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Nebraska is set to honor 125 years of football on its Sept. 27 home date against Illinois. The Cornhuskers will take the field against the Fighting Illini wearing alternate red jerseys.
Alternate jerseys are becoming more prominent in college football, and Nebraska wore a black jersey for a home game against UCLA last season.
The red jerseys certainly aren’t a bad look, but the best part of the unveiling wasn’t the uniform. Coach Bo Pelini (yes you read that right) decided to unveil the uniform by modeling it to the team.
Below are the photos and video from Nebraska’s alternate uniform unveil for 2014:
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 1:
• There's a new Miss Hooters International 2014. Mazel tov.
• As a part of his offseason charm offensive, Bo Pelini modeled Nebraska's new uniform.
• Now that her social calendar has opened up, Caroline Wozniacki is training for a marathon. She's also looking smoking hot. What were you thinking, Rory?
• Bad day on Twitter for ESPN's Jim Bowden: He stole a scoop from a fake account, then claimed he was hacked.
• Bizarre, convoluted story from college hoops: Former Bull Rick Brunson pretended to be Patrick Ewing to get a massage, possibly costing Temple a five-star point guard (Brunson's son). Got it?
• Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt tweeted a screen shot of his playbook. It's, um, uncomplicated.
• Jimmy Fallon can persuade celebs to do anything. Last night, he and Julia Roberts threw balls at each other's faces and watched it back in super slo-mo.
• Texas A&M running back Brandon Williams was so excited to christen the new locker room john that he took to Twitter to announce the news.
• News blooper of the day: A TV station accidentally aired a Spiderman assault video over a Ray Rice apology report.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Air Force is the latest school to unveil an alternate jersey and helmet design for 2014.
The usual white or blue uniforms for the Falcons are some of the best designs in the Mountain West, and the alternate look for 2014 is another awesome uniform for Air Force.
Here are some photos of Air Force’s new uniform for 2014:
More pictures of the new 2014 Alternate Football Uniform! pic.twitter.com/9NtbYqEk9I— Air Force Football (@AFFootball) July 31, 2014
Check out the new 2014 Alternate Football Uniform! Which game do you hope to see them this season? pic.twitter.com/6wMjjscYoL— Air Force Football (@AFFootball) July 31, 2014
Johnny Manziel doesn’t need paparazzi to increase his publicity; he can take care of that all by himself. Here’s a month-by-month review of Manziel’s offseason heading into his rookie year, mostly documented by the former Aggie himself on various social media websites.
Johnny rocks a No. 2 jersey, shoulder pads, and camo shorts for his Pro Day. R&B artist and close friend Drake can be heard blasting throughout the facility while Manziel performs. Oh, and former President George H.W. Bush makes an appearance.
Manziel is drafted No. 22 overall by the Cleveland Browns. His trademark “money sign” follows shortly thereafter.
Johnny hangs out with his competition (for the NFL’s biggest frat star), Rob Gronkowski, in Las Vegas.
The Heisman winner supports his “business partner”, LeBron James, at the NBA Finals. James would go on to lose the championship, but the King will join Manziel in Cleveland this year.
Johnny takes care of some formalities, signing his rookie contract and officially becoming an NFL player.
To celebrate, Manziel drinks champagne on an inflatable swan.
Manziel is found flaunting his wealth, pretending a stack of money is his cellphone.
Johnny parties with fellow celebrities Justin Bieber, Floyd Mayweather, and Tyrese.;
The quarterback hits up a Red Sox game and is spotted chatting up some ladies at Fenway Park.
Johnny Cash is photographed rolling up a $20 bill in a nightclub because… he was tipping the restroom attendant…
Manziel takes a photo with popular icons Drake and Kevin Durant.
The 21-year-old takes his foot off the gas a little and appears to be settling down with a girlfriend.
For now, the circus has quieted down. Training camp has started and Johnny Football is occupied. We can expect to hear slightly less news out of Manziel’s camp while he works towards stealing the starting job away from teammate Brian Hoyer. But if this summer is any indication, Manziel's first season and entire career should be a wild, fun ride that no one wants to miss.
Some coaches are great recruiters. Some are great talent developers. Some are great with the media and power boosters.
Some are simply great CEOs. Only a select few can say they can do it all.
So being able to identify your weaknesses and correct them by surrounding yourself with great personnel is a skill just like coaching defensive backs, luring recruits or glad-handing donors.
Some coaches don’t need to have a great offensive coordinator. Like, say, Steve Spurrier, Mike Leach, Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn or Bobby Petrino. Some don’t need a defensive coordinator like Gary Patterson, Bill Snyder, Charlie Strong or Todd Graham.
Removing the teams whose head coach acts largely as a full-time coordinator, which teams enter the season with the most dynamic duos of coordinators in the nation?
OC: Chad Morris (3 yr)
DC: Brent Venables (2 yr)
Morris is widely considered the top offensive coordinator in the nation and the numbers bear that out, as Clemson has crushed opposing defenses for over 40 points per game in each of the last two years. Venables, who was brought to Death Valley in 2012, has improved the Tigers' defense in each of his two seasons. This unit gave up 29.3 points per game the year before he arrived. Clemson allowed 24.8 ppg in ’12, 22.2 ppg last fall and is poised to be even better this fall.
OC: Lane Kiffin (--)
DC: Kirby Smart (6 yr)
Smart has been a hot head-coaching name for half a decade now and he continues to turn down overtures to stay with Nick Saban. His defenses are among the nation’s best every year he’s been in Tuscaloosa. Kiffin, for all of his faults, is overqualified to be “just” an offensive coordinator. As long as he isn’t handling CEO duties — which he has struggled with in the past — Kiffin could be one of the nation’s top offensive minds in 2014. There is no questioning his ability to coach quarterbacks and develop a passing game.
OC: Josh Heupel (4 yr)
DC: Mike Stoops (2 yr)
Stoops returned to Norman two years ago (replacing Venables) after helping the Sooners win a national title in 2000. His unit showed marked improvement in his first two years and is poised for its best defensive season since that memorable '00 campaign. Heupel’s offenses have been ranked in the top 10 nationally in three of his four seasons and, with a healthy starter under center for a full season, should bounce back in a big way.
OC: Cam Cameron (1 yr)
DC: John Chavis (5 yr)
Cameron was brought in to instill a pro-style balanced attack and he turned Zach Mettenberger from SEC also-ran into an NFL Draft pick in just one season. He has his work cut out for him with the departures in the passing game but the ground attack should be one of the nation’s best. Chavis has a long standing history of SEC success but his unit has gotten worse three consecutive seasons since the 2011 BCS national title game. His squad should rebound in 2014.
OC: Mike Bobo (8 yr)
DC: Jeremy Pruitt (--)
Pruitt comes to Athens after winning two national titles as the defensive backs coach at Alabama in 2011-12. Then he won a national title last year as the defensive coordinator at Florida State. Now, he takes over a Dawgs defense with loads of talent and upside. Bobo has had some tough(er) seasons but largely has produced efficient and effective offenses over a long period of time in the SEC. Georgia has averaged 6.4 yards per play over the last six seasons — which would’ve ranked 22nd nationally last fall.
6. Michigan State
OC: Dave Warner, Jim Bollman (1 yr)
DC: Pat Narduzzi (7 yr)
Narduzzi is the reigning top coordinator in the nation as the 2013 Frank Broyles Award winner for his work with the Spartans defense last fall. He is a proven commodity that carries this staff behind Mark Dantonio. Warner, who has been at MSU for seven seasons, joined Bollman, in his first season with Sparty, as co-offensive coordinators last fall. The unit showed steady improvement and was one of the most balanced attacks in the Big Ten by the end of the season.
OC: Clay Helton (4 yr)
DC: Justin Wilcox (--)
Helton was one of the few hold overs from the previous staff and his offense took major strides as the season went along last fall despite three coaching changes. Wilcox heads to USC with head coach Steve Sarkisian after two seasons in Seattle. Wilcox has been a rising star for years and has proven his worth at Washington. He took a unit that was 108th in yards per play allowed the year before his arrival (6.43 ypp) and turned it into the 20th-ranked defense (4.98 ypp) in the same category in 2013.
OC: Josh Henson (1 yr)
DC: Dave Steckel (5 yr)
Staff stability has been a staple for Gary Pinkel and his current coordinator duo is one of the most underrated tandems in the nation. Henson is largely regarded as the potential head coach in waiting and has the respect of everyone in Columbia. He has been on the Tigers staff for six years and showed in one year running the offense that he is totally capable. Steckel has been with Missouri since 2001 and has been running the defense since '09. He continues to overachieve with middle-of-the-pack recruits.
9. Virginia Tech
OC: Scott Loeffler (1 yr)
DC: Bud Foster (19 yr)
Foster is arguably the nation’s top defensive coordinator. He’s been at Tech since 1987 in some capacity and has produced some of the best defenses in the nation for nearly two decades. Loeffler is much more unproven and will have his work cut out for him after helping Logan Thomas set numerous career school records in his first season. He’s been at Michigan, Florida, Auburn and in the NFL, so clearly, Loeffler is well respected. Now, he needs to deliver in a tough situation.
10. Penn State
OC: John Donovan (1 yr)
DC: Bob Shoop (1 yr)
Both Donovan and Shoop have been James Franklin’s coordinators since taking his first head coaching job at Vanderbilt in 2011. Donovan has been with Franklin even longer, spending time with him at Maryland. Both guys were instrumental in developing the Vandy program but Shoop was the star of the show. The Dores won a lot of games on the defensive side of the ball over the last three years and, now, both guys have a power brand to work with in 2014.
The Best of the Rest:
11. Baylor: Philip Montgomery (OC), Phil Bennett (DC)
12. UCLA: Noel Mazzone (OC), Jeff Ulbrich (DC)
13. Notre Dame: Mike Denbrock (OC), Brian VanGorder (DC)
14. Michigan: Doug Nussmeier (OC), Greg Mattison (DC)
15. Maryland: Mike Locksley (OC), Brian Stewart (DC)
With fall practice set to open around the nation for all 128 college football teams, the time to finalize preseason predictions is coming to an end.
Of course, there are a handful of teams every year that are flagged in the preseason as a wildcard to watch. These "wildcard" teams are often the most difficult team to figure out in predictions.
Most projections for the Big Ten in 2014 designate Ohio State and Wisconsin as the favorites to meet in Indianapolis for the conference title game. While Ohio State and Michigan State are the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the East, there’s more uncertainy in the West.
Wisconsin is pegged as the preseason favorite, but the Badgers return only eight starters. The significant personnel turnover in Madison provides plenty of hope for Iowa and Nebraska to contend for the West Division title.
Could the Cornhuskers be the surprise team in the West Division in 2014? Despite a -11 turnover margin and an injury to starting quarterback Taylor Martinez early in the season, Nebraska finished 9-4 last year. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why to buy into this team and a few reasons to pick against Nebraska in 2014.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Will Surprise in 2014:
1. Development of front seven on defense:
Ohio State and Michigan State own the top two defensive lines in the Big Ten for 2014, but Nebraska can make a strong case as the No. 3 group in the conference. End Randy Gregory is one of the nation’s best and could improve on last year’s sack total (10.5) in 2014. The Cornhuskers are searching for more options at the other end spot, with Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter leading the way for snaps. While there’s some uncertainty at end, the interior of the line should be improved in 2014. Sophomores Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are both breakout candidates this year, with junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Kevin Maurice also in the mix for snaps. Combine the emergence of Collins and Valentine on the interior with emerging players like David Santos, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose at linebacker, and it’s easy to see why Nebraska’s defense should be better against the run. The Cornhuskers allowed 4.5 yards per carry against Big Ten offenses and gave up 16 scores in eight conference contests. Expect both of those numbers to improve in 2014.
2. Ameer Abdullah and the Receivers:
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong is still developing, but the Cornhuskers can insulate their young passer with a strong rushing attack. Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation’s top backs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in Big Ten play last season. Abdullah checks in at only 195 pounds, but he’s capable of handling carries between the tackles or bouncing it to the outside to break big plays. The senior can handle 275-290 carries if necessary, but Abdullah has plenty of help from backfield mates Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor. The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s deepest backfields in 2014. Kenny Bell averaged only 11.1 yards per catch last season but inconsistency at the quarterback spot hurt his overall numbers. The senior is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers and should benefit from an offseason to work with Tommy Armstrong as the No. 1 quarterback. Nebraska’s receivers may not have the flash of Maryland or Ohio State, but this group should rank among the top five in the Big Ten. Needless to say, the talent at the skill positions is there for the Cornhuskers.
3. Quarterback Play…
Nebraska’s offense was placed into a difficult spot last year when Taylor Martinez suffered a season-ending foot injury. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III each attempted over 130 passes, and the Cornhuskers finished No. 11 in the Big Ten in passing offense. Despite the inexperience at quarterback, Nebraska managed to finish 9-4 and 5-3 in the Big Ten. Armstrong has the physical tools to be a successful quarterback in the Big Ten, but he has to develop as a passer. That goal seems reasonable in 2014, especially as Armstrong is expected to be more comfortable with the offense in his second year, and the Cornhuskers have a strong supporting cast in place. With a tight battle expected at the top in the West Division, Armstrong’s emergence could be the difference between finishing third or playing in Indianapolis in early December.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Won’t:
1. …Quarterback Play
While improvement is expected, is Tommy Armstrong ready to take a step forward in his development this year? Armstrong is credited with a 7-1 mark as Nebraska’s starting quarterback last season, but he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes and tossed eight picks on 131 attempts. Considering 2013 was his first taste of college snaps, it was no surprise Armstrong had his share of ups and downs. But is he ready to take that next step? Armstrong should have a better overall season than he did in 2013. However, is modest improvement going to be enough to win the West? Or will it take Armstrong having a special season to lift Nebraska to the division title? For the Cornhuskers to win the West Division, Armstrong has to do a better job of protecting the ball in 2014. With a strong rushing attack and defense, Nebraska doesn’t need Armstrong to throw for 300 yards each week. However, limiting mistakes and playing with more efficiency is a must.
2. The Schedule
Out of the projected top three teams in the West, Nebraska has the toughest route to a division title. Wisconsin and Iowa do not play any of the projected top four teams from the East in Athlon’s 2014 Big Ten projections. The Cornhuskers only catch one of the top four teams, but it’s a huge road test at Michigan State. Nebraska also has road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa – the two teams Bo Pelini's squad is likely to be fighting for the division title. The Cornhuskers also travel to Evanston to play Northwestern, and each of the last three meetings against the Wildcats has been decided by a field goal or less.
3. Rebuilt Secondary
Nebraska’s secondary finished 2013 ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. The Cornhuskers allowed only eight passing scores in conference games last year, but three starters must be replaced. Safety Corey Cooper is the lone returning starter, with Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste departing from last year’s unit. The secondary isn’t hurting for experienced options, as senior Josh Mitchell has 15 career starts and sophomore LeRoy Alexander played in all 13 games last season. Junior cornerback Charles Jackson had a good spring and is ready to seize a starting job. Can this unit match last year’s totals? The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines, so the secondary won’t have to hold their coverage for too long. The schedule doesn’t feature a plethora of standout passing games, but Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern and Fresno State will each provide a stiff test for Nebraska’s rebuilt secondary. Even with a front seven that will rank near the top of the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers can't afford to give up many big plays in the secondary.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 31:
• July's finally over; here are the ladies who wowed us this month.
• The blockbuster Jon Lester deal finally happened. Guess the A's are serious.
• The WSJ asking the tough questions: Which college football coaches are the biggest chatterboxes?
• Keyshawn Johnson sent out iPads as wedding invitations. Guess he didn't want to spring for a calligrapher.
• Manny Machado's cannon should be illegal.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
From his ill-timed thoughts on player safety to his team’s epic struggles, Bret Bielema is the easiest target in the SEC.
But let’s be honest about his on-field challenges at Arkansas: He inherited a mess of a roster in December 2012 with a stealth move from Madison to Fayetteville.
This isn’t an apologist’s view. Privately, assistant coaches are saying it now as they said it a year ago. Bielema must put in serious work to resurrect the Razorbacks, who are fresh off the program’s first winless conference season since 1942.
“When he took over (at Arkansas), he had players that wouldn’t have made it at Wisconsin,” says a former Bielema assistant coach familiar with both programs.
Bielema did pretty well with those Badgers, finishing 68–24 along with three Big Ten titles. Bielema didn’t exactly dominate top-flight competition — he was 2–4 in bowl games and went 1–5 against Ohio State — but he almost always beat the teams he should have and took advantage of transitional periods at Michigan and Penn State.
His SEC challenge is more daunting. There’s no question which team will occupy the seventh spot in the preseason SEC West rankings — the one that lost eight conference games by an average of 21 points. That is shocking for a program that just three years ago was unpacking back-to-back top 10 seasons and a Sugar Bowl berth.
The handoff from Bobby Petrino to John L. Smith to Bielema was so clumsy (though unavoidable) that athletic director Jeff Long must recognize the extent of the rebuilding job that’s necessary in Fayetteville.
Defensive seniors will have played for three head coaches and four defensive coordinators.
Following Bielema’s ‘Never Yield’ mantra is only one factor in the climb to respectability. Bielema must manufacture a vertical passing game, establish the kind of defensive identity that carried the Badgers and bolster recruiting.
Finding Star Power
Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin coaxed standout performances from mildly recruited players such as linebacker Chris Borland and defensive end J.J. Watt. Finding those players is about talent evaluation and a little luck, but it’s also an inexact process. In other words, a two- or three-star diet in the SEC probably won’t work.
That’s why it’s crucial for Arkansas to improve on four straight years of back-end SEC recruiting (ninth or worse) while developing a few breakout players from the current roster.
Despite impressive defensive line play last season, the Razorbacks still ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense (in league games) because of the inconsistency in the back seven. Finding impact players at linebacker and cornerback will be huge, as if that weren’t obvious from LSU’s final-minutes win over the Razorbacks on an Anthony Jennings’ deep ball. These were the most depleted positions when Bielema took over.
In spring ball, Bielema was high on cornerbacks Jared Collins, Tevin Mitchel and Carroll Washington. The Razorbacks will return at least four impact upperclassmen in the secondary, and don’t be surprised if freshman safety Randy Ramsey plays early and often. One league head coach says Ramsey has All-SEC potential.
Middle linebacker Brooks Ellis and weak-side linebacker Martrell Spaight will have another year of starter’s experience. Otha Peters is finally healthy.
The defensive line is an advantage thanks to All-SEC candidate Trey Flowers off the edge and tackle Darius Philon, who had nine tackles for a loss a year ago. Those two can only do so much to aid Arkansas’ 25 touchdown passes allowed in 2013, second-to-last in the league.
On offense, Arkansas will need continued improvement from tight end Hunter Henry, who was productive yet erratic as a freshman with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Keep an eye on early enrollee quarterback Rafe Peavey, who might push Brandon Allen for starter’s reps.
Can the Hogs Go Vertical?
Arkansas will have one of the league’s best rushing attacks thanks to Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, each of whom could eclipse 1,000 yards this year. One problem: That’s about all the offense has right now, at least on paper.
Keeping more than seven defenders out of the box could be the difference between 3–9 and bowl eligibility.
Bielema is dedicated to the power-run offense with I-formations and play-actions. Alabama does this, too. Georgia does some of it. So does LSU. But those three programs have enjoyed stability at head coach and surefire top-10 recruiting classes anchored by 320-pounders who specialize in pancakes.
Arkansas might have a decent offensive line but not enough to offset the dearth of playmaking on the edge.
For four straight seasons (2009-12), Arkansas’ passing game produced a 3,000-yard passer, the only SEC team to do so.
Last year, Brandon Allen and his backups couldn’t eclipse 1,800.
Even the SEC is deviating from its traditional ways — most teams run a ton of nickel and dime defense — yet Bielema and Nick Saban still spin the oldies.
Allen’s 10 interceptions and a league-low quarterback rating (109.02) among starters of at least nine games suggest he’s not the answer. But obviously Allen aims to change that.
Wide receiver Demetrius Wilson was supposed to break out last year but tore his ACL before the season. He didn’t practice in the spring. Leading returning receiver Keon Hatcher could make a jump, but his 27 catches a year ago illustrate the team’s lack of depth. The Razorbacks need at least two receivers to emerge.
Collins is phenomenal. The running game will probably be, too. Doesn’t mean Arkansas will score enough. It needs more balance.
Reason for Hope
Mizzou and Auburn playing in the SEC title game was the best and worst thing that could have happened to Arkansas.
The respective Tigers vaulting from a combined two conference wins in 2012 to championship contenders the next reminded Arkansas that SEC teams, like in the NFL, can enjoy quick turnarounds.
But those two teams’ rosters weren’t Brazilian-model-thin like Arkansas’. Auburn had several top-five recruiting classes under Gene Chizik. Mizzou had dynamic playmaking and a stout defensive line.
Now, Arkansas fans might expect a similar ascension in Fayetteville, even if the rebuilding job is far greater.
A near-certainty is that Arkansas will improve. It has to win one conference game, right? A beast of an SEC West doesn’t help, but enough optimism exists for Bielema to sell it at booster tours and press conferences. After October blowouts by South Carolina and Alabama by a combined 104–7 score, Arkansas fought back. The Razorbacks had a chance to win their final three games.
When in doubt, play to your strengths — the offensive/defensive line and the running game. Then, develop a passing game, and Arkansas might have something.
That places the onus on Bielema to reignite his rep as a defensive specialist.
After all that, it’s still gonna take some time.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Each year, Athlon Sports produces conference and national unit rankings for all of the major position groups on the field.
Who has the best receiving corps — both wide receivers and tight ends — in the nation? Who has the best set of linebackers — both inside and out, 4-3 or 3-4?
It’s a fun and illuminating exercise that can help provide clarity when it comes to making predictions. Sure, wide receivers, running backs and safeties are important players but what defines a truly great football team — one that can compete for a national championship — is the line of scrimmage.
A great offensive line can mask issues at tailback or even quarterback. A stout defensive line can make linebackers look like superstars. The game is still played in the trenches and being strong along both lines of scrimmage is generally a calling card for most championship teams.
So, as fall camp is set to open across the nation, which teams have the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in the nation?
Note: There are 17 teams ranked in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive line unit rankings.
OL Rank: 2 | DL Rank: 7
Alabama’s strength doesn’t lie in the elite upside of starters (which is excellent) but the astounding depth along both sides of the ball. A’Shawn Robinson on defense and Cam Robinson on offense could blossom into superstars as just underclassmen and neither was a starter last fall. Steady veterans like Brandon Ivory at nose guard and both Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepard on offense give Nick Saban the best combination of linemen in the nation.
2. Florida State
OL Rank: 1 | DL Rank: 9
The Noles boast five senior starters along the offensive line, including three preseason first- or second-team All-Americans and four returning starters. Only Austin Barron is a new face up front for Jameis Winston. Losing Timmy Jernigan hurts the D-line but Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher form one of the nastiest groups in the nation.
OL Rank: 8 | DL Rank: 6
All three starters return along the D-line for the Stoops brothers and two of them (Jordan Wade and Chuka Ndulue) might not even start for the Sooners. The defense will be the best the Sooners have seen in a decade while the O-line continues to churn out big-time players. This unit is going to feature five upperclassmen, including four returning starters, and two bookend seniors at left and right tackle (Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams).
OL Rank: 4 | DL Rank: 14
The offensive line in Baton Rouge has been great since Nick Saban got to town and La’El Collins and Jerald Hawkins form one of the best tackle duos in the nation. There are no holes up front on offense. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco could also be one of the best duos in the nation, but Les Miles must replace both interior tackles on defense. The overall talent and depth of these two units should give LSU a chance to win every game this fall.
5. Ohio State
OL Rank: 20 | DL Rank: 1
Michael Bennett, an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American, is the only non-five-star starter along the defensive line for Ohio State. In fact, every member of the OSU two-deep on defense returns. The offense isn’t as lucky but is very talented in its own right. This group doesn’t have the star power it had last fall but it’s a veteran group headlined by Taylor Decker and former Alabama blocker Chad Lindsay.
6. Michigan State
OL Rank: 19 | DL Rank: 3
The defensive line is a proven commodity with national award candidate Shilique Calhoun anchoring things at defensive end. His counterpart Marcus Rush is another stellar edge rusher, giving Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi an elite pass rush. Center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin headline a veteran O-line that is one of the Big Ten’s best once again.
OL Rank: 2 | DL Rank: 17*
Auburn would have been fifth on this list if not for the crushing injury to Carl Lawson — who might be the Tigers' best defensive lineman. Even without Lawson and first-round pick Greg Robinson, Auburn returns four starters along the O-line and three out of four on the other side.
* - Before Carl Lawson’s injury. Auburn would have been No. 5 on this list if Lawson had been healthy.
OL Rank: 21 | DL Rank: 4
Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford bookend one of the nastiest defensive lines in the nation while three returning interior starters highlight the offensive line. The Tigers' O-line will feature five upperclassmen while the D-line is projected to boast four senior starters. From a talent and experience standpoint, few teams can match what Clemson returns to the trenches.
OL Rank: 6 | DL Rank: 20
How could a unit with one returning starter on offense be one of the nation’s best? Because David Shaw has recruited at an elite level up front along the line and that one starter, left tackle Andrus Peat, might be the nation’s best player at his position. Defensively, Henry Anderson and David Parry return to action with big-time names like Blake Lueders and Aziz Shittu poised to breakout for new coordinator Lance Anderson.
OL Rank: 17 | DL Rank: 13
The Bears lost some star power along both lines of scrimmage but Art Briles has recruited so well that Baylor still figures to be one of the toughest teams up front this fall. Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings form a dynamic inside-outside tandem on defense while left tackle Spencer Drango is a budding superstar on offense. This ranking is a major testament to the job Briles and Baylor have done restocking the cupboard in the trenches.
OL Rank: 23 | DL Rank: 7
End Cedric Reed and tackle Malcolm Brown form one of the best defensive line duos in the nation. And while the offensive line has struggled of late, new O-line coach Joe Wickline is sure to develop some toughness and tenacity on a line that returns a lot of big-time recruits. A kick in the pants is just what these two lines need in Austin.
Best of the Rest:
11. Washington (OL: 16, DL: 16)
12. UCLA (OL: 22, DL: 10)
13. Kansas State (OL: 14, DL: 21)
14. South Carolina (OL: 5, DL: UR)
15. USC (OL: UR, DL: 5)
The North Division of the Pac-12 has been dominated by Oregon and Stanford since the conference shifted to a 12-team alignment in 2011.
Over the last three years, Oregon is 35-5 overall and 23-4 in Pac-12 play. Stanford is 34-7 overall and 23-4 in conference play during that same span.
Washington hopes to join the Ducks and Cardinal at the top of the Pac-12 North, and after a 34-29 record under Steve Sarkisian, Chris Petersen is tasked with elevating the Huskies into the top tier of the division.
Sarkisian guided Washington to four consecutive bowl games and clearly improved a program that recorded five losing seasons in a row prior to his arrival. The Huskies went 23-16 overall and 15-12 in Pac-12 play over the last three years.
Petersen was regarded as one of the top hires of the offseason, arriving in Seattle after a successful eight-year stint at Boise State. Petersen went 92-12 with the Broncos and finished six times in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.
Replicating that level of success at Washington won’t be easy for Petersen. And the expectations of the program are higher than finishing 5-4 in conference play on a consistent basis. Washington rates as the No. 23 job in the nation – No. 2 in the Pac-12 North. With a renovated stadium, good tradition and fan support, the Huskies can climb higher in the North.
Petersen’s Job History:
2006-12: Boise State – Head Coach
2001-05: Boise State – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
1995-00: Oregon – Wide Receivers
1993-94: Portland State – Quarterbacks
1992: Pittsburgh – Quarterbacks
1987-91: UC Davis – Head Freshman Coach/Wide Receivers
Obstacles to Overcome:
Quarterback Play?: Cyler Miles is expected to be a breakout star for the Huskies in 2014, but the sophomore missed spring practice due to an off-the-field incident and is suspended for the opener against Hawaii. With a new offensive scheme, it’s important for Miles to get acclimated to new coordinator Jonathan Smith this fall. Although quarterback play should be a strength by the end of the year for Washington, how long will it take Miles to settle into the starting role? With games against Oregon and Stanford early in the Pac-12 slate, Miles is under pressure to perform right away.
Running Backs: Is there a clear replacement for Bishop Sankey on the roster? The Huskies may not need a back capable of toting 275 carries this year, but the pecking order at running back needs to be established. Will sophomore Dwayne Washington claim the No. 1 job? Or will Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper factor into the mix? How about redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman or linebacker Shaq Thompson?
Secondary: This group is the biggest concern for Petersen in year one. The Huskies ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last season and must replace three starting defensive backs. Junior cornerback Marcus Peters is one of the best in the conference, but safety Sean Parker and cornerbacks Tre Watson and Gregory Ducre have expired their eligibility. True freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly are two names to watch in the revamped secondary.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Offensive Line: This unit has been a source of concern in recent years, but the Huskies should have one of the Pac-12’s top lines in 2014. All five starters return this season, including guard Dexter Charles and tackles Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie. Having a veteran line should help ease the transition for new quarterback Cyler Miles.
Front Seven on Defense: New coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski inherits a defense that held opponents to 22.8 points per game last year. The Huskies return six out of the seven starters up front, including All-American linebacker Shaq Thompson and standout end Hau’oli Kikaha. Washington’s defensive line and linebacking corps rank among the top three in Athlon’s 2014 Pac-12’s unit rankings.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|Pac-12 Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects||Five-Star Prospects|
|* Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
This area will be one critical aspect of how high Petersen can take this program. Recruiting at Boise State and at Washington are two different challenges. Petersen’s first class at Washington ranked No. 37 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, which was the Huskies’ lowest recruiting haul since a No. 72 finish in 2009. However, Petersen got a late start after taking the job in December and managed to salvage the class after inking 17 three-star prospects.
As of July 30, Washington’s 2015 class ranks No. 63 nationally with only eight commitments.
It’s far too early to make any judgments about Petersen’s ability to recruit. Washington is a top 25 program with plenty of resources, and this coaching staff needs time to build connections. And Petersen’s job on the recruiting trail could get much easier if the Huskies win 10 games in 2014.
However, in order to consistently challenge Oregon and Stanford in the North, Washington needs to consistently bring in top 30 classes. Petersen knows how to develop players, but he has to bring in recruits capable of elevating the program.
Washington has recorded just one season of 10 or more victories since 1992. Could that change in 2014? The Huskies play 13 regular season games and should start 4-0 with non-conference matchups against Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State. The Sept. 27 contest against Stanford is a huge statement game for Petersen and Washington. If the Huskies win, they should be 6-0 heading into a matchup against Oregon on Oct. 18. Also, with home games versus Arizona State and UCLA, Washington has a chance to surprise in the North. Of course, road trips to Washington State and Arizona in November won’t be easy. It’s not unreasonable to think the Huskies can sweep their non-conference and Pac-12 home games, while beating California and Colorado on the road. That leaves road swing contests versus Arizona, Washington State and Oregon.
Washington is a program with potential. Sarkisian did a nice job of getting the Huskies relevant in the Pac-12 once again, but the school hopes Petersen is the right coach to take the program even higher.
Petersen was highly successful at Boise State, but transitioning from a job in the Mountain West to the Pac-12 will require an adjustment period. And even with Petersen’s strong track record of player development and X’s and O’s ability, recruiting at a higher level is a must in Seattle.
While Petersen’s run with the Broncos was impressive, can he do what former Boise State coaches Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins couldn’t in the Pac-12? Koetter and Hawkins both struggled to find success at a higher level away from the blue turf.
The pieces are in place for Washington to push for nine or 10 victories this year. The Huskies should go 4-0 in non-conference play and Stanford visiting Seattle in late September is a huge chance to earn a marquee Pac-12 win.
The Huskies have 14 returning starters, including one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the Pac-12. The question marks are few, but fairly significant. The secondary must be rebuilt, and quarterback Cyler Miles has to settle into the starting role.
Sarkisian is leaving plenty of talent behind, and it’s up to Petersen to capitalize on what’s coming back in 2014 and '15. With Oregon and Stanford both expected to lose plenty of key players after 2014, the door is open for the Huskies to make their move in the division over the next two seasons.
Vegas Expectations: 9 over/under (CG Technology)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-4 (5-4)
USC is one of the premier jobs in college football. With a fertile recruiting area in its backyard, combined with a strong tradition, it’s easy to see why most coaches would consider the Trojans one of the nation’s top-five jobs.
Despite all of its advantages, success isn’t guaranteed at USC. The Trojans failed to win at least 10 games in a season from 1989-2001. And the program has struggled to regain its place among the Pac-12’s elite recently, as the Lane Kiffin era ended after a 28-15 mark in just over three years. Of course, NCAA sanctions have played a role in the Trojans’ record in recent seasons.
After Kiffin was fired, Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim coach and helped to lead the Trojans to a 10-4 record. But Orgeron wasn’t hired as the full-time coach, and former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian was hired from Washington to guide the program back to national prominence.
Sarkisian certainly knows his way around USC, as the California native spent seven years as an assistant with the Trojans. Although Sarkisian’s overall record at Washington was just 34-29, there was noticeable improvement from a program that went 0-12 in the year prior to his arrival. Sarkisian won at least seven games in three out of the last four years and left after an 8-4 mark in 2013.
Is Sarkisian the right fit at USC? Let’s take a look at the former Washington coach and his outlook for 2014 and beyond.
Sarkisian’s Job History:
2009-13: Washington – Head Coach
2005-08: USC – Assistant Coach/Offensive Coordinator
2004: Oakland Raiders – Quarterbacks
2001-03: USC – Offensive Assistant/Quarterbacks
2000: El Camino JC – Quarterbacks
Obstacles to Overcome:
Depth: Scholarship sanctions have significantly reduced USC’s depth. At Pac-12 media days, Sarkisian indicated the Trojans would have around 65 scholarship players in 2014. Needless to say, an injury could be a huge setback to this team, as the depth on the team is razor thin. One area of particular concern is the offensive line, where a couple of freshmen could see time.
Playmakers at Receiver: File this as a minor concern for Sarkisian. Top receiver Marqise Lee must be replaced, but junior Nelson Agholor should be a candidate for All-American honors. But who will emerge as a No. 2 and No. 3 target behind Agholor? Is it sophomore Darreus Rogers? Junior George Farmer or freshman Steven Rogers?
Team Strengths for 2014:
Cody Kessler’s Emergence: Kessler had his share of ups and downs under center early in 2013 but settled into the starting role late in the year. Kessler threw only one interception over the final five games and completed over 60 percent in each contest during that span. Coordinator Clay Helton returns in 2014, and Sarkisian is regarded for his work with quarterbacks and offenses. Kessler should continue to improve this year, especially with standouts at the skill positions in running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor.
No. 1 Defense in the Pac-12?: It’s a close call for the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12 this year. Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, USC or Washington each could claim that honor. The Trojans figure to have a strong case for the No. 1 spot, as eight starters are back in 2014. End Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens could all push for All-America honors. USC held opponents to just 21.2 points per game last year and 4.9 yards per play. Depth is an issue, but the Trojans are strong in the starting 11.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|Pac-12 Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects||Five-Star Prospects|
|Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
Despite the late start on building a class for 2014, Sarkisian didn’t miss a beat on the recruiting trail. The Trojans signed the No. 11 class, putting USC’s five-year average at 7.6. USC has plenty of elite talent, inking 12 five-star recruits since 2010. And each class since 2010 has signed at least eight four-star prospects.
With scholarship sanctions coming to an end, USC can sign 25 players in 2015, which will help with the shortage of depth. As of late July, the Trojans rank No. 10 nationally in the 247Sports team rankings and have five-star recruits committed.
Over the last five years, USC’s five-year recruiting average ranks as the best in the Pac-12. The overall numbers aren’t there due to scholarship restrictions, but the Trojans have the best talent in the league.
Sarkisian inherits a roster capable of winning the Pac-12 in 2014. However, this team is just 23-13 in conference play since 2010. Getting elite talent to play up to its recruiting rank and maximizing the roster will be a challenge for this staff.
USC’s schedule is more favorable than its crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans catch Stanford, Oregon State, California and Washington State in crossover play, while the Bruins play Oregon, California, Washington and Stanford. However, UCLA has won the last two matchups against USC, and the Nov. 22 contest could decide which team wins the South. In non-conference play, the Trojans have a favorable path to a 3-0 record. If USC stays healthy, this team could be a darkhorse contender for a playoff spot in 2014.
Sarkisian’s 34-29 record from his tenure at Washington isn’t particularly overwhelming. However, he inherited a program coming off an 0-12 season and quickly turned the Huskies into a consistent bowl team. Was it fair to expect more of Sarkisian at Washington? Yes. But let’s also not dismiss the difficulty of the Pac-12 North, which featured two national title contenders in Oregon and Stanford.
Sarkisian’s expectations at USC are much higher. Consistently contending for Pac-12 titles and earning a spot in the playoff aren’t unreasonable goals with the talent available in California for the Trojans.
While Sarkisian didn’t elevate Washington into conference title contention, he has a chance to make a splash in 2014. The Trojans return 14 starters and play a favorable schedule. If Cody Kessler continues to improve at quarterback, the offense should take a step forward on the stat sheet. The defense is one of the best in the Pac-12 and should thrive under coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Sarkisian is working with a better roster and is at one of the best jobs in college football. Barring major injuries, finishing 8-5 or 7-6 in 2014 would be a disappointment.
Considering Sarkisian’s experience at the program and all of the resources available, his task is to elevate USC back into national title contention.
While he wasn’t the home-run hire some may have expected for USC, Sarkisian inherits a team capable of winning a Pac-12 title in 2014. And if Sarkisian can take the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship and an elite bowl, it will be a huge step forward in answering this overriding question: Is Sarkisian is the right hire?
Vegas Expectations: 8.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-3 (6-3)
Even in a year when Kentucky will have an uncharacteristically veteran team, the Wildcats will feature some of the top freshmen in the SEC.
Karl Towns, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles all could be impact players in the league for Kentucky even as they fight for playing time on the national runners up. Meanwhile, many other SEC teams are counting on transfers — from Division I and junior college — to keep them competitive in the league.
Florida is looking toward a transfer and the brother of a former All-SEC performer to keep the Gators atop the league. Alabama and LSU are bringing in transfers to play point guard in an attempt to push the Crimson Tide and Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
Our breakdown of the top freshmen, transfers and players returning from injury continues with the top newcomers who will impact the SEC standings.
1. Karl Towns, Kentucky
Kentucky may have been loaded in the frontcourt even without this freshman class. Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee all return, meaning perhaps Towns won’t be quite as prolific as recent Kentucky freshman big men. Still, he’s a 7-1, 250-pound center who can can stretch a defense. Towns was named the Gatorade High School Male Athlete of the Year in July, the second Kentucky player under John Calipari to win the award. Towns joins 2010 point guard Brandon Knight as a recipient of the award.
2. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
With guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison back, Ulis won’t be asked to score from the backcourt. That’s no problem. He’s much better as a distributor. As the Harrisons took time to grow into their roles as facilitators, the 5-9 Ulis already has that ability locked down. His vision will be an asset to another loaded Kentucky team.
3. Ricky Tarrant, Alabama
Transfer from Tulane
Tarrant will compete with freshman Justin Coleman for minutes at point guard, where Trevor Releford departs. Tarrant was a second-team All-Conference USA selection in his last season at Tulane in 2013-14. Tarrant averaged 15.3 points and 3.4 assists per game in two seasons at Tulane, needing only 66 games to cross the 1,000-point mark.
4. Trey Lyles, Kentucky
John Calipari may need to get creative to keep Lyles, Towns and the rest of his big men happy. Lyles’ natural position may be power forward, but he can also play small forward. Lyles, though, may be off to a slower start as he (and junior Willie Cauley-Stein) will miss Kentucky’s tour of the Bahamas in early August. Lyles is recovering form a procedure on his left leg.
5. Yante Maten, Georgia
Maten was a big get for Mark Fox as the Bloomfield Hills (Mich.) Andover product was considered a strong Michigan State lean in the recruiting process. Instead, Maten will head to Georgia where the 6-8, 225-pound power forward be a player off the glass.
6. Josh Gray, LSU
Junior college transfer
Sophomore forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin need someone to get them the ball with point guard Anthony Hickey transferring to Oklahoma State. Gray from junior college may be the answer. Before heading to Odessa (Texas) College, Gray averaged 9.6 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman at Texas Tech. He’ll be more than a facilitator, though, as Johnny Jones expects him to score in a variety of ways.
7. Alex Murphy, Florida
Transfer from Duke
Florida may have to wait until the second semester to add Murphy to the lineup. When he’s eligible, Murphy will be a stretch four and another transfer on a roster that includes Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech), Jon Horford (Michigan) and Eli Carter (Rutgers). Murphy is the brother of Erik Murphy, who averaged 12.2 points per game in 2012-13.
8. Antoine Mason, Auburn
Transfer from Niagara
Bruce Pearl isn’t the only interesting newcomer at Auburn. The Tigers at Mason, who was second behind National Player of the Year Doug McDermott in scoring last season. Mason averaged 25.6 points per game, but he took an average of 18.5 shots per game to get there. Auburn’s not going to be a great team in the SEC, but the Tigers won’t need to lean nearly as heavily on Mason as 7-26 Niagara did last season.
9. Cameron Biedscheid, Missouri
Transfer from Notre Dame
Biedscheid is another SEC transfer who will have to wait until the second semester to be eligible. New Mizzou coach Kim Anderson is counting on the 6-foot-7, 205-pound guard to be one of his leading scorers, but he averaged only 6.2 points per game during his freshman season at Notre Dame. Biedscheid will join Deuce Bello (Baylor) and Keith Shamburger (Hawaii) in another round of transfers for Missouri.
10. Robert Hubbs, Tennessee
Returning from injury
As the coach who recruited him left for Cal, Hubbs elected to stay with his home-state school. From Newbern, Tenn., Hubbs was was a five-star recruit out of high school but played only 12 games in an injury-shortened freshman season. Hubbs scored in double figures only twice and shot 30.7 percent in limited duty. New coach Donnie Tyndall will need more from one of the few holdovers on his roster.
On Saturday, Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams will officially be inducted as the latest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their legacies as some of the greatest to ever play in the NFL will be cemented with their addition to the ranks of those forever enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
As far as the present goes, projecting which current superstars will eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not any less entertaining (or potentially controversial) to conduct such an exercise.
With that in mind, limiting the scope to those who were drafted from 2010-12 (this year’s class obviously doesn’t count and one year is too small a sample size for the 2013 group, even for this), here is one football fan’s take on the most likely future Hall of Famers.
Class of 2010:
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans
Unquestionably a tight end, Graham has the opportunity to not only shatter records for his position, but also finish with numbers that compare to some of the most productive wide receivers of all time. A beneficiary of playing in a more pass-oriented league and having a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) throwing to him, Graham is at the forefront of the evolution of the tight end position. A matchup nightmare with his combination of size (6-7, 260), athleticism and explosiveness, Graham is averaging 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over his past three seasons. His future in New Orleans secure after signing a four-year contract, the numbers should only continue to pile up for one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-catchers.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco
A first-team All-Pro each of the last three seasons, Bowman teams with fellow potential Hall of Famer Patrick Willis to form the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. A third-round pick from the 2010 draft that also netted the 49ers All-Pro offensive lineman Mike Iupati (see below), Bowman has been a terror since becoming a starter in 2011. He has averaged nearly 122 solo tackles alone over the last three seasons, along with a total of 22 pass breakups, nine sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions. One of the most feared defenders in the game, Bowman will take on a new challenge this season as he works hard to return from the serious left knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) he suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle. Given his track record, toughness and work ethic, it should only be a matter of time before Bowman returns to his All-Pro form.
Mike Iupati, OL, San Francisco
Offensive linemen can be hard to judge when it comes to Hall of Fame credentials, since their contributions are not easily measured. That said, it’s tough to argue with the resume that Iupati has already put together, headlined by his two Pro Bowls and 2012 All-Pro season. A mainstay at right guard, Iupati has started every game he has played (60 total) thus far and has helped establish the 49ers’ running game as one of the league’s best. Over the past three seasons, San Francisco’s rushing offense has ranked no lower than eighth in the NFL. Everyone knows that head coach Jim Harbaugh loves to run the football and Iupati is a big reason why.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
A fourth-round steal, Atkins is a highly productive defensive tackle who has posted 29 sacks in just 57 games.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas
Back-to-back 90-catch seasons with totals of 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns could become the norm for talented wideout that plays for America’s team.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England
When healthy, Gronkowski on equal footing with Jimmy Graham as an explosive, dynamic tight end that gives opposing defenses headaches.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
Two-time All-Pro really has yet to scratch the surface on his immense talent and potential.
Class of 2011:
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
After taking the league by storm with his dual-threat abilities upon entering as the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, Newton finally put it all together on the field last season. Posting career bests in completion percentage (61.7), touchdown passes (24) and passer rating (88.8), Newton and one of the league’s stingiest defenses powered the Panthers to a 12-4 record and the NFC South division title. The more Newton develops as a passer the more dangerous he will become since he’s already a tremendous threat (5.6 career ypc, 28 TDs) as a rusher. There’s still much more work to do, but Newton has a chance to establish himself as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the history of the game.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Somewhat unknown as the Texans’ first-round pick (No. 11) in 2011, Watt has become one of the NFL”s most feared players in a short amount of time. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has earned back-to-back Pro Bowl invites and first-team All-Pro honors. A terror off of the edge, Watt has collected 31 sacks over the last two seasons, along with 23 pass breakups and eight forced fumbles. He makes plays consistently despite being the No. 1 target of offensive lines and protection schemes and has a motor that just won’t stop. He’s just 25, but any player that draws comparisons to legends like Reggie White and Bruce Smith is certainly worthy of inclusion in this list.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati
A three-time Pro Bowler in as many seasons, Green has become one of the most trusted and productive targets in the NFL. He has put together back-to-back seasons of nearly 100 catches, averaging 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns during this span. With great hands, elite ball skills, impressive athleticism and more than enough speed, Green is the total package when it comes to wide receiver. Whether it’s moving the chains, catching a pass in traffic, breaking off a long play or coming up big in the red zone, Green does everything required of a No. 1 wide receiver, and then some.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta
A broken foot limited Jones to just five games last season, but there’s no mistaking what he means to the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta traded a total of five picks, including two first-rounders, to Cleveland to move up and grab Jones with the sixth pick of the 2011 draft, and even just three seasons in, no one is second-guessing the team. One of the toughest covers in the NFL, Jones is averaging nearly 16 yards per reception and has caught 20 touchdown passes in a little more than two full seasons’ (34 games) worth of action. The broken foot has caused some to worry a little about how soon Jones will be back to Pro Bowl form, but keep in mind that he’s only 25 years old, is a physical specimen at 6-4, 220 and prior to the injury he was averaging a ridiculous 116 yards receiving over the five games he played in last season. Jones has the tools as well as the opportunity as Matt Ryan’s No. 1 target to post Canton-worthy numbers. And as NFL fans, we are the fortunate ones who get to sit back and watch him work towards that lofty goal.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Von Miller, LB, Denver
One of the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers and defensive playmakers, Miller has 35 sacks and 13 forced turnovers in 40 career games. Just needs to stay healthy (coming back from torn ACL) and focused (suspended first six games last season) to fully capitalize on his immense talent and maximize potential.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
Not afraid to speak his mind, Sherman backs it up with his play on the field and reputation of being the NFL’s top cornerback. A first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons, Sherman has 20 interceptions in 48 career games, despite opponents making a point of not throwing to whomever he’s covering.
Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco
Pass-rushing specialist has a mind-boggling 42 sacks in 43 games, but the off-the-field stuff is starting to pile up too. If Smith can get (and then keep) his act together, he could finish among the game’s greatest sack masters.
Class of 2012:
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
Peyton Manning’s successor in Indianapolis, Luck has been everything advertised since being the first pick of the 2012 draft. All Luck has done in his first two seasons is win 22 games, break the single-season rookie record for passing yards (4,374), earn back-to-back postseason berths, capture a division title and win a playoff game (in his second appearance). Compare that early success to Manning, who didn't win a playoff game until his sixth season (in his fourth attempt). Luck cut his interceptions in half from his rookie (18) to sophomore (9) campaigns while also increasing his completion percentage (from 54.1 to 60.2). Luck has all the tools needed (and then some) to not only be a worthy successor to Manning’s winning legacy in Indy, but also to eventually join No. 18 in Canton.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
Though not as heralded as first-round peers Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (see below), Wilson is the most accomplished quarterback of the 2012 class to this point. A third-round afterthought due largely to his size (5-11), Wilson seized the starting job in Seattle as a rookie and enters his third season as a Super Bowl champion. Besides the hardware, Wilson also has more wins (24 regular season, 4-1 in playoffs), more TD passes (52) and a better passer rating (100.6) than either Luck or RG3. The doubters silenced, there’s no question Wilson deserves to be mentioned alongside Luck and Griffin when it comes to the 2012 class. There’s also a chance all three could wind up in Canton together too.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
A tackling machine in college, Kuechly has continued in that vein in his first two pro seasons. The Defensive Rookie of the Year when he led the NFL in total tackles (164), he followed that up by winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. A Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro last season, Kuechly piled up a ridiculous 24 tackles in the playoff-clinching win against New Orleans in Week 16. That was just one shy of Brian Urlacher’s 26-tackle performance in 2006, which is the current record for the most stops in a single game (NFL didn’t start counting tackles as an official statistic until 2000). Whether Kuechly can maintain this pace or not remains to be seen, but he’s certainly off to a good start to putting together a Hall of Fame career.
Other names from this class to keep an eye on:
Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay
A first-team All-Pro last season, David has posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons while displaying a nose for the ball (5 INTs in 2013).
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, a serious knee injury stumped both RG3’s production and development last season. He still possesses all of the tools, both athletically and personally, to join 2012 draft classmates Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson as candidates for eventual enshrinement in Canton.
Matt Kalil, OL, Minnesota
One of the NFL’s top tackles, Kalil has the added benefit of paving the way for Adrian Peterson, the league’s top running back. Excelling in both run blocking and pass protection, Kalil has the opportunity to assist Peterson in his run to Canton, and vice versa.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay
One of the league’s most productive players as a rookie, a torn labrum shortened his 2013 campaign to just six games. A threat as both a rusher and receiver, Martin’s presence in the Buccaneers’ offense should allow him the opportunities to return to 2012’s level of production, provided he stays healthy.
Louisiana Tech is planning a one-game switch for its helmet design in 2014.
The Bulldogs usually wear a helmet with the state of Louisiana headlined by a “T” at the top.
In 2014, Louisiana Tech will wear a red helmet with a Bulldog logo for its red out game against UTEP on Oct. 4.
Here’s a look at the alternate helmet:
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 30:
• Throwback Wednesday: 2003 SI Swimsuit cover girl Petra Nemcova has still got it at age 35.
• The umps screwed up royally in a KC loss, and had no explanation for their gaffe.
• Scouts discovered some art school kid who throws 100 mph. Sounds like a bad movie pitch. Is he also a golden retriever?
• Price, Lester et al: A trade deadline primer.
• Clash of the Titans: The Cubs and Rockies played a 16-inning marathon, with a backup catcher getting the win.
• Orlando Bloom tried to punch Justin Bieber at a club in Spain. We're all Team Bloom, right?
• Why I don't gamble: Watch a poker player's horrific elimination unfold.
• Best news of the day (besides somebody taking a swing at Bieber).
• Watch a sharknado hit Citi Field in this clip from "Sharknado 2."
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Jimbo Fisher was only kidding, but the image he conjured during a press conference before Florida State’s spring practices commenced was colorful and plenty accurate.
When asked about the challenges of moving forward with a program that has aspirations of national contention every year, Fisher likened himself to his children, who seem to spend the majority of their time around him looking for something other than fatherly advice.
“They go to mom a lot, but they come to me for money,” Fisher said to big laughs.
Fisher plays that role when he speaks with FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox. It takes more than fine athletes to satisfy the appetite of big winners. There have to be facilities fit for the most exclusive country club — Oregon has a barbershop in its football building — donors willing to wield platinum checkbooks, and a support system capable of helping players with their classwork and the normal rigors of college life. The list doesn’t end. And neither do Fisher’s requests.
“I always have something for them, I promise you,” Fisher says.
It’s hard to believe Fisher would have to draw up a wish list at Florida State, but the Seminole program is not yet on a par with some of college football’s aristocracy, despite last year’s national championship and the Bowden heyday, which included 14 straight years of double-digit wins and top-five finishes, and two national titles. FSU is just now reaching parity with the best of the best in terms of facilities and has finally begun to mobilize its donor base to fund the program on a level that’s in line with its competitors.
Despite its huge success during the late ’80s and ’90s, Florida State is not found on the rolls of college football’s most tradition-bound programs. It didn’t start playing ball until 1947 and wasn’t even thought about beyond the state lines until Bowden took over in ’76. Without generations of alumni and donors to draw upon, and with a location that makes it hard for fans to come for games and stay, FSU has had to move quickly to create an infrastructure congruent with that of its competition. Doing that leads to wins, but it also convinces Fisher that Tallahassee is the place to stay long-term and end annual rumors that he is a candidate for whatever top job (say, Texas) happens to open.
“I think we have been behind,” says senior associate AD Monk Bonasorte, who was a standout defensive player for Bowden from 1977-80. “The facilities we’ve added have helped us.”
Last year, the Noles opened an indoor practice facility. By the start of this season, they will have new locker, meeting and office space. It all matters, even the ability to practice inside, which doesn’t seem to mean much in Florida. Snow and cold aren’t the issues in Tallahassee, but freak late summer and fall rainstorms are. So are hours of lightning that can prevent outdoor work. The new team amenities need no explanation, other than to say that premium high school recruits are savvy enough to know whether lockers are made of cherry or mahogany. There’s no barbershop planned, but it isn’t 78 degrees in mid-March in Eugene, Ore., either.
“Every day, other institutions are continually improving their facilities,” Wilcox says. “That’s what we have to work at on an annual basis.”
When Fisher approaches Wilcox or any other administrator with his wish list, he does so knowing that everything he wants is necessary. Remember that he fell out of the Nick Saban coaching tree, so his requests are made to create a climate that will allow him to compete with the Alabama sideline cyclone, and not just for esoteric reasons. Saban has set the template, and Fisher is following it. “If you’re sitting still, someone is going past you,” Fisher says.
One of the keys to the fundraising efforts that have supported the facility growth is the re-engagement of Bowden, who remains a living legend in the state, despite the program’s struggles during his final four seasons. Bowden’s decision to step out of the limelight during Fisher’s first few years was generous, but Bowden has moved back into the public consciousness and has been helpful in the school’s identifying some previously untapped resources and enticing them to endow the program.
The one thing that even Bowden can’t overcome is Tallahassee. Nestled in Northwest Florida, about 20 miles from the Georgia border, the state capital isn’t easily reached by most of the state. Further, because it isn’t home to much industry or many business headquarters, there isn’t a hospitality infrastructure that can accommodate thousands of fans who want to stay for home football weekends. It may sound ridiculous, but this is the first year in several that the Noles sold out their season ticket allotment. And that’s as much due to the arrivals of Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame as it is to the residual excitement of last year’s national title or to the growing affection for the program.
It is a testament to Bowden’s charisma that the Seminoles were able to sustain such overwhelming success for so long without the same tradition or facilities as the schools against which they competed for recruits. Personality went a long way at the end of last century. These days, brick and mortar — not to mention funky uniforms — are what draw top talent, and Florida State has taken the necessary steps to make sure that big-time recruits have no reason to look elsewhere. That also goes for Fisher, whose new contract, announced right before the title game win over Auburn, is worth $4.015 million annually and makes him one of the top 10-15 highest-paid coaches in the country. As long as he has the ability to mine the fertile Florida talent vein with the same facilities as do his rivals — and gets paid like a CEO — he will stick around. And Florida State will continue to win big.
“Different people take different jobs for different reasons, and you would hope the success Jimbo has here and the opportunities he has to win are enough,” Bonasorte says. “Coaches want to win. At Florida State, with the availability of recruiting and the kids you can bring in, you should be able to win.”
Even with all of that, Fisher’s going to keep asking for more. And Wilcox had better have his wallet at the ready.
This is going to get pretty expensive.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2014.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the top positions that must produce in 2014.
All eyes in Tuscaloosa will be on the quarterback battle, but the Crimson Tide must address its cornerback spot after struggling in key moments against the pass. Florida’s offense struggled mightily last season and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kurt Roper. The Gators need a big year from quarterback Jeff Driskel, but the supporting cast has to give the junior signal-caller more help.
10 SEC Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014
Alabama Defensive Backs (CB)
The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama’s secondary could be a bigger concern. The Crimson Tide finished No. 3 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 55.5 percent of their throws. Despite the No. 3 finish in the SEC, this unit was torched by Oklahoma (348 yards, three scores) and Texas A&M (464 yards, five touchdowns). Eddie Jackson was slated to start at one cornerback spot, but a torn ACL will sideline the sophomore indefinitely. Juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are the frontrunners to start at cornerback, with freshmen Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown expected to push for snaps this fall. With the turnover at quarterback in SEC, the cornerback position isn’t a huge concern for coach Nick Saban. However, this unit has to play better against spread teams and could be a potential stumbling block in the playoffs if Alabama meets Florida State.
Auburn Defensive Line
Improving on defense is a top priority this offseason for coach Gus Malzahn, but this unit has already suffered a setback due to an ACL injury to end Carl Lawson. The sophomore was expected to play a key role in Auburn’s pass rush, especially with the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL. With Lawson sidelined, the Tigers will ask more of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, along with sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Senior LaDarius Owens is penciled in at one end spot, and Gabe Wright could shift between end and tackle this year. Coordinator Ellis Johnson isn’t hurting for talent, but there are a handful of new faces stepping into new roles. The Tigers allowed 162.1 rushing yards per game in 2013.
Florida Wide Receivers
From 2006-10, Florida had six receivers selected in the NFL Draft. Since 2010, it’s been a different story in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t had a receiver drafted since 2010 and no wide receiver has recorded more than 600 yards in a season since 2009. Last season, Florida pass-catchers averaged only 10.3 yards per catch. Improving the offense is a top priority for coach Will Muschamp this year, and new coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with finding a quick fix for a unit that averaged only 18.8 points per game last year. Not only must quarterback Jeff Driskel pickup his performance for Florida to double its win total from 2013, but the receiving corps has to provide more help. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the top returning performer (40 catches), and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson are back after combining for 23 receptions last year. There’s certainly talent on the depth chart, but this unit has to provide more big plays, consistency and overall better performance in 2014.
Georgia Defensive Backs
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should provide a quick fix for a Georgia defense that allowed 29 points per game in 2013. The Bulldogs have a strong front seven, led by a linebacking corps that could be the best in the nation. The secondary is the main area of focus for Pruitt, and he will coach this unit in 2014. Shaq Wiggins and Tray Matthews transferred this offseason, leaving senior Damian Swann and sophomore safety Quincy Mauger as the only returning starters. Junior college recruit Shattle Fenteng, redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, converted running back J.J. Green and true freshman Malkom Parrish lack experience but could play significant snaps in 2014. Pruitt doesn’t inherit elite talent in the secondary like he had at Florida State, and he will need to mix and match in the fall to find the right combination. With the turnover at cornerback and safety, along with the performance of this group in 2013, Georgia needs its front seven to set the tone on defense. However, with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, the secondary will be under pressure early and often in 2014.
LSU Defensive Line
Make no mistake: The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent in the trenches. However, LSU ranked eighth in conference-only games last season by allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. John Chavis’ defensive front also registered only 15 sacks in eight league matchups, the lowest number for the Tigers since recording 11 in 2009. Junior Danielle Hunter and senior Jermauria Rasco should start at end this year, and both players should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. The tackle position is up in the air, as Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson departed after 2013. Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas are listed as the starters on the preseason depth chart, but freshmen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore should push for snaps. Considering the amount of athleticism, speed and talent at this position, LSU’s defensive line will eventually be one of the best in the SEC. The opener against Wisconsin should provide a good barometer test for a unit that has room to improve after 2013.
Missouri Wide Receivers
Despite the departure of Dorial Green-Beckham, the Tigers aren’t in bad shape at receiver. In addition to replacing DGB, Missouri’s L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas expired their eligibility, leaveing senior Bud Sasser as the No. 1 statistical option from 2013 (361 yards). In addition to Sasser, seniors Darius White and Jimmie Hunt are expected to round out the starting trio, with freshmen J’Mon Moore, Lawrence Lee, and Nate Brown vying for snaps. New quarterback Maty Mauk impressed in limited action and should be one of the SEC’s top passers in 2014. DGB will be missed, but the talent is there for Missouri to not suffer a dramatic drop in production. Can Sasser become the go-to option? Or will Hunt or White seize that spot? Although there’s talent, it may take a few games for Missouri to settle its pecking order at receiver.
Ole Miss Offensive Line
Thanks to back-to-back top 20 recruiting classes under coach Hugh Freeze, the depth and overall talent on the Ole Miss roster has improved. But the one area of concern on offense in 2014 has to be the line. Sophomore Laremy Tunsil returns after a standout freshman season and should team with guard Aaron Morris (back from ACL surgery) to form a strong combination on the left side. Junior Justin Bell is expected to start at right guard after making 13 starts in 2013, while Ben Still is penciled in at center. The right tackle spot could go to Robert Conyers, but junior college recruit Fahn Cooper could also factor into the mix. Even though the starting five could rank in the top half of best SEC offensive lines, depth is a concern. Freshman Rod Taylor may have to play immediately at guard, with redshirt freshman Davion Johnson providing depth at tackle. An injury up front could be a big problem for the Rebels.
South Carolina Defensive Backs
The Gamecocks finished 2013 ranked seventh in the SEC in pass defense efficiency, limiting opponents to just 15 touchdown passes and under 60 percent completion percentage (59.9). This unit must replace cornerbacks Victor Hampton (second-team All-SEC) and Jimmy Legree, while also dealing with extra pressure due to the departure of standout linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. Depth at cornerback is thin, and the situation could get more perilous if incoming freshmen Chris Lammons and Wesley Green fail to qualify. Senior Brison Williams is listed on the preseason depth chart at safety but could shift to cornerback. Sophomore Rico McWilliams (one tackle in 2013) is slated to start at the other corner spot. This unit is thin on proven options, which is cause for concern with Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia in the first three weeks of the season.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The Volunteers are starting from scratch on the offensive line, replacing all five starters from a unit that allowed 12 sacks in SEC games last year. Making matters worse for second-year coach Butch Jones is there’s little in the way of proven options stepping into the starting role. Center Mack Crowder made one start in 2013, while guard Marcus Jackson redshirted after playing in 24 games in his first two years on campus. The Volunteers hope junior college recruit Dontavius Blair can step in at left tackle, with junior Kyler Kerbyson and freshman Coleman Thomas in the mix to anchor the right side. This unit is young, unproven and inexperienced. Building a cohesive line will take some time, which isn’t good news for a team that takes on Utah State, Oklahoma and Georgia before October.
Texas A&M Defensive Line
All three of Texas A&M’s defensive units warrant a mention in this article, but we will focus on the line in this article. The Aggies allowed 236.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests last year and generated only 14 sacks. This unit has already suffered a few setbacks in the offseason, as end Gavin Stansbury left the team in July, and tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 247Sports Composite for 2014, and he will have to play a significant role. Coordinator Mark Snyder also needs freshmen Zaycoven Henderson, Justin Manning and sophomore Daeshon Hall to emerge as key contributors. There’s talent available, but how quickly can this unit find its footing with new faces stepping into major roles? With an opener against South Carolina, Texas A&M needs to find answers in the fall.
Other Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014:
The last Arkansas linebacker to win first-team All-SEC honors was Sam Olajubutu in 2006. This position has seen its share of ups and downs in Fayetteville recent years, and the Razorbacks enter 2013 with just one returning starter. Senior Braylon Mitchell headlines the unit after recording 77 stops in 2013, but Arkansas needs Martrell Spaight, Otha Peters, Brooks Ellis to step up this year.
Georgia Offensive Line
Three starters depart from a line that allowed only nine sacks in eight SEC contests. Center David Andrews is one of the best in the SEC, and tackle John Theus returns after making eight starts in 2013. The other three spots on the line are up for grabs this fall.
Kentucky Wide Receivers
This unit was littered with inexperience and question marks last season, and three newcomers (Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons) finished as the team leaders in receiving yards. The outlook for Kentucky’s pass catchers is better in 2014, but coordinator Neal Brown still needs more consistency from this group. Keep an eye on newcomers T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass.
Mississippi State Running Backs
Quarterback Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs with 829 yards in 2013, and LaDarius Perkins – the No. 1 running back in 2013 – departs after recording 542 yards on 137 yards last year. Junior Josh Robinson, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and true freshman Aeris Williams are expected to handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield, and it’s critical the Bulldogs get consistent production from their running backs to limit the wear and tear on Prescott during the season.
Missouri Defensive Backs
The Tigers return only one starter from a secondary that finished No. 6 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last year. Cornerback E.J. Gaines will be missed, but senior safety Braylon Webb will push for All-SEC honors, and sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson played well at corner in limited action last year.
South Carolina Defensive Line
The Gamecocks’ defensive line was depleted with the departures of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with standout tackle Kelcy Quarles. Due to the losses up front, coordinator Lorenzo Ward may utilize more 3-4 looks in 2014. A drastic drop in production isn’t expected, but the Gamecocks need contributions from junior college recruit Abu Lamin and sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English.
Tennessee Defensive Line
Much like the offensive line, Tennessee’s defensive front is in need of major repair entering fall practice. The Volunteers will have four new starters and expect major contributions from freshmen Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Derek Barnett. Sophomore Corey Vereen could be in for a breakout season.
Vanderbilt Defensive Backs
The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David challenges the theory that all rookies get better in a second visit to a racetrack.
This weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway presents a first for this year’s rookie crop: It is the first track — and I’m omitting Daytona because of the more random nature of restrictor plate racing — that the rookies and their respective teams are hitting for a second time this season. If you’ve watched NASCAR coverage at any point during your life, then it’s likely that you have heard about the wondrous advantages of a young driver seeing a track for a second time. It hangs in the air like a promise to be fulfilled; once these guys start returning to tracks for a second time, everything will fall into place.
Could there be a mental advantage associated with returning to a track with a race under the belt? Sure, but when dealing in reality, the notion of just wait until they come back is a silver lining without substance. Notable rookie seasons of years past indicate that the return trip doesn’t ensure better results.
The currently-en-vogue Jeff Gordon was a 21-year-old kid with a criminally bad mustache when he averaged a 16.1-place result, which included five top-10 finishes, in the 11 races at tracks that had repeat visits in the 1993 season. In the 11 races that served as “second looks,” his top-10 total dropped to two and he tacked on four positions to his average, a 20.5, across the span.
Jimmie Johnson scored victories in his first visits to Fontana (a track without a repeat visit in 2002) and Dover (he won his second race there as well, setting up what’s now a well-known love affair between the driver and the concrete mile track). He averaged a 13.6-place finish in the first visits, and dropped by a position to 14.5 in the return trips.
The results don’t always deteriorate, though. Tony Stewart’s averages in 1999, 10.2 and 10.5, were relatively the same. Juan Pablo Montoya’s in 2010 were identical 23.9 averages in separate 12-race spans across the same tracks. And there have been improvements. Denny Hamlin increased his average by six positions in 2006, from 14.4 to 8.4, in his return visits, while Joey Logano chipped 2.6 positions off of his average in 2009.
The rookie-year numbers (at right) for this select group of future stars indicates that results in return trips to racetracks are mixed.
Now, the average finish number is far from the be-all, end-all — it might not properly tell the story of an entire race — but to be in the highest possible position at the conclusion of the final lap is the overall goal of auto racing. In the case of the return visits during a rookie season, focus more on what the numbers are indicating rather than what the numbers are: The aura of the second visit is over exaggerated and every driver and team develops differently.
You can have proper expectations on the future growth of a young driver by peering into their past while climbing up NASCAR’s treacherous development ladder. Some drivers are fast assimilators — Stewart was, which might be why his first-year average finish splits were similar and Gordon was, which made his initial visits to Cup tracks so memorable — while others take time to grow into their driving identity.
Kyle Larson’s history as a quick learner — it’s one of the reasons I’ve often compared him to a young Stewart or Gordon — means that we probably shouldn’t anticipate a dramatic efflorescence during his second visits. This was clear last year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series when his average finish at the nine non-plate tracks that hosted two races each dropped from 10.3 in his first visits to 16.1 in his second trips.
Other drivers might be limited by equipment. Outside of Larson and Austin Dillon, the five remaining rookies — Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex — face the harsh financial realities of the sport in the second half of this season. Much-needed aerodynamic updates might be tough for the smaller teams to acquire, which could mean the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots has the potential to widen as the year winds down. Those same teams, at some point, will also abandon their starry-eyed Chase dreams and turn their attention to the 2015 season. This makes marked improvement during a second visit in the same season illogical in most cases.
The act of improving takes on many forms and regression might not always be what it seems. Don’t raise expectations based on a folksy tall tale. Guaranteed improvement the second time around at one facility, at least from a basic results standpoint, is a fallacy in NASCAR.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
CHICAGO — At first, Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t thrilled when Nebraska's sports information director put his name in the running for the featured player speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon without his knowledge.
“I didn’t want my name on the ballot at all,” Abdullah said during a small roundtable interview session Tuesday before his speech. “I’m terrible at speaking. Ironically, they picked me, so here goes nothing.”
He was being self-deprecating. Abdullah did just fine during his comments to hundreds of Big Ten fans and media.
Abdullah mentioned “capitalism” in college athletics as a reference to the ongoing unionization issue at Northwestern and the autonomy and cost-of-attendance discussion going on around the power five conferences.
Instead of dwelling on those hot-button topics, Abdullah focused on the advantages of being a student-athlete. Nowhere was that more evident than when he returned home to Alabama to find one of his high school friends, who went to college as an athlete himself, kicked out of school and facing a drug addiction. Another was in jail.
“These aren’t people I read about or saw on TV,” Abdullah said. “These are my friends. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room.”
Abdullah’s growth in Lincoln has been stark, he says.
By his own admission, Abdullah was “socially awkward” as a high school senior from Homewood, Ala. At a high school all-star game — at a time when Abdullah was still being recruited as a defensive back — he and eventual Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon struck up a friendship that would last into their college years.
Both were introverts, so they ate breakfast together all week. By last spring, they were Nos. 1-2 in the Big Ten in rushing and contemplating going to the NFL Draft. They talked it over and elected to return to school.
“We’ve been clicking ever since then,” Gordon said. “We talk all through the season. He’s a great person to know. We’re good friends.”
At Nebraska, Abdullah had no choice but to come out of his shell. Nebraska recruits nationally, so Abdullah arrived in Lincoln around a handful of players from all walks of life.
Abdullah will talk anything now. He’ll joke with reporters. A day before his speech to Big Ten fans and media, he joked: “Speech? I’m making a speech? Uh oh.”
But if you really want to get Abdullah going, start talking draft trends and running backs. No running back has been drafted in the first round since three did it in 2012. What does that mean for Abdullah and his pal Gordon?
“Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking,” Abdullah said.
A self-described film junkie since age 7 when his father filmed park league games, Abdullah said he watches NFL Live on ESPN regularly. That leads him to believe the days of running backs are coming back.
“Football works in fads,” Abdullah said. “This is the D-end fad.”
Abdullah sees tall, stand-up defensive ends and outside linebackers like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA’s Anthony Barr — both first-round picks last year — and sees his future. Those two players are built to rush the passer.
The answer? Abdullah says its the running back.
“Everything eventually comes full circle,” Abdullah said. “At some point, the NFL is going to come to the conclusion that the stand-up guys aren’t the best guys against the run. To beat those guys, you’ve got to get more running backs. It’s going to come back around to running backs in the first round.”
But just in case the running back pendulum doesn’t swing back to Abdullah in time for the 2015 draft, he’s doing everything he can to improve his pro potential.
Abdullah is a slippery back and tough to tackle. But he’s only 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. Even if running backs become en vogue in the next year, he’ll need to round out his skill set. He’s playing on special teams in 2014. He says he wants to block punts, return punts and return kickoffs.
If that makes him a Heisman contender, he won’t say. And what’s the point of projecting? Abdullah remembers last season’s surprises all too well.
“I don’t like to get caught up in preseason accolades because (Boston College running back) Andre Williams didn’t know he was going to win the Doak Walker award. (Oregon State wide receiver) Brandin Cooks as well with the Biletnikoff.
“You never know when it’s your time.”
NFL training camps are in full swing now and even though the games that count are still more than a month away, that doesn’t mean what’s happening on the practice field doesn’t impact fantasy football. For example, injuries have already made their mark, both in a good and bad way, which has resulted in some shuffling on Athlon Sports’ Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280).
From the “good” standpoint, there has been no more welcome sight in Foxboro, Mass., than a healthy Rob Gronkowski on the field. It’s still early, but Gronk appears to be progressing in his recovery from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered last December. There’s still plenty of risk when it comes to Gronk’s fantasy value, but the potential reward is enough to move him up in our rankings.
Unfortunately, the news has not been as optimistic in other camps. Running backs Vick Ballard (Achilles) and Kendall Hunter (ACL) already have seen their 2014 seasons come to an abrupt end due to season-ending injuries, while several others are dealing with other ailments of varying degrees. Regardless of the severity, these injuries and other happening on or off of the field (such as suspensions or retirements) have a twofold effect as it relates to fantasy. Not only do they potentially change the outlook for teammates on their respective teams, but they also necessitate numerous adjustments to our Big Board. And keep in mind that preseason action has yet to begin. More changes are sure to come.
Early 2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
(Last updated on 7/29/14)
|2||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||Shortest training camp holdout ever?|
|3||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||Says Vikes' O no longer "predictable."|
|6||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||RB||How long will Beast Mode hold out?|
|7||Jimmy Graham||NO||TE||TE and contract status no longer in doubt.|
|11||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Being brought along slowly.|
|15||Arian Foster||HOU||RB||If healthy, he should see plenty of work.|
|19||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Could be big beneficiary of improved O-line.|
|22||Jordy Nelson||GB||WR||Short-term future secure with 4-year extension.|
|24||Andre Johnson||HOU||WR||Appears to be on board w/ team's direction.|
|26||Randall Cobb||GB||WR||Ready to prove he's worthy of new deal.|
|31||Drew Brees||NO||QB||Wants to play 10 more years.|
|42||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||So far, so good.|
|47||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Team already down one back (Hunter, ACL).|
|48||C.J. Spiller||BUF||RB||Says his ankle is 100 percent.|
|51||Vernon Davis||SF||TE||Wants new contract, but he's in camp.|
|54||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||WR||Expanded role in Turner's O coming?|
|56||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||Added weight in the offseason.|
|57||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Played hurt last season. Bounce back coming?|
|58||Chris Johnson||NYJ||RB||Reportedly looking "explosive" in camp.|
|59||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||Don't forget he will miss the first 2 games.|
|60||Toby Gerhart||JAC||RB||Don't discount him as an every-down back.|
|63||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Looking good in his return from ACL tear.|
|65||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||Has yet to play a game and already on "Hot Seat."|
|74||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||RG3 likes what he's seen from Gruden, new O so far.|
|77||Dennis Pitta||BAL||TE||Healthy Pitta could be difference-maker for Ravens.|
|79||Knowshon Moreno||MIA||RB||Starting job may not be his to lose in first place.|
|84||Colin Kaepernick||SF||QB||New contract leaves plenty of room for growth still.|
|87||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Knows he needs to better this season.|
|90||Tom Brady||NE||QB||Healthy Gronk could mean return to vintage Brady.|
|93||Lamar Miller||MIA||RB||Reportedly already ahead of Moreno.|
|95||Cecil Shorts||JAC||WR||Expected to miss 2 weeks b/c of hamstring injury.|
|98||Kyle Rudolph||MIN||TE||Pending FA no longer after signing 5-year extension.|
|102||Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||QB||OL and WRs both could be better this season.|
|108||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||Will have 2 games to make strong impression.|
|110||David Wilson||NYG||RB||Got medical clearance (neck) to return to field.|
|111||Chris Ivory||NYJ||RB||Injured hamstring keeping him out of camp.|
|117||Shonn Greene||TEN||RB||Won't give up starting job w/o a fight.|
|121||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Reported to camp in great shape.|
|134||Christine Michael||SEA||RB||Lynch's holdout increases appeal.|
|136||Jeremy Hill||CIN||RB||Rookie off to good start in camp.|
|145||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Lots to like, but still a rookie.|
|153||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Will miss some of camp due to a bone bruise.|
|160||Aaron Dobson||NE||WR||Still recovering from foot surgery.|
|163||Marqise Lee||JAC||WR||Ace Sanders taking leave of absence for personal reasons.|
|167||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||No rookie under more scrutiny than Johnny Football.|
|173||Sam Bradford||STL||QB||May not play in first preseason game as precaution.|
|175||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||Off to sluggish start due to hamstring injury.|
|180||Jonathan Stewart||CAR||RB||Can't seem to shake injury bug.|
|181||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Hunter's (ACL) loss could be Hyde's gain.|
|184||Ahmad Bradshaw||IND||RB||Vick Ballard (Achilles) out for season.|
|193||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Says his foot (Lisfranc injury) is completely healed.|
|194||Geno Smith||NYJ||QB||Thinks he'll be a top 5 QB in 2 years.|
|198||Jace Amaro||NYJ||TE||Sustained minor knee injury early in camp.|
|202||Jermichael Finley||FA||TE||If he signs, he could shoot up rankings.|
|220||Jermaine Kearse||SEA||WR||Sidney Rice's retirement creates opportunity.|
|231||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||Has reportedly taken early lead over Manziel in camp.|
|264||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||49ers taking their time w/ Lattimore.|
|269||Allen Robinson||JAC||WR||Missed parts of OTAs b/c of hamstring injury.|
|279||Bobby Rainey||TB||RB||He and Mike James could battle for roster spot.|
Athlon Sports' 2014 Fantasy Football magazine is now available for purchase at newsstands everyone or online. The ultimate draft-day resource, this year's edition features 419 in-depth player reports, informative features, a 20-round mock draft, team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers and much more. Whether your fantasy league is head-to-head, roto, PPR or IDP, this magazine has all the stats and insight you need to help you get ready for the upcoming season. Click here to purchase you copy today!
In light of Ray Rice’s recent two-game suspension for his part in an altercation that ended with the decorated Baltimore Raven carelessly dragging his unconscious then-fiancée - now wife – Janay Palmer out of a New Jersey casino elevator, the NFL has been taking some well deserved heat from reporters and journalists all over the nation. The criticism has been rampant but warranted; it’s obvious that the league dropped the ball in disciplining the star running back. In an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Aldopho Birch, the Senior Vice President of Labor Policy & Government Affairs, insisted that the Rice decision, a punishment that essentially translates into a $500,000 fine, demonstrates that the NFL does not condone his actions. But Birch, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the rest of the league’s leaders are missing the point. Yes, the NFL is a business, but that does not mean that every action and transaction involving the league should be measured in dollars.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, a number of notable players were given lifetime bans for drug and crime-related incidents. But that was a time when the on-the-field action was more brutal, as was the iron-fist style of discipline that we saw from Pete Rozelle, who reigned over the NFL from 1960 to the end of the '80s.
The modern equivalent of the discipline seen during the NFL’s older days can be found in the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. Vick was suspended indefinitely without pay for running an operation consisting of pit bull fights that were accompanied by hefty wagers. The shifty Falcons quarterback went on to serve 548 days behind bars, but by Week 13 of the 2009 season, he was back on the field throwing touchdowns yet again. Simply put, if this is the most damning penalty levied by Goodell in his tenure, he has failed dramatically. The final outcome: Vick took a three-year hiatus from football for abusing animals and managing an illegal gambling ring. In any other profession, a fall from grace of this magnitude would be tremendously difficult to return from. But in today's NFL, money overshadows morality. Vick is a well-known character who can sell merchandise and put fans in the stands. The quarterback's treatment shows that the commissioner has been more of a buddy to players than a boss.
In a second high-profile case in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. In another case related to the mistreatment of women, Roethlisberger was accused two separate times of sexual assault, a situation equally troubling to the one that Rice created in February. But no one talks about Big Ben’s shady behavior anymore. He disappeared from the starting lineup for a few games and then returned to the field. That same year, eight players were suspended for the same length or longer for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
If the NFL cared about the concept of “integrity” as much as it would like everyone to believe, Roethlisberger would have been sidelined significantly longer than those eight peers who personally jeopardized their own health to gain a competitive edge, not the other way around. In handing down the suspension to Rice, Goodell wrote that the NFL “simply does not tolerate conduct that harms others.” If that’s the case, it should be reflected in the league’s actions; words are meaningless here.
Today, roughly 66 percent of NFL teams have at least one player on their rosters with a domestic violence or sexual violence charge on his record. The owners of the individual teams could care less about a player’s wrongdoing in the past; it's all made right on the field if you're scoring points. This is a despicable attitude but not an incomprehensible one. These organizations are out to make a profit and they need to field the best possible talent in order to do so, criminal or not. But here is where Goodell should step in. In his interview with "Mike & Mike," Birch suggested that the way the NFL determines discipline is “based on both the conduct and the importance of making the right message for the league.” The right message would be that domestic and sexual violence is inexcusable, but for men blinded by the pursuit of monetary gains, it seems to be harder to arrive at that conclusion.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will most likely miss the entire year for smoking pot, which is now legal in two U.S. states. All 14 of the other suspensions this offseason will have a player sit for at least four games. Rice will serve just two for incapacitating his wife with a vicious punch. You can see the hypocrisy in it all with just a surface-level glance. This is bad news for all parties involved, and a more ominous thought is that Rice’s peers have not seriously condemned him for his actions.
The league’s stance on the abuse of women is shown by its handling of numerous cases over the years. I would summarize it as so: if you don’t make us money, you’re on your own. To retired players who sue the league for fumbling the concussion crisis, the answer is the same. The NFL is willing to invest millions and even change the game’s traditional rules to preserve the health of stars in their prime. But for anyone besides the beer-bellied, jersey-donning fanatics filing into stadiums across America every Sunday, if you can’t suit up, your opinion doesn’t matter.
At some point the NFL needs to stop treating these conduct-related incidents from players, coaches, and team administration (see: Jim Irsay) as if they exist in a vacuum. All of these men are role models for young children around America, and if Commissioner Goodell had his way, the rest of the world. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. This accounts for more harm each year than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Each case is unique and so are state laws, but in the US judicial system, a conviction can bring a sentence of up to four years. For sexual assault, the terms are similar. However, Roethlisberger received a penalty of four games, Rice just two. True, these men were not convicted for their crimes, but neither was O.J. Simpson or Ray Lewis.
Currently, women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base, according to Scarborough Research, and 33 percent of viewers based on Nielsen data. To increase profits, the league must find ways for these numbers to increase organically. The NFL now offers pink jerseys and other feminine gear for those interested. But in order to truly reel in this potential fan base for good, the NFL cannot continue to treat women as though they are unimportant to the league’s goals. If it were not enough that women are people too, then I would urge the NFL to consider that women are fans too. As a member of society, the NFL is failing to meet its social responsibilities. What Goodell and the rest of the league office fail to realize is that if the league’s disciplinary policies are not remarkably transformed soon, the NFL's business model may fail, or at least be damaged mightily, as well.
As the NFL’s reach grows in coming years to cover new geographic and demographic regions across the globe, so will the marriage of the world’s attention and the influence of NFL employees and members. Sadly, for now the NFL can get away with having a reputation of condoning violence against women. But if Commissioner Goodell’s aims at expansion are genuine, the league will have to prioritize an ethical operating system over the quality of its product moving forward.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 29:
• This one's for the nerds: The 100 Hottest Cosplay Girls of Comic Con 2014.
• The 30 most ridiculous MLB fan tattoos. Regrets, they've got a few.
• Speaking of Toronto, the Jays' Melky Cabrera broke a winshield outside Fenway with a mammoth home run.
• Watch an amazing 41-shot ping pong rally. Anyone think ping pong isn't a sport?
• The Bachelorette picked her dude last night and then got outed for being kind of a tramp. I'm shocked, I tell you.
• A longform read about baseball's hyper-sexual bro culture. (Language alert)
• This Texas kicker's hair is a cascade of wonder. Harry Styles, he's coming for you.
• Watch a jorts-clad Japanese actress/martial artist break cinder blocks with her head prior to a baseball game.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Big 12 is home to a handful of intriguing names for 2014. Oklahoma has young talent ready to emerge at running back, including Keith Ford and Joe Mixon. In-state rival Oklahoma State has an emerging star in Jhajuan Seales at receiver, while West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley is a key cog in the defense in Morgantown.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Big 12 Breakout Players for 2014
B.J. Catalon, RB, TCU
After averaging only 20.9 points per game (conference-only matchups) in 2013, TCU’s offense was overhauled in the offseason. New co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham plan to increase the tempo and run more spread looks, which should help the Horned Frogs take a step forward on offense this year. There’s uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, but Meacham and Cumbie should be able to utilize Catalon more in 2014. The Texas native caught 11 passes and led TCU with 569 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season. Catalon’s 5.3 yards per carry was impressive, especially behind an offensive line that struggled to find consistency last year. Don’t expect Catalon to log 250 carries, but he should find plenty of touches on the ground and through the air this season.
Terrell Clinkscales, DT, Kansas State
Predicting what type of impact junior college recruits will have in a given season is never easy. For every success story, there are a handful of players who struggle to adapt to the transition. Kansas State has a strong track record of developing junior college recruits, and Clinkscales has a chance to push for a starting role in 2014. The Illinois native played in one season at Dodge City Community College and recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Clinkscales rated as the No. 10 junior college recruit by 247Sports. Even if Clinkscales doesn’t start, the 315-pound tackle will contribute as a key piece of K-State’s defensive line rotation.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Reginald Davis, WR, Texas Tech
Eric Ward and Jace Amaro leave big shoes to fill in Texas Tech’s receiving corps, and the answers for quarterback Davis Webb could come in the form of a few players. The Red Raiders may not have a dominant No. 1 option in 2014, but there’s still a lot of talent for Webb to target. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez combined to catch 114 passes last year and will play a bigger role in the offense in this year, while Davis is a name many in Lubbock expect to have a breakout year after catching 15 passes for 200 yards in 2013. He showed his explosiveness by catching a 38-yard pass against Arizona State and by returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
Keith Ford, RB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma loses its top three statistical running backs from last season (Brennan Clay, Damian Williams and Roy Finch), but Bob Stoops’ team isn’t hurting for talent. Off-the-field issues have clouded touted freshman Joe Mixon’s status for now, but Ford is a five-star talent ready for an opportunity to star in the Oklahoma backfield. The Texas native played in 10 games last season and rushed for 134 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. Ford never recorded more than seven carries in a game but rushed for 34 yards on six attempts against Texas and 15 yards on three carries against Alabama. With one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines leading the way, Ford should find plenty of running room for the Sooners in 2014.
Nick Harwell, WR, Kansas
Fans of MACtion will remember Harwell from his time at Miami, Ohio. The Texas native transferred to Lawrence after three seasons with the RedHawks and is poised to be the No. 1 target for quarterback Montell Cozart in 2014. Harwell caught 229 passes in three years in Oxford, including a monster 2011 season (97 catches, 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns). Asking Harwell to replicate those numbers with a young quarterback is unrealistic, but the senior is a much needed difference maker for a receiving corps that has struggled mightily under coach Charlie Weis.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.
Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor
While Baylor’s offense grabbed most of the headlines for last year’s Big 12 championship, the defense quietly led the conference in fewest yards allowed per play (4.7) in 2013. This unit has to be remodeled in 2014, as only four starters return for coordinator Phil Bennett. The secondary must replace three starters, including standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Howard played in 13 games in a reserve role last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. Opposing offenses will test the revamped secondary early, but Howard (an imposing 6-foot-2 cornerback) should ensure there’s not a drastic drop in the secondary this season.
Marcus Johnson, WR, Texas
Depth in the receiving corps for Texas has dwindled recently, as Montrel Meander and Kendall Sanders were suspended indefinitely due to an off-the-field incident. With Sanders (37 receptions) out of the picture, Johnson should have a bigger role in the offense. He caught 22 passes for 350 yards (15.9 yards per catch) and two scores last season. Johnson should benefit from the return of quarterback David Ash, along with a rushing attack that features standouts Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. Even if Johnson doesn’t catch 60 passes, his big-play ability will help Ash stretch the field in 2014.
Luke Knott, LB, Iowa State
Knott was on his way to a breakout season in 2013 but a hip injury sidelined him for the final six contests. Through the first six games, Knott recorded 45 tackles, one forced fumble and two pass breakups. The Missouri native was one of the Cyclones’ most active defenders in Big 12 play, recording 11 stops against Texas and 10 against Texas Tech. Knott is expected to start at weakside linebacker, and the sophomore should be one of the leaders in a revamped Iowa State defensive front.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
It might be unrealistic to ask Lazard to make a huge impact as a freshman, but the Iowa native is simply too talented to sit on the bench. Lazard ranked as the No. 11 receiver in the 247Sports Composite and caught 105 passes and 34 touchdowns during his high school career. Lazard should give quarterback Grant Rohach another weapon in the passing game, as the Cyclones already have reliable options in tight end E.J. Bibbs and receiver Quenton Bundrage. If Lazard picks up the offense this fall, he will play a significant role in the passing game for Iowa State.
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk’s big-play ability will be missed in Waco, but Baylor’s backfield should still rank among the best in the Big 12 this season. Linwood played in 12 contests last year and finished second on the team with 881 yards and eight scores. The Texas native recorded four 100-yard efforts, including 182 yards in the 41-12 victory over Oklahoma. Linwood should handle the bulk of the carries in Baylor’s backfield, but redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson, sophomore Devin Chafin and true freshman Terence Williams will all factor in to the mix. Linwood is a projected first-team All-Big 12 back by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is an imposing figure off the edge for Phil Bennett’s defense. The Pennsylvania native started his career at Penn State but transferred after a redshirt year. Oakman’s first game experience in college occurred last season, as he played in all 13 games, recorded 33 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Most of Oakman’s production came early in the year, including 3.5 tackles for a loss against Wofford and two against Iowa State. He only recorded 0.5 tackles for a loss over the final six games, but the experience gained by Oakman through his first extended playing time should be valuable in 2014. Expect the junior to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 this year.
Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State
NFL first-round pick Justin Gilbert leaves big shoes to fill in the Oklahoma State secondary. Gilbert’s presence was a key reason why the Cowboys allowed only 11 passing scores in Big 12 games last year, and coordinator Glenn Spencer is counting on Peterson and Ashton Lampkin to raise their game in 2014. Peterson recorded 24 tackles (three for a loss), two interceptions and four pass breakups last year. The Oklahoma native received plenty of attention opposite of Gilbert, but he’s likely tasked with defending opposing team’s No. 1 receivers in 2014. Expect Peterson to challenge for all-conference honors. Another name to watch on Oklahoma State’s defense: Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
With Aaron Colvin departing, Oklahoma is counting on Sanchez to be the top cornerback on a defense that should be one of the nation’s best. Most Sooner fans are familiar with Sanchez after a standout freshman season, but the Texas native is poised to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Sanchez started all 13 games, recorded 46 tackles and intercepted two passes. With Colvin on the other side last year, it was no surprise Sanchez was frequently targeted. However, he responded by defending 15 passes. Opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will likely stay away from Sanchez this season.
Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
There’s a significant amount of roster turnover for Oklahoma State in 2014. The Cowboys return only eight starters and lost 28 seniors from last season’s team. Despite the turnover, Mike Gundy’s team can still push for eight wins. For Oklahoma State to push for a spot among the top four teams in the Big 12, quarterback J.W. Walsh has to play with more consistency after an up-and-down stint in 2013. But Walsh should have plenty of help at the skill positions, as running back Desmond Roland rushed for 811 yards last year, and Seales is primed for a breakout year at receiver. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Seales grabbed 39 receptions for 571 yards and three scores. The Texas native is a physical presence on the outside but also has the speed to be a big-play threat for Walsh.
Rushel Shell, RB, West Virginia
Remember him? Shell was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and rushed for 641 yards and four scores during his freshman season at Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native transferred following the 2012 season and landed at West Virginia. After sitting out 2013 due to NCAA transfer rules, Shell is poised to be one of the top playmakers for the Mountaineers. The sophomore will battle with Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie for carries, but Shell has the most upside and talent among the running backs in Morgantown. With quarterback Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery, West Virginia’s offense could feature the run more in 2014. If Shell picks up where he left off in 2012, he could push for All-Big 12 honors.
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett will be missed, but there’s optimism in Fort Worth that TCU’s secondary is still the best in the Big 12. The safety spots are in good hands with Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and cornerback Kevin White is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014. Texada was a spring standout for the Horned Frogs after redshirting in 2013, and the Texas native should team with White to help the defense ease the loss of Verrett.
Dalvin Warmack, RB, Kansas State
In the last seven years, no Kansas State freshman running back has rushed for more than 400 yards in a season. Could that change in 2014? The Wildcats lack a clear replacement for John Hubert, with Demarcus Robinson, Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones considered the early favorites for the No. 1 job. Warmack is a name to remember this fall, as the true freshman could stake his claim for playing time. The Missouri native rushed for 2,223 yards and 29 touchdowns at Blue Springs High School in 2013 and ranked as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
Worley has generated plenty of buzz this offseason in Morgantown. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and recorded 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. And the Mountaineers’ defense may have to shoulder more of the load in 2014, as the offense – especially the quarterback spot – is a work in progress. With another year to develop, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Walk into any major college football facility and you will likely be greeted by some sort of massive trophy case.
Some are bigger than others, some are more stocked than others and some are featured more prominently than others. But every school has one.
Largely, they are used to show off former exploits and accomplishments on the field to future recruits. “Come to State U and you can win a Heisman Trophy.”
Yes, there are also bowl trophies in those same cases but the BBVA Compass Bowl championship trophy doesn’t resonate with a star athlete like an individual award can.
Who are the front-runners to win those esteemed and coveted national awards in 2014? Here are Athlon Sports’ preseason predictions for each of the major individual awards:
Heisman: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The odds are stacked against Jameis Winston repeating and the safest bet, should he stay healthy, is the Ducks' superstar signal-caller. Mariota has the numbers, the stats, the highlight-reel plays and a potential run at a national championship. Finalists: Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley
Maxwell: Jameis Winston, Florida State
The Heisman Trophy winner rarely gets the nod as “Player of the Year.” Tim Tebow was the last player to win both and only one defensive player since Hugh Green in 1980 has won it (Manti Te’o). The Maxwell is a nice consolation prize for Winston. Finalists: Melvin Gordon, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley
Davey O’Brien: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Part of the reason Mariota is the pick to win the Heisman is his athletic ability. While Winston may not repeat as the stiff-armed champion, he is still likely to be the best passer in the game this fall. Again, a nice consolation prize for the Noles' quarterback. Finalists: Bryce Petty, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley
Doak Walker: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
This class of tailbacks is absolutely loaded and a dozen of them have a legit case to be the Doak Walker winner. Gordon, who posted over 1,600 yards in a timeshare situation last fall, is the star of the show for an offense known for producing elite running backs. The outstanding O-line, easy schedule and Todd Gurley’s penchant for missing time pushes Gordon to the top of the list. Finalists: Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Davis
Biletnikoff: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
This is certainly a bit of a projection but there is little doubting Treadwell’s overall ability. He is a sure-fire, first-round NFL talent who is playing in an up-tempo offense in the nation’s toughest league with a senior quarterback. The production is there and one or two upsets over, say, Alabama or Auburn would only increase Treadwell's profile nationally. Finalists: Nelson Agholor, Amari Cooper, Tyler Boyd
Mackey: O.J. Howard, Alabama
Bama wideout Christion Jones told me at SEC Media Days that Howard was the best and most important player on the Tide roster. He is a freakish athlete, both physically and mentally, and he might be the best blocker on a team picked to play in the national championship game. Finalists: Nick O’Leary, Jeff Heuerman
Outland: Andrus Peat, Stanford
This team is known for producing elite offensive lineman and Peat might be the best of the bunch. He has the size, athleticism, production, team success and every other aspect to a resume deserving of being labeled the best in the nation. Finalists: Cameron Erving, Brandon Scherff, Cedric Ogbuehi
Rimington: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
Grasu plays for one of the best offenses in the nation, one picked to win the Pac-12 championship. He was named first-team All-American in the preseason this summer and that makes him the front-runner to claim the honor of best pivot in the land. Finalists: Reese Dismukes, B.J. Finney
Johnny Rodgers: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett has elite speed, quickness, burst and has proven to be extremely dangerous in the return game. The first-team preseason All-American return man will have many chances to post highlight-reel plays against top-10 teams Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor. Finalists: Ty Montgomery, Nelson Agholor
Bednarik/Nagurski: Shaq Thompson, Washington
Thompson is in a great situation to excel in 2014. After shifting to linebacker, Thompson may actually add running back to his already impressive resume. The Huskies' star tackler will post huge numbers for a team that could very easily be the story of the Pac-12 by season’s end. He has elite physical ability and won’t disappoint this fall. Finalists: Shilique Calhoun, Vic Beasley, Eric Striker
Lombardi: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
As just a true freshman, Jones proved he was worthy of his lofty five-star recruiting status. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder appears to be a lock as a future NFL star and should be virtually unmovable in the SEC West this fall. Watch for the Bulldogs to surprise some people based on Jones and a very stout defensive front seven. Finalists: Leonard Williams, Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory
Hendricks: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
There are a lot of great defensive ends around the nation but Calhoun could be the best. He makes game-changing plays (see three defensive TDs last fall) and he will be the star of what should once again be one of the nation’s elite defenses. A win over Ohio State and another Big Ten title would supplant Calhoun as the nation’s top DE. Finalists: Leonard Williams, Vic Beasley, Randy Gregory
Butkus: Shaq Thompson, Washington
Thompson is a tackling machine who uses superior physical ability to fly all over the field. He will be in most national defensive award races all season long and should the Huskies upset the cart in the Pac-12 North, it will be because of guys like Thompson. Finalists: Jaylon Smith, Eric Striker, Myles Jack
Thorpe: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
Much like Jones at Mississippi State, Hargreaves quickly established himself as a superstar as just a freshman last fall. He is the nation’s top pure coverman and he could play for one of the most improved teams in the nation in Gainesville. Finalists: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Landon Collins, Jalen Ramsey
Coach of the Year: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
This one is nearly impossible, as the Coach of the Year is rarely the guy who is picked to win the league or national title. Names like Chris Petersen, Gary Pinkel, Todd Graham, Dan Mullen and Bill Snyder could dramatically overachieve this fall. Freeze, should he lead Ole Miss to a nine- or 10-win season, would certainly fall into that category. Finalists: Chris Petersen, Gary Andersen, Dan Mullen
Freshman of the Year: Leonard Fournette, LSU
There are few names on this list I feel better about getting correct than Fournette at LSU. The superstar No. 1 running back in the nation will be running behind a great veteran O-line and there is little doubt he will burst onto the national scene in just his first year. Finalists: Jabrill Peppers, Kyle Allen, Joe Mixon
Frank Broyles: Chad Morris, Clemson
The top offensive assistant in the land has his work cut out for him as stars Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell have all departed. Despite all of this turnover, look for Morris to turn Cole Stoudt into an All-ACC passer and for the Tigers to push for 10 wins again this fall. Finalists: Pat Narduzzi, Mike Stoops, Justin Wilcox