 Virginia Tech
Oct. 13 at Miami (Fla.)
Oct. 20 at Duke
Oct. 27 vs. NC State
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech
Nov. 15 at Virginia
Nov. 24 Maryland

Offensive Strength: North Carolina has two of the ACC’s top returning offensive players in quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard. Renner led the ACC in passing efficiency last season as a sophomore, while Bernard, who will be just a sophomore in 2012, is the conference’s leading returning rusher. The Tar Heels also return four starters on the offensive line, which is anchored on the left side by Jonathan Cooper and James Hurst. Both earned 2nd team All-ACC honors in 2011.

Offensive Weakness: There’s no question the Tar Heels will miss wide receiver Dwight Jones. Last year he led the ACC with 85 catches, was third in receiving yards (1,196) and fifth in the conference in touchdowns (12). The focus now shifts to who will step up and help senior Erik Highsmith (51 receptions in 2011) and become a reliable receiver for Renner. There’s also the matter of making the switch to new head coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense from the pro style scheme used last year by interim head coach Everett Withers and his staff.

Defensive Strength: The Tar Heels return six starters on defense, headlined by linebacker Kevin Reddick, cornerback Tre Boston and defensive end Kareem Martin. They also return several experienced players from last year’s two-deep who are ready for the opportunity to become starters. This year’s defense will be under the direction of new co-coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch. Koenning had been the defensive coordinator at Illinois the past two seasons, during which time the Fighting Illini’s defense improved from 91st in the country in total defense in 2009 to seventh in 2011. Disch follows Fedora from Southern Miss where he successfully implemented his brand of a 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

Defensive Weakness: Although the defense returns six starters, it still lost a lot of talent and production in the departures of the other. Defensive end Quinton Coples is projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and linebacker Zach Brown will more than likely hear his name called in the early rounds as well. Defensive lineman Donte Paige-Moss and Tydreke Powell and cornerback Charles Brown could also get drafted or eventually end up on a NFL roster too. Just like the offense, the defense will be switching schemes as Koenning and Kisch are expected to implement a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 style.

Spring Storylines Facing the Tar Heels

1. On Monday, the NCAA announced that the North Carolina football program had been banned from postseason play in 2012 and other additional penalties stemming from numerous violations committed under former head coach Butch Davis. The program was also placed on three years’ probation and increased the reduction of scholarships from nine to 15 over the same period. The school was well aware that this announcement was forthcoming, but it’s still not the way new head coach Larry Fedora wanted to start his first season as head coach. Davis and all the other key figures associated with the violations, which included academic fraud, impermissible agent benefits, participation by ineligible players and a failure to monitor the football program, are all gone so at least now the focus can switch back to the product on the field.

2. Fedora will be working hard to teach his spread offense to his new team this spring and it will be interesting to watch how quickly they pick it up. In his four seasons at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles finished in the top 20 in the nation in total offense three times. The best North Carolina did in that same time span was 51st in 2010. Tar Heel fans shouldn’t expect to see instant results, as Renner isn’t the prototypical quarterback to run a spread offense, but should like and enjoy the new scheme more and more as the season progresses. Don’t be surprised to see Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who was with Fedora at Southern Miss, tailor the offense more this season to better fit the strengths of both Renner and Bernard, two of the ACC’s premier playmakers.

3. Another reason to temper expectations with the offense is the lack of returning experience and production in the receiving corps. Highsmith is the Tar Heels’ leading returning receiver with 51 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. Bernard is next with 45 receptions out of the backfield. After the remaining returning wide receivers combined for 20 catches last year. The returning tight ends had more, but regardless someone will have to step up in the spring if North Carolina wants to develop any sort of consistent passing attack. Senior Jheraine Boyd and sophomore T.J. Thorpe are two receivers to watch, along with senior tight end Nelson Hurst and sophomore Eric Ebron. Two freshmen to keep an eye on are receiver Quinshad Davis, one of the key pieces to Fedora’s first recruiting class, and tight end Terrance Knox.

4. Although the offense will be changing, the defense is undergoing an even more extensive makeover, switching from a 4-3 to a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 scheme. Six starters return, but besides learning all the concepts of the new defense, some of them also may be changing positions as Koenning and Disch figure out where each player fits best. The defensive line lost three standouts in Coples, Paige-Moss and Powell, but linebacker is the position that has the biggest question marks headed into spring practice. Tackle machine Brown is gone and although Reddick is more than capable of assuming the leadership role in the linebacker corps, who will line up beside him remains to be seen. Two players to watch here are junior Darius Lipford and sophomore Travis Hughes. The secondary will play an even more important role in the new scheme putting pressure on returnees like Tre Boston, Jabari Price, Gene Robinson and Tim Scott. Don’t be surprised to see breakdowns in coverage and execution early in the season as the players adapt to and get comfortable in the new system.

5. Fedora and his coaching staff already had enough to deal with in their first season in Chapel Hill, including getting settled in their new surroundings, putting together a recruiting class in a short amount of time and start the process of teaching the players the new offense and defense. Now following the NCAA’s announcement of the additional penalties levied on the football program, they have a new challenge – keeping the team motivated throughout a season that will not include a bowl game. Because of the postseason ban, seniors will be able to transfer to another school and play right away. It remains to be seen if any Tar Heel seniors will go this route, but the success of the North Carolina football program moving forward could very well depend on how the younger players approach this season. Will it be the first step in laying a foundation for the future or will they just go through the motions and not take the opportunity to learn what Fedora and the coaching staff are trying to teach as he works to transform the football program into what he envisions. Only time will tell, but given all the circumstances you could argue no one has a tougher job in college football right now than Fedora and his staff.

Related College Football Content

Athlon's Early Top 25 for 2012
Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2012

C
ollege Football Coaches on the Hot Seat: Spring Practice Edition
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines to Watch

2012 ACC Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Larry Fedora looks to rebuild the North Carolina football program from the ground up while dealing with NCAA penalties that he inherited from the previous coaching regime.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:42
Path: /college-football/pittsburgh-panthers-2012-spring-preview
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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.

Pittsburgh Panthers 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 6-7, 4-3 Big East

Spring practice: March 15-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 5

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Tino Sunseri, 247 of 385, 2,616 yds., 10 TDs, 11 INTs
Rushing: Ray Graham, 164 car., 958 yds., 9 TDs
Receiving: Devin Street, 53 rec., 754 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Jarred Holley, 67
Sacks: Aaron Donald, 11
Interceptions: Six players tied with 1

Redshirts to watch: TE Sam Collura, RB Malcolm Crockett, LB Nicholas Grigsby, DB Roderick Ryles

Transfers to watch: OL Tom Ricketts (Penn State), WR Brendon Felder (North Carolina), DB Cullen Christian (Michigan), DB E.J. Banks (Notre Dame), DB Ray Vinopal (Michigan)

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Oct. 6 at Buffalo
Nov. 3 at Notre Dame
TBD at Cincinnati
TBD at Connecticut
TBD Louisville
TBD Rutgers
TBD at Syracuse
TBD Temple
TBD at USF

Offensive Strength: Ray Graham was well on his way to rushing for 1,000 yards, but a torn ACL ended his season in the victory over Connecticut. All signs point to Graham returning for the 2012 opener, but if he is slowed early on, there’s solid depth at running back with Isaac Bennett and true freshman Rushel Shell.

Offensive Weakness: Quarterback Tino Sunseri had a disappointing junior year, throwing 11 picks to only 10 touchdowns and often held the ball too long in the pocket. Sunseri struggled, but the offensive line deserves its share of the blame. The front five never found its rhythm, largely due to injuries and the struggles of adapting to a new scheme.

Defensive Strength: End/tackle Aaron Donald had a breakout season last year, collecting 47 tackles and 11 sacks. Donald will need to anchor the line with three key contributors departing. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in pass defense last season, but cornerback K’Waun Williams and safeties Jared Holley and Andrew Taglianetti are back.

Defensive Weakness: With six starters departing, there are several holes for new coordinator Dave Huxtable to fill this spring. Up front, the Panthers suffered huge losses, as Brandon Lindsey, Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein have expired their eligibility. The linebacking corps must also be rebuilt thanks to the departures of Greg Williams, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts.

Spring Storylines Facing the Panthers

1. For a team that has had four head coaches since December 2010, this spring is all about building stability. After Todd Graham decided to bolt for Arizona State after one season, the Panthers brought in Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst as the new head coach. This will be Chryst’s first head coaching gig, but he was one of the top coordinators in college football and should be a terrific fit in Pittsburgh. The Panthers aren’t far off from contending in a wide-open Big East race. However, how quickly the team adapts to Chryst will determine how high Pittsburgh can climb in the Big East standings this year.

2. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was a lighting rod for criticism last year, as the Panthers offense slumped to a disappointing 83rd nationally in scoring. Graham promised a high-octane offense, but Pittsburgh was stuck in neutral most of last year. Sunseri had a few bright spots, including a 419-yard passing performance in the 35-20 win over Connecticut. However, Sunseri had some awful games, throwing for only 38 yards in a loss to Utah and tossing three picks in a 34-10 defeat to Rutgers. The senior enters spring with a fresh start and a system that should be more suited to his strengths. The Panthers really need Sunseri to improve this year, especially when there are no proven backups on the roster. Sophomores Trey Anderson, Anthony Gonzalez and Mark Myers will compete with incoming freshman Chad Voytik for the backup role. If Sunseri fails to show much progress early on, expect Chryst to get an extended look at the other quarterbacks on the roster.

3. Although Sunseri deserved a good chunk of the blame for last season’s offensive struggles, the offensive line also deserves its share of criticism. The front five ranked last in the nation with 64 sacks allowed or around 4.9 per game. Coming from Wisconsin, Chryst is well-aware of the importance of a solid offensive line. Outside of the quarterback play, this group has to make the biggest strides for Pittsburgh to compete for the Big East title in 2012. The Panthers lose three starters up front, but return six with starting experience. Guard Chris Jacobson was limited last year due to injuries, but his return should help solidify a line that cannot be any worse than it was last year. The switch from a spread to pro-style scheme should also benefit this group and prevent another disastrous sack total at the end of 2012.

4. Running back Ray Graham is expected to sit out spring practice as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. Although Graham needs as much work as possible in the new offense, the Panthers need him at 100 percent and can’t afford to rush his recovery. With Graham sidelined this spring, look for Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis to shoulder the workload in the backfield. All signs point to Graham returning at full strength in the fall, and his recovery will be one of the top injuries to monitor before the 2012 Big East gets underway. 

5. Defense was usually a strength under former coach Dave Wannstedt and overall, this group wasn’t bad last year. The Panthers finished 21st nationally against the run, allowed 22.9 points a game and generated 3.3 sacks a game. There’s some key voids to fill this preseason, as Pittsburgh must replace six starters. The front seven will be the biggest area of focus, as end Brandon Lindsey is gone after collecting 8.5 sacks last year and two solid contributors are gone at linebacker. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, but should be improved with three starters returning for 2012. Although there are some pieces to work with, new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has to rebuild the front seven and find players that can replace Lindsey’s production off the edge.  

Related Content Links:

College Football's Top Quarterback 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 previews spring practice for the Pittsburgh Panthers.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:40
Path: /columns/garage-talk/oh-say-can-you-c-post
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by Vito Pugliese

You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.

Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:

“I don’t accept it. Period.”

So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?

As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.

Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.

Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.

This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.

Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.

A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?

In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.

The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.

Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.

Or the next week at Talladega.

Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.

That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.

The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.

These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.

The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.

It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.

If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?

As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.

Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese believes that not even a six-week suspension to team principles Chad Knaus and Ron Malec can derail the machine that is Team 48.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:45
All taxonomy terms: Kentucky Wildcats, SEC, College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-kentucky-or-field
Body:

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

If you had a choice, would you take Kentucky or the field to win the title?

Mitch Light: I’d take the field. Kentucky is, in my opinion, clearly the best team in the nation, but it’s tough to win six straight games even if you have the best players. Two years ago, the Wildcats featured the most talented roster in the nation, but lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. A year ago, the Cats weren’t as talented yet advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The point? Talent alone doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Final Four, let alone a national title. If you have to take one team to win it, Kentucky is the obvious pick. But if given a choice, take the field.

Mark Ross: I have become more and more of a believer in Kentucky as the season has progressed, but I will still take the field. Kentucky is immensely talented, and any team that has Anthony Davis anchoring the middle is a threat to win it all, but I think they are too young and not deep enough to do it this year. John Calipari has gone with a seven-man rotation for the most part this season, so foul trouble could be a real issue, especially if it happens to Davis or Terrence Jones. Only one player in the rotation is an upperclassman, and that’s senior guard Darius Miller, who went 7-of-17 from the field and just 2-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday. This is the first taste of NCAA Tournament play for the rest of the young ‘Cats, and I am one who believes experience is a crucial component to having success in March. The talent’s clearly there, but you need more than that to win these next six games. Just ask the 2009-10 Kentucky team.

Nathan Rush: Kentucky has no weakness. Coach John Calipari is a master motivator who has seen it all — coming within a Derrick Rose made free throw of winning the national title at Memphis in 2008. Center Anthony Davis is the best defensive player in the nation and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are inside-out threats who attack the rim off the dribble and can also hit open jump shots. Darius Miller is a senior leader and athletic defender. The Wildcats one “flaw” is the lack of a Rose or John Wall caliber point guard. Marquis Teaque is a ball hog, but Doron Lamb picks up the slack with his high IQ and unselfish brand of basketball. UK even has spare parts like Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas on the bench. This is the best Kentucky team since Rick Pitino left the Big Blue Nation. I’ll take the Wildcats over the 67 other teams in the field.

Patrick Snow: I feel like it’s almost crazy to take one team over the field in any NCAA Tournament, but it also feels crazy to pick against Kentucky. The Wildcats are the most talented and complete team in the tourney, and this year’s squad has been amazingly consistent. John Calipari is very controversial with his recruiting methods and powerful basketball-insider friends, but he does have this UK team playing quality defense. That may seem easy with a presence like Anthony Davis in the post, but the Cats still deserve some credit for stopping opponents. Kentucky has lost past NCAA Tournament (and the SEC Tourney title) games when it goes cold on offense, especially from 3-point range. However this UK team can win even when not shooting well because of its defensive ability. I would take the field in most years, but the gap in talent between Kentucky and the rest of the field is just too immense not to pick the Wildcats.

Braden Gall: Absolutely the field. I like Kentucky to make a deep run and play in the championship game, but if I am gambling (which, of course, we do not condone at Athlon Sports), it’s hard to not to take the 67 other basketball teams in the brackets. Vanderbilt showed the nation that Kentucky can be stopped with excellent defense and timely shooting. The Cats are the most talented team in the nation with the best player in the nation, but they can be beat if you force them to shoot from the outside, get them into early foul trouble and out-work them, which is much easier said than done.

Teaser:
<p> We asked Athlon Sports' editors if they would choose Kentucky or the field in the NCAA Tournament.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:38
Path: /columns/garage-talk/backseat-drivers-fan-council-1
Body:

by Dustin Long

Does qualifying matter? Are fans watching? Is there a better way? Those were among some of the questions members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week, along with rating last weekend’s Cup race at Las Vegas and if what is happening in the Nationwide Series is leading them to watch more of that series.

Here’s what Fan Council members had to say this week:

Cup qualifying: When should it be held?

58.0 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Friday
27.8 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Saturday
14.2 percent said Other

Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• It's nice to sit after a long week and watch the cars go around the track on Friday nights. I know it sounds very simplistic, but I find it a good way to wind down.

• I prefer the Friday qualifying. It gives the teams more chance to work on the cars and more of a chance to qualify if weather becomes an issue.

• I like it when the tracks can get most of the action on two days. I think I could go to more races if the weekends were more compact. I like to see EVERYTHING when I go so when they do quals and practices on Friday, it is a little more expensive.

• Qualifying on Friday with one practice, gives the drivers two practices on Saturday. This always gives the drivers and crew chiefs the time necessary to adjust their cars properly and makes for a better race.

• I hate qualifying on Saturday. When I show up to the track Saturday I enjoy watching 2 hours of Cup practice. It’s cool to see your driver making runs and listening to them on the scanner. When they just do quals on Saturday you see your driver for about a minute. Then its over. Plus the track changes so much from Friday to Sunday. I think it makes it harder for guys to hit on setups. While one guy can hit on it and just kill everyone.

• Qualifying is easier to "watch" on Twitter and at work on Fridays. More fun to watch practice on Saturday, plus I think it gives a better opportunity to fine tune cars after qualifying.

• Qualify before the Nationwide race makes for a better Saturday. May even bring more people for the Nationwide race.

Are you watching qualifying?
54.2 percent
said they watch as much of qualifying as they can
27.3 percent said they’ll watch it if they have nothing else to do
13.1 percent said they don’t care for qualifying except to see where their driver starts
5.4 percent said qualifying is boring and they don’t watch it.

What Fan Council members said:
• I'm watching and trying to mine the commentary for little nuggets of information that will help my fantasy team picks.

• I'm not a fan of seeing single cars on track making circles, I would love to see some kind of format with multiple cars on track but understand that could skew the times on tracks where drafting could come into play.

• I enjoy watching/listening to the discussions and interviews. However, I hate when they don't actually show the cars qualifying. Let the interview audio run over the qualifying video. I don't need to see the people talking.

• I DVR it every week and try to replay as much as I can.

• I don't watch qualifying. I would be a lot more interested if there were points awarded for the pole.

• My stance on watching qualifying has changed recently ever since I switched my cell phone to Sprint. Thank goodness for Sprint because I can watch all practices and qualifying on my phone, and I watch every chance I get.

• Let's be honest, nothing exciting here. Only curious to know how my drivers are doing.

• I not only watch it, but follow it on NASCAR.com PitCommand.

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its input on qualifying, the Las Vegas race and watching the Nationwide Series.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:15
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-underseeded-teams
Body:

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

Which team do you believe was the most under-seeded?

Mark Ross: Half of Florida’s losses this season came to three teams that are either seeded No. 1 or 2 in the bracket. Florida lost three times to No. 1 overall seed Kentucky, lost by four points on the road to Syracuse (No. 1 in the East) and by seven on the road to Ohio State (No. 2 in the East). The Gators split their season series against SEC Tournament champion Vanderbilt, who’s the No. 5 seed in the East, and with the exception of a home loss to Tennessee, their other three losses came on the road. Florida also beat ACC Tournament champion Florida State (No. 3 in the East) by 18 points in late December. The Gators got the No. 7 seed in the West region, and I think you could make a strong argument that they should be as high as No. 5 in the bracket period, but especially ahead of both Murray State (No. 6) and New Mexico (No. 5) in their region.

Mitch Light: Memphis seems to be a bit low as a No. 8 seed. The Tigers don’t have many quality wins, but they played great down the stretch, winning their final seven games by an average margin of 22.7 points. The computers also really like this team; the Tigers’ RPI is 15, and they are No. 19 in the KenPom.com efficiency ratings. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this team knock off Michigan State in the second round (or, to be politically correct, the third round).

Nathan Rush: Murray State was given a No. 6 seed despite a 30–1 record that included wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. The Racers have the talent, experience and swagger to prove they were “under-seeded” by the Selection Committee. In the backcourt, junior Isaiah Canaan, senior Donte Poole and Jewuan Long control the fast-paced tempo. Down low, senior Ivan Aska (6’7", 230) and junior Edward Daniel (6’7", 220) are physical enough to defend the rim but athletic enough to keep up in the open court. First-year coach Steve Prohm has a dangerous team heading into the friendly confines of Louisville — which is roughly four hours away from Murray, Ky.

Patrick Snow: I was surprised to see Memphis with an 8-seed. The Tigers won the regular-season championship in Conference USA, as well as the league tournament title. Josh Pastner scheduled tough opponents, and Memphis’ RPI was in the top 20. The Tigers did have some early losses to tourney teams like Louisville, Georgetown and Michigan, but still finished 26–8 while winning 20 of their last 23 games.

Braden Gall: I will vote Murray State as the most under-seeded team in the nation. The Racers get my nod also because of what the selection committee did to them in terms of match-ups. As the No. 23 overall seed, this makes them the No. 3 six-seed in the tourney. But the committee clearly wanted to make their path to the Final Four as difficult as possible. Games with Marquette and Mizzou loom large and are terrible guard-heavy match-ups for the Racers. For a team that won both its regular-season and tourney title with technically the best record in the nation? A four or five would have been more appropriate. 

Teaser:
<p> Which teams deserved a better seed from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 14:27
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-13-nick-watney
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. 13: Nick Watney

Born: April 25, 1981, Sacramento, Calif.  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 2 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $5,290,673 World Ranking: 19

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Even though Watney finished fourth on the 2011 money list, I think he suffered somewhat from the expectations that the world of golf has heaped on his shoulders. That pressure was most evident in the majors, where he twice finished seventh in 2010 but struggled in 2011. Aside from the lackluster year in the majors, Nick won two of the biggest events on tour in 2011 against some of the strongest fields of the year at the WGC Cadillac Championship and the AT&T National. He puts the club in a great position at the top of the swing, and that position gives his shots height and gives him the versatility to hit any shot. If he could find one shot shape off the tee, and replace the burden of expectations with determination, Nick could become a great player.

 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 17
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - 46
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T12

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - 7th (2010)
U.S. Open - T60 (2008)
British Open - T7 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 2
Top-25 Finishes: 6
Missed Cuts: 6

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

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 14:04
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-overseeded-teams
Body:

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.


Which team do you believe was the most over-seeded?

Mark Ross: Alabama at No. 9 seems a little high to me. The Crimson Tide went 9–7 in the SEC, but only one of those wins came against a team that finished better than .500 in the league and that was against Tennessee, which didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. Alabama has also been a team in turmoil, as several key players have been suspended at different points this season, including Tony Mitchell, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, who won’t be back at all. Alabama had some quality non-conference wins against teams in the field, including Wichita State, Purdue and VCU, but the last of those came in November. Since then, Bama is just 1–6 against tournament teams, and that lone win was against Detroit, who’s a No. 15 seed. Put it all together and I see a team that should be at the least a double-digit seed.

Mitch Light: I thought Virginia was in danger of not making the field of 68, but the Cavs received a No. 10 seed in the West. Virginia limped to the finish line, losing three of its last four games and five of its last eight. The Cavs only had two top-50 RPI wins — vs. Michigan in November and NC State in January — and lost three games vs. teams ranked 100 or lower. It will be nice to see senior Mike Scott, one of the more underrated players in the nation, end his career in the NCAA Tournament, but Virginia is fortunate not to have been seeded in the No. 12 or 13 range.

Nathan Rush: Baylor was gifted a No. 3 seed despite finishing the season on a 10–7 run, following a 17–0 start to the year. The Bears’ roster looks good on paper, when matched up against recruiting rankings, but the sum of the team is less than its parts. The star of the show, Perry Jones III, is overrated and unable to take over when it matters most. Coach Scott Drew lacks the Tournament resume to instill confidence, earning just his third NCAA Tournament berth since taking over BU in 2004. Several teams seeded No. 4 or 5 are better suited for March Madness than is Baylor, a team I expect to be exposed once the ball is in the air.

Patrick Snow: I’ll go with the Cincinnati Bearcats, who spiked up the bracket big time with a couple of wins in the Big East Tournament. Mick Cronin’s crew entered the conference tourney with the resume of a 9 or 10 seed, with an RPI outside of the top 40. The Bearcats did well in league play but had a very weak non-conference schedule, including early losses to Presbyterian and Marshall. The NCAA committee usually does not factor league tourney results very heavily, but that was not the case here. Cincinnati had a nice showing in the Big Apple, defeating Georgetown and Syracuse before losing in the final to Louisville. That late boost should have maybe earned Cincy an 8-seed at best, but to jump all the way to the 6-line was very surprising.

Braden Gall: It is tough to pick on the little guy here, but I will go with Colorado State. As the No. 41 overall seed, the Rams were ranked ahead of seven other at-large teams, and I am not sure they even belonged in the tournament at all. Their best non-conference win was over Colorado (which had to win its way into the tourney) by one point. They lost six games in a strong Mountain West, including a loss to three-win Boise State. Wins in the league at home against New Mexico and UNLV are nice, but teams like Drexel, Miami (Fla.), Washington, Tennessee and Northwestern strike me as more deserving. Honorable Mention in this category goes to UConn as the No. 34 overall seed.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon editors debate which teams received a favorable seed from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 10:05
All taxonomy terms: March Madness, College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/athlons-bracket-breakdown-players-most-popular-picks
Body:

As the hours tick down to enter Athlon's Bracket Breakdown game, we decided to give you a peek into the minds of players who've already set their brackets.

We crunched the numbers from thousands of entries to give you a look of how people are picking. Here are the results.

MOST COMMON FINAL FOUR CHOICES
1. Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina
2. Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio State and North Carolina
3. Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse and North Carolina
4. Kentucky, Missouri, Syracuse and North Carolina
5. Kentucky, Missouri, Florida State and North Carolina

MOST COMMON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH-UPS
1. Kentucky and North Carolina
2. Kentucky and Kansas
3. Kentucky and Syracuse
4. Kentucky and Ohio State
5. Michigan St. and North Carolina

MOST COMMON NATIONAL CHAMPION PICKS
1. Kentucky
2. North Carolina
3. Michigan State
4. Syracuse
5. Missouri

MOST POPULAR UPSET PICKS
1. Wichita State over VCU
2. Long Beach State over New Mexico
3. Harvard over Vanderbilt
4. California over Temple

MOST COMMON LOW SEED TO WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PICKS
1. Texas (11 seed)
2. Colorado (11 seed)
3. Purdue (10 seed)
4. California (12 seed)
5. Ohio (13 seed)

Teaser:
<p> We reveal the consensus picks from game players.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 08:48
Path: /nfl/brandon-marshall-traded-bears-reunited-jay-cutler
Body:

The Chicago Bears have a new wide receiver. Introductions, however, will not be necessary for quarterback Jay Cutler as his new weapon is also a familiar face.

The Bears acquired Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday, a move that overshadowed the beginning of free agency when it was announced. The move reunites Cutler and Marshall, who played together in Denver from 2006-08. Miami will receive Chicago's third-round picks in this year's and the 2013 NFL Draft in exchange for Marshall.

Headed into free agency it was clear the Bears' most pressing need was to add a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. To that end, there was widespread speculation that the Bears had identified free agent Vincent Jackson as their top target. Instead, the team decided to make the deal for Marshall and can now turn its focus to addressing other needs through free agency.

Whether or not Marshall was their intended target all along isn't clear, but this much is — he comes at a much cheaper cost than Jackson. Marshall is under contract for three more years and stands to earn a little more than $28 million over that period. The amount he will count towards the Bears' cap each of these years is less than $10 million.

Contrast that to Jackson, who signed a five-year contract worth more than $55 million with Tampa Bay on Tuesday night. Jackson's cap hit is reported to be $13 million for the first two seasons of the deal. Marshall's also a year younger than Jackson, as he will turn 28 later this month. Jackson turned 29 in January.

Although it cost the Bears two draft picks, the trade for Marshall allows them the opportunity to use their remaining cap space to address other needs. The Bears had about $24 million in cap space to work with at the start of free agency. This amount places him in the upper-third of the league in terms of available cap space, which should put them in a good position to fill other holes through free agency.

Regardless of what other moves the Bears make, this has already been a successful offseason for first-year general manager Phil Emery. Not only has he filled a glaring need on the roster, he did it with a move that really didn't cost the team a great deal and it's also sure to fire up the city and the Bears' devoted fan base.

One Chicagoan who is definitely excited about Marshall coming to town is Cutler. Cutler's two best seasons as a passer came in 2008 and '09 in Denver. In those two seasons, Cutler averaged nearly 4,100 yards passing and 26 touchdowns, while completing better than 61 percent of his passes. Cutler made the Pro Bowl in 2008 when he threw for more than 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns.

It's no coincidence that in those same two seasons Marshall was Cutler's top target. In 2008-09 combined Marshall had 205 catches, 2,365 yards receiving and 16 touchdown receptions. He also had a 102 receptions for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns in 2007, Cutler's first as the Broncos' starting quarterback.

Contrast those seasons with Cutler's first three in Chicago where he's yet to have a 1,000-yard receiver. Johnny Knox came the closest with 960 yards receiving in 2010. To be fair, Cutler only played in 10 games last season because of a thumb injury, but at the time he also was on pace for his worst passing numbers since 2007.

To take it further, the last Bears wide receiver to have more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season Marty Booker, who had 1,189 yards back in 2002. Marshall has had five straight 1,000-yard seasons, including last year's 1,214-yard campaign on just 81 receptions and working with three different Miami quarterbacks - Chad Henne, J.P. Losman and Matt Moore.

Marshall also made the Pro Bowl in 2011, his third trip in four seasons. The Bears on the other hand, the have had just one wide receiver named to the Pro Bowl in the last 10 years and that was Booker in 2002. Knox was selected for the Pro Bowl in 2009, but that was a kick returner, not a receiver.

Even if Marshall doesn't earn an invite to the Pro Bowl in his first season in a Bears' uniform, he's sure to make a lasting impression on the Bears' passing attack, which finished 26th in the NFL last season. The sheer presence of Marshall on the field is sure to draw attention from opposing defenses and secondaries and it also allows other receivers like Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett to fill roles in the offense that are more suited to their respective skills.

Mike Martz, the architect of the potent "Greatest Show on Turf" offense of the St. Louis Rams in the early 2000s, may no longer be calling the plays in Chicago, but I'm sure new offensive coordinator Mike Tice will find a way to get Marshall involved early and often in the Bears' offense this coming season.

Besides Marshall, the Bears also added former Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell to their roster on Tuesday. Campbell signed a one-year deal to backup Cutler, who missed the last six games of the 2011 season after breaking his thumb in the game against San Diego. Although Cutler is fully expected to be ready to go at the start of training camp, the addition of Campbell, who has started 70 of the 71 games he has appeared in his six seasons with Washington and Oakland, gives the Bears plenty of insurance at the quarterback position.

Last season the Bears went to Caleb Hannie after Cutler got hurt and eventually turned to Josh McCown after Hannie struggled mightily in his four starts. Hannie and McCown led the team to a 1-5 finish, combining for 1,015 yards passing, five touchdowns and 12 interceptions in those last six games. Campbell is 31-39 in his career as a starter with 14,417 yards passing, 74 touchdowns, 50 interceptions and a 60.8 completion percentage.

Once Campbell gets to Chicago, he will no doubt introduce himself to all his new coaches and teammates, including Marshall. That won't be necessary for Cutler. He and Marshall have already connected off and on the field.

And while the duo's relationship off the field will no doubt be analyzed and scrutinized, it's their chemistry and productivity on the field that matters the most. It worked pretty well the first time around and a repeat performance in Chicago is what everyone, from the front office to the fans, are hoping for and eagerly anticipating, even though the 2012 NFL season is more than five months away.

— by Mark Ross, published on March 14, 2012

Teaser:
<p> Chicago Bears trade for Brandon Marshall, reuniting wide receiver with Jay Cutler, his former teammate in Denver</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 08:11
Path: /college-football/arkansas-razorbacks-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.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC

Spring practice: March 14-April 21

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Tyler Wilson, 277 of 438, 3,638 yds., 24 TDs, 6 INTs
Rushing: Dennis Johnson, 106 car., 670 yds., 3 TDs
Receiving: Chris Gragg, 41 rec., 518 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Alonzo Highsmith, 80
Sacks: Alonzo Highsmith, 4.5
Interceptions: Eric Bennett, 3

Redshirts to watch: WR Kane Whitehurst, WR Quinta Funderburk, OL Andrew Peterson, DT DeMarcus Hodge, CB Kelvin Fisher

Early Enrollees: TE Demetrius Dean, DE Austin Flynn

JUCO Transfers to watch: DE Austin Flynn, WR Demetrius Wilson

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Jacksonville State
Sept. 8 UL Monroe
Sept. 15 Alabama
Sept. 22 Rutgers
Sept. 29 Texas A&M (Site TBD)
Oct. 6 at Auburn
Oct. 13 Kentucky
Oct. 27 Ole Miss
Nov. 3 Tulsa
Nov. 10 at South Carolina
Nov. 17 at Mississippi State
Nov. 24 LSU

Offensive Strength: Quarterback Tyler Wilson pondered a move to the NFL, but decided to return for his senior year at Arkansas. Wilson’s decision to come back to Fayetteville will keep the Razorbacks in the thick of the SEC and national title race. Running back is also a strength, as Knile Davis returns after missing all of last season with a leg injury and Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are back in the fold after combining for over 1,000 rushing yards last season.

Offensive Weakness: With Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs all out of eligibility, Arkansas will have a revamped group of receivers in 2012. There’s some nice talent returning, as Cobi Hamilton grabbed 34 passes for 542 yards and four scores last season, but there may be a transition period for Wilson and the passing attack.

Defensive Strength: Even though end Jake Bequette is gone, the Razorbacks should field a formidable defensive line. Tenarius Wright was limited to eight games due to injury, but will team with Chris Smith and Trey Flowers to form a solid trio at end. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones are back at tackle, giving Arkansas the necessary pieces to finish higher than 74th in rush defense next season.

Defensive Weakness: The Razorbacks aren’t in terrible shape on defense, but each level loses a key player from 2011. End Jake Bequette recorded 10 sacks and was the team’s best pass rusher. Joining Bequette as a key departure is linebacker Jerry Franklin (second-team All-SEC) and safety Tramain Thomas. How will the Razorbacks replace that leadership in 2012?

Spring Storylines Facing the Razorbacks

1. Is this the year? Arkansas has posted 21 victories and made appearances in the two top-notch bowl games ( over the last two seasons. The Razorbacks have inched closer to the top of the SEC West under coach Bobby Petrino and will have an opportunity to win the division in 2012. Petrino made a few changes to his coaching staff, bringing his brother Paul back from Illinois to coordinate the offense, while former Ohio State assistant Paul Haynes will lead the defense. Haynes did a good job of preparing the defense for the Cotton Bowl, but this will be his first full season going through the SEC. With Alabama replacing a handful of key starters on defense and LSU breaking in a new quarterback, the door is open for the Razorbacks to win the SEC West. The schedule also sets up perfectly for Arkansas, as both the Crimson Tide and Tigers visit Fayetteville in 2012.

2. Quarterback Tyler Wilson earned first-team All-SEC honors after throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. The good news for Wilson and the Arkansas offense is the line should be improved in 2012. Grant Freeman and Grant Cook depart, but guard Alvin Bailey should be one of the top linemen in college football, while Travis Swanson provides steady leadership at center. The bad news for Wilson and the offense is the departure of three key receivers, including All-SEC performers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. Cobi Hamilton is expected to be the new No. 1 target after catching 34 passes for 542 yards last season. Joining Hamilton as top targets in the receiving corps should be Marquel Wade, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon, while tight end Chris Gragg is back after catching 41 balls last year. There’s talent coming back to Arkansas’ receiving corps, but it’s largely unproven. It’s hard to imagine much of a step back for the Razorbacks passing attack, but this group is worth monitoring throughout spring practice.

3. Arkansas’ 2011 SEC title hopes suffered a huge setback before the season even started, losing running back Knile Davis to an ankle injury in fall practice. Davis was terrific in 2010, rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 scores on 204 attempts. Although Davis has some rust to knock off, all indications are that he will be 100 percent when the season opens in September. With Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo returning, Arkansas has two solid fallback options in case Davis is limited early in the year. Assuming Davis is healthy, he should challenge for All-American honors in 2012.

4. If Arkansas wants to knock off LSU and Alabama in the SEC West, it has to show improvement on defense. The Razorbacks don’t need to finish among the top 10 defenses in college football, but the stats have to be better. Arkansas finished 74th nationally in rush defense last season, ranked sixth in the SEC stopping the pass and 47th nationally by allowing 23.4 points a game. New coordinator Paul Haynes did a good job of preparing Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State, but he will have to find replacements for three of the defense’s top players from 2011 - end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas. If the Razorbacks can improve their rush defense and force more turnovers, that should be enough to close the gap even more on LSU and Alabama in the SEC West race. However, that's easier said than done considering how important Bequette, Franklin and Thomas were to this defense. 

Related Content Links

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> Athlon previews the Arkansas Razorbacks 2012 spring practice.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 07:23
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/tournament-picks-athlon-vs-randomly-ridiculous-prognosticators
Body:

The idea is simple: take a group of seasoned sports experts (we're talking about us, by the way) and pit our knowledge of college basketball against some of the greatest prognosticators known to man. See how Athlon Sports editors stack up against a psychic, a Magic 8 Ball, a quarter, and a pooping chicken in predicting the NCAA Tournament's Elite 8, and ultimate National Champion.

Magic 8 Ball
Methodology: We named the top seed in each match-up and then asked the Magic 8 Ball if they'd win. Near the end, we named one team in the match-up and asked if they'd win. Of course, we cursed and shook the 8 Ball violently every time it told us to "Concentrate and ask again." Thoughts on the picks? Shockingly, they're not too bad.

 


Psychic Hotline
Methodology: We called a psychic hotline and spoke with Nancy, who said she was a "certified psychic." And yes, we laughed when she said it. After several minutes of her telling us she didn't know anything about basketball, we told her to "put up or shut up" on her psychic abilities and start picking some teams. Upon further reflection, we probably should have told her the names of some teams. Thoughts on the picks? We love that she kept saying Kansas over and over, but then picked the Seahawks to win it all.





A Chicken
Methodology: Uh, we know someone with a chicken. We had the chicken poop on the winning team's college logos. Surprisingly, it didn't take long. Apparently, chickens poop a lot. Thoughts on the picks? They seem like a longshot. But if they turn out right, we're buying this chicken and moving to Vegas.


 

Coin Flip
Methodology: Basically, the top seed was heads, the other was tails. Near the end, we just named one team in the match-up and said "heads they win, tails they lose." We flipped until there was a winner.

 

Athlon

Teaser:
<p> The idea is simple: take a group of seasoned sports experts (we're talking about us, by the way) and pit our skills against some of the greatest prognosticators known to man.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 07:08
All taxonomy terms: AC100, College Football, Recruiting
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-recruiting-rankings-db
Body:

- by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

The next batch of in-coming college football All-Americans have inked their respective letters of intent. Recruiting is the life blood of the greatest sport on the planet, and, while coaching stills plays the biggest role in winning a championship, having better players can go a long way to earning a trip to the BCS.

Recruiting is an inexact science by definition. It is virtually impossible to accurately peg the mental make-up of any 17-year old child -- much less high-profile, over-coddled 17-year-old athletes. But team recruiting rankings offer the best indication of which team has the best ingredients each coach has to work with each season.

Related: Athlon's Top 25 Recruiting Classes of 2012

Offensive Positional Rankings: QB | RB | WR/TE | OL
Defensive Positional Rankings: DL | LB | DB | ATH

Here are the best incoming defensive backs in the nation:

  Name HT WT Hometown AC100 College
1. Shaq Thompson 6'2" 215 Sacramento, CA No. 6 Washington
2. Tracy Howard 5'9" 170 Miramar, FL No. 18 Miami
3. Landon Collins 6' 202 Geismer, LA No. 21 Alabama
4. Ronald Darby 5'11" 176 Oxon Hill, MD No. 34 Florida State
5. Tee Shepard 6'1" 175 Fresno, CA No. 43 Notre Dame
6. Geno Smith 6' 182 Atlanta, GA No. 61 Alabama
7. Travis Blanks 6'1" 195 Tallahassee, FL No. 62 Clemson
8. Yuri Wright 6'1" 185 Ramsey, NJ No. 70 Colorado
9. Brian Poole 5'10" 202 Bradenton, FL No. 72 Florida
10. Alex Carter 6' 195 Ashburn, VA No. 76 Stanford
11. Kevon Seymour 6' 170 Pasadena, CA No. 96 USC
12. Deon Bush 6'1" 179 Miami, FL No. 102 Miami
13. DeVante Harris 5'10" 160 Mesquite, TX No. 110 Texas A&M
14. LaDarrell McNeil 6'1" 195 Dallas, TX No. 112 Tennessee
15. Elijah Shumate 6'1" 205 East Orange, NJ No. 117 Notre Dame
16. Marcus Maye 5'11" 200 Melbourne, FL No. 118 Florida
17. P.J. Williams 6'2" 190 Ocala, FL No. 124 Florida State
18. Terry Richardson 5'9" 165 Detroit, MI No. 128 Michigan
19. Bryson Echols 5'10" 165 DeSoto, TX No. 138 Texas
20. Ishmael Adams 5'10" 190 Westlake Village, CA No. 141 UCLA
21. Armani Reeves 5'10" 185 West Roxbury, MA No. 142 Ohio State
22. Joshua Hosley 5'11" 175 Fairburn, GA No. 144 Auburn
23. A.J. Leggett 6' 175 Miami, FL No. 160 Marshall
24. Duke Thomas 5'11" 170 Killeen, TX No. 163 Texas
25. Adrian Colbert 6'2" 191 Mineral Wells, TX No. 181 Texas
26. Trae Elston 6' 183 Oxford, AL No. 189 Ole Miss
27. Demetrious Cox 6'1" 192 Jeannette, PA No. 199 Michigan State
28. De'Van Bogard 6' 175 Cleveland, OH No. 215 Ohio State
29. Chaz Elder 6'2" 187 Union City, GA No. 222 South Carolina
30. Wayne Morgan 5'11" 191 Brooklyn, NY No. 225 Syracuse
31. T.J. Davis 6'1" 180 Tallahassee, FL No. 237 Auburn
32. Lucas Thompson 6'1" 190 Winter Garden, FL No. 245 East Carolina
33. Corey Thompson 6'2" 205 Missouri City, TX No. 246 LSU
34. Donaldven Manning 5'9" 155 Miami, FL No. 253 Virginia Tech
35. Dwayne Thomas 6'1" 170 New Orleans, LA No. 258 LSU
36. Brandon Beaver 6' 176 Long Beach, CA No. 260 Washington
37. Raymond Ford 5'11" 174 Gardena, CA No. 263 Cal
38. Rhaheim Ledbetter 5'11" 195 Shleby, NC No. 268 Florida

2012 Athlon Sports Positional Recruiting Rankings:

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Running Backs

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Linebackers

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Backs
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Offensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Quarterbacks
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Athletes

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Recruiting Rankings: DB</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: AC100, College Football, Recruiting
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-recruiting-rankings-qb
Body:

- by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

The next batch of in-coming college football All-Americans have inked their respective letters of intent. Recruiting is the life blood of the greatest sport on the planet, and, while coaching stills plays the biggest role in winning a championship, having better players can go a long way to earning a trip to the BCS.

Recruiting is an inexact science by definition. It is virtually impossible to accurately peg the mental make-up of any 17-year old child -- much less high-profile, over-coddled 17-year-old athletes. But team recruiting rankings offer the best indication of which team has the best ingredients each coach has to work with each season.

Related: Athlon's Top 25 Recruiting Classes of 2012

Offensive Positional Rankings: QB | RB | WR/TE | OL
Defensive Positional Rankings: DL | LB | DB | ATH

My biggest issue with quarterback recruiting rankings is the lack of quarterback depth near the top of the rankings. Normally, there are four to six AC100 signal callers in any given year. However, seeing as how the quarterback is the single most important position on the field, it seems like the position (somehow, someway) gets underranked.

The 2006 quarterback class comes to mind. The Tim Tebows and Matt Staffords landed in five-star territory, but Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Greg McElroy, Christian Ponder, Thad Lewis, Ricky Stanzi, Nate Davis and Todd Reesing were all three-star prospects. It makes no sense that every one of those names wasn't at least considered a "national recruit." For some reason, the most important piece to any football puzzle gets consistently underranked. 

In 2012, there are only five top-100 quarterback recruits — one of which is a longshot to stick at the position. I find it hard to believe that only five of the best 100 players in the nation play quarterback.

Additionally, where a player lands can also impact how he is rated. Devin Fuller and Anthony Alford, for example, might not be listed as quarterbacks had they gone to different schools. But at UCLA and Southern Miss, those two dual-threat athletes will get every chance to play quarterback.

The league to watch out for in this class is the Pac-12. Washington and Cal landed arguably the two most game-ready signal callers in the nation in Cyler Miles and Zach Kline respectively. UCLA and BYU each landed an elite passer as well, giving the West Coast four of the top six quarterback prospects.

Here are the best incoming quarterbacks in the nation:

  Name HT WT Hometown AC100 College
1. Jameis Winston 6'3" 195 Hueytown, AL No. 15 Florida State
2. Gunner Kiel 6'4" 220 Columbus, IN No. 24 Notre Dame
3. Devin Fuller 6' 195 Old Tappan, NJ No. 35 UCLA
4. Zach Kline 6'2" 210 Danville, CA No. 39 Cal
5. Cyler Miles 6'4" 218 Centennial, CO No. 91 Washington
6. Tanner Mangum 6'3" 195 Eagle, ID No. 113 BYU
7. Chad Kelly 6'3" 209 Buffalo, NY No. 115 Clemson
8. Anthony Alford 6' 200 Petal, MS No. 119 Southern Miss
9. Connor Brewer 6'2" 200 Scottsdale, AZ No. 134 Texas
10. Zeke Pike 6'6" 225 Edgewood, KY No. 153 Auburn
11. Matt Davis 6'2" 202 Houston, TX No. 162 Texas A&M
12. Jeremy Liggins 6'3" 270 Oxford, MS No. 171 LSU
13. Travis Wilson 6'6" 207 San Clemente, CA No. 183 Utah
14. T.J. Millweard 6'4" 225 Ft. Worth, TX No. 192 UCLA
15. Tyler Matthews 6'3" 205 McPherson, KS No. 193 TCU
16. Chad Voytik 6'1" 185 Cleveland, TN No. 200 Pittsburgh
17. Justin Thomas 5'11" 185 Prattville, AL No. 202 Georgia Tech
18. Ford Childress 6'4" 210 Houston, TX No. 250 West Virginia
19. Tommy Armstrong 6'2" 210 Cibolo, TX No. 252 Nebraska
20. Bart Houston 6'4" 215 Dublin, CA No. 259 Wisconsin

2012 Athlon Sports Positional Recruiting Rankings:

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Running Backs

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Linebackers

College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Backs
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Offensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Quarterbacks
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Athletes

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Recruiting Rankings: QB</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-breakout-players
Body:

 

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

Which player are you most looking forward to watching on a national stage?

Mitch Light: Nate Wolters of South Dakota State is a scoring point guard who plays an exciting brand of basketball. The 6-4 junior from St. Cloud, Minn., is averaging 21.3 points per game but doesn’t do too much damage from 3-point range (one made three per game). He is a high-volume 2-point shooter who also gets to the foul line a bunch (7.1 shots per game). Earlier this season, he erupted for 34 points in the Jackrabbits’ 92–73 win at Washington. SDSU will need Wolters to be at his very best to have a chance of knocking off Baylor in the first round this Thursday in Albuquerque.

Mark Ross: Creighton's Doug McDermott has already received a lot of press this season as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. That said, I am curious to see how he fares against Alabama in the Bluejays' opening game. McDermott is 6-7 and could be at a slight height disadvantage against the other Crimson Tide big men (depending on lineups). McDermott may need to alter his game somewhat to try and stretch Bama's defense and take advantage of his quickness, range and shot-making ability. If Creighton gets by Alabama then presumably a matchup with No. 1 seed North Carolina looms, which would pit McDermott against his former high school teammate, Harrison Barnes. North Carolina has seven players who are all athletic and 6-7 or taller which they can use to defend McDermott, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson. This should be a perfect opportunity for McDermott to show the nation, not to mention NBA scouts who are sure to be watching, what he can do on the big stage.

Nathan Rush: Now is the time for North Carolina's Harrison Barnes to show he can be a consistent leader, defender and late-game closer on basketball's biggest stage. The sophomore from Ames, Iowa, will be counted on to carry the Tar Heels to the Final Four in New Orleans, after falling one win short of the national semifinals last season. In the process, the 6'8", 215-pound small forward will answer several questions about his pro potential. Barnes has been compared to former Roy Williams product Paul Pierce and 2003 national champion Carmelo Anthony. With UNC's supporting cast, Barnes will be cutting down the nets on Monday night, April 2, if he has that type of All-Star killer instinct.
Patrick Snow: I think Doug McDermott of Creighton has a chance to have a Stephen Curry- or Jimmer Fredette-like effect on this year’s tournament. The 6-7 sophomore averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this year, and he shot an amazingly efficient 61 percent from the field. McDermott dropped 36 points on Long Beach State in the BracketBusters game and had 33 in the Bluejays’ victory over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Tournament Championship. Creighton has a tough draw with a physical Alabama squad and then a potential North Carolina matchup in the next round, but McDermott is the type of dynamic scorer who fans will love to watch.

Braden Gall: From the little-guy-early-upset category, I will have to go with Long Beach State's Casper Ware and South Dakota State's Nate Wolters. I like both of these teams to pull the upset in the first round. But if you are asking me about the star player I can't wait to see push his team to New Orleans, none will be more fun to watch than Flip Pressey of Missouri. His vision and speed make him arguably the most difficult point guard in the nation to stop, and the Tigers looked poised to make a deep run — if they can get past their mirror image from Marquette in the Sweet 16.
 

Teaser:
<p> Nate Wolters, Casper Ware and Doug McDermott will be on a national stage this weekend in the NCAA Tournament.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 15:41
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/hendrick-penalty-upheld
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR penalties against Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus on Tuesday.

Knaus was fined $100,000 and, along with car chief Ron Malec, suspended six races for unapproved C-posts on the No. 48 Chevy driven by Jimmie Johnson prior to inspection for the Daytona 500. The No. 48 team was also levied 25-point fines in the championship and owner standings.

“Upon hearing the testimony, carefully reviewing the facts and historically comparative penalties, the unanimous decision of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel was to uphold the original penalties assessed by NASCAR,” the appeals committee stated.

Hendrick Motorsports stated in a press release that it would request a hearing before the National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, to continue its appeal of NASCAR sanctions related to the No. 48 Sprint Cup Series team.

“The panel was generous with its time today, and we appreciated the opportunity to talk through our concerns,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “We feel strongly about this issue and will continue to pursue it at the next level.”

Middlebrook’s decision will be final. In the meantime, Knaus and Malec are free to continue at-track duties.

Teaser:
<p> The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR penalties against Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus on Tuesday.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 15:08
Path: /mlb/toronto-blue-jays-2012-preview
Body:

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have gone nearly 20 years since their last trip to the postseason, but that drought seems likely to end soon, perhaps as soon as this year. Toronto will contend if its starting pitchers continue to improve, and young position players like Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind complement the American League’s top slugger last year, Jose Bautista, in the lineup. With two wild cards now in play, Toronto can be a team squarely in the hunt late in the season.

Rotation
Only five teams had a higher earned run average from their starters last season than the Blue Jays, who checked in at 4.55, ahead of only the Twins, Rockies, Cubs, Royals and Orioles. To escape such inglorious company and become serious contenders, the Blue Jays need more of the same from ace Ricky Romero, a 27-year-old lefthander who improves every year. They also need to find out if Brandon Morrow can harness his exceptional stuff and produce consistent, top-level results. If he can, the Jays have a 1-2 punch to contend with the tough lineups of the AL East. The Jays hope that Henderson Alvarez can build off an impressive 10-start audition late last season, when he was the second-youngest starting pitcher in the major leagues, and they need Kyle Drabek to show why the Phillies were initially so reluctant to give him up for Roy Halladay. Alvarez and Drabek have more upside than Brett Cecil, the lefty who earned 15 victories in 2010 but was shipped back to Class AAA in April. He pitched well for a while, but finished 0–7 with a 5.16 ERA in his last 10 starts in the big leagues. The Blue Jays put him on a conditioning program to lose weight over the offseason. He lost about 30 pounds and has looked good in early spring outings. Dustin McGowan, who missed all of 2009 and 2012, is a long shot to return to the rotation, but is being tested this spring.

Bullpen
General manager Alex Anthopoulos was overjoyed to trade for closer Sergio Santos in early December, even though it meant sacrificing a top pitching prospect, Nestor Molina, to the White Sox in return. Anthopoulos raved about Santos’ strikeout stuff — he averaged more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings last year — and his contract, which includes six years of club control: three guaranteed, and three option years. Santos, a first-round draft pick by the Diamondbacks as a shortstop in 2002, played in the Jays’ farm system from 2006 to 2008, actually hitting 20 homers one year. But he found his calling as a pitcher with the White Sox and now leads the Toronto bullpen. Another acquisition late in the offseason was Francisco Cordero, the Reds’ closer for the past four seasons, and Milwaukee prior to that. He has 194 saves over five seasons, but he will be asked to fill the setup role in front of Santos. The Jays’ bullpen is now pretty deep and should be a strength, putting less pressure on the starters to get deeper into games. It is stocked with former starters like Jesse Litsch and Carlos Villanueva, and the Jays reacquired righty setup man Jason Frasor, who spent the final two months of the 2011 season with the White Sox. Frasor spent the first seven-plus years of his career in the Jays’ bullpen. Veteran Darren Oliver was signed in January as a situational lefty.

Middle Infield
The Blue Jays pulled off a steal when they snagged Escobar from the Braves in a five-player deal in 2010. Escobar is 29 and a good fielder who gets on base and has some power. Critics have said he has an attitude, but with that kind of on-field profile, Escobar helps a team win. Judging by Wins Above Replacement, only the Blue Jays’ two All-Stars, Bautista and Romero, contributed more wins to the team than Escobar last season. Escobar’s keystone mate is Kelly Johnson, acquired from Arizona in August for Aaron Hill, who never came close to repeating his 2009 All-Star form. Johnson struggled for the Diamondbacks last season, but in 33 games with Toronto, he batted .270 with a .364 on-base percentage and three homers. He accepted the Blue Jays’ arbitration offer in December, and with another shot at free agency after this season, he should be motivated to put up big numbers.

Corners
If only Lind, the first baseman, could be the basher he was in 2009, when he hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 runs batted in. If he could, pitchers might be less inclined to walk Bautista in front of him. But with Lind a relatively easy out in the cleanup spot last year, Bautista led the majors in walks (132), including a league-leading 24 intentional walks. Lind should be healthier this season after dealing with injuries to his lower back and his wrist, and at 28, he should be in his prime. Across the diamond at third is Lawrie, who played like a veteran when he arrived from the minors last season. Lawrie, from Langley, British Columbia, showed why he was Milwaukee’s top prospect before he was traded to Toronto for Shaun Marcum. From his debut on Aug. 5 until he fractured a finger on Sept. 21, Lawrie led all major league rookies in OPS (.953) and was tied for first in homers (nine) and extra-base hits (21). He plays with swagger and is quick and athletic in the field.

Outfield
There can be no doubting Bautista anymore. After his sudden explosion for 54 home runs in 2010, he led the majors for the second straight year, this time with 43. Bautista also led the majors in OPS (1.056) and walks (132), and at $14 million per year through 2015, his contract makes a lot of sense for the Blue Jays. Bautista has started at six different positions in his career but has settled in nicely in right field. New centerfielder Colby Rasmus never clicked with Tony La Russa in St. Louis, but at 25 years old, the former first-round draft pick is a strong candidate for a breakout season in his first full year in Toronto. Left field will be manned by Eric Thames or Travis Snider, with Snider still trying to unlock the power he has shown in the minor leagues.

Catching
The Blue Jays thought so highly of J.P. Arencibia that they traded Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers before last season. Napoli became a second-half and postseason sensation for Texas, but Toronto is happy with Arencibia, who hit 23 homers, fourth-best among major league catchers and a record for a Blue Jays backstop. There’s room for improvement, though, considering his .282 on-base percentage. On defense, Arencibia threw out 24.3 percent of potential base-stealers while committing 12 passed balls, ranking second in the American League. The Blue Jays acquired a defensive specialist, Jeff Mathis, in the offseason, but Arencibia should not have to worry about his starting spot. Mathis was a career .194 hitter in seven seasons with the Angels.

DH/Bench
Edwin Encarnacion is the incumbent at DH for the Blue Jays, but as designated hitters go, he’s not one of the best. He peaked early in his career with the Reds and has made little impact, positive or negative, in two-plus seasons with Toronto. His OPS was identical in 2010 and 2011: an uninspiring .787. With a bench that includes Ben Francisco, Rajai Davis and possibly the loser of the Snider/Thames left field battle, there should be plenty of names spinning in and out of the DH spot, unless Encarnacion’s career suddenly takes off. He’s 29 this season, so he probably is what he is. But when you play on the same team as the ultimate late bloomer — Bautista — perhaps there’s always hope of becoming a top slugger with little advance warning. Veteran Omar Vizquel, who turns 45 in April, made starts at third, short and second last season for the White Sox. He is with the team in spring training and likely to make the team as a utility infielder and mentor to the Jays’ youngster.

Management
Rival executives see the Blue Jays as an imminent threat to contend for the playoffs, largely because of the smart leadership of Anthopoulos. The team is in a healthy place financially, with no regrettable contracts, several young, impact position players and a pitching staff guided by an astute ex-pitcher, manager John Farrell. Anthopoulos is confident that Rogers Communications, with its vast resources, will allow the team to spend big when he sees fit. With the Canadian market all to themselves, and an extra wild card spot on the horizon, all signs point to a renaissance north of the border very soon.

Final Analysis
Eleven times in the last 14 years, Toronto has won at least 80 games but no more than 88. It’s a frustrating place to live, especially in the American League East, where 90 wins are generally the benchmark for relevance. The Blue Jays are building carefully, trying to build something sustainable to finally escape the good-but-not-great treadmill. They’re probably a year away from doing it, but if they’re close enough to contention this summer — a distinct possibility, given the upside of players like Lawrie and Morrow — expect the creative Anthopoulos to make a move that gives the Jays a chance to go for it.





 

 


Batting Order
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
Punished lefties for a .330 average (sixth in the AL) last season.
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
Should have plenty of motivation after Cardinals traded him and went on to win World Series. Will also see some time in the No. 6 slot.
RF Jose Bautista (R)
Jays’ highest-paid player is a certified bargain at $14 million a year through 2015.
1B Adam Lind (L)
Must provide better protection for Bautista, who drew 132 walks to lead MLB.
DH Edwin Encarnacion (R)
Had a .382 on-base percentage in the second half, 99 points better than he did in the first half.
3B Brett Lawrie (R)
Future franchise cornerstone, acquired from Milwaukee for Shaun Marcum; looks like a star in the making.
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
Rookie season produced 23 homers, a single-season record for a Blue Jays catcher.
2B Kelly Johnson (L)
Middle infielder with pop on a one-year contract makes perfect sense for Toronto. Will not be a surprise to see him batting second.
LF Eric Thames (L)
Will try to hold off Travis Snider for the starting job after slumping in September.

Bench
OF Rajai Davis (R)
Speedster’s spot is shaky after a career-worst season hampered by hamstring injury.
OF Travis Snider (L)
Posted a .394 OBP at Triple-A last year and .269 with Jays. Needs to prove he’s not a 4A player.
INF Mike McCoy (R)
Appeared at every spot on the field except catcher, left field and first base (yes, he even pitched).
OF Ben Francisco (R)
His pinch-hit, three-run homer won Game 3 of NLDS for the Phillies.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
After flipping an Angels catcher last winter (Mike Napoli), Jays will hold onto this defensive specialist.
INF Omar Vizquel (S)
The ageless future Hall of Famer will likely make the team as a mentor for Escobar and Lawrie.

Rotation
LH Ricky Romero
Since 2009 debut, he’s lowered ERA and WHIP while raising wins and innings each season.
RH Brandon Morrow
Improving steadily, the strikeout specialist could break into stardom at age 27.
LH Brett Cecil
Very lucky to be 15–7 in 2010, very unlucky to be 4–11 last year.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Finished season strong, with quality starts in five of six appearances starting Aug. 31.
RH Kyle Drabek
Must continue to work on commanding his fastball to win back a starting job after rough 2011.
RH Dustin McGowan
Is competing with Drabek for final fifth spot in rotation. Returned last season after missing all of 2009 and 2010 to start four games with modest results. May be better suited for bullpen now.

Bullpen
RH Sergio Santos (Closer)
Despite free agent options, Jays traded for Santos and believe he can be elite.
RH Francisco Cordero
The former Rangers/Brewers/Reds closer has six 37-plus save seasons.
RH Carlos Villanueva
After five years with Brewers, he made 13 starts, 20 relief appearances in first year with Jays.
RH Jesse Litsch
Won four of eight starts last year before shoulder injury; a serviceable long man, but has been shut down until mid-April.
RH Jason Frasor
After brief interlude with White Sox, he’s back in familiar setup role.
LH Darren Oliver
Veteran specialist gave up four extra-base hits (in 94 PAs) vs. lefties with the Rangers in 2011.
RH Casey Janssen
Coming off his lowest WHIP and highest strikeout percentage of five-year career.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

Teaser:
<p> The Blue Jays have gone nearly 20 years since their last trip to the postseason, but that drought seems likely to end soon, perhaps as soon as this year. With two wild cards now in play, Toronto can be a team squarely in the hunt late in the season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 13:48
Path: /columns/garage-talk/long-and-short-it-nationwide-renaissance-gordons-flip-baby-otis
Body:

by Dustin Long

Have you noticed the oddity already taking place in NASCAR this season?

Don’t see it?

Look at the Nationwide Series where all three races have been won by drivers not competing full time in Cup this year.

James Buescher won at Daytona, points leader Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Las Vegas last weekend.

Consider that only six of 34 Nationwide races last year were won by drivers not competing in Cup full time. In 2010, only one race was won by a Nationwide regular not competing in Cup.

The odds are likely that the current streak will end this weekend at Bristol. Kyle Busch has won the last three Nationwide races there and is entered, along with Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.

Still, a tide is turning.

Sadler, who did not win a race but finished second in the points in 2011, is excited about his chances of winning multiple races this year.

“I feel like when we show up every week, we’re going to be very, very fast,” he said. “We’re going to haul butt at Bristol. They’re taking my favorite car. It’s neat to have this confidence in this race and it’s neat this race team has this confidence in me.”

Others can relate.

The first three races show what the Nationwide Series can become a way to showcase its drivers, particularly the younger ones. Buescher is 21, Stenhouse is 24.

It’s not just them having success.

Look at what 20-year-old Cole Whitt and 21-year-old Austin Dillon have done so far.

Whitt was fourth at Daytona, 13th at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas. Dillon was fifth at Daytona, fourth at Phoenix and seventh at Las Vegas. They’re the favorites for the rookie of the year title and, based on how they started the season, could make that an interesting race.

It’s already been quite a start to the season for Whitt, who might be better known as the driver who bumped teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona, causing her to wreck. He hit the wall during qualifying at Las Vegas, but the team repaired it instead of going to a backup.

“I didn’t want to start that way with Danica,” Whitt said. “I messed up. Hopefully, over time I can earn that respect back from them. That, obviously, put a lot of limelight on us, a lot more than I wanted. Obviously, I felt a little bit of the pressure. Hopefully, with a clean race (at Las Vegas) and run as good as we did, we keep pulling those off and earn the respect of the veterans.”

The challenge for the series, though, remains, finding a way to make it affordable for teams to provide younger drivers quality rides. That’s not easy in this economic climate, but that’s what it will take for the series to gain more attention and interest from fans.
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 13:02
Path: /college-basketball/candidates-replace-darrin-horn-south-carolina
Body:

Darrin Horn was fired as the head coach at South Carolina after four seasons. He went 10–6 in the SEC in Year 1 but is 13–35 since. Overall, he went 60–63 at South Carolina after a five-year run at Western Kentucky, his alma mater.

Here are some of the names South Carolina might target:

 

Gregg Marshall, head coach, Wichita State
Marshall is a South Carolina native who did a tremendous job in nine seasons as the coach at Winthrop. He took the Eagles to seven NCAA Tournaments and compiled an astounding 104–24 record in the Big South. He is finishing up his fifth season at Wichita State and has the Shockers as a No. 5 seed in the South Region. He will likely be South Carolina’s top choice.

 

 

 

John Cooper, head coach, Tennessee State
Cooper recently completed his third season as a head coach at Tennessee State. The Tigers finished the year with an 18–12 record and lost to Murray State in the finals of the OVC Tournament. He spent six seasons as an assistant at South Carolina on Eddie Fogler’s staff from 1995-2001.

 

Ron Hunter, head coach, Georgia State
Hunter did a great job in his first season at Georgia State, improving the Panthers from 6–12 in the Colonial in 2011 to 11–7 in ’12. Previously, he served as the head coach at IUPUI for 17 seasons, overseeing the school’s move from the NAIA ranks to Division I Independent to member of the Summit League. IUPUI went 98–56 in its 10 years in the Summit during Hunter’s tenure.

 

John Groce, head coach, Ohio
The former aide to Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State is in his fourth season at Ohio. He has the Bobcats in the NCAA Tournament for the second time and has an overall record of 83–55. Groce is an Ohio native who has spent most of his time in the Midwest, but he was on the staff at NC State from 1996-2000.

 

Orlando Antigua, assistant coach, Kentucky
Antigua joined John Calipari’s staff in 2008-09 at Memphis and made the move to Kentucky, where is he is completing his third season. He has no experience as a head coach, but his status as one of Calipari’s top recruiters will make him a candidate for some head coaching positions in the near future.

 

Tubby Smith, head coach, Minnesota
This is a long shot, but Smith’s name seems to get mentioned every time there is an opening at a school in the Southeast. He has been at Minnesota for five years, but has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game and has a record of 38–49 in Big Ten games.
 

—By Mitch Light

Teaser:
<p> Gregg Marshall tops the list of candidates to replace Darrin Horn as the head coach at South Carolina.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:58
Path: /mlb/tampa-bay-rays-2012-preview
Body:

Tampa Bay Rays



You can count the 30 million dollars conserved in 2011 by lopping off the seven-highest paid players from their payroll. You can count all the franchise-record stats that departed with Carl Crawford, the homers and RBIs Carlos Pena left behind, the runs Jason Bartlett saved at shortstop and the 86 percent attrition of bullpen appearances the club overcame in its improbable 91-win season. But the one thing you can’t ever do is count out the Tampa Bay Rays. So while they will again be generally regarded as the cheap cuts in the AL East meat-grinder, there is still a feast of pitching, defense and speed on the menu. While those are ingredients for continued success, a look at the only moderately amended batting order begs the same question as last year: Where’s the beef?

Rotation
“Starting pitching depth to us is everything,” says GM Andrew Friedman. “That’s the one area that we can’t make great decisions under the radar. If we ever have to go to market for that, we’re in a lot of trouble.” Fortunately, the only trouble the 2012 Rays have is finding enough baseballs to go around, with two go-to aces in David Price and James Shields. Price’s 12–13 record was indicative of little more than the team’s spotty run production; he was only the ninth pitcher in history to endure a losing ledger despite punching out 200 batters with an ERA below 3.50 and a sub-1.15 WHIP. Shields, the first 200-inning man in 22 years to shave two runs off his ERA, may not duplicate the 2.82, but he’s a warhorse who led the league with 11 complete games and four shutouts. Third in the array is Jeremy Hellickson, who could be a No. 1 for many teams. The Rookie of the Year makes up for a too-high walk rate and ordinary velocity with an impressive repertoire, good life and steely poise. Streaky skyscraper Jeff Niemann, seemingly reinventing himself as a junk-baller, just wins. Wade Davis admits to being “my own worst enemy.” He has No. 2-starter stuff and he’s competitive, but his fastball command and some adjustment-phobia relegate him at the bottom edge of the rotation. That’s five — so someone will have to move to the bullpen (or another city) to clear room for phenom Matt Moore, who, in the other league, goes by the name “Strasburg.” The 22-year-old with effortless high-90s cheddar and myriad other weapons is driven to be great — which, by all indications, he will be. Young Alex Cobb is also ready for a rotation — just not this one.

Bullpen
For the second straight year, an “Under Construction” sign hangs on the bullpen gate. Thanks especially to Kyle Farnsworth’s dual redefinition as a closer and a strike-thrower, last year’s came together fairly well. At 35, he saved 25 games — two shy of his previous 12-year total. There is concern that his elbow is a time bomb, but the Rays were secure enough to pick up his option. Joel Peralta doesn’t profile as one, but he would be a solid ninth-inning option if needed. Skipper Joe Maddon calls him Campeòn (The Champion) and compares his competitive moxie to that of an undersized boxer. One-time 37-save man Fernando Rodney, who while a Tiger was suspended for heaving a ball into The Trop press box, heads a list of three righties brought in to compete with holdover Brandon Gomes. Rodney still throws 95 with a 12-mph separation from his deluxe change-up, but he has had little command and a recent encounter with back problems. The others were sinkerballer Burke Badenhop (from Miami) and power-armed kid Josh Lueke (from Seattle). Southpaws vying for a role include former closer J.P. Howell and ex-elite prospect Jake McGee (neither of whom has recouped pre-surgery form), as well as the underwhelming Cesar Ramos.

Middle Infield
Ben Zobrist gave his defensive GPS a rest last season and settled in as the regular second baseman with just an occasional detour to right field. He split the difference between his All-Star breakout of 2009 and all-out pratfall of 2010 — still enough to brand him one of the better bats around at his position. He’s also a Gold Glover without the hardware to show for it. Likewise, the leather doesn’t come much smoother than what Reid Brignac flashes at shortstop. But because he bears zero resemblance to the hitter who put up promising numbers in the minors, he often cedes time to Sean Rodriguez. The latter hasn’t hit much, either, but anyone with his bat speed must stay in the mix.

Corners
While teams with “real” money in the bank were rasslin’ over the likes of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Rays blew their projected budget by re-signing Pena for $7.25 million. Powerful, popular and ecstatic to be back, he’s worth 20 more home runs than they got from Casey Kotchman in 2011, and is just as slick defensively. At the other corner is franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria. If he can stay healthy and put two halves together, neither of which he did in 2011, he’s capable of supplying Pujolsian production at 20 cents on the dollar.

Outfield
It was only two and a half months, but in Desmond Jennings’ trial spin as the Tampa Bay leftfielder, he was everything Crawford was — and sometimes more. Though a late slump depressed his stats, the rookie revealed expectation-exceeding pop and patience to go with his searing speed and scintillating glove. He’s a center fielder playing left — if or until the Rays desaddle from B.J. Upton. A seven-year vet at 27, Upton is as enigmatic as ever. Skilled enough to be a two-time 20-20 man, he gives away far too many at-bats, as his .240 average since 2009 corroborates. No question he can outrun the ball and throw it as well as anyone at the position. In right, Matt Joyce made the All-Star team, then scuffled. It was, on balance, a nice step forward for another high-ceiling hitter who’s also a defensive standout. If he still can’t solve lefties (.196 career avg.), his platoon partner will be Brandon Guyer, an overachieving ’tweener of a prospect with a strong minor league résumé.

Catching
The Rays feel they got a free agent steal in Jose Molina to replace John Jaso, who was dealt for Lueke. Certainly the defensive upgrade was colossal. One’s been the toughest catcher on whom to steal the last four years (39.0 percent caught stealing) the other among the easiest. One treats the job as “an art,” according to his former manager, John Farrell; the other never really got the hang of it. Molina, though, is 36, offensively challenged and without a 300-at-bat season.

DH/Bench
A deep, versatile bench is Maddon’s lifeblood. Zobrist, Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson can play almost anywhere, enabling the manager to conjure all sorts of matchup edges. Utility outfielder Sam Fuld is a treasure, especially defensively and attitudinally. “There are a lot of average Americans who can identify with this fellow,” extols Maddon. Jeff Keppinger brings a solid right-handed bat and can play three infield spots. Youngsters Jose Lobaton and/or Robinson Chirinos will be Molina’s caddy. Luke Scott, fresh off shoulder surgery, will be the primary DH. The powerful former Oriole, who also could see spot play at first or in left, seems always to be in either a torrid groove or a subterranean slump.

Management
Friedman, Maddon, team president Matt Silverman and owner Stu Sternberg enjoy a symbiosis that’s rare in sports. Their skills, smarts, sophistication and sensibilities fuse to make the franchise more than the sum of its parts. The challenge is to keep the “fab four” together. Sternberg must wrangle a new stadium or pack up and move to stay financially viable; Friedman already has been approached by other teams; but Maddon’s contract has been extended through the 2015 season.

Final Analysis
The Rays’ offensive muscle is well south of average, but they have pitching to be plundered, speed to spare and defense to die for. That may not be good enough in their treacherous division, since it took a scenario that Maddon called “beyond fiction” to get them into the playoffs last year. Still, there’s an X-factor about this bunch that can’t be minimized. “I dig the way the Rays play baseball,” Maddon says. And while Sternberg laments that, fiscally, “there are 29 other teams passing us like we’re going in reverse,” he hastens to add, “except on the field.”

 

 


 

Batting Order
LF Desmond Jennings (R)
Only player in baseball with 10 homers and 20 steals from July 23 (his 2011 season debut) forward.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
Sole player with at least 50 home runs and 100 stolen bases over the last three seasons.
3B Evan Longoria (R)
His 401 RBIs represent an AL record for a third baseman in his first four seasons.
1B Carlos Pena (L)
Led NL qualifiers by ripping 52.2% of his hits for extra bases, but had the second-lowest average (.225).
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
Has hit .221 or lower at The Trop in five of his six seasons, but .285 on road since 2008.
RF Matt Joyce (L)
Just three career HRs vs. lefties — all in a span of 13 trips against them last year.
DH Luke Scott (L)
Ex-Oriole is the only player to launch six HRs onto Eutaw Street beyond the Camden Yards fence.
C Jose Molina (R)
Two-time AL caught-stealing percentage leader who’s nabbed two of every five in his career.
SS Reid Brignac (L)
Eighth-lowest average among players with 200 PAs in 2011, but Rays went 46–30 in his starts.

Bench
INF Sean Rodriguez (R)
Per ESPN Home Run Tracker, scorched the hardest-hit longball (118.4 mph) of 2011.
OF Sam Fuld (L)
Was the AL batting leader at .366 on April 22, then collapsed to .203 in his final 87 games.
INF Jeff Keppinger (R)
Made 82 starts at second base for Astros and Giants last season. Brings a career .281 average to the Rays.
OF Brandon Guyer (R)
Acquired with Sam Fuld from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal a year ago.
UT Elliot Johnson (S)
Highest shortstop fielding percentage (.993) among players with at least 50 games there in 2011.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Raked .307 in minors (career high by far) in 2011, but is only 7-for-51 as a big leaguer.

Rotation
LH David Price
First pitcher since Tom Glavine to start a playoff, All-Star and Opening Day game before turning 25.
RH James Shields
Each 2011 triple crown stat (16 wins, 2.82 ERA and 225 SOs) was second-best in Rays annals.
LH Matt Moore
Led short- or full-season minor leaguers in strikeouts per nine innings each of last four seasons.
RH Jeremy Hellickson
Topped the AL with a .167 opponents batting average with runners in scoring position.
RH Wade Davis
Held hitters to .161 average with RISP/two outs in 2010-11 — No. 1 among AL starters.
RH Alex Cobb
Shown to be major league ready, but may get squeezed out this year. Owns a 2.41 ERA over 34 starts a Double-A and Triple-A the past two seasons.

Bullpen
RH Kyle Farnsworth (Closer)
Second-lowest career ERA (1.87) at The Trop among relievers with at least 50 IP there.
RH Joel Peralta
Led major league relievers by limiting first batters to an on-base percentage of .099.
RH Fernando Rodney
Saddled with highest WHIP (1.55) in the majors since 2008 among pitchers with at least 200 outings.
RH Jeff Niemann
Second-highest winning percentage (.623) in history by a 6'9" or taller pitcher, behind Randy Johnson’s .646.
RH Brandon Gomes
Limited right-handed batters to 18 hits in 83 at-bats (.217 average).
LH J.P. Howell
Allowed .169 average with runners in scoring position in 2008, but .308 in his other five seasons.
RH Burke Badenhop
Ranked 10th in the majors (min. 60 IP) with a 58.5 percent ground ball rate.

 

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

Teaser:
<p> You can count the 30 million dollars conserved in 2011 by lopping off the seven-highest paid players from their payroll. You can count all the franchise-record stats that departed with Carl Crawford, the homers and RBIs Carlos Pena left behind, the runs Jason Bartlett saved at shortstop and the 86 percent attrition of bullpen appearances the club overcame in its improbable 91-win season. But the one thing you can’t ever do is count out the Tampa Bay Rays.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:58
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-14-matt-kuchar
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. 14: Matt Kuchar

Born: June 21, 1978, Winter Park, Fla.  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,233,920 World Ranking: 15

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take:

The 2010 Vardon Trophy winner had another huge year in 2011. In the 24 events he played, he posted 19 top-25 finishes and had nine top 10s, although he didn’t manage a victory. In the past two years the swing changes that he’s made have resulted in his becoming one of the most reliable players, especially in must-make situations late on Sunday, where inside five feet he has few equals. 
His few weaknesses and swing characteristics nevertheless hurt him in the game’s biggest events. His swing is too flat and his angle of attack too shallow to get out of the thicker rough in the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA. At Augusta, where there is little rough, the one place you can’t play from is left, and that is Matt’s tendency. Like Luke Donald and Steve Stricker, Matt is not a great driver, but his short game has made him rich.

 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 25
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - T27
U.S. Open - T14
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T19

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T21 (1998)
U.S. Open - T6 (2010)
British Open - T27 (2010)
PGA Championship - T10 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 2
Top-25 Finishes: 7
Missed Cuts: 14

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

Teaser:
<br />
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:27
Path: /nfl/randy-moss-signs-san-francisco-49ers
Body:

“Straight gold, homey?”

Randy Moss has agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers following a workout with coach Jim Harbaugh — who threw passes to Moss after picking up the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer from the airport.

“I was very appreciative of him doing that,” said Moss, regarding Harbaugh’s chauffer service. “I mean, the head coach picking a guy up — think about that.”

Not only did Harbaugh shuttle Moss from the airport to the 49ers’ team facilities, the 15-year NFL veteran signal-caller-turned-coach showed that Captain Comeback has a few bullets left in his 48-year-old right arm, serving as Moss’ personal combine quarterback.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Moss. “It’s just a pleasure to be able to get back in the league, and really get back to what I want to do and that’s play football.”

The previously retired Moss sat out the 2011 season following a disastrous 2010 campaign in which he recorded a combined 28 catches for 393 yards and five TDs for the Patriots (4 games), Vikings (4) and Titans (8). Now, the greatest deep threat in history — a wideout who has amassed 954 catches for 14,858 yards and 153 TDs since exploding onto the scene in 1998 — is set to run a few more go-routes, after taking a year off.

“I’m not a free agent. I’m a guy straight off the couch, straight off the street,” said Moss. “They’ve done their homework on me or they wouldn’t have brought me in here.”

After posting a 13-3 regular season record and advancing to overtime of the NFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champion Giants last year, San Francisco hopes Moss adds a vertical, over-the-top threat to the passing attack without bringing an over-the-top distraction into the locker room.

The 49ers are in a no-lose situation, however. Their one-year commitment is risk-free. If any problems arise, Harbaugh will slap Moss on the back like he’s Jim Schwartz and tell him to take a hike like he’s Braylon Edwards. But if everything works out as planned, a motivated Moss could be the missing piece in San Fran’s solid gold Super Bowl puzzle.

“I know this organization wants the Super Bowl,” said Moss. “With all the success they’ve had (in 2011), hopefully we can keep it going and give these 49ers fans something to keep screaming about.”

Moss gives the 49ers flexibility in the draft and free agency. With tight end Vernon Davis fresh off of a Jerry Rice effort in the playoffs — with 10 catches for 292 yards and four TDs in two games — and fourth-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree struggling to get downfield separation, Moss will give quarterback Alex Smith a legitimate deep target that (in theory) will open up the field and keep defenses from stacking the box to stop Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore. The 6’4”, 210-pound Moss also brings his springs, as a legendary leaper capable of dominating in the red zone and capitalizing on jump ball opportunities in the end zone — no matter how old he may be.

“I’ll hurry up and know what my role’s going to be and hopefully that’s catching touchdowns,” said Moss.

“I’m here to play some football. I know there’s a great core of guys here and they’re young. By me being 35 years old, hopefully they don’t buy a wheelchair, or no rocker or no old man stuff, because I’m still young. I feel it.”
 

Teaser:
<p> The San Francisco 49ers agree to a one-year deal with wide receiver Randy Moss after a successful workout in which coach Jim Harbaugh played quarterback and threw passes to Moss.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:23
Path: /mlb/new-york-yankees-2012-preview
Body:

New York Yankees

The Yankees fell short of the World Series for the seventh time in eight seasons, but this remains a formidable team. A deep lineup returns, and so does ace lefty CC Sabathia, who fronts a rotation fortified by the additions of veteran Hiroki Kuroda and 23-year-old All-Star Michael Pineda. With those arms, all those hitters, a stingy bullpen, and the money and prospects to have plenty of trade options, the Yankees are poised for another turn in October.

Rotation
The Yankees avoided the doomsday scenario of losing their ace when Sabathia agreed to a one-year contract extension, with a vesting option for a second year, instead of opting out of his contract to explore free agency. Sabathia could end up making $50 million over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but the Yankees can afford it, and they had no other options. Sabathia is 64–24 in three years with the Yankees, including a 5–1 mark in the postseason, and at 31, he is still squarely in his prime. He settles a rotation that was much sturdier than expected last season and got a boost in mid-January with the signing of Kuroda and the trade for Pineda, a hard-throwing righty with five years remaining before free agency. Ivan Nova returns after going 16–4 as a rookie, leaving Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia – once a hard thrower, now a craftsman — to compete for the final spot in the rotation. That gives the Yankees plenty of depth, and they also have a crop of prospects at Class AAA to plug holes during the season.

Bullpen 
Despite losing Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano to injuries — and with Rafael Soriano sidelined for much of the season — the Yankees still posted the best bullpen ERA in the American League, at 3.12. Mariano Rivera was his usual incomparable self, passing Trevor Hoffman for the career saves record and blowing only one save opportunity in the second half. Rivera turned 42 in November, and as he enters the final year of his contract, he has made no commitment about his future. That will be an ongoing storyline, as will the performance of Soriano, who was signed with the notion that he might replace Rivera in 2013. Soriano has a player option for next season, but he must first prove he can repeat his success as a closer while pitching in a setup role. Last season, David Robertson was the Yankees’ most effective setup man, earning an All-Star spot, fanning 100 batters in 66.2 innings and posting a 1.08 ERA. Boone Logan returns to neutralize lefties, and Chamberlain could be back at midseason if his recovery from Tommy John surgery goes as planned.

Middle Infield
Derek Jeter was a daily soap opera for months after the 2010 season, with contentious contract negotiations, a sluggish first half and a disabled list stint for a strained calf. But once Jeter zoomed past 3,000 hits — having reached the milestone on a home run off Tampa Bay lefty David Price, as part of a 5-for-5 day — the questions about his age and salary subsided, and Jeter reverted to his status as the revered and reliable Captain. His range at shortstop will never be great, but he makes few mistakes, and at 37, he has a capable backup in Eduardo Nunez. Jeter made 10 starts at DH last season, a career high, and will probably make more in 2012. Second baseman Robinson Cano, meanwhile, flashed a terrific glove in the field while leaving no doubt that he was the Yankees’ best offensive player. Cano finished second in the league in extra-base hits and ranked among the top four in total bases for the third year in a row. He set career highs in runs (104) and RBIs (118), although his walks fell and his strikeouts increased, a trend he must reverse as he tries to extend his prime. At 29 years old, with free agency in his sights after the 2013 season, expect Cano to continue his ascent.

Corners
The Yankees are still in the first half of the massive contracts for their corner infielders, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. And while both remain feared hitters in the middle of the lineup, they are coming off possibly their worst seasons. Teixeira, the first baseman, hit a career-low .248 with an .835 OPS, the lowest figure for him since his rookie season. Rodriguez, the third baseman, had an even lower OPS, .823, his worst since he turned 20. Rodriguez turns 37 in July, and while the three-time MVP vows to work extremely hard every winter, his body keeps betraying him. Rodriguez has not played 140 games in a season since 2007, and he is signed through 2017 at an average annual salary of $27.5 million. That means Nunez or Eric Chavez could see increased playing time at third, with Rodriguez seeing more time at DH. Teixeira remains an elite power hitter, but while he hit .302 from the right side last season, he slumped to .224 as a lefty. That must change, and at 32 this April, Teixeira is still young enough that his 2011 season can be considered more of a fluke than a trend. At least, that is what the Yankees must believe, because at $22.5 million per year through 2016, they have no other choice.

Outfield
The aging infielders carry more star power, but the Yankees get a lot of production from their younger outfield. Centerfielder Curtis Granderson, 31, led the team in runs, homers and RBIs, and became the first player ever with 40 homers, 10 triples and 25 steals in the same season. His speed helps him patrol a lot of ground in center field, and leftfielder Brett Gardner can track down a lot of balls Granderson might not reach. Gardner is one of the majors’ fastest players, and his 49 steals tied for the league lead. Gardner’s walk rate declined last year, though he made more contact at the plate and — depending on which advanced defensive metrics you believe — he might save more outs than any other outfielder in the league. Rightfielder Nick Swisher has been anemic in the postseason as a Yankee (.160 average), but the organization was smart enough to look past that and see the value in his ability to get on base and hit home runs. Swisher is much more dangerous as a right-handed hitter, but he is capable as a lefty. He plays a decent right field, and while Swisher is a bit of a showman, he genuinely loves playing in the Bronx, and the fans appreciate his effort. Newcomer Raul Ibañez will likely take some of Swisher’s at-bats against right-handed pitching.

Catching
A team rich in catching prospects did not seem like the ideal fit for Russell Martin, but the Yankees were thrilled to add the former Dodger All-Star last winter. He’ll be back again in 2012, and not just as a stopgap for Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez. The Yankees loved the way Martin managed the pitching staff, and with 18 homers and 65 RBIs, he was more than adequate as a run producer. Martin can be a free agent after the season, and at that point the Yankees must decide if Romine is ready for full-time duty as the heir to the position held with such dignity by Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.

DH/Bench
With aging superstars like Jeter, Rodriguez — and, to a lesser extent, Teixeira — needing time at designated hitter, Nunez becomes a pivotal piece for the Yankees. Nunez could start for a lot of teams, but the Yankees have resisted trading him because of how easily he slides into the left side of the infield when Jeter or Rodriguez need a break. Nunez was prone to defensive mistakes (20 errors), but all the tools are there to be a solid fielder, and he stole 22 bases last year as a fill-in. Ibañez and Andruw Jones will start most often as the designated hitter. Among bench options, Jones gives the Yankees a strong power bat against lefties and Chavez against righties.

Management
Joe Girardi, who enters his fifth season, excels at the two most important facets of managing this team: maneuvering a deep bullpen to compensate for a so-so rotation, and getting the most from his veterans by knowing when to rest them. Girardi has the firm backing of the Steinbrenner family and general manager Brian Cashman, who re-signed for three more years and has wisely used the Steinbrenner money to build a fearsome major league roster and a strong farm system.

Final Analysis
The Yankees’ bats went cold in the playoffs, but over the long season, this lineup will produce. The Yankees won 97 games last season, and with the improvements to their rotation, they should crack 100 this year and fend off the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays for yet another AL East crown.

 

 


 

Batting Order
SS Derek Jeter (R)
Quieted critics with a second-half surge that evoked the Jeter of Old, not the Old Jeter.
CF Curtis Granderson (L)
No longer struggles against lefties, with a .272 average and a .597 slugging percentage in 2011.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
A free swinger (just 38 walks), but what a swing it is; seems to hit everything hard.
3B Alex Rodriguez (R)
Midseason knee surgery ended his record streak of 13 seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
Hit just .239 on balls in play, suggesting bad luck or better defensive positioning against him.
RF Nick Swisher (S)
Mark it down: good for 20+ homers, 80+ RBIs and .360 on-base percentage every year.
DH Raul Ibañez (L)
Hit just .245 with a .289 OBP (.211/.232 vs. LHP), but Yankees hope his power (20 HR) will translate well at Yankee Stadium. Will most likely platoon with Andruw Jones.
C Russell Martin (R)
Professionalism and power give Yanks a big boost and buy time for prospects to mature.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Yanks love the way he sets the table for the top of the order.

Bench
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Solid hitter, but has caught only 13 of 92 potential base-stealers in last two years.
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
Made 83 starts at various spots last year; allows Jeter to ‘rest’ as the DH.
3B Eric Chavez (L)
Solid left-handed option at third and is strong defensively.
OF Andruw Jones (R)
Former home run champ can still mash, with a .923 OPS against lefties last year

Rotation
LH C.C. Sabathia
Eleven MLB seasons, all with a winning record, and he’s only 31 years old.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
Made 11 quality starts in 14 post-All-Star break starts for the Dodgers last season.
RH Ivan Nova
Hard to believe the Yankees once lost him in Rule 5 draft — and Padres gave him back.
RH Michael Pineda
Fastball averaged 94.7 mph last year, fourth-best among starters in the majors.
RH Phil Hughes
Has proven he can start or relieve at the big-league level, but struggled for consistency.

Bullpen
RH Mariano Rivera (Closer)
Had 7.5 strikeouts for every walk, the second-best ratio of his storied career.
RH David Robertson
AL-best 13.50 strikeouts per nine innings for pitchers with at least 65 innings pitched.
RH Rafael Soriano
Before his May elbow injury: 5.40 ERA; after his July return: 3.33.
RH Freddy Garcia
Veteran has value as a long man or reliable insurance policy for rotation.
RH Cory Wade
Former Dodger surfaced as useful middle man with curveball/changeup mix.
LH Boone Logan
Lefties and righties had the same OBP off him last season: .328.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Underwent Tommy John surgery last June, which puts him on track to return in midseason.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
Teaser:
<p> The Yankees fell short of the World Series for the seventh time in eight seasons, but this remains a formidable team. The Yankees’ bats went cold in the playoffs, but over the long season, this lineup will produce. The Yankees won 97 games last season, and with the improvements to their rotation, they should crack 100 this year and fend off the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays for yet another AL East crown.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 12:02
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-9
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Greg Biffle  Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.

2. Jimmie Johnson  It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.

3. Denny Hamlin  We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.

4. Tony Stewart  “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.

5. Kevin Harvick  Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.

6. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.

7. Carl Edwards  “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?

8. Mark Martin  Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.
 

Teaser:
<p> Greg Biffle tops Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 11:17

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