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With a 74–69 win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden earlier this season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski passed his mentor and former coach at Army, Bob Knight, for most NCAA career victories (903). Krzyzewski says he is most proud of the fact that coach and player — Knight and himself — together have more than 1,800 victories.

Krzyzewski has been called “the modern-day John Wooden” by Louisville coach Rick Pitino and “a coach’s coach … a guy I think every coach in America looks to and respects,” by Kansas coach Bill Self. He has led the Blue Devils to 11 Final Four appearances and four national titles.

In an interview with Jerry Kavanagh for Athlon Sports, Krzyzewski showed an appreciation for literature in speaking about his coaching style and leadership.

Athlon Sports: The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “The excitement of something coming out right is its own reward.” Is there something of that satisfaction in coaching?
Krzyzewski: Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of that. To see how youngsters develop under your tutelage and how they continue to develop as men. And obviously how a team develops and how a game develops. All that stuff. That’s what makes it interesting.

After the U.S. team you coached in the 2008 Olympics won the gold medal, you wrote “The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team.” In that you said, “It’s beautiful to watch the transformation of a player happening before your eyes.
Absolutely, and it’s not just you helping transform that; it’s the environment. You’re privileged enough … it’s an honor for you to try to develop that environment. It’s not just you as a coach, but the people who are in that environment can help each individual. And that’s what being a successful leader is about: It’s creating that type of an environment.

You quoted the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What did you learn from past U.S. Olympic participation that has been most influential?
The very first thing was the familiarity of working with players who are considered some of the best players in the world. So you have a comfort level; you’ve done it before, even if it’s been at an assistant level. And you’ve been on that stage, even though it’s a different stage 16 years later because the world is a lot better. And watching Chuck Daly and how he worked with those players. I tried to bring all those things forward in 2006, ’07, and ’08. It’s different, but still we have some of the best players in the world, and really the most talented team, potentially, in the world, but against teams that are much better right now, who also have some of the best players in the world.

In the book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, the author, William Gurstelle, writes that managers who take the greatest risks are the most successful. Do you agree with that?
I think you have to be careful when you say that. Somebody might think that to be a leader or a manager, “I need to take a lot of risks, or else I’m not good.” I think you can’t be afraid to do what’s necessary. Some people would equate that to taking a risk because it goes against the grain or it’s not something that is normally done. But my feeling is that a leader has to take the course of action that’s necessary to produce a positive result after doing an analysis and preparing himself to take a look at that situation. The world might call that a risk; a leader would call that the appropriate action that needed to be taken. I think when you just take that one statement (by Gurstelle), you can make a mistake by saying, “I didn’t take a risk today. I better take one.” I think you go boldly in the direction that’s necessary and in the direction that you’re prepared to go in.

You often talk about leadership. Napoleon defined a leader as “a dealer in hope.” I read where you said, “Leadership can be lonely.” Can you explain that?
Well, leadership is lonely because you don’t discuss everything. Part of it is that in your moments of doubt or in your moments of being nervous or wondering if this is the right thing that you’re doing, you never want to show weakness to your group. And you don’t share that because it’s not the main feeling you have, but because you’re a human being these feelings hit you. Leadership can be very lonely, but there’s a certain amount of time that you have to be by yourself, it has to be yours as you’re looking into it, before you present something to your group. I think that’s a price that you pay.

Some of the statements you have made have an application beyond basketball. For example, “Fear can change you.” What do you mean by that?
Some people are afraid of fear, so they avoid it. They don’t try to do anything. They’re very cautious. And when you get into new situations, there’s an element of fear that can excite you. It can freeze you or stop you from doing something, because it’s new. It can be exciting, but there’s still some fear involved. And I don’t think that you have to face fear. You know, part of being courageous is facing fear and doing what you’re supposed to do. People have different fears — fear of speaking, fear of heights, a bunch of fears — and when you face those fears, you can turn them into your strengths. That’s how you evolve as a person and how a group evolves as a team.

Have you ever given any thoughts to politics?
No.

COACH K’s...
Vacation spot: The North Carolina beach.
Books: I love to read books about leadership.
Movies: “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart.”
Pet peeves: Lying, and people who show a lack of consideration.
Rituals: Taking a nap on game days and saying a prayer before every game.
Collections: Photographs of family, friends and memorable moments; wine.
Earliest sports memory: Organizing games in the Chicago school yards; taking the bus to Wrigley Field with my best friend, Moe.
Greatest extravagance: Wine collection.
Regrets: Luckily, none.
 

Teaser:
<p> An Exclusive Q&amp;A with Coach K of Duke</p>
Post date: Friday, February 24, 2012 - 07:10
Path: /college-football/tcu-horned-frogs-2012-spring-preview
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By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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

TCU Horned Frogs 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 11-2, 7-0 MW

Spring practice: Feb. 25-April 5

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Casey Pachall, 228 of 343, 2,921 yds., 25 TDs, 7 INTs
Rushing: Waymon James, 121 car., 875 yds., 6 TDs
Receiving: Josh Boyce, 61 rec., 998 yds., 9 TDs
Tackles: Kenny Cain, 72 tackles
Sacks: Stansly Maponga, 9
Interceptions: Two players tied with 1

Redshirts to watch: WR LaDarius Brown, OG Jamelle Naff, WR David Bush, OT Carter Wall, LB Laderice Sanders, OG Brady Foltz, S Jamie Byrd

JUCO Transfer to watch: CB Keivon Gamble

Early Enrollees: QB Tyler Matthews, CB Keivon Gamble, ATH Kolby Listenbee, RB B.J. Catalon

2012 Schedule

Sept. 8 Grambling
Sept. 15 at Kansas
Sept. 22 Virginia
Sept. 29 at SMU
Oct. 6 Iowa State
Oct. 13 at Baylor
Oct. 20 Texas Tech
Oct. 27 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 3 at West Virginia
Nov. 10 Kansas State
Nov. 17 at Texas
Dec. 1 Oklahoma

Offensive Strength: Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for the Horned Frogs in 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after a terrific sophomore year, throwing for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns. Pachall has plenty of support around him, as TCU returns three running backs with at least 700 yards last year and dynamic playmakers at receiver in Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson.

Offensive Weakness: While the Horned Frogs have plenty of skill players and quarterback Casey Pachall returning, only two starters are back on the offensive line. Guard Blaize Foltz and center James Fry are back to anchor the line, but both tackles and All-Mountain West guard Kyle Dooley must be replaced.

Defensive Strength: Despite the dismissal of tackle D.J. Yendrey, TCU should be solid on the defensive line. End Stansly Maponga is back after recording nine sacks and five forced fumbles last year. Ross Forrest registered 32 stops last year and should start at the other end spot. Jon Lewis and David Johnson turned in solid freshman campaigns last season and will be in charge of anchoring the middle of the line.

Defensive Weakness: Only two starters return in the back seven, and this group was hit hard in the spring when linebacker Tanner Brock and defensive back Devin Johnson were dismissed from the team. With the pass-first tendencies of most teams in the Big 12, the secondary will be under fire early and often in 2012.

Spring Storylines Facing the Horned Frogs:

1. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in Fort Worth this spring, as the Horned Frogs are on the move from the Mountain West to the Big 12. And TCU has the pieces in place to contend for the conference title in its first season in the league. The offense finished ninth nationally in scoring last year and returns five key starters. Quarterback Casey Pachall should contend for all-conference honors in 2012, while the Horned Frogs return All-Mountain West receiver Josh Boyce and three running backs with over 700 rushing yards last year. TCU has fought its way from being left out of the Big 12 in 1994 to emerging as one of the top non-BCS programs in college football. With coach Gary Patterson at the helm, the Horned Frogs are poised to make some noise in the Big 12 in 2012 and beyond.

2. Some of the energy and excitement with the move to the Big 12 was quieted with the recent drug scandal on campus, which resulted in four players being dismissed from the team. Linebacker Tanner Brock, defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey, defensive back Devin Johnson and offensive lineman Ty Horn were booted from the team after their arrest, leaving the Horned Frogs with some voids to fill. Brock was expected to be the leader in the linebacking corps, while Yendrey was TCU’s top returning defensive tackle. While this incident has been a black eye for the Horned Frogs, this shouldn’t affect the program in any long-term capacity. However, the defense will miss Brock, Yendrey and Johnson's contributions in 2012.

3. For the first time since 2007, TCU finished outside of the top 12 nationally in pass defense. The Horned Frogs’ secondary allowed 223.6 yards per game and surrendered 23 passing scores last season. TCU also picked off only 10 passes, and allowed quarterbacks to average 12.4 yards per completion. Considering quarterback play is stronger in the Big 12 than it was in the Mountain West, this group will be under fire to perform right away in 2012. Cornerback Jason Verrett earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors last season and will be counted on for leadership in the secondary. Junior college transfer Keivon Gamble is expected to contribute right away and could earn a starting spot this spring. Tekerrein Cuba and Johnny Fobbs are both gone at safety, leaving the Horned Frogs with some work to do this spring in revamping this group.   

4. There are few question marks about the offense, but the offensive line figures to get the most attention in the preseason. Guard Blaize Foltz and center James Fry is a solid duo to build around, but three other starters must be replaced. With all of the talent TCU returns at the skill positions and under center with Casey Pachall, it’s important for this group to jell. If the line struggles, it’s fair to wonder if this offense will match last season’s average of 40.8 points a game.

5. One of the most intriguing elements of conference realignment is the adjustment period teams on the move will have with their new conference foes. TCU has recently played some of the teams in the Big 12, but the every week grind is going to be much tougher in this conference than it was in the Mountain West. The Horned Frogs have a lot of time to study their new nine conference foes and are built to contend right away. However, developing depth to handle the tougher week-to-week schedule is going to be crucial for TCU’s chances at winning the Big 12 in 2012.

Related Big 12 Content Links

Texas Spring Preview
Very Early 2012 Big 12 Predictions
2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis

Athlon’s Early Top 25 for 2012

2012 Texas Tech Spring Preview
2012 Recruiting Rankings No. 2: Texas Longhorns

Teaser:
<p> What should be expected of the Horned Frogs as they play their first season in the Big 12?</p>
Post date: Friday, February 24, 2012 - 06:51
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/2012-daytona-500-starting-lineup
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2012 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup

 1. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 2. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 3. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
 4. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
 6. Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
 7. Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
 8. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
 9. Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
10. Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
11. Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
12. Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
13. Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
14. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
15. AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
16. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
17. Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
18. Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
19. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
20. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
22. Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
23. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
24. Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
25. David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
26. Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
27. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
28. Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
29. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
30. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
31. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
32. Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG-Daugherty Racing
33. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
34. Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
35. Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
36. Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
37. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
38. David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
39. Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
40. Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers
41. David Stremme, No. 30 Ford, Inception Motorsports
42. Tony Raines, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
43. Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing

Did Not Qualify: 09 – Kenny Wallace; 23 – Robert Richardson III; 37 – Mike Wallace; 40 – Michael Waltrip; 49 – J.J. Yeley; 97 – Bill Elliott

Teaser:
<p> The starting lineup for the 2012 Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 20:11
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/stewart-kenseth-win-gatorade-duel-daytona
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by Matt Taliaferro

As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.

Tony Stewart won the first race — the wilder of the two — that ended under caution when Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola got together on the final lap. Patrick’s car made hard contact with the inside SAFER Barrier, but she emerged unhurt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have had something for Stewart, who led 21 of 60 laps, on the last lap had the race not ended under yellow. Stewart jumped out to a big lead as the field took the white flag. Two drafting lines — the top led by Kevin Harvick and the bottom by Earnhardt — formed behind the reigning series champion.

As Earnhardt and Jeff Burton drafted in the low groove off of Turn 2, it appeared Earnhardt’s Chevy had the momentum to pass Stewart. However, Jamie McMurray made contact with Almirola’s Ford while battling in the pack for ninth place. Almirola then hit Patrick, who slid sideways across the paved-over “infield” on the backstretch, hitting the inside wall and completely destroying her No. 10 Chevrolet.

“It happened really quick,” Patrick said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest. Unfortunately that was not the case. It felt pretty big … I don’t know what it looked like.”

Patrick will start 29th in Sunday’s 500.

The win was Stewart’s 17th at Daytona, though none have come in the Daytona 500.

“The fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it's good momentum, but it's no guarantee, obviously,” Stewart said. “It's nice to come here, especially for Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I, being our first race together, to be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back to back is an awesome start for us.”

Robby Gordon (fourth), in his self-owned No. 7 Dodge, and Michael McDowell (fifth), in a Whitney Motorsports Ford, transferred into Sunday’s field by virtue of racing their way in via the first Duel.

Two other accidents in the first race eliminated the machines of Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, David Gilliland and Michael Waltrip. Waltrip will not race in the 500, as his Sunday qualifying speed was too slow, thus he had to race his way in through the Duel. Montoya, Menard and Gilliland are guaranteed spots but will go to back-up cars.

The second Duel was tame in comparison. There were zero cautions and only five lead changes, as drivers flew in formation for the majority of the event.

Greg Biffle’s powerful Ford started on the pole and led 40 laps. He found himself atop the pylon, leading a single-file, seven-car freight train, until Jimmie Johnson stepped out of line with three laps remaining. Johnson hooked onto Matt Kenseth’s back bumper and the duo made its way to the point as the white flag flew. Biffle threw a block, but the momentum of the Kenseth/Johnson draft was too great.

Biffle faded as a mad scramble for the second spot ensued in Kenseth’s rearview mirror. As Johnson and Regan Smith traded paint, Kenseth separated and drove to a .209-second win, the first for car owner Jack Roush in a Gatorade Duel in 25 years of trying.

“Jimmie Johnson just got hooked to me and was really good to me there and pushed me for that lap and a half and got us up in that position,” Kenseth said. “I was able to get a big run there and hang on to that.

“By the time I got to Turn 2 (on the final lap) I lost Jimmie and I have no idea what happened behind me. Then I was concerned about being too far in front and thankfully nobody was able to really get lined up and make a run on us because I was out there all by myself. I figured I might be a sitting duck.

Regan Smith, Johnson, Elliott Sadler and Biffle rounded out the top 5.

Joe Nemechek raced his self-owned car into the 500 via the second Duel. Dave Blaney, in a Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy, also earned a spot for Sunday’s race.

Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Biffle locked themselves into the front row for the Daytona 500 by posting the fastest speeds in Sunday’s qualifying round. Drivers that failed to make the race include Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson III, Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace and J.J. Yeley.

Teaser:
<p> Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth won Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 19:06
Path: /college-basketball/kenny-smith-talks-march-madness-nba-linsanity-and-more
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Athlon Sports sat down with Kenny Smith, who covers the NBA on TNT — along with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson and Co. as a member of the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA — as well as the NCAA Tournament on CBS. “The Jet” was a first-team All-American point guard under Dean Smith at North Carolina and a two-time NBA Finals champion with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.

With this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities — where Smith’s daughter, Kayla Brianna, will perform — and the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament around the corner, we get Smith’s take on weverything that’s happening in the world of basketball.

Athlon Sports: Kenny, how are you?

Kenny Smith: I can’t complain, any better I’d be kissing myself all over.

First off, tell me a little about the Coke Zero School Shoutout?

Oh man, this is great. It is giving college basketball fans a chance to enjoy more madness, where you show your school spirit for the NCAA Tournament by starting with texting to win. Up until March 10, you text “0” plus your team’s name to “2653” and you can have a chance to win free access to March Madness Live, which now you have to pay for, you can view games on your iPhone or your Android phone. Then you can go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com and you can have a chance to win tickets to the Final Four. A lot of prizes, a lot of giveaways, go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com, enter to win.

Sounds fun. The Final Four is in New Orleans this year, which happens to be the same place Dean Smith won both his titles. What do you think about these Tar Heels? Think they’re going to New Orleans?

I really do. Every year I think we’re going to win, but this year I think more. We have great guard play, we have great inside play and we have a great coach. Those are the three things that you need. So that puts us in the mix, man. That puts us really in the mix to win it all.

Do you think Harrison Barnes can take it up to the next level and carry a team to the title?

I think Harrison is right on track. He defends well, he rebounds well, he handles the ball and he takes big shots. He does all the things that you need a great player to do, so I’m excited to see what happens.

What do you think about Tyler Zeller’s NBA prospects?

I think Zeller has a great opportunity. He catches the ball well, he can shoot with either hand, he has great jump hooks, he runs the floor, and he can defend and block shots. How well he’s able to do it and of what magnitude is going to tell what kind of player he’s going to be in the NBA. But he’s an NBA prospect and player, for sure.

Kendall Marshall is the latest in a long line of great North Carolina point guards — you’re familiar with that. Where do you think he stands right now among some of the great Carolina point guards?

It’s tough to rank players. Everyone has their own era and what they’re doing. I think for this team, last year when he took the helm he showed the value of what Kendall Marshall brings to a team. Is that more valuable than what Kenny Smith brought to it? Or Jimmy Black? Or anyone else who played the point? Who knows? But he showed his value last year on what he was able to do and how we turned our season around in less than, what, five games.

Who else besides North Carolina would be your Final Four picks?

It’s tough to pick the Final Four, only because you don’t know where everyone is going to be seeded. … But Kentucky’s been the most consistent basketball team throughout the year. And everyone else has been good at times or great at times, but not as consistent. Even teams like Murray State have played great basketball at times, but they haven’t been consistent, losing games against teams they should beat. I think we have to play out this week or two to know where everyone’s seeded.

Speaking of consistency, this year’s Duke team is about as inconsistent as any Coach K team has been in recent years. What do you think the limit is for Duke this year?

They have a lot of talent but they’re young at certain spots. And I think that’s why you see the inconsistencies at times. But look at Florida State. Florida State beat both Duke and North Carolina. But you’re not going to say that they’re a better basketball team than either one of those schools. What Coach K is able to do — which I hate to say, hate to give him credit — and what we’re able to do at North Carolina, they’ve proven that they can win five games in a row, six big games in a row. That’s what you need for the NCAA Tournament. Not always that you’ve lost six games in the regular season. But can you win big game after big game?

Speak on Austin Rivers’ game-winner against North Carolina. That was a brutal blow. What were your thoughts?

I thought we had won the game. I was leaving the room because I had to go film NBA TV. Greg Anthony comes in and said, what did he say, he kind of said it like, ‘A shot at the buzzer!’ But leading me to think that North Carolina had won. So I’m thinking on the air that North Carolina wins and they were like, ‘No. No dude.’ Yeah, it broke my heart.

That was a heartbreaker. On the other end of the spectrum, how great has Jeremy Lin and Linsanity been?

He’s a great story; encompasses what we’ve all felt in our time. We’ve all thought that our talent was misevaluated. There it is. That’s Jeremy Lin. And at the same time, the fact that he’s Asian-American, so his ethnicity might not have gotten him where he needed to be. Oh, I can relate to that. He didn’t go to a powerhouse school. Oh, a lot of people can relate to that. He was in the D-League and got cut. Oh, people can relate to being cut from their job. So he encompasses a lot of underdog stories of a lot of Americans. And that’s what makes it fun.

People are making a big deal about Carmelo Anthony’s return. How do you think these new-look Knicks will play out in the next weeks and months?

First of all, let’s remember that Jeremy (Lin) is a point guard. And a point guard’s job is to make sure that great players and great scorers will be able to score. That’s your first job. Your second job is scoring and all those other things. I think that he will be able to do that and it will lessen the burden for Carmelo.

With a healthy Carmelo, the addition of J.R. Smith, the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire — do you think these Knicks can contend in the East?

It puts them in the top five teams (in the East) now, where before they were in the next five. They were 5-through-10, whereas this could put them 1-through-5, leaning more towards four or five.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to have clicked. Will the Heat dominate in the playoffs? Or will it be a struggle as it was last year?

The playoffs are a different animal. You’re not crushing through the Chicago Bulls. I think that those two teams have clearly shown that they’re the best in the East and we just have to wait and see how it develops.

As of today, who do you think plays in the NBA Finals?

Miami, Oklahoma City.

Now that Shaquille O’Neal is in the studio, do you ever give Shaq a hard time about your Rockets sweeping his Magic in the NBA Finals?

You don’t give him as hard a time; he’s got four championships now. But at the time, when it was happening, he had none. When I used to see him in the summers, I used to give him a hard time then. But now, he’s got two more championships than I ever dreamed of thinking about. So I can’t go at him anymore like I used to.

Going back to your days with the Rockets, where do you put Hakeem Olajuwon all-time?

Dream is in the top five centers of all time. And then once you get in the top five, it’s like picking oranges and apples. It’s just a personal preference.

Robert Horry’s Hall of Fame debate is a unique one, since he has more championships (7) than any player in history who was not a teammate of Bill Russell. Do you think Robert Horry has a substantial case to make the Hall of Fame?

I believe so. I don’t think that you can be on that many championship teams by accident, and be a key contributor. He was a key contributor on every team. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let me find the right team this year.’ He was a key contributor on teams that at times weren’t the favorite.

The 1983-84 North Carolina team, with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, yourself. If that team had fielded an NBA roster, how do you think that team would have fared?

That’s an NBA championship lineup, I believe. That’s the same type of talent that Michael had around him — if not better at certain positions — than he had with the Bulls.

What are your thoughts on Michael Jordan as an owner?

When he was in Washington as a general manager, part owner, I think there were a lot of players — we think about Kwame Brown — but I think there were a lot of players, Gilbert Arenas, bringing (Antawn) Jamison in and those guys. He was part of that. And they were actually a good team, and then he left. And then now, he hasn’t really come around and gotten the break that he needed in Charlotte.

It’s about longevity as an owner. I remember Danny Ainge, when people were ready to get rid of him in Boston and then all the sudden he makes a trade for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then they become the “Big Three” and become this great franchise again. It’s just being around long enough to make the right deal.

After the lockout — and Charles Barkley has touched on this — it seems like the NBA has too many teams. With Commissioner David Stern controlling the Hornets and the Bobcats struggling to put something together, do you think the NBA should consider contracting one team, maybe two teams? At least the Hornets, if they can’t find an owner?

No. There’s always been terrible teams (laughing) and there’s always been great teams. I remember the Clippers used to be terrible, they’ve been in the league a long time, and now they’re a good team. Everyone can’t be a CEO. Someone has to be getting the mail. And then you work your way up. That’s how business is, that’s how sports are.

Speaking of the Clippers, do you think with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that they team can contend for a title this year and in the future?

Yeah. They have all the pieces now, they just don’t have experience, but they have all the pieces.

Can the Clippers make an Oklahoma City-style run this year? The Thunder were young last year.

They were young but they’d been together at least one year. But the Clippers have all of the pieces you need. They have guys who can make big plays. They have great players. The only thing is that they’re small in the backcourt, that’s the only thing that could hinder them — especially since Chauncey (Billups) went down. They were small before, but when he goes down they’re even smaller.

What about the other L.A. team? What are the Lakers up to right now?

We have to wait and see if there’s going to be any trades. But when you have Kobe Bryant and those two giants, with (Pau) Gasol and (Andrew) Bynum, that’s going to put you in contention without even hesitation.

Do you think Dwight Howard is eventually an L.A. Laker? Whether it’s this year or as a free agent?

That’s a tough call. The only one who knows that question is Dwight. And I would guarantee that even he doesn’t know that right now, because there are multiple suitors and multiple situations that are appealing to him. And if the Orlando Magic make one great trade, the best situation would be to stay home — if they make one great acquisition before the trade deadline.

It’s All-Star Weekend and I have to thank you, as the Commissioner of the NBA Rising Stars draft, for adding Jeremy Lin. Was that a unilateral decision by Kenny Smith?

That’s what I wanted to see, so I made it happen.

Did you talk to Commissioner Stern? How did that work?

I put in a request and the request was met.

Who do you think had the edge in the Rising Stars draft, Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal?

On paper, Shaq’s team is probably more appealing. But I don’t think Blake Griffin is going to play a lot of minutes. That’s why I would lean to Charles’ team.

How do you think Charles Barkley would fare as an NBA general manager?

Charles knows the game. You can’t hide it and be on television 12 years. You can say outlandish things but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Charles would make great decisions as a general manager. The only problem is, his tongue would get him in trouble, telling people how he feels throughout the year. He’d get fined a lot.

All right. EnjoyMoreMadness.com is the website for the Coke Zero School Shout Out?

EnjoyMoreMadness.com.

Thanks, Kenny. Good luck to your Tar Heels.

Teaser:
<p> Inside the NBA on TNT and NCAA Tournament on CBS analyst Kenny Smith talks March Madness, NBA Linsanity, North Carolina Tar Heels basketball, Jeremy Lin, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Coke Zero and More.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 16:49
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketball-weekend-tap
Body:

COLLEGE BASKETBALL
WEEKEND ON TAP

The regular season is winding down. Every game counts. Here's a look at the key games this weekend. 

Saturday, Feb. 25

Vanderbilt at Kentucky
The Commodores threw a scare into Kentucky in Nashville — they led by four points late in the second half — but had no answer for the Wildcats’ defense down the stretch.

Notre Dame at St. John’s
Notre Dame’s incredible run in the Big East has included four straight wins on the road — three by four points or less. This team is playing with a ton of confidence.

LSU at Ole Miss
LSU has won four straight and is above .500 in the SEC for the first time this season. The Tigers need to win their final three regular-season games to be in the discussion for an at-large bid.

UCLA at Arizona
Arizona is a team that cannot afford any bad losses — and losing to UCLA at home would be a bad loss.

Florida at Georgia
The Gators’ struggles on the road appear to be a thing of the past. Georgia will need to shoot very well to keep this one close.

NC State at Clemson
The Wolfpack are in desperate need of some good wins away from home. Clemson is always a tough out at Littlejohn Coliseum. This is a huge game for NC State.

Rutgers at Seton Hall
Seton Hall solidified its NCAA Tournament resume with a convincing win over Georgetown. This weekend, the Hall will be looking to complete the season sweep vs. in-state rival Rutgers.

Penn at Harvard
With home dates vs. Princeton (Friday night) and Penn, this is a huge week for Harvard, which is closing in on its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946.

North Carolina at Virginia
Virginia’s NCAA Tournament résumé is solid; the Cavs have an opportunity to improve their seed with a win over North Carolina.

Missouri at Kansas
It doesn’t get any better than this: Two hated rivals meeting for the final time (we think) in one of the great settings in college basketball with a conference title on the line.

Memphis at Marshall
Memphis is still in good shape, but the Tigers took a step back with a loss at home to UTEP over the weekend. Marshall is good enough to win this game.

Belmont at Mercer
This regular-season finale in the A-Sun figures to be a preview of the league tournament title game, which will played on Mercer’s home floor one week later.

Purdue at Michigan
This is far from a must-win for Purdue, but the Boilermakers will greatly enhance their at-large chances with a win in Ann Arbor.

Mississippi State at Alabama
Mississippi State has lost four straight to dip under .500 in the SEC. The Bulldogs’ RPI is 60, and they are ranked 78th in KenPom. They could really use a win in Tuscaloosa.

Syracuse at Connecticut
The defending national champs stopped the bleeding with the win at Villanova on Monday, but we’re not quite ready to say the Huskies’ ship has been righted.

Colorado State at San Diego State
The Rams are feeling pretty good about themselves after beating New Mexico at home earlier this week. If they can steal a win at San Diego, it will be time to seriously consider them for an at-large invite.

Saint Mary’s at San Francisco
The Gaels are struggling at the wrong time of the year. San Francisco has been tough at home down the stretch. The Dons lost by one to BYU then bounced back to beat Gonzaga.

Sunday, Feb. 26

Cincinnati at South Florida
South Florida has already secured its first-ever winning season in Big East play. Now, the Bulls are focused on beefing up their at-large profile.

Indiana at Minnesota
With wins over Kentucky and Ohio State, the Hoosiers are in no danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. But Tom Crean would like to see his team play better away from home.

Pittsburgh at Louisville
Barring a miracle run in the Big East Tournament, Pittsburgh will miss the NCAAs for the first time since 2001.

Wisconsin at Ohio State
The Buckeyes won ugly in Madison, 58–52, earlier this month. They’d love to open things up and get this game in the 70s.

Florida State at Miami (Fla.)
This is huge game for both teams. The Noles are still in the hunt for the ACC title, while the Canes need another quality win on their résumé.

Iowa at Illinois
Illinois has wins over two top-five teams (Ohio State, Michigan State), but the Fighting Illini have played their way off the bubble (on the wrong side) with an epic late-season collapse.
  

Teaser:
<p> Here's a look at the top games on the college basketball schedule this weekend.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 15:55
Path: /columns/garage-talk/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-daytona
Body:

by Jay Pennell

Sunday’s running of the 54th annual Daytona 500 begins the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it also marks the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR fantasy racing season. Fans across the land will be preparing their teams week-in and week-out, hoping to celebrate with a championship of their own at season’s end.

As the 2012 fantasy racing season gets underway, I wish you the best of luck. I will attempt to bring you the best advice and updates on a weekly basis throughout the year, providing information that will help you determine which drivers to start, which to avoid and which to keep an eye on.

With the rule changes put in place by NASCAR during the offseason and throughout Speedweeks, the “pack is back” at Daytona. No longer will drivers rely on another car for the entirety of the 500-mile event, instead they will be more in control of their destiny to work their way through the giant, 30-car snarling packs, akin to the “traditional” restrictor-plate races that have drawn some fans’ ire, yet always deliver on excitement.

This is a change for many that have become accustomed to tandem racing on the plate tracks, but is a welcomed sight to this week’s fantasy favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 2004 Daytona 500 champion has not enjoyed the same success during the tandem drafting era of restrictor-plate racing as he did in the “pack racing years,” when he won a total of seven points-paying races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.

Earnhardt admits that he “never felt really great about” about the tandems, and that was never more evident than in last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson hung around the back of the pack until the end. By the time the two attempted to make their charge, it was too late. Earnhardt finished 25th that day and vowed to never use that strategy again.

However, with pack racing back, Earnhardt says he feels “more confident” and has a better ability to formulate a plan to get to the front at the end. Expect the perennial fan-favorite to dice it up in the pack throughout the entire race (see: the 2010 Daytona 500) and be a factor in the final laps.

“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I don’t waste a minute of the day doing that.”

While Earnhardt may be the favorite for Sunday’s win, my safe-bet pick for the week is 2009 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver was strong throughout Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, coming back into contention after sustaining damage in an early-race incident. In addition to his calm, cool and collected driving style, Kenseth also has the advantage of Ford power under the hood of his No. 17 car.

Throughout Speedweeks, the Fords have once again shown they are able to stay cooler longer while tucked behind another car in the tandem draft. And while pack racing will rule 95 percent of the day at Daytona, the final laps of Sunday’s race will see drivers pairing up in pairs once again, throwing caution — and water temperatures — to the wind in an attempt to drive to the win.

When drivers partner up at the finish, expect Kenseth to be among those at the front with a bevy of teammates (and quasi-teammates) — think Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Gilliland — from which to choose.

My dark horse pick of the week is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. While the 21-year-old has had a poor record in the Daytona 500 in his first three attempts (average finish: 28.6) , I feel the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a factor throughout the day.

Before being involved in one of the three “Big Ones” in the Bud Shootout, Logano was among the strongest cars in the field. Despite his relative inexperience with pack racing, he looked at ease in the middle of the pack and had the ability to move to the front. And his teammates’ seeming unwillingness to work with one another — when was the last time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch actually assisted one another on-track? — means Logano will serve as the perfect dancing partner.

In addition, Logano enters his first year without veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who moved to Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. While the loss of a two-time, championship-winning crew chief would seem detrimental to most teams, it may by the opposite for Logano. For the first time in his young career, he truly feels the team is his own. With Zipadelli calling the shots up until now, Logano was living in the shadow (and accomplishments) of former driver Tony Stewart. Now that Zipadelli has moved on, Logano, believe it or not, is the leader of his own team. And JGR’s veteran Nationwide Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, should fill the vacated head wrench role nicely.

While he may not win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, I fully expect Logano to score a solid finish — and provide ample fantasy points.

Momentum is a powerful thing in NASCAR, and as the season goes on I wish you all the best of luck. I encourage your feedback and comments, and apologize in advance if my observations do not pan out (a timely “Big One” can easily knock out an entire fantasy roster). If I could predict the future, I think I’d live in Las Vegas and be a lot richer …

Here’s to a great 2012 season for NASCAR, the competitors, and the fantasy racing participants.

Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayPennell

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell examines favorites, steady plays and dark horse picks for your fantasy NASCAR team as the season opens with the Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 10:48
Path: /college-football/2012-recruiting-rankings-no-16-clemson-tigers
Body:

-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

No. 16: Clemson Tigers (20 total signees)

ACC Rank: 3rd
Athlon Consensus 100 Signees: 3
National Signees: 7

Where They Got 'Em:

The Palmetto State is extremely territorial. There are South Carolina areas and Clemson areas that normally follow party lines when it comes to recruiting. The Gameocks have shaken that standard up with the likes of Marcus Lattimore of late. However, the Tigers have countered with a tremendous influence in the state of Florida.

That said, the Carolinas will always be key for Clemson recruiting, and that is obviously not lost on Dabo Swinney. The Tigers signed 15 players (11 from South Carolina, four from North Carolina) from the two states, including two of the top six in each state. There were 13 nationally rated prospects from the Carolinas this cycle and Clemson inked four of them.

The top-rated player in this class, Travis Blanks, comes to Clemson from the Sunshine State and only further indicates the Tigers' power in the talent-rich state of Florida. Swinney also signed two from New York, including the top player in the state (quarterback Chad Kelly). One each from Tennessee and Arkansas round out the 20-man haul.

Areas of Focus:

First and foremost, Swinney did an outstanding job of getting nearly half of his class to enroll early. Missing the senior prom or graduation might be a tough pill to swallow for 17-year-olds and parents, but for football fans, having nearly half of a top-20 recruiting class participate in spring practice is invaluable. The Tigers enrolled eight prospects in January, and by the time summer camp opens, they will be nearly sophomores.

More importantly was who enrolled. The offensive line class for Clemson was outstanding as Swinney focused on restocking his offensive front. Four of his five OL signees are already on campus, working in the weight room and learning the play calls, including both nationally rated prospects Jay Guillermo and Patrick DeStefano. DeStefano has the bloodlines to be a great ACC player as his father played at Duke in the late '70s, while Guillermo is listed as the No. 1 center prospect in the nation by the mothership. Prep school tackle Isaiah Battle should be prepared to contribute early on as well after a year at Blue Ridge School.

Additionally, the top-rated player in this class, defensive back Travis Blanks, is also already enrolled in class. One of the top defensive backs in the state of Florida leads a deep secondary class that could feature four safeties. Blanks missed some time due to injury as a senior but proved he could be a playmaker all over the field with 104 tackles on defense to go with 35 receptions and eight touchdowns on offense as a junior. This is an incredibly versatile group, so don't be surprised if one or more end up at linebacker or even wide receiver.

Speaking of wide receiver, the No. 2-rated player in this class is wideout Germone Hopper. The dynamic all-purpose player rushed for over 4,000 yards and 50 scores in his prep career — finishing as Philip O. Berry's all-time leading rusher. He also could make a big impact on special teams as a kick and punt return specialist.

Getting him — and all of those other stellar current Clemson wideouts — the ball will be the nephew of a Hall of Famer. The No. 6-rated quarterback in the entire nation, Chad Kelly, has former Buffalo Bills' four-time Super Bowl starter Jim Kelly as an uncle. The dual-threat tore up the Empire State to the tune of 3,050 yards passing, 991 yards rushing and 41 total touchdowns. He led his team to back-to-back state championships and will be a perfect fit for coordinator Chad Morris' spread scheme.

New defensive coordinator Brent Venables should also be exicted about the incoming defensive line class. Big nose tackle Carlos Watkins, after 29 sacks over his final two prep seasons, spearheads a solid five-man D-Line group. Nationally rated end Shaq Lawson is the top edge rusher after 199 tackles — including 23 tackles for a loss in 2011 — and 22 sacks over his final two high school seasons. Massive early enrollee Kevin Dodd (6-5, 280) adds immediate depth. This is a powerful fivesome that should help rebuild the Tigers defensive line in short order.

Running back Zac Brooks, who played all over the offense at Jonesboro High, is listed as the lone running back in this class.

Positional Breakdown:

Offense: QB: 1, RB: 1, WR: 1, TE: 1, OL: 5, ATH: 0
Defense: DE: 2, DT: 3, LB: 1, DB: 4, K/P/LS: 1

AC100 Recruits:

62. Travis Blanks, DB (6-1, 195), Tallahassee (Fla.) North Fla. Christian
81. Germone Hopper, WR (6, 170), Charlotte (N.C.) Philip O. Berry
89. Carlos Watkins, DT (6-4, 275), Forest City (N.C.) Chase

Other National Signees:

115. Chad Kelly, QB (6-3, 209), Buffalo (N.Y.) St. Joseph’s Collegiate
147. Patrick DeStefano, OL (6-4, 275), Spartanburg (S.C.) Dorman
190. Jay Guillermo, OL (6-2, 287), Maryville (Tenn.) High
207. Shaq Lawson, DE (6-3, 240), Central (S.C.) D.W. Daniel

Early Enrollees:

Travis Blanks, DB (6-1, 195), Tallahassee (Fla.) North Fla. Christian
Patrick DeStefano, OL (6-4, 275), Spartanburg (S.C.) Dorman
Jay Gulliermo, OL (6-2, 287), Maryville (Tenn.) High
Zac Brooks, RB (6-2, 180), Jonesboro (Ark.) High
Oliver Jones, OL (6-6, 320), Ninety Six (S.C.) High
Kevin Dodd, DL (6-5, 280), Taylor (S.C.) Riverside
Isaiah Battle, OL (6-7, 285), Brooklyn (N.Y.) Blue Ridge Prep (Va.)
Bradley Pinion, P (6-5, 220), Concord (N.C.) Northwest Cabarrus

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Classes of 2012:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

2. Texas Longhorns
3. Florida Gators
4. Ohio State Buckeyes

5. Florida State Seminoles
6. Michigan Wolverines
7. Stanford Cardinal
8. Miami Hurricanes
9. Georgia Bulldogs
10. USC Trojans
11. Oklahoma Sooners
12. Auburn Tigers
13. LSU Tigers
14. Texas A&M Aggies
15. UCLA Bruins
16. Clemson Tigers
17. Fri., Feb. 24
18. Mon., Feb. 27
19. Tues., Feb. 28
20. Wed., Feb. 29
21. Thur., Mar. 1
22. Fri., Mar. 2
23. Sat., Mar. 3
24. Sun., Mar. 4
25. Sun., Mar. 4

Teaser:
<p> The Clemson Tigers landed the No. 16 recruiting class in the nation in 2012.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 06:15
Path: /college-football/texas-longhorns-2012-spring-preview
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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

Texas Longhorns 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12

Spring practice: Feb. 23-April 1

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: David Ash, 98 of 173, 1,068 yds., 4 TDs, 8 INTs
Rushing: Malcolm Brown, 172 car., 742 yds., 5 TDs
Receiving: Mike Davis, 45 rec., 609 yds., 1 TD
Tackles: Kenny Vaccaro, 82
Sacks: Jackson Jeffcoat, 8
Interceptions: Quandre Diggs, 4

Redshirts to watch: OL Garrett Greenlea, TE M.J. McFarland

JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Brandon Moore, OL Donald Hawkins

Early Enrollees: QB Connor Brewer, LB Alex De La Torre, OL Donald Hawkins, OL Camrhon Hughes, DT Brandon Moore, CB Duke Thomas

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Wyoming
Sept. 8 New Mexico
Sept. 15 at Ole Miss
Sept. 29 at Oklahoma State
Oct. 6 West Virginia
Oct. 13 Oklahoma
Oct. 20 Baylor
Oct. 27 at Kansas
Nov. 3 at Texas Tech
Nov. 10 Iowa State
Nov. 24 TCU
Dec. 1 at Kansas State

Offensive Strength: The Longhorns ranked eighth in the Big 12 in scoring last year, but the rushing attack was a bright spot. Running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron combined for 1,205 yards and 10 scores last season, and will be joined by incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – the No. 7 overall recruit in the Athlon Consensus 100.

Offensive Weakness: Three quarterbacks received a start last year and none turned in a particularly impressive final resume. Garrett Gilbert threw for 247 yards in two games, but injured his shoulder and later transferred to SMU. David Ash and Case McCoy showed a few glimpses of promise, but finished with 12 picks and enter spring practice locked into a tight battle for the No. 1 job.

Defensive Strength: With six starters back and solid depth returning, the Longhorns should field one of the top defenses in college football in 2012. The defensive line has two potential All-Americans at end with the return of Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat. With nearly everyone returning in the secondary, Texas will be stingy against the pass next season.

Defensive Weakness: The Longhorns only have few issues on defense, but they do have to replace two stalwarts at linebacker in Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. The interior of the line could be a concern, especially with Calvin Howell unexpectedly leaving and Kheeston Randall finishing his eligibility. There's plenty of talent at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns will have some youth stepping into a key role next year.

Spring Storylines Facing the Longhorns:

1. If Texas is to make the jump from eight wins to winning the Big 12 next year, quarterback play has to improve. The offense figures to get better with another year to learn under coordinator Bryan Harsin, but quarterbacks David Ash, Case McCoy and incoming freshman Connor Brewer need to jumpstart the passing attack. The Longhorns averaged only 189.2 yards per game through the air last season, which simply won’t work if this team wants to win the Big 12 in 2012. Ash seemed secure the early lead on the No. 1 spot after leading Texas to win over California in the Holiday Bowl. However, McCoy and Brewer will be given every opportunity to win the job in preseason workouts. The quarterbacks figure to get more help from the receiving corps this year, as Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin all return after posting solid numbers in 2011.

2. Although the passing attack needs to get better, the offense will lean heavily on a trio of talented running backs. Sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron will team with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray to form one of the Big 12’s top backfields in 2012. The offensive line showed improvement last season and with four starters back, the coaching staff expects this group to take another step forward. Gray won’t arrive until fall practice, but it will be important for Harsin and the offensive assistants to develop a pecking order and maximize this group’s potential in 2012.

3. The Longhorns should have the Big 12’s best defense next year, but this group has a few question marks to address in preseason practices. Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat should form one of college football’s top combinations at defensive end, but the interior of the line is a concern. Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell are gone, leaving Ashton Dorsey, Desmond Jackson and former running back Chris Whaley as the most experienced tackles in 2012. This group is expected to get a boost from junior college transfer Brandon Moore and incoming freshman Malcom Brown – the No. 10 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100. There’s no shortage of talent in the middle of the line, but coaching staff would like to see how it stacks up on the field this spring.   

4. Filling voids in the linebacking corps is often one of the easiest tasks for any defensive staff. However, the Longhorns have to replace two reliable players with the departure of Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. Robinson collected 106 stops last season, while Acho earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and recorded 131 tackles. Jordan Hicks is ready to emerge as the leader of this corps, but two other starters need to emerge. Steve Edmond had a solid freshman campaign last year, picking up 16 stops and one forced fumble. Kendall Thompson backed up Acho last season and recorded nine tackles. Thompson and Edmond should open the year as the new starters in the linebacking corps, but incoming freshmen Peter Jinkens, Dalton Santos and Alex De La Torre will have a chance to earn playing time.

5. Justin Tucker handled the kicking and punting duties last year, but he has finished his eligibility. The Longhorns lack a proven candidate at either position, with the most experienced player (William Russ) punting once in 2011 against Kansas. Ben Pruitt was listed as the backup to Tucker on field goals last year and played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as a high school senior. Pruitt would figure to get first crack at field goals, while Russ handles the punting duties. However, incoming freshman Nick Jordan is expected to compete right away for playing time. Considering the Longhorns could be involved with several close games this year, the special teams cannot be ignored.

Related Big 12 Content Links

Very Early 2012 Big 12 Predictions
2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis
Athlon’s Early Top 25 for 2012

2012 Texas Tech Spring Preview
2012 Recruiting Rankings No. 2: Texas Longhorns

Teaser:
<p> The pieces are in place for Texas to challenge for a Big 12 title in 2012. However, the Longhorns need a much-improved passing attack to get back to a BCS bowl next season.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 06:10
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-no-1-not-pujols-cabrera-or-kemp
Body:

The Athlon staff debated who they would take with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 MLB fantasy draft today, but after 26 years of loyal service to Athlon Sports, Editorial Director — and fantasy baseball guru — Charlie Miller deserves a few extra words...

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

So who would he take with the first pick in the 2012 MLB fantasy draft?

-by Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)

There are three names that garden variety fantasy players will immediately consider Albert Pujols, Matt Kemp and Miguel Cabrera. And certainly solid choices all. But the three names that come to mind for me are: Robinson Cano, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista.

I’m going with Cano. Three simple reasons: He’s at the age and stage of his career that he continues to get better. He’s proven to be durable. He plays a premium fantasy position. Cano’s five-year average line is .304-23-96 with 95 runs, not bad for any position. His three-year average is even better: .314-27-104 with 103 runs. And for five years he’s played a minimum of 159 games. Consider also that he plays in a hitter-friendly park surrounded by a terrific lineup and you have all but guaranteed tremendous numbers. Tulowitzki gets serious consideration because of the dearth of solid shortstop options. But there’s a little bit of a durability question. I just can’t count on Tulo showing up for more than about 140 games.

Funny how perceptions change over time. When Jose Bautista was a rising star in the Pittsburgh organization (his second tour through), I thought he was a can’t-miss star. But repeated failures to make a splash at the big league level turned my opinions sour. Then after his breakout season with Toronto, I still was skeptical. Now I’m back on board. And with a .302 average and 25 starts at third base (giving him third base eligibility), Bautista can be a fantasy stud.

I’ve always stayed away from Cabrera. Both his demeanor and apparent physical condition scream of an imminent breakdown. But manager Jim Leyland keeps writing his name in the lineup and Miggy keeps raking. Now that he is apparently becoming eligible at third he’s even more attractive. Certainly Pujols has been the most consistent fantasy player for 11 seasons. I don’t see any major slippage, but Pujols is going from hitter-friendly N.L. Central ballparks to pitcher-friendly A.L. West parks. Something to think about. I expect Kemp to be a productive fantasy player for several years yet, but I suspect we have seen his best.

Debate: Athlon's Staff Debates the No. 1 pick in the 2012 MLB Fantasy Draft

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

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: The Big Board
2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid

Teaser:
<p> Athlon's fantasy guru might surprise you with who he would take with the No. 1 pick.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 06:01
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-draft-who-no-1
Body:

There is one piece of unfinished business that remains in the fantasy baseball world — and no, it's not where Manny Ramirez will sign. It is the pending final decision on NL MVP Ryan Braun's 50-game suspension. Braun's potential absence has certainly affected his fantasy ranking, placing him at No. 71 overall.

While Braun's potential fantasy value for the 2012 season is up for debate, another interesting debate that is developing is who's No. 1? Three different players – Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp and Albert Pujols – received first-place votes among the eight different sources used to compile Athlon's big board. In addition, none of the trio was ranked lower than fourth. What does that mean, you ask? How about a three-way tie for the top spot?

Since there is no tying in baseball, there aren't any on Athlon's big board, either. Using Athlon's rankings as the tie-breaker, Pujols ascends to the top spot followed by Kemp and then Cabrera. So while Kemp could post a 40-40 season and Cabrera now has Prince Fielder hitting behind him, the consensus, for now anyways, is that The Machine, is still No. 1.

The Athlon Sports Big Board only proves that the uncertainty atop the first round is more cloudy than it has been in years. So we went around the Athlon office — which claims more than a few sick and twisted fantasy junkies — and polled the gurus about the first pick in the 2012 draft.

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

Who would you take with the first pick in the 2012 MLB fantasy draft?

Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)
Athlon Sports' Editorial Director's No. 1 overall pick might surprise you. Check who fantasy baseball guru Charlie Miller would take at No. 1 in 2012 here.

Mark Ross
This season I think you can make a strong case for five different players, including Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki because of their respective positions. However, in the end it’s probably a three-horse race between Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp and Albert Pujols. A month ago I would have said Pujols since I think he’ll be able to make the adjustment from the National League to the American League just fine. But that was before Detroit signed Prince Fielder, who will team with Cabrera in the middle of the Tigers’ line up and do even more damage than Miggy and Victor Martinez did last year. Besides it’s not like Cabrera (.344, 111 R, 48 2B, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 108 BB, .448 OBP, .586 SLG, 1.033 OPS) was some sort of a slouch as a hitter last year in the first place. Cabrera is my choice if I was picking first.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers and Albert Pujols of the Angels are probably the safest choices at No. 1 in your draft. A stat line of .300-30-100-100 seems like a lock for either one of the prodigious sluggers. Cabrera should hit for a better average, while Pujols is likely to launch more home runs. However, I could see the move to third base leveling off Miggy’s stats just a little bit. I could also see Pujols, whose numbers have declined across the board over the last two seasons, needing some American League adjustment time and battling some nagging injuries. Consequently, I would take Matt Kemp and his 40-40 potential with the top pick. There is a little more risk involved (we all remember his “Rihanna” season of 2010), but I see Kemp as the consummate 5-tool player in his prime. I think he will replicate the above stat line, but his 30+ extra steals should be worth more to your team than the higher batting average of Cabrera.

Nathan Rush
Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was already the safest bet in fantasy baseball — with a career .317 batting average, .950 OPS and eight full-season averages of 33 HRs, 115 RBIs and 158 games played per season. Now Cabrera has Prince Fielder protecting him from the cleanup spot in Detroit's lineup and is only a few games away from having third base eligibility. Listed at 6'4" and 240 pounds, Cabrera reportedly lost roughly 20 pounds this offseason in preparation for his move to the hot corner. Miggy is in the best shape of his playing career and in his prime at only 29 years old. I'm expecting a career year, which by Cabrera's standards would be a stat line worthy of the MVP award — in the American League and your fantasy league.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
It is hard to argue with Miguel Cabrera's consistency, relative youth and potential third-base eligibility. However, when you compare the numbers to the newly minted $240-million man in Los Angeles, they actually pale in comparison. Albert Pujols has hit at least 37 home runs in nine of his 11 seasons. Cabrera has topped the 37 home run mark only once in his nine-year career. Pujols has nine seasons of at least 116 RBI as compared to Miggy, who has topped the 116 mark only three times. Cabrera turns 29 in April and has the age edge over Pujols — who recently turned 32 (ish) in January. Yet, off-the-field issues, a position change and weight concerns push me officially towards SoCal and The Machine. Additionally, Matt Kemp might be the most complete fantasy player but speed can be had on the cheap in 2012, so the premium in your draft should be placed on power. With Robinson Cano and Joey Votto having possibly the least downside of anyone, and Troy Tulowitzki’s position scarcity, picking anywhere in the top six should deliver a fantasy stud. But when in doubt I will go with the three-time MVP, two-time World Champion and six-time Silver Slugger.

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

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: The Big Board
2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid

Teaser:
<p> MLB Fantasy Draft: Who Is No. 1?</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/where-will-peyton-manning-play%20
Body:

— by Mark Ross

Peyton Manning wants to resume his NFL career. The question of whether or not he’s healthy enough or physically capable of has to be answered first. But for the sake of argument, let’s say he is. The question then becomes what uniform is No. 18 wearing in 2012.

Manning is under contract with the Indianapolis Colts having signed a five-year, $90 million extension last summer. As part of this contract, he’s due a $28 million roster bonus on March 8. Without getting too deep into the specifics related to Manning’s contract and this roster bonus, the important part is this: should the Colts decline to pay Manning his bonus he becomes a unrestricted free agent.

What sort of market exists for a quarterback who will be 36 years old by the time the 2012 NFL season rolls around? Here’s a look at some possible fits should Manning decide to give another uniform a try.

For starters, forget about teams who already have established quarterbacks on their roster. As good as Manning has been in his career, teams like Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Dallas are already in pretty good shape at quarterback. So you can forget about any dreams of the Manning brothers playing together in the Big Apple.

Then you have teams who either appear to be fully committed to their current starter, like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, or those who think they already have their franchise quarterback on their roster, like Carolina, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

So even though new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher may have once worn a Manning jersey to a fundraiser while he was still coaching the Titans, don’t expect the two to come together in St. Louis, not with former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford under contract.

That still leaves 16 teams, or half of the NFL, technically still in the running. Here’s how those teams stack up:

Nice Idea But…

Buffalo Bills
Current starter Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $59 million contract extension in October, which includes $24 million in guaranteed money. Ironically enough, Fitzpatrick struggled after signing his extension, throwing just 12 touchdown passes with 17 interceptions in his final 10 games with the Bills going 2-8 in that same stretch. That said, the Bills already have invested a lot in Fitzpatrick and appear to be fully committed to “The Amish Rifle”

Denver Broncos
This is just what Tim Tebow and Denver needs, another quarterback controversy. While Tebow’s NFL future is anything but certain, he has earned his standing as the Broncos’ starting quarterback headed into training camp. The last thing he needs is another Hall of Fame quarterback to worry about. He’s already got that in his boss, Broncos Executive Vice President of Operations John Elway.

Houston Texans
Houston would have to appeal to Manning if anything because the Texans are ready to win now and he would be guaranteed two shots each season against Irsay and the Colts. However, Matt Schaub is the entrenched starter and is expected to be fully recovered from last season’s foot injury by the time training camp starts and the Texans also have capable backup Tyler Yates on their roster.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings drafted Christian Ponder in the first round of last year’s draft and handed the starting reigns over to him in late October. The rookie went 2-8 in 10 games as the starter, while the Vikings finished with a 3-13 mark overall. Despite Ponder's struggles in his first season, the team appears to be committed to him moving forward, not to mention the fact that it has plenty of other holes to fill on the roster. The bottom line: this Vikings team does not present the same opportunity to Manning that it did to Brett Favre back in 2009.

Oakland Raiders
The Raiders already have a 30-something quarterback on their roster, Carson Palmer, and they paid a heavy price to get him. Oakland sent a 2012 first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick in 2013 (that could end up being a first-rounder) to Cincinnati last October to get Palmer, who played adequately (13 TDs, 16 INTs) in 10 games for the Raiders. Oakland also is a team in transition as Dennis Allen was hired in January as the Raiders’ seventh head coach in the past 10 seasons.

Tampa Bay
Josh Freeman had a disappointing 2011 season following a breakout 2010 campaign during which he led the Buccaneers to the playoffs. His touchdown passes fell from 25 to 16, while his interceptions increased dramatically from just six in 2010 to 22 last season. However, Freeman is just 24 years old and will enter just his fourth season as the Bucs’ starter this fall. New Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano will lean heavily on Freeman as he makes the transition from the collegiate head coaching ranks to the NFL.

Tennessee Titans
It reads like a fairy tale – former University of Tennessee star returns to his adopted home state to lead the Titans back to postseason glory, no doubt some of that coming at the expense of his former team and division rival, the Colts. Titans and UT fans can dream all they want, but it’s not going to happen. For one, the Titans already have a 36-year-old quarterback on their roster in Matt Hasselbeck. More importantly, they also believe they have their franchise quarterback of the future waiting in the wings in Jake Locker, the No. 8 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Now You’re Talking:

Cleveland Browns
Although he is signed for two more years, Colt McCoy’s future in Cleveland is uncertain at best. While Manning would appear to be an upgrade, the Browns will probably look to the draft to find their future franchise quarterback. With two picks, Nos. 4 and 22, in the first round, Cleveland is seemingly in prime position to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III early or wait for either Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill or Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler later. Besides, I’m not sure Manning’s that thrilled about having to play the Ravens and Steelers twice each season.

Kansas City
Yes, Kansas City was a nice landing spot for Joe Montana in 1993, but I don’t see history repeating itself. The current incumbent is Matt Cassel, who is under contract through 2014 and the Chiefs have already invested a good deal of money in him. This is a team looking to establish its identity under new head coach Romeo Crennel and brining in a new quarterback does not appear to be part of his plan.

New York Jets
Peyton and Eli in the same city? I can just hear the New York media types and football pundits everywhere salivating at the sheer thought. However, I suggest you go ahead and wipe that drool from your mouth because I don’t see this happening. For one, that would mean the departure/demotion of the Big Apple’s current favorite whipping boy, Mark Sanchez, who is signed for two more years and put up his best numbers yet last season. Second, I don’t think Peyton longs to play in New York and he is certainly aware of the ramifications that would come with it, for him personally and his family as a whole.

San Francisco
This appears to be an appealing destination because the 49ers are a team on rise under the leadership of head coach and former Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. However, Manning doesn’t seem to fit what Harbaugh is looking for in a quarterback, as Alex Smith made plays with both his arm and his legs last season. Smith is a free agent, but even if he does not return, the 49ers still have 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick on their roster.

Here’s Where It Gets Interesting:

Arizona Cardinals
Why it could work: Two words – Larry Fitzgerald. Just the thought of Manning throwing to Fitzgerald is enough to get anyone, other than Arizona opponents, excited. Manning has played with some Hall of Fame-caliber wide receivers in Indianapolis, most notably Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but Fitzgerald tops them all. Arizona being in the NFC West also presents an opportunity to possibly return to the playoffs right away. And don’t forget that Kurt Warner had a decent five-year stretch in the desert after arriving in 2005 at the age of 34.
Why it won’t happen: Two other words – Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick to the Eagles for Kolb last July and then promptly signed him to a five-year, $63 million contract, $21 million of it guaranteed. Kolb is signed through 2016 and even though he struggled last season (9 TDs, 8 INTs in just nine games), the Cardinals have a lot invested in him and it’s probably too soon to simply cut ties.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Why it could work: Blaine Gabbert (50.8 completion rate, 12 TDs, 11 INTs, 65.4 passer rating) struggled mightily in his first NFL season with the Jaguars, so Manning would not only represent an upgrade under center, he also could help develop his young backup. New head coach Mike Mularkey comes from an offensive background and spent the past four seasons working with and developing Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
Why it won’t happen: The Jaguars are several years away from competing for a playoff spot. Besides a new head coach and uncertainty at quarterback, the Jaguars have plenty of holes to fill, including wide receiver, and it remains to be seen if the team’s long-term future is even in Jacksonville. This is not the ideal situation for Manning to resume his NFL career.

Miami Dolphins
Why it could work: The Dolphins hired Joe Philbin as their new head coach in January. Before landing his first NFL head coaching job, Philbin served as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator for five seasons working first with Favre and then Aaron Rodgers, who won a Super Bowl in 2011 and was the NFL MVP last season. The only quarterback under contract right now is Matt Moore, the Dolphins have an appealing target to throw to in Brandon Marshall, and an All-Pro, franchise left tackle in Jake Long.
Why it won’t happen: The weather may be nice in South Beach, but I don’t see Manning taking his talents there should the opportunity present itself. The Dolphins play in AFC East, the same conference that the Patriots and Jets are in, and both teams appear to be ahead of them from a competitive standpoint in both the present and immediate future. The Dolphins have a new head coach taking over and appear to be a team in transition. I don’t think Manning will want to take his lumps at the hands of Tom Brady/Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan under these circumstances.

Seattle Seahawks
Why it could work: Seattle’s current quarterback is Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks, like the aforementioned 49ers and Cardinals, play in the NFC West and could potentially be back in the playoffs with Manning at the helm. Owner Paul Allen doesn’t lack for money and seems like the type who would be willing to spend it for someone like Manning to make his team better.
Why it won’t happen: The Seahawks have several key free agents, most notably running back Marshawn Lynch. If Lynch does not re-sign that creates an enormous hole in the Seahawks’ offense. Seattle also has some question marks at wide receiver and this just doesn’t feel like a fit for Manning. And if you’re into conspiracy theories there’s also this: head coach Pete Carroll may be looking to “tank” this season so he will be in prime position to draft Matt Barkley, his former quarterback at USC, in 2013.

Washington Redskins
Why it could work: Whenever Redskins owner Dan Snyder is involved you never rule anything out. This man has shown time and time again that money is no object when it comes to getting who he wants. Albert Haynesworth anyone? The Redskins clearly have a need at quarterback, as John Beck is the only one under contract. Mike Shanahan is no stranger to coaching Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks (Elway) and desperately wants to win after posting an 11-21 mark in his first two seasons in Washington.
Why it won’t happen: The Redskins may be targeting the aforementioned Griffin or another quarterback in the draft, looking to land their next franchise signal-caller instead of trying to win now with Manning. Snyder’s free-spending days also may be a thing of the past. Otherwise, the Redskins appear to be the one of the best possible landing spots for Manning should he become a free agent.

Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay are reportedly meeting soon to discuss No. 18’s future with the only team he has every played for. So for all intents and purposes the talk about a new place for Peyton could soon be a moot point.

However, should the Colts decide to end their 14-year relationship with Manning and he become an unrestricted free agent, all eyes will no doubt be watching closely to see what happens next. In the end, it could come down to Manning’s preference where (Arizona? Washington? Somewhere else?) he wants to play, or if he decides he’s thrown the last pass of his illustrious NFL career.

Teaser:
<p> A look at possible fits for Peyton Manning should the Colts cut ties with their long-time quarterback</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /nascar/2012-nascar-preview
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

The Daytona 500 will kick off another exciting NASCAR season on Sunday, as Tony Stewart tries to defend his Sprint Cup title against many worthy adversaries. The Budweiser Shootout was exciting last weekend with Kyle Busch winning in thrilling fashion, and Carl Edwards will start on the pole for the Great American Race. From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, here’s our 2012 NASCAR preview.

What to Do for an Encore?
The 2011 season finale in Homestead, Fla., will go down as one of the most dramatic races in NASCAR’s 60-plus-year history. Tony Stewart capped off a scintillating Chase run by winning his fifth race of the playoffs and, in the process, nipping Carl Edwards for the championship in a tiebreaker.

So how does the sport top it? Thankfully, by letting everything play out naturally in the upcoming year. In the annual January “state of the sport” address, NASCAR principals announced no new rule modifications directed at the point system or structural changes to the Chase. And with Edwards hungrier than ever, Stewart looking for title No. 4 and a more determined duo in Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, expect a 10-race playoff run every bit as exciting and unpredictable as last season’s epic stretch.

First Things First, Though
NASCAR’s annual pilgrimage to the world’s center of speed in Daytona Beach, Fla., culminates in this weekend’s Daytona 500. The sanctioning body has worked throughout the offseason and during Speedweeks to bring back the popular — albeit white-knuckle — “pack racing” style of competition at Daytona. The last couple of years have seen the rise of two-car “tandem draft” racing on NASCAR’s restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, where two cars glued nose-to-tail while never lifting off the accelerator have proved faster than a giant pack of machines mere inches from one another.

For all of NASCAR’s effort to discourage the two-car breakaways, though, most drivers believe that when the money is on the line, the tandem phenomenon will rule the day. A snarling 30-car pack may have its time and place throughout the 500, but the drivers know the surest way to Victory Lane is by pairing up with a teammate and separating from the field.

And What of NASCAR’s Most Popular Duo?
Nine-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and open-wheel-turned-stock-car-driver Danica Patrick will undoubtedly be under the fans’ microscope throughout the season. After all, with popularity comes scrutiny — and in a sponsor-driven sport such as NASCAR, funding follows.

Earnhardt, an 18-time winner in the Cup Series, looks to break a 129-race winless skid on the circuit. He experienced a turnaround of sorts in 2011, finishing seventh in the point standings while posting his best numbers since his first season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Still, the wins did not come, and in order for Junior to find favor with the naysayers, racking up victories is imperative.

His six-win campaign of 2004 is but a speck in the rearview mirror at this point in his career. With the resources of the sport’s most potent organization, a crew chief in Steve Letarte who seems to push the right buttons and championship teammates in Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, expect Earnhardt to earn a checkered flag or two this season — and what better place to get the season started off right than Daytona, where he’s won both the February and July races.
And then there’s Patrick, who enters her first full season in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series after seven years in IndyCar. Armed with the financial backing of GoDaddy.com and the resources of Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports (which receives engines and chassis from Hendrick), Patrick should be a contender in a series where the gap between “haves” and “have nots” has grown exponentially.

A much more interesting story to follow will be her Cup Series debut with Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing team, which will happen in the Daytona 500. Patrick will also suit up with the big boys in nine other races, as she ratchets up her knowledge and skills for a run at full-time Cup glory in 2013.

A Year of Redemption
Every sport has its villains, and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch seem to have taken on the title with their colorful antics over the last few years.

Kyle may be the most talented pure racer on the circuit, but a competitive streak that gives him an edge also serves as his biggest liability. Parked for a race last season after intentionally wrecking a competitor in a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, the mercurial driver nearly found himself without a sponsor or a ride. However, Joe Gibbs Racing was able to smooth things out with both driver and sponsor, Mars/M&M’s. The 26-year-old, who has accumulated 23 Cup wins in only seven full seasons, will look to start a new chapter in his career.

The bigger question surrounding Kyle is if he’ll ever win a coveted Cup title. Thus far, he’s proved that when the pressure is at its greatest — during the playoffs — his mental state is fragile. Until he delivers in the clutch, it’s hard to see him as anything more than a driver who will win in spades, but fold at title time.

Older brother Kurt wasn’t so fortunate last year. Following a number of dust-ups with the media and weekly team radio tirades, the 2004 series champion was shown the door at Penske Racing.

Kurt landed with single-car outfit Phoenix Racing, where he’ll look to prove to the powerhouse organizations of the sport that he can play team ball and behave as a professional should. How he co-exists with team owner James Finch may be the most entertaining storyline of the season.
The opportunity to win on a plate track or road course is there for the 33-year-old this season, but beyond that, it will be a season of mending his reputation as he looks to 2013 as a comeback year of sorts.

Keep Your Eye On…
When races are in the books and NASCAR’s Chase begins, look for these five drivers to separate themselves from the field and battle for the 2012 Sprint Cup.

Kevin Harvick
After two consecutive third-place finishes in the point standings, Harvick enters 2012 with a new crew chief and retooled pit crew. Shane Wilson, who guided Harvick to a Busch Series title in 2006 prior to working atop Clint Bowyer’s pit box in the Cup Series, will lead the team. With seven wins in the last two seasons, expect Harvick to rack up a handful more in 2012 en route to his first Sprint Cup championship.

Brad Keselowski
Keselowski took the circuit by storm in 2011, winning three races in a scorching summer stretch that propelled his Penske Racing outfit into a surprise Chase appearance. Keselowski possesses the perfect balance of raw talent, aggressiveness and media savvy that will make him a popular contender for years to come. Expect big things out of the Michigan native this year now that he knows the Cup ropes and inherits the mantle of “team leader” in the Penske organization.

Carl Edwards
It’s hard to envision losing a championship in a more heartbreaking fashion than Edwards did in 2011. Edwards was relegated to second after losing a tiebreaker that gave the title to Tony Stewart. Many drivers have run second in the standings only to fall off the radar the following season. That said, Edwards is mentally tougher than most, and having been in this position before (2008) should prepare him to challenge for his first Cup title once again.

Jimmie Johnson
The streak had to come to an end sometime. After an unprecedented five consecutive titles, Johnson “slumped” to a sixth-place points finish in 2011. But that result may only yield a more determined duo in Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus this year. With Knaus’ smarts, Johnson’s ability, and the resources of NASCAR’s strongest organization, a new streak may begin in November.

Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne has finally landed in a place where he can expect sustained success — Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne has experienced a roller-coaster career with teams that invariably have fallen apart, through no fault of Kahne’s. Paired again with crew chief Kenny Francis, Kahne will share shop space on the Hendrick campus with Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson, making the 5 car a weekly contender out of the gate. The sky’s the limit here.
 

Teaser:
<p> 2012 NASCAR Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 18:11
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/tiger-woods-advances-barely
Body:

The Accenture Match Play, golf's version of March Madness, has had an eventful first day, with the usual assortment of upsets — if you can count it as an upset when a great golfer beats another great golfer who has a higher computer ranking based on something that might have happened months ago. Over in the Bobby Jones bracket, No. 1-seed Luke Donald had his visor handed to him by an over-the-hill Ernie Els, making one wonder if 2011 was an aberration (remember, you can't spell fluke without Luke).

We've had upsets in the 2-15 matches — Matteo Manassero over Webb Simpson and Robert Rock over Adam Scott — as well as 3-14 upsets in Y.E. Yang over Graeme McDowell and Ryo Ishikawa over Bill Haas. Bae Sang-Moon ousted 2010 Match Play champion Ian Poulter.  As of this writing, 11 lower-seeded players have posted "upsets," with more certainly to come.

But let's be honest. This first round is all about the state of Tiger's game and the main reason, other than the unique format, that most of us paid attention today. Woods had his hands full with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who is apparently quite accomplished over in Europe but ain't exactly Seve Ballesteros. Aw, who am I kidding - I never really heard of the guy until today, and it took Woods all 18 holes, including a masterful up-and-down from a bunker after a leaky approach on 18, to close out a 1-up victory. As has been the case during Tiger's hit-and-miss comeback, his putter let him down today, but so did his irons; he needed a clutch par save at 3 to avoid going down 3 through the first three holes in addition to his up-and-down at 18 after a horrible approach.

But just like the NCAA Tournament, this event is all about win-and-advance. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of golf, Woods can erase memories of his Pebble Beach meltdown and become a prohibitive favorite at The Masters based on what he does over the next four days — if he can simply survive. Tomorrow, Tiger faces Nick Watney, who crushed Darren Clarke like an empty Guinness can.

In other words, the 2012 Tiger Redemption Tour faces a few speed bumps, starting with Watney. 

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 18:10
All taxonomy terms: Houston Astros, Throwback jerseys, MLB
Path: /mlb/houston-astros-inauthenticate-throwback-jerseys
Body:

The Houston Astros are celebrating the franchise’s 50th anniversary this season and have planned to wear throwback uniforms for Friday home games. I love throwback uniforms. Mainly because most of the throwbacks teams wear are from the 1970s and ’80s, an era I recall fondly.

There were relatively few uniform changes across baseball during the first half century or so, once uniform numbers were introduced. But along came the 1970s and teams began experimenting. The swinging ’70s brought a whole new assortment of colors, styles and flair to uniforms. The hideous White Sox black shorts and shirts with collars were among the worst. As a kid I didn’t mind the Hawaiian softball uniforms the Astros introduced in 1975. Now, I don’t like them so much. The solid red Indians uniforms that Boog Powell once said made him look like a “big blood clot”? Hated ’em.

But no matter how ugly, how crazy and how politically incorrect uniforms and team names of the past seem today, they are a part of baseball history.

So that’s why I am confused and dismayed why baseball and the Astros have decided to alter history. You see, on Fridays this summer in Houston when the Astros show off their throwback uniforms, they won’t limit the fashion to those candy stripes from the ’70s. They’ll also be wearing throwbacks from the franchise’s original name, the Colt .45s. However, the throwbacks version will not represent the original jersey.

Before the Astros became the Astros in 1965 celebrating the city’s association with the space program, the team was the Colt .45s, commonly known as the Colts. As in the gun, not the equine. And the logo on the jersey featured a colt revolver underneath the word Colts with the C swirling as if the gun were smoking.

MLB and the Astros will have us to believe now that the original uniform did not have a gun depicted on the front. That’s right. The Colt .45 has been removed from the jersey.

Now would I want to name my team after a gun these days? No. Am I a fan of any kind of gun imagery? No. But we can’t really revise history, now can we? We can’t refer to the team as the Colts and put a running yearling on the shirt. And just what is the plan for the caps? Will the players wear the authentic caps with the ‘.45s’ emblem?

If MLB and the Astros want to celebrate the history of the team, then celebrate the entire history, warts and all. If not, celebrate the Astros Era and just wear throwbacks from the 1970s and ignore the Colt .45s Era altogether. But altering the authentic logo on the jersey makes no sense. I guess MLB may have to change the “MLB Authentics” apparel line to “Inauthentics.”

Follow Charlie Miller on Twitter @AthlonCharlie.

Teaser:
<p> The Houston Astros will celebrate their 50 years in the National League this season by wearing throwback jersey on Friday nights. But they've significantly altered the original Colt .45s jerseys.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 14:01
All taxonomy terms: Brady Quinn, Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/brady-quinn-comments-tim-tebow
Body:

Brady Quinn will need Tim Tebow’s forgiveness now that Yahoo! Sports’ NFL columnist Michael Silver has finished his controversial article, “The Year of Magical Stinking: An Oral History of Tebow Time” for GQ magazine.

In the piece, Silver assembles a Tebowmania timeline of quotations from Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway, Broncos coach John Fox, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, Cleveland Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, Buffalo Bills linebacker Nick Barnett, Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley, ESPN analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, and NFL Network analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner — who gets the final word, calling Tebow “a biblical story” whose moral is “that regardless of our limitations, we can still accomplish great things.”

But it is Quinn who steals the show and sets a bitter, jealous tone with four quick quotes in three separate sections of the story.

Quinn, along with Dilfer and Fox, set the stage with comments on the atmosphere surrounding the months, weeks and days leading up to Tebow’s first NFL start at Miami in Week 7.

Quinn: “Early in the season, there was a game when Kyle (Orton) got hurt and the coaches were calling for me to go in, but Kyle got up and finished the game out. So I was the second-string guy. Then, a few weeks later, they decided to put Tim in. I felt like the fans had a lot to do with that. Just ‘cause they were chanting his name. There was a big calling for him. No, I didn’t have any billboards. That would have been nice.”

From there, the story is divided into weeks, with reaction from around the league.

Weeks 9 and 10: The Streak Begins

Quinn: “The entire game, the defensive line is chasing the quarterback around, and that wears down the pass rush. Meanwhile, the defensive backs are chasing receivers, but you only throw eight passes, so they start to feel lazy. It only takes that one play, that one big pass, for a touchdown.”

This is where Quinn — who has been a polarizing figure since his golden boy days at Notre Dame under coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis — gets himself in trouble, questioning Tebow’s humility and prayer technique (Tebow’s “Tebowing” ability, as it were).

Week 14: Broncos 13, Bears 10

Quinn: “We’ve had a lot of, I guess, luck, to put it simply.”

Quinn: “If you look at it as a whole, there’s a lot of things that just don’t seem very humble to me. When I get that opportunity, I’ll continue to lead not necessarily by trying to get in front of the camera and praying but by praying with my teammates, you know?”

Obviously, Tebow is the most popular headline maker in the world of sports this side of Jeremy Lin. Tebowmania is Linsane. Questioning Tebow’s religion is like making a racially charged Lin joke. Don’t do it.

He was a little late, but Quinn took to Twitter with a defensive five-tweet explanation of his comments:

@BQ9
The comments attributed to me in a recent magazine article are in NO WAY reflective of my opinion of Tim and the Broncos. Tim deserves a

@BQ9
lot of credit for our success and I’m happy for him and what he accomplished. Most importantly, he is a great teammate. That interview was

@BQ9
conducted three months ago, and the resulting story was a completely inaccurate portrayal of my comments. I have addressed my disappointment

@BQ9
with the writer and have reached out to Tim to clear this up. I apologize to anyone who feels I was trying to take anything away from our

@BQ9
Team’s or Tim’s success this season

Granted, Silver comes across as a snake, or at least snake oil salesman, pushing controversy as a product and riding the Tebow wave of momentum to maximize magazine sales and SEO online.

The intro is over-the-top — “Not even Jesus can save his passing game, and yet Tim Tebow somehow dominated the league last season…” And the AP photo by Julie Jacobson wraps a halo around Tebow, who is kneeling and presumably praying (by himself, as Quinn may or may not point out).

But Quinn’s quotes prove that he is not and will never be what Tebow is — masterfully and effortlessly, by the way. To this point, Tebow has not been “tricked” or “trapped” into a regrettable quote, and he did more interviews (and was more accommodating to fans and media, alike) than anyone in sports this year. Quinn fumbled and bumbled through his only meaningful conversation on record last year.

There are many job requirements of an NFL quarterback. Tebow excels in areas Quinn does not comprehend. Tebow will forgive Quinn, who will blame others for his own ignorance regarding one of a quarterback’s most important tasks — talking.

by Nathan Rush
 

Teaser:
<p> Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brady Quinn stirs controversy over comments on Tim Tebow in a GQ story by Michael Silver.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 12:59
All taxonomy terms: AC100, College Football, Recruiting, UCLA Bruins
Path: /college-football/2012-recruiting-rankings-no-15-ucla-bruins
Body:

-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

No. 15: UCLA Bruins (25 total signees)

Pac-12 Rank: 3rd
Athlon Consensus 100 Signees: 2
National Signees: 5

Where They Got 'Em:

While the entire Pac-12 — and plenty of other national powers — will dip into California for prospects, the key to any sustained success for UCLA is excelling in-state on the trail. New head coach Jim Mora Jr. went into nine different states to fill out his 25-man class, but 14 of those hail from the California — including the No. 2 player in the state.

Mora Jr., landed two players each from the talent-rich states of Georgia, Arizona and Texas — including the Lone Star State's No. 2 quarterback. He clearly wanted a Northeast presence as the Bruins landed one player each from New Jersey and New York as well as Delaware, Hawaii and Florida. UCLA pulled the No. 2 player from the Garden State in 2012.


Areas of Focus:

Devin Fuller is an explosive athlete who could land at a variety of positions, but for now is listed as a quarterback. Should the AC100 talent land at QB, it would make him the No. 3 signal-caller prospect in the nation. Packaging Fuller with T.J. Millweard, the No. 2 passer from the state of Texas and No. 11 QB prospect nationally, should leave Mora well covered at the most important position on the field. The 6-4, 225-pound Millweard is more of a pure passer, as he completed over 67% of his passes in 2011, while Fuller is a pure athlete (120 attempts, 1,326 yards rushing, 17 TDs in 2011) who will need to develop as a passer.

What should help both young passers grow will be an outstanding five-man pass-catching class. The dramatic recruitment of Jordan Payton, a guy who committed to three teams in roughly one month, ended in Westwood. Payton posted an absurd 24.2 yards per catch as a junior and has scored 28 times through the air over the last two seasons. Due to his strange recruitment, the spotlight will shine bright on Mr. Payton. He is joined by a versatile group that features slot types Ahmaad Harris and Kenny Walker as well as an extremely rangy 6-foot-5 deep threat dynamo in Javon Williams. He averaged 27.9 yards per catch as a senior.

A 6-5, 300-pound local product, Lacy Westbrook, leads a four-man offensive line class. Three of the four come from in-state, while the massive Simon Goines (6-6, 314) comes to UCLA from the Lone Star State.

The secondary got the most attention on the defense as five of the ten defensive signees will play on that side of the ball. The uber-talented Ishmael Adams proved to be one of the best covermen in the nation at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He excelled in all three phases of the game on the prep level and could be a future all-conference player. Marcus Rios gives UCLA a tremendous future tandem at corner while Taylor Legace stablizes the safety position. The best-named prospect in the class, cornerback Randall Goforth, will undoubtedly come to campus and prosper.

The biggest — literally and figuratively — name in this class is the No. 4 defensive tackle in the nation, Ellis McCarthy. The monster defensive tackle (6-5, 326) led his team to a 23-5 record over his final two seasons and claimed the Pasadena Star-News Defensive Player of the Year honors in both years. He finished with 124 tackles and 16 sacks over that span as well.

Aaron Porter leads a solid three-man linebacking class for Mora Jr.

Positional Breakdown:

Offense: QB: 2, RB: 1, WR: 4, TE: 1, OL: 4, ATH: 2
Defense: DL: 2, LB: 3, DB: 5, K/P/LS: 1

AC100 Recruits:

17. Ellis McCarthy, DT (6-5, 326), Monrovia (Calif.) High
35. Devin Fuller, QB (6, 195), Old Tappan (N.J.) Northern Valley

Other National Signees:

124. Jordan Payton, WR (6-2, 205), Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian
141. Ishmael Adams, DB (5-10, 190), Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian
192. T.J. Millweard, QB (6-4, 225), Ft. Worth (Texas) All Saints

Early Enrollees:

Alexandru Ceachir, OL (6-5, 305), Santa Monica (Calif.) C.C.

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Classes of 2012:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

2. Texas Longhorns
3. Florida Gators
4. Ohio State Buckeyes

5. Florida State Seminoles
6. Michigan Wolverines
7. Stanford Cardinal
8. Miami Hurricanes
9. Georgia Bulldogs
10. USC Trojans
11. Oklahoma Sooners
12. Auburn Tigers
13. LSU Tigers
14. Texas A&M Aggies
15. UCLA Bruins
16. Thur., Feb. 23
17. Fri., Feb. 24
18. Mon., Feb. 27
19. Tues., Feb. 28
20. Wed., Feb. 29
21. Thur., Mar. 1
22. Fri., Mar. 2
23. Sat., Mar. 3
24. Sun., Mar. 4
25. Sun., Mar. 4

Teaser:
<p> The UCLA Bruins landed the No. 15 recruiting class in the nation in 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 07:10
All taxonomy terms: crossword, Monthly
Path: /monthly/2012-february-crossword-puzzle-solutions-0
Body:

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 10:18
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-10-spring-storylines-watch
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

It wasn't that long ago that Alabama celebrated its national title victory over LSU in New Orleans. And now it's already time to turn the page to 2012. Spring practice is underway across the nation and will continue into late April for several college football teams.

Here's a look at some of the key storylines to watch over the next couple of months.

Related: Athlon's Early College Football Top 25 for 2012

1. Change is in the air as 124 FBS teams get ready to open up spring practice. Conference realignment has shifted the landscape of several conferences and you might need a scorecard to keep up with the changes. The SEC expanded to 14 teams, bringing Texas A&M and Missouri in from the Big 12. West Virginia bolted the Big East and TCU left the Mountain West to get the Big 12 back to 10 teams. Thanks to the Mountaineers’ departure from the Big East, the conference is trying desperately to add Boise State for 2012. Without the Broncos, the Big East will play this upcoming season with just seven teams. The changes weren’t limited to BCS conferences, as Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are joining the Mountain West. And finally, Texas State (WAC), UTSA (WAC), UMass (MAC) and South Alabama (Sun Belt) are making the jump from the FCS to the FBS ranks. However, conference realignment isn’t finished by any means and there could be more shock waves throughout college football during the 2012 season.

2. The SEC has claimed the last six national titles and there’s certainly no shortage of options to claim No. 7 in 2012. However, each of the four likely contenders – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU – has significant question marks. For LSU, how will new quarterback Zach Mettenberger perform? Alabama will have several new faces on defense and must replace running back Trent Richardson and center William Vlachos. Georgia got off to a slow start last year, but rallied to finish with 10 wins and the SEC East title. For the Bulldogs to contend in 2012, they have to rebuild an offensive line that loses three key players. Arkansas has inched closer to the top of the SEC West, but its defense must make strides in order to challenge for the national title.

3.  If the SEC West is going to be the most competitive division in college football, the Big Ten Legends can’t be too far behind. Deciding the pecking order between Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska isn’t going to be easy and there’s not a ton of separation between these three teams. The Wolverines need to utilize the spring to rebuild the defensive line and develop weapons in the receiving corps for quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartans need to get quarterback Andrew Maxwell comfortable, while improving a rushing attack that ranked 11th in the Big Ten last year. The Cornhuskers enter spring workouts with more question marks than Michigan and Michigan State, but should be more acclimated to Big Ten play in 2012. With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title, the winner of this division should be a heavy favorite to win the conference title game and play in a BCS game.

4. The Pac-12 is usually one of the most entertaining conferences to watch on a week-to-week basis, but this league gained even more intrigue with four coaching changes this offseason. Arizona State replaced Dennis Erickson with Todd Graham, while Arizona canned Mike Stoops and hired former West Virginia and Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez. UCLA made a run at Boise State’s Chris Petersen, but ended up with former NFL head coach Jim Mora, and Washington State hit a home run with the hire of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. And the intrigue doesn’t stop there. How about Washington plucking defensive line coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi away from California? And there’s also Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s brief flirtation with the NFL. Spring practice is only the start of what is shaping up to be a season full of intrigue in the Pac-12.

5. The college football coaching carousel was busy this offseason, as 27 teams changed head coaches. While that group of new coaches should have job security going into 2012, there are a handful of coaches entering a potentially program-defining season. Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, UCF’s George O’Leary, California’s Jeff Tedford, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Rice’s David Bailiff top the early hot seat watch for 2012 and all need a big spring (and season) to stick around for 2013.

6. Once again, it’s time to dust off the seemingly annual question about Florida State: Are the Seminoles back and ready to contend for a national title? On paper, the Seminoles are poised to challenge for a finish among the top 10 teams. There's plenty of proven depth with 16 starters returning and coach Jimbo Fisher is bringing in another elite recruiting class. The defense is among the best in college football, especially up front where end Brandon Jenkins should be a preseason All-American. But whether or not the Seminoles are ready to win the ACC and play in a BCS bowl rests solely on an offensive line that will be very young in 2012. Center Bryan Stork and guard Jacob Fahrenkrug will provide the veteran leadership, but the Seminoles need sophomores Bobby Hart, Austin Barron, Josue Matias, Sterling Lovelady and junior Garrett Faircloth to step up. If this group holds up, the Seminoles should be able to get back into the BCS for the first time since 2006.

7. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe how the last few months have gone at Penn State. From the Jerry Sandusky scandal to the passing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions have had to deal with enough bad news to last several years. Spring football kicks off in Happy Valley on March 26, and new coach Bill O’Brien will have his hands full with this team in 2012. O’Brien wants Penn State to throw more, but quarterback play was not been the strength of this team in recent years. The Nittany Lions also lose leading receiver Derek Moye and four starters are gone on the offensive line. Following a legend like Paterno won’t be easy, but O’Brien also has to deal with significant question marks on offense and there will be an adjustment period to the new coaching staff for the players. Unless O’Brien can find the right answer at quarterback, the offense figures to keep Penn State from challenging for the Big Ten Leaders Division title in 2012.

8. Thanks to a 5-7 2010 campaign, Texas was off the national radar going into last season. However, the Longhorns rebounded with an 8-5 record and a victory over California in the Holiday Bowl. If Mack Brown’s team wants to challenge Oklahoma in the Big 12 title race, it has to start with getting better quarterback play. David Ash seemed to wrestle the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after finishing with 142 passing yards and one touchdown in the bowl game. Ash isn’t guaranteed to finish spring as the top passer, as Case McCoy and incoming freshman Connor Brewer will get every opportunity to knock him off the No. 1 position. If Texas can generate more offense in 2012, it’s not out of the question this team can compete for the Big 12 title.

9. There have been a lot of changes at Ohio State over the last year, and it may be a while before the Buckeyes go 6-7 once again. New coach Urban Meyer is off to a terrific start on the recruiting trail and should continue to reel in top talent to Columbus. Meyer is well-rested after a year away from coaching, and the health issues that bothered him at Florida seem to be under control. The future certainly looks bright for the Buckeyes, but there’s also a sense of disappointment before the 2012 season kicks off. Due to NCAA violations, Ohio State is ineligible to play for the Big Ten title and is also banned from postseason play. Although the Buckeyes can’t play for a championship, Meyer and his staff should keep this team motivated all year, and the schedule is favorable enough to expect 10 wins in 2012. There’s certainly a learning curve for the offense as it adapts to Meyer’s spread attack and some holes to fill on the offensive line, but Ohio State is poised to make a lot of noise once the bowl ban is lifted going into 2013.

10. And of course, we can’t close a spring practice preview article without mentioning the quarterback battles.

Athlon will have a more in-depth look at some of the battles over the next few weeks, but here’s a quick snapshot of some of the top quarterback competitions to watch:

Auburn: New coordinator Scot Loeffler will have his hands full this spring, as the Tigers finished 100th nationally in total offense last year and have no clear No. 1 quarterback. Barrett Trotter gave up his final year of eligibility, leaving sophomore Kiehl Frazier, true freshman Zeke Pike and junior Clint Moseley to battle for the starting spot under center. The Tigers don’t need to have an elite passing attack, but it has to be better than it was last year.

Boise State: Replacing Kellen Moore is no easy task for head coach Chris Petersen and new coordinator Robert Prince. Sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea, junior Joe Southwick and true freshman Nick Patti will compete this spring.

Florida: The Gators are searching for a spark on offense this spring, along with adjusting to new coordinator Brent Pease. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel combined to throw for 354 yards in relief of Jeff Brantley last year, but nether completed more than 48 percent of their throws.

Miami: Stephen Morris has started five games at Miami, but will be pushed by Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and incoming freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Grow.

Stanford: It will be impossible to replace Andrew Luck’s production in 2012, but the Cardinal has plenty of candidates, and an offense that’s built around the rushing attack to take the pressure off a young quarterback. Brett Nottingham will open spring workouts as the No. 1 passer, but Robbie Picazo, Josh Nunes, Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan will all get a shot.

Oklahoma State: The Pokes will miss quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, but don’t expect this offense to fall too far in 2012. Clint Chelf completed 20 of 30 throws for 307 yards and three scores last year and opens as the frontrunner to replace Weeden. However J.W. Walsh and true freshman Wes Lunt will get an opportunity to unseat him in spring practice.

Oregon: Bryan Bennett was impressive while filling in for Darron Thomas last year and opens spring workouts as the favorite to start the opener in 2012. However, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and incoming freshmen Jake Rodrigues will have an opportunity to push him this spring.

Texas A&M: As if joining the SEC wasn’t tough enough, the Aggies have to break in a new quarterback. Jameill Showers has the most experience (five passes), but Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel and incoming freshman Matt Davis will have every opportunity to earn playing time.

Teaser:
<p> Spring practice is underway and Athlon takes a look at the 10 biggest storylines to watch over the next couple of months.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 05:50
Path: /college-football/2012-recruiting-rankings-no-14-texas-am-aggies
Body:

-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)

No. 14: Texas A&M Aggies (19 total signees)

SEC Rank: 6th
Athlon Consensus 100 Signees: 2
National Signees: 6

As should be the case with any good Texas A&M class, the state of Texas is the primary focus. While Big Brother down in Austin will almost always get its top choices, the Aggies have a tremendous brand to offer. Of the 19 total signees, 15 hail from the Lone Star State, including two of the top five players in the state. New head coach Kevin Sumlin should be very pleased with his in-state offensive skill talent as the Aggies signed the No. 1 quarterback, the No. 1 wide receiver and the No. 2 running back in the state of Texas.

Louisiana (2), California and Missouri supplied the remaining four prospects.

Areas of Focus:

Transition was easily the word of choice for the 2012 Texas A&M recruiting class. New coach, new conference, new identity. Sumlin steps onto campus with a distinct offensive scheme that has been as prolific as any in the history of the sport. But he is in the SEC now. Will he adjust his system for the elite level defensive lines? Does he utilize a more traditional offensive attack? Only time will answer these questions, but for now, Sumlin has some elite-level offensive skill talent joining the squad.

Related: 2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

And it all starts with the nation's No. 3 running back, Trey Williams. Small in stature only, Williams is one of the most productive prep running backs in history of Texas football. He carried 447 times for 3,890 yards and 48 touchdowns as a senior and earned Class 5A state Offensive Player of the Year Honors. He finished his career with 8,110 yards rushing and 86 touchdowns on 935 attempts. He can score from anywhere on the field and is a perfect fit for Sumlin's pass-happy scheme.

Wide receiver Thomas Johnson, a former Texas Longhorn verbal commitment, is the state's No. 1 wideout prospect and trails only Dorial Green-Beckham in the WR ranks nationally. Hailing from powerhouse program Dallas-Skyline, Johnson leads a talented three-man pass-catching class for Sumlin. Sabian Holmes, who also played at a power program in Southlake-Carroll, is joined by junior college prospect Derel Walker. Holmes led Carroll to the 5A State Championship with an 11-catch, 138-yard, one-TD performance in the title game. Despite the loss of Jeff Fuller, Sumlin has added three names to what appears to be a gluttonous receiving corp.

Should the 6-4, 170-pound athlete Edward Pope — who caught 76 passes for 1,233 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011 — land at wide receiver, the sky would be the limit for mad passing scientist Sumlin.

Quarterback Matt Davis, an early enrollee, could compete for playing time very quickly as starter Ryan Tannehill has moved on. The dual-threat passer was a star as a sophomore before missing his junior year with a knee injury. He rebounded in 2011 with a stellar senior season: 1,483 yards, 13 TD, 931 yards rushing, 12 TD. Already on campus, expect Davis to push more likely starting options Johnny Manziel, Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel in spring ball.

An already talented and solid offensive line got three new names in this class, and one of the names will be very familiar. Nationally ranked Mike Matthews is the top-rated blocker in this group and has the bloodlines to prove it. He is the son of legendary hog molly Bruce Matthews and the younger brother of former Aggie blocker Kevin and current Ag Jake. The 330-pound Kimo Tipoti and 305-pound Ifedi Germain literally and figuratively round out the OL class.

While the offensive skill is impressive, the defensive line is the strength of this haul. There are no nationally ranked prospects, but five new ends and one likely tackle make this six-man DL group one of the best in the SEC. This is a versatile and deep collection that is headlined by the massive (6-5, 255) Polo Manukainiu and District 11-5A Defensive MVP Michael Richardson. The small (6-3, 210) but very athletic Tyrone Taylor won his own District MVP award at Galena Park (19-4A), while Alonzo Williams posted 100 tackles out West in Long Beach, Calif. Signing Day pickup Edmond Ray might be the most intriguing of the group, however, as the projected tackler checks in at 6-5 and 290 pounds. This group may not have the five-star name, but it has loads of depth and tons of versatility.

A three-man defensive back class is headlined by AC100 near-miss De'Vante Harris. The 5-10, 160-pound coverman makes up for his lack of size with tremendous competitive edge and natural instincts. This undoubtedly comes from his father Rod Harris, who starred at Texas A&M as a wide receiver it the late '80s. He will also be a dynamic return man — much like his father. Junior College transfer Tremaine Jacobs and early enrollee Kenneth Marshall round out a nice secondary haul for TAMU.

Nationally ranked linebacker Jordan Richmond is the only backer to join the Aggies in this class after back-to-back All-State seasons at Ryan High.

Positional Breakdown:

Offense: QB: 1, RB: 1, WR: 3, TE: 0, OL: 3, ATH: 1
Defense: DE: 5, DT: 1, LB: 1, DB: 3, K/P/LS: 0

AC100 Recruits:

19. Trey Williams, RB (5-8, 175), Spring (Texas) Dekaney
29. Thomas Johnson, WR (5-11, 180), Dallas (Texas) Skyline

Other National Signees:

110. De'Vante Harris, DB (5-10, 160), Mesquite (Texas) Horn
162. Matt Davis, QB (6-2, 202), Houston (Texas) Klein Forest
206. Jordan Richmond, LB (6-3, 225), Denton (Texas) Ryan
238. Mike Matthews, OL (6-3, 260), Missouri City (Texas) Elkins

Early Enrollees:

Matt Davis, QB (6-2, 202), Houston (Texas) Klein Forest
Tremaine Jacobs, DB (6-1, 180), Covington (La.) Covington/Miss. Gulf Coast C.C.
Kenneth Marshall, DB (6, 191), South Houston (Texas) High
Derel Walker, WR (6-2, 185), Hillsboro (Texas) High/Trinity Valley C.C.

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Classes of 2012:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

2. Texas Longhorns
3. Florida Gators
4. Ohio State Buckeyes

5. Florida State Seminoles
6. Michigan Wolverines
7. Stanford Cardinal
8. Miami Hurricanes
9. Georgia Bulldogs
10. USC Trojans
11. Oklahoma Sooners
12. Auburn Tigers
13. LSU Tigers
14. Texas A&M Aggies
15. Wed., Feb. 22
16. Thur., Feb. 23
17. Fri., Feb. 24
18. Mon., Feb. 27
19. Tues., Feb. 28
20. Wed., Feb. 29
21. Thur., Mar. 1
22. Fri., Mar. 2
23. Sat., Mar. 3
24. Sun., Mar. 4
25. Sun., Mar. 4

Teaser:
<p> The Texas A&amp;M Aggies landed the No. 14 recruiting class in the nation in 2012.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 05:50
Path: /columns/garage-talk/year-20-exclusive-qa-jeff-gordon
Body:

by Dustin Long

Athlon Sports: You had gone three years without winning multiple races in a season before 2011. How did 2011 revitalize you?
Jeff Gordon:
That is definitely the proper phrase. It has. This team has revitalized me. I see it happening in other sports, and I’ve watched my career … and the experiences that I’ve had and you go back through your most successful years and races and you try to think, what was happening there, why did this success happen? What I see in (2011) is that this team, as I came in, they believed in their driver and they had confidence in me as a driver and they had confidence in what they were doing as a team to provide cars that can win. When you have that, and you start to put the good performances together, it just starts to build and build confidence and momentum and that’s what we did.

What I will take out of (last) year is just the ability this team has to have winning racecars, to have what it takes — pit crew, strategy, speed, track position — to get into Victory Lane, not just luck into it one time. What I love (about what we did last) year is we did it on a lot of different types of tracks. I wish we could have thrown the Brickyard in there, too, because that would have been incredible. You’ve got Pocono, Atlanta and Phoenix. I look at Richmond and Bristol. We’ve run good on a lot of different tracks.

There was a spell at one point where you were winning at only particular types of tracks, like the short tracks or the restrictor-plate tracks.
Exactly. That’s usually the sign that your career is getting ready to come to an end. I’ll never forget watching other guys: Yeah, they’re successful in the plate tracks, (but) can’t win anywhere else. Those plate tracks — that’s usually a bad sign. I didn’t want to be in that position. These guys have revitalized me in my belief in myself and in what we’re capable of doing.

Considering how long your racing career has been, when you say you were revitalized, do you feel you were, in a way, in a rut before?
I didn’t do anything different (last) year than I did any other year, other than just trying to work harder communicating with these guys. That’s a little bit of what happens when you come into something new like I did (in 2011 with a new team). You get put into what they do as a team, and it’s a little bit unique and different.

For instance, we have a meeting every Tuesday morning that lasts a couple of hours, and it’s our engineers and myself and we break down the race that we just ran and then look ahead at races or tests. I love that, even though it’s over my head a lot of times because I can’t keep up with the engineering side of it, it’s great to be involved in those and understand what’s going on to another level. Like what I love sometimes, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) will say, ‘We’re in the trust tree.’ So what happens is you’ve got to man up in those meetings, you’ve got to be willing to lay it out there whether you made mistakes, didn’t make mistakes, calling other people out, calling yourself out, whatever it may be — that’s that area that we can be honest with one another, and I think it allows us to be better because of it.

But you’ve been through that before.
I’ve never done it like that before. I go in there in person most of the time. Now living in North Carolina helps me do that. I’ve been absent from being in North Carolina (in the past) … because I didn’t have the home. Now, I have the home and family and everything and now we’re there a lot more, so I can make it to these meetings in person.

It, just to me, makes a difference. Plus, just when we started the season out, the effort these guys were putting in to get me comfortable — the seats, the new dash design that we had, the whole driver compartment and then going and testing and the things we were going through — just made me feel really comfortable. I love to see the effort they put out. With that, as well as going to the race track and having competitive cars, it just helps build my confidence not only in myself, but in them. It has to go both ways. The team has to believe in their driver, and the driver has to believe in the team.

What’s happening, talking about those last three years, we just were gradually doing like this (his hand arcs downward). This year it was nice to turn that corner back up. I think it’s important to have the valleys because it makes you know how bad you want it, makes you think about it, how hard you’re going to work, how bad you want it, how much does it mean to you — and it’s good. It brings the passion back. Sometimes you can lose that a little bit and get a little complacent. It helped make me realize how bad I want it and how much I enjoy being competitive.

Isn’t it easy to say it’s good to have the valleys when you’re moving up?
When you’re in the valley it’s no fun, but I say it because when you come through it … it’s good to struggle, you need to struggle to appreciate the good times, to understand what it takes to climb the mountain.

I went to this event (in 2011), I was really inspired by it, it was amazing. It was a charity event in New York that was honoring Ralph Lauren. Even though it’s not sports and it’s not our industry, he mentioned about losing his company. He almost lost his company two or three times, and he said that those were some of the most valuable lessons that he had and what really got him to where he is. I believe that. I think you have to experience what it’s like to be successful to win, but then you have to lose some, as well, to grow and really make sure you keep that passion, that you keep that desire and that you keep that work ethic. And also sometimes it forces you to make some changes whether it be team changes or maybe even some things you’re doing yourself.

So when I say I’m not doing anything different, at the race track I don’t do anything different. Away from the race track, yeah, I would say that I’ve definitely communicated much closer and more than I ever have before, trying to stay in better shape. My commitment is to these guys, but I have to balance out family and business because that’s the life that I have, so I have to balance that out, but these guys are definitely a priority to me.

In your career you’ve driven different styles of cars, with different tires and under different rules. Is it easier or harder to drive these current cars than what you’ve done in NASCAR?
The competition is so much greater, so these days you’re dealing with much smaller increments of gains. Every detail matters and every hundredth of a second matters, so, to me, in that sense it’s harder. Track position is so important these days (that) once you get it, it’s almost easier (to run). To get out front and stay out front is so much easier today — if you get there. If you start in the back, it’s much harder. If you start up front, it’s much easier. That didn’t used to be the case.

The other thing is that from lap one to the final lap, you race as hard as you can. There’s no holding back. Very rarely do I ever have to say, ‘My brakes are a little hot and I’m going to ease back here (or) the fuel load I have right now, I need to take it easy and wait for it to come to me.’ You go. You go as hard as you can and you do it for every lap of every run.

In mentioning your first Cup start in 1992 …
I wrecked.

Did you keep anything from that first start?
Yeah. I’ve got the money clip that Richard Petty gave in the drivers meeting (since that was Petty’s final Cup race). That’s cool. The other day, I was thinking about that, I wanted to know where that is because I know I have it. I went into my archives and I found it. I actually was carrying it with me for a little while because I wanted to show some people. I’ve put it back in a safe place now. I’ll never forget getting that. All I have is that and some video.

You didn’t keep the uniform or anything?
Oh, good question. I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ll have to go back and check to see if I have the helmet. I might have the helmet.

It’s one thing for past success to provide a form of motivation for some people, but how do you keep past success from being a burden?
It’s a burden at times. I think what’s more of a burden is just that I’m competitive, and I’m competitive because I know what it’s like to have won and had a lot of success. I’ve maintained that confidence in myself that I still have what it takes to have that success. When the car is not driving the way I want it to, if that continues to happen throughout the race or throughout weeks, you get very frustrated — and I don’t know if that’s a burden that is coming from my previous success or just my desire to be competitive.

But that does get frustrating if it happens for a length of time, because you’re sitting there going, ‘My teammate is running good over here and he’s winning races and I’ve got the same equipment, so is it me or is it him or what is it?’ That can be tough at times. I’ve gone through that, and that’s what I like so much about this year. I haven’t really changed anything. I switched over to Alan (Gustafson) and his group and I’ve fit into how they’re going about things, but as a driver what I’m doing on the race track is not any different and we’re running good and we’re having success. That’s comforting to me because it makes me realize that I don’t need to change what I’m doing, I just need to continue to work hard and give the best information that I can.

I’m more thankful and appreciative of what I’ve accomplished than anything else, so when I feel that burden and I get mad and I’m pissed because we’re not running as good or we’re not winning championships, I usually am pretty good at reminding myself shortly after that of how thankful I am to have had the success that I’ve had in the sport, and it doesn’t matter if I never win another race or another championship, it’s been amazing. I do have to fall back into that mode from time to time.

It’s been documented with your crashes that you have found places that didn’t have SAFER barriers. With your clout in the sport, why don’t you seem to play a more vocal role in safety, or do you do it more behind the scenes?
I would say I do more work behind the scenes. What I’ve learned over the years is that doing it in the public and in front of the media, while it has results, it also has consequences to the sport. I care a lot about the sport and the safety of it, yet I think sometimes it can be equally as damaging to do it publicly. Usually when drivers are doing it publicly, it’s out of frustration, and that’s usually not the best time to voice your opinion — when you’re frustrated.

When it was all said and done, was turning 40 in 2011 that big of a deal to you?
(The party) was awesome! I had a great time. It was great spending time with friends. To me, turning 40 has been fun. I like being 40.

I feel very settled in a good way. Two kids, amazing wife. Life is good, and racing (last) year was really good, I mean the Chase … eh. The three wins and the way we ran (in the regular season) — turning 40, friends, family, the charitable work we’ve done — it was a good year.

You went on a fact-finding mission to Congo last year with your work through the Clinton Global Initiative. What is going to come out of that? What will your role become now that you’ve been there and the seen the conditions?
We’ve got a plan in place. There’s a couple of different products we’re going to help fund and get them out there to that area. Those sticks that purify water (and) there’s some mosquito netting — those are like the small first steps that we can do immediately and then we’re working through the long-term plan.

It’s a slow process. You can just jump on something and say we’re going to fund this and do this, but I think it will get lost in the shuffle. We’re doing some of those things that will immediately help a lot of people, but if you want to truly save lives and really reinvigorate their economy and get involved with the government, it takes time.

We went to Rwanda with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation — Ingrid, myself and Ella. We went in December after the (championship) banquet. That was for children’s pediatric cancer. What we’ve funded is a pathology lab. What’s happening is there’s a lot of misdiagnosis going on over there. They don’t really know what the children have because they don’t have the proper equipment. We’re actually helping to transport some equipment over there.

While you’ve been involved with children’s charities for years, how did that work change once you had children?
It’s made me realize how important the work is, and there’s certainly a portion of that in seeing what life would be like as a parent to go through that and how tough and devastating that must be.

What I see is the work that I’m doing and the effort being put into it — how it is affecting Ella, my daughter. She is just fascinated with people that have injuries, and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong with them? Can I help them? Why are they here? What are the doctors doing?’ She’s just really interested. Just like going to Rwanda, we said to her, ‘We’re going to help some children and we’re going to go over there and visit them.’ She’s like, ‘Can I go? I want to go.’ We said, ‘You have to get shots.’ At first, she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want shots.’ We said if you really want to help these children, then you have to have shots. (She said) ‘OK, I’ll do it, I’ll do it for the kids.’

My parents, while they were really good people and taught me how to treat others, we didn’t go that far into philanthropy, and I think that what they did helped me get to where I am and now I can take that to the next level and help my children. Especially for my kids, because I didn’t grow up with the luxuries that my kids are going to grow up with.

I think the only way you can balance that out where they don’t get spoiled or take that for granted and not appreciate it, is for them to volunteer, to go see what is happening in the rest of the world — especially when it comes to sick children, because I think that it will inspire them to want to help, but it also will balance out the lifestyle that they have and make them understand that that might not always be the case, that there are other people suffering and it could happen to them as well.

How can your relationship with Alan Gustafson grow in his second year as your crew chief?
I’m really excited about (2012). I feel like we’ve really jelled. The chemistry is there. I really like him as a crew chief, his personality, as well as how hard he works and the team he’s surrounded himself with. He’s already been making some adjustments and some changes in plans for (this) year to make us better. Those are things that would be happening whether we were leading the points or not leading the points (during the Chase). That’s how he works. So, I’m very excited about (2012).

This season will be your 20th full season at the Cup level. How much do you have to reinvent yourself or keep up with the young guys? How much is the sport changing, and what do you have to do to keep up?
I think the thing that I look at that I can do better for these guys is give more detailed and valuable information. We started doing a numbering system this year where you break down the levels of tight and loose in three or four different segments of each corner, and that’s kind of new to me. I want to progress with that a little more. They’re looking at sections of the race track that are in 100 feet, in shocks and springs and loads and all those things; so the more detail I can get with them on, the better they can tune the car.

What I’ve learned this year is if I give them the right information, they have the tools to fix it or at least make it better. I think what some of the top drivers are doing in this series are doing a good job of that. Let’s be honest, the cars are extremely important: They have to be pretty close when you unload. You can only do so much, but in those moments when you’re not right on, all they have is me to give them information. I want to be able to give them the proper information. I’m getting older. My body is definitely not what it was 15 years ago, so I have to stay sharp with that as well. I think that we’re very capable. I think we showed (last) year that we can be stronger this year. 

 

Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong

Teaser:
<p> Jeff Gordon sits down with Athlon Sports to talk racing, family and an offseason well-spent ... though not necessarily in that order.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 19:12
All taxonomy terms: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees, MLB
Path: /mlb/mariano-rivera-retire
Body:

Yesterday everyone was asking, “When will Mariano Rivera arrive?” Today the question has become, “When will Mariano Rivera leave?”

Apparently, the iconic Panamanian closer whose entrance music is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” has been working on his exit strategy.

After showing up to Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., one day after all other New York Yankees pitchers and catchers, Rivera hinted that the 2012 season could be his last. The seemingly ageless 42-year-old is aiming to avoid a rocking chair tour, however, and isn’t ready to let the rest of the world in on his retirement plans — at least no time soon.

“I know now,” said Rivera. “I just don’t want to tell you. I know now. I will let you guys know when I think I should tell you.”

Rivera broke into the big leagues as a 25-year-old starting pitcher in 1995 before transitioning to the bullpen as the setup man for All-Star closer John Wetteland on the 1996 World Series champions — a team that had current manager Joe Girardi at catcher and 22-year-old Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter at shortstop.

In 1997, Rivera became the Yankees’ closer, a job he has held onto with a cutter grip for 15 seasons, redefining what it means to be a ninth-inning man. In the process, Rivera set the all-time saves record — which stands at 603 and counting. But just how many more 27th final game-winning outs does MLB’s last remaining No. 42 have left in his right arm?

Fresh off another unbelievably productive season — Rivera had a 1.91 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 44 saves and 60 strikeouts in 61.1 innings in 2011 — there are no signs of slippage. But Super Mariano is in the final season of a two-year, $30 million deal and, even if his staggeringly consistent results remain at the usual All-Star level in 2012, Rivera can’t pitch forever — nor does he want to.

“I have my church, my family,” said Rivera. “I’ve been blessed in amazing ways. I’ve had a great career, but at the same time, there’s other things to do.”

The regal Rivera has already established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer — compiling a 75–57 record, 603 saves, a 2.21 ERA, 0.998 WHIP and 1,111 strikeouts in 1,211.1 innings over 1,042 regular season games. The Sandman is a 12-time All-Star who has received MVP votes nine years and Cy Young votes in six seasons.

But Rivera’s legacy in pinstripes will be defined by his seemingly effortless dominance when the lights were brightest, in clutch situations in the playoffs.

Arguably the most important member of the “Core Four” — along with Jeter, retired catcher Jorge Posada, and retired lefty starter and Game 2 specialist Andy Pettitte — Mo has an 8–1 record, 42 saves, 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 141.0 innings in 32 playoff series over 16 seasons. He’s played in seven World Series, winning five world championships (2009, 2000, 1999, 1998 and 1996) and the World Series MVP in 1999.

Nothing lasts forever. It’s closing time for Rivera, whose megawatt, million-dollar smile in the bullpen is contrasted by his intimidating, laser-focus death glare on the mound. The best closer there is or ever was wants to slam the door on his brilliant career before Father Time has a chance to catch up with his cut fastball and take it the other way.

“It is important for me to leave the game on top if God allows me to do that,” said Rivera. “I won’t be dragging my arm to pitch. I’m not going to start pitching with my left arm. I want to be able to compete.”

by Nathan Rush
 

Teaser:
<p> Will 2012 be the last season for 42-year-old New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera?</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 18:55
Path: /columns/monday-recap/kyle-busch-wins-shootout-carl-edwards-500-pole
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

Kyle Busch won a crash-filled Budweiser Shootout on Saturday evening, kicking off Daytona Speedweeks in spectacular fashion.

Busch’s .013-second win over Tony Stewart (right) was the closest finish in the Shootout’s 34-year history. In route to the win, Busch found himself completely sideways on two occasions, but was able to save his Toyota — itself a backup car rolled out after an accident in practice — each time.

“I was trying to push (Ryan) Newman and hook up with him, then he was hooked up with whoever was in front of him,” Busch said of his final charge to the front. “I’m like, ‘All right, fine.’ The hole opened up behind Stewart. I ducked in behind there knowing he had a fast car, (and) pushed him.

“We got up through there. He made the way to the outside and everything. Coming to the line — I’ve been in that situation in reverse before with Tony (and it) hadn’t ended up so well. This time it turned out all right. We made it past him and beat him to the line, so it was cool.”

Busch earned nearly $200,000 for the victory.

While the ending came down to Busch and Stewart teaming up in a tandem draft to separate from the field, the majority of the race witnessed “pack racing.”

Fan displeasure with the two-car tandem drafts that had become the norm at Daytona and Talladega prompted NASCAR to make changes to the cars’ plate, grille and spoiler sizes as well as the max radiator pressure. The result was cars bunched together in three-wide packs.

“It was definitely a lot more fun and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal,” Stewart said. “I actually had fun racing at Daytona again which I haven’t had for a while, so I’m really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the offseason and the test session and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there.”

Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Deny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.

An eight-car wreck with eight laps remaining resulted in Jeff Gordon on his roof. That incident, which also included Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, sent the event into a green-white-checker finish. Busch and Ambrose were also involved, but continued after minimal repairs.

“It was just getting down to the end of the race and it was time to go,” Gordon said. “Me and Jimmie were looking good there. We knew those guys were coming, and once Kyle got in front of me, I was just trying to keep Jimmie on me and trying to stay with Kyle.

“Every time I got to Kyle’s bumper, he just started getting so sideways, like he was a lot tonight. And I thought he was going to wreck. I saw him start to spin, so I went wide, not knowing someone had gotten to my outside. That got me into those guys and into the wall and along for a ride.”

Edwards on Pole  Carl Edwards will lead the 43-car field to green in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards topped Sunday’s qualifying session with a fast lap of 194.738 mph (46.216 seconds). Edwards nipped his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, by .155 seconds. Both are locked into the front row.

It was Edwards’ first Daytona 500 pole.

Positions 3-39 will be determined in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel races. Four additional spots will be awarded to the fastest qualifiers on Sunday that did not qualify via the Duels. The 43rd spot will likely go to a past champion, although if all former champions qualify in the Duels or on speed, the final spot will be awarded to the fifth-fastest Sunday qualifier not already in.
 

Teaser:
<p> NASCAR's Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway kicked off over the weekend with a first-time Bud Shootout winner and a first-time Daytona 500 pole winner.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 18:14
Path: /college-basketball/uconn-illinois-memphis-and-nc-state-lead-bubble-talk
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Which NCAA Tournament bubble team had the most damaging loss over the weekend?

Mark Ross: Could defending national champion UConn not make the NCAA Tournament? After Saturday’s 79–64 home loss to Marquette, the Huskies definitely have some work to do to feel more secure about their chances heading into the Big East Tournament. UConn has lost seven of its last nine games and has 10 losses overall and just a 6–8 record in the Big East. With three winnable games and a Feb. 25 home game against No. 2 Syracuse remaining, the Huskies should finish no worse than .500 in the Big East. However, should they slip up again and start the postseason with 12 or more losses, the Huskies may need to win the Big East Tournament to even get a shot at defending its title.

Mitch Light: I’ll go with Illinois, which barely put up a fight in a stunning 80–57 loss at Nebraska. The Illini have two great wins to brag about — vs. Michigan State and Ohio State — but they have now lost eight of their past nine games to drop to 16–11 overall and 5–9 in the Big Ten. With trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin still on the slate, the best-case scenario for this team is a 7–11 Big Ten record heading into the league tournament.

Nathan Rush: Memphis lost to UTEP, 60–58, despite leading 28–19 at the half and 51–44 with 6:25 remaining. The collapse further exposed Josh Pastner’s club as a pretender more than a contender. There is a significant gap between the Tigers’ perceived talent level and their ability to produce results. Memphis has three losses in Conference USA — UTEP, at Southern Miss and at UCF. Worse, the Tigers have no wins against NCAA Tournament-caliber competition, with home victories over Xavier and Southern Miss being the best wins on Memphis’ resume. Pastner is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his three seasons since taking over for John Calipari.

Which team had the best win of the past weekend?

Mitch Light: Creighton had played itself onto the bubble after losing three straight games in MVC play. The Bluejays once-solid résumé was in desperate need of a quality win, and Greg McDermott’s club responded by rallying to beat Long Beach State (No. 36 RPI) in Omaha on a jump shot by Antoine Young with 0.3 seconds to play. The Bluejays, with an RPI of 28, would likely have to lose their two remaining regular-season games — vs. Evansville and Indiana State — to be in any danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.

Mark Ross: Kansas State came into Saturday’s game at No. 10 Baylor having lost two in a row and four of its last six. Not only did the Wildcats’ 57–56 win over the Bears end their modest losing streak, it may have secured their invite to the Big Dance. With the victory, Kansas State is now 18–8 overall, but more importantly, 7–7 in the Big 12. The win also gives the Wildcats the signature road victory their résumé was missing.

Nathan Rush: Alabama rolled over Tennessee, 62–50, in a victory that showed the character and toughness of Anthony Grant’s team. The Crimson Tide were without their top two scorers and rebounders, senior JaMychal Green and junior Tony Mitchell, as well as freshman forward Nick Jacobs — who sat out due to a mouth infection. Bama made no excuses, however, snapping a two-game losing streak by locking down the Vols defensively, holding UT to just 15-of-44 from the field (34.1 percent) and 4-of-20 from 3-point range (20 percent).

Will NC State make the NCAA Tournament?

Nathan Rush: Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani won’t even have a chance to be thrown out of an NCAA Tournament game — as they were in Saturday’s 76–62 home loss to Florida State — because NC State won’t make the field of 68 this season. Unless the Wolfpack make an unbelievable run in the ACC Tournament, with wins over North Carolina and/or Duke, Mark Gottfried will fall short in his first season at the helm in Raleigh.

Mitch Light: This question would have been easy to answer had the Pack been able to hold onto a 20-point lead at Duke last week. But they didn’t, which leaves Mark Gottfried’s club squarely on the bubble. State has 7–5 record in the ACC with some winnable games remaining (at Clemson, vs. Miami and at Virginia Tech). This team is lacking in quality wins (at Miami is the only top-50 RPI win) but doesn’t have many bad losses either. My guess is that NC State will win three of its final four regular-season games and do just enough in the ACC Tournament to sneak into the Field of 68.

Mark Ross: I’m going to say yes, but NC State’s margin of error is razor-thin. The Wolfpack let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers on Feb. 16 when they let Duke come back from a 20-point deficit in the second half of the Blue Devils’ 78–73 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not surprisingly, the disappointment carried over to Saturday’s 76–62 home loss to Florida State. I still think NC State has a great shot at making the NCAA Tournament, as long as the Wolfpack take care of their remaining business. They should still finish the season with at least 20 wins and have played a solid overall schedule, with only one bad loss (82-71 at home to Georgia Tech) on their resume. This should be enough to get an invite from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but there’s still some work left to be done.
 

Teaser:
<p> UConn, Illinois, Memphis and NC State Lead Bubble Talk</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 17:56
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /columns/monday-musings/reality-check-lefty
Body:

In this knee-jerk era of sports analysis, when we attach eternal significance to what a guy did yesterday, many observers are anointing Phil Mickelson the 2012 PGA Tour Player of the Year and odds-on favorite to win multiple majors solely on the basis of the last two weekends. Mickelson Mania — or Phil Phanaticism, or whatever pun you can pop out of the oven (see what I did there?) — is rivaling Linsanity as sports' mental affliction of the moment. 
I love the guy as much as anybody, but let's tap the breaks.
I'll stipulate that Phil has had a phenomenal fortnight — his win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am came on the strength of a blazing final-round 64 in which he curb-stomped playing partner Tiger Woods, and in his playoff loss at the Northern Trust Open, he supplied the best drama, carding the weekend's most spectacular birdie at golf's greatest natural amphitheater just to get into Sudden Death. 
But let me play buzzkill with a few inconvenient truths. 
Mickelson has tantalized his followers for years by treating the West Coast as his personal playground. He rules the West like a latter-day Wyatt Earp; the desert is his sheikhdom. Of Phil's 40 career wins, 23 have come west of the Mississippi, and 18 have occurred in the months of January and February. When the temperatures are at their coldest in the Northeast, Lefty's usually at his hottest out in SoCal and Scottsdale. 
Unfortunately for Phil, the players are headed east, and the calendar's about to turn to March, a month in which he's one only once in his career. His best finish in this week's Accenture Match Play is a quarterfinal appearance in 2004.
It's also worth pointing out that, as great as he is, Mickelson's never had that truly monster year. His personal record for single-season wins is four; Tiger Woods has matched or exceeded that total in a season 11 times. Vijay Singh won nine times in 2004. Those happen to be two of the most recent players to be ranked No. 1 in the world, a ranking that Mickelson's never attained. Mickelson hasn't posted multiple wins in a season since 2009.
Bottom line: Mickelson flashes greatness almost as often as he flashes that famous smirk, but he's never sustained it for a full season, long enough to win a money title or multiple majors. Throw in an ongoing battle with arthritis, and thoughts of a run at the No. 1 ranking seem a little unrealistic.
Of course, Lefty's Masters record takes a back seat to Jack's, Tiger's, Arnie's — and no one else's. It won't surprise me if he wins at Augusta. But let's cool any premature Grand Slam talk. Phil's already a Hall of Famer. No need to ask things of him that he can't deliver. 

— by Rob Doster

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 15:15

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