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At the same time, the conference rarely has been so unpredictable.
The arrival of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame was one of the top storylines in the conference last season, especially as Syracuse started the season with 25 consecutive wins, 12 in the league.
The Orange, though, couldn’t claim the ultimate prizes. Instead, Virginia became the leader of the league in every sense of the word. The Cavaliers won an outright regular season title, claimed the ACC tournament title and advanced the furthest of any league team in the NCAA Tournament when they reached the Sweet 16.
Virginia’s emergence last season was just more evidence that Duke and North Carolina don’t have quite the stranglehold on the ACC they once did. Duke hasn’t won the ACC tourney since 2011. North Carolina hasn’t won it since 2008.
Could the pendulum swing back to Tobacco Road in 2014-15? Athlon has projected Duke and Carolina to finish Nos. 1-2 in the ACC thanks to the arrival of potential All-America center Jahlil Okafor in Durham and an experienced roster in Chapel Hill.
But the battle for in a 15-team ACC is a gauntlet. Maryland is out and Louisville is in for 2014-15 with the Cardinals joining Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame from the Big East.
If Duke and North Carolina are going to reassert their dominance in the league this season, rarely has the path been so difficult.
Previews of every ACC team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
ACC 2014-15 Preseason Picks
1. Duke (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Final Four
The nation’s top recruiting class brings four freshmen who can make big impacts right away. Add in a solid mix of veterans and the Blue Devils are the clear favorite.
2. North Carolina (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Elite Eight
Rising star Marcus Paige and a strong nucleus will combine with another talented freshman class to give Roy Williams a deep rotation.
3. Louisville (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Montrezl Harrell is a proven big man and Rick Pitino reloads with yet another strong recruiting crop.
4. Virginia (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
The bulk of the rotation from a 30-win team is back, including leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon.
5. Syracuse (team preview)
NCAA projection: NCAA round of 32
No team in the conference may have lost more talent, but the Orange will still be a factor.
6. Pittsburgh (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
Jamie Dixon must replace his leading scorer and rebounder, but don’t expect Pitt slide much.
7. Florida State (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
Two double-digit scorers must be replaced, but Leonard Hamilton will have more depth and experience, and plenty of size to work with.
8. NC State (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
The Wolfpack will be young, but transfer Trevor Lacey (Alabama) will help make up for the loss of T.J. Warren.
9. Notre Dame (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
The return of Jerian Grant gives the Irish one of the ACC’s top guards, but there are still glaring holes in the frontcourt.
Postseason projection: NIT
Transfer Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) will be a nice addition, but the lack of a supporting cast may leave the Canes in rebuilding mode.
11. Clemson (team preview)
Postseason projection: NIT
Tigers were one or two wins away from NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, but losing K.J. McDaniels to the NBA will make everything tougher.
12. Wake Forest
After taking Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament, Danny Manning takes on the hefty task of rebuilding the Deacs.
13. Georgia Tech
This is likely make-or-break season for coach Brian Gregory, who has yet to have a winning ACC season in his three years in Atlanta.
14. Virginia Tech
The Hokies may have pulled off the best hire of the offseason by convincing Buzz Williams to leave Marquette.
15. Boston College
New coach Jim Christian takes over a program that won just eight games last season.
2014 ACC Superlatives
Player of the Year: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Early in the season, North Carolina would go as Marcus Paige did. By the end of the season, Paige went form a streaky player to one of the most consistent in the league. With a stabilized cast around him, Paige could have an All-America kind of season.
Best Defensive Player: Aaron Thomas, Florida State
Florida State generally has solid defensive teams under Leonard Hamilton, and the guard Thomas will spearhead that effort again. Thomas finished last season with 14.5 points per game and 57 total steals.
Most Underrated Player: Trevor Lacey, NC State
NC State has lost its share of transfers in recent years. The Wolfpack gets one back in Lacey from Alabama. He’ll make up half of a solid scoring tandem with point guard Cat Barber.
Newcomer of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor’s reputation as a rare talent precedes him at Duke. The Blue Devils haven’t had a dominant big man for several seasons, and now they’ll have one of the top post prospects to come along in years. He'll be a Player of the Year contender and possible No. 1 overall draft pick.
Top Coach: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke (full ACC coach rankings)
G Marcus Paige, North Carolina
G Olivier Hanlan, Boston College
G Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
F Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
C Jahlil Okafor, Duke
G Angel Rodriguez, Miami
G Aaron Thomas, Florida State
G Trevor Lacey, NC State
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
G/F Justin Jackson, North Carolina
G Quinn Cook, Duke
G Tyus Jones, Duke
G Terry Rozier, Louisville
G Chris Jones, Louisville
G/F Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame
It took Pittsburgh little time to make a resounding impression in its ACC debut. The Panthers opened with a 16–1 record, including 4–0 in the league, and raised eyebrows from Tobacco Road to Tallahassee.
Then, they dropped six of their next 10 and eventually lost in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament to top-seeded Florida. This is not to suggest that the season was a failure. Far from it. Pittsburgh went 26–10, placed fifth in the ACC and won two games in the conference tournament.
The goal moving forward, though, is to replicate last season’s brisk beginning, then to maintain the standard. The good news is that three starters and six of the top eight scorers return from a team for which young players emerged during a late-season 5–1 stretch. Pittsburgh will feature only two scholarship seniors this season.
“We started to grow up, to figure it out,” junior guard James Robinson says.
There will be challenges with the departures of leading scorer Lamar Patterson and leading rebounder Talib Zanna, but it is nothing veteran coach Jamie Dixon hasn’t seen before. Dixon is masterful at making the sum better than the parts, which explains why he’s been to 10 NCAA tournaments in 11 years.
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Pittsburgh’s big men have promise and potential. The question is: Can they maximize it? Sophomore Mike Young, who moves from power forward to center, is the key. He displayed a refined interior skill set last season but wasn’t at full capacity due to a stress fracture in his lower back. An offseason weight-loss regimen and a mini growth spurt to 6-9-plus must pay dividends to soften the loss of Zanna. He’ll get help from senior Derrick Randall and junior Joseph Uchebo, but Young, a tireless defender, needs to emerge.
One of Pittsburgh’s more intriguing players is sophomore power forward Jamel Artis. His inside-outside talents emerged in the later stages of the season, with 11 points and seven rebounds vs. Virginia and 13 and seven against North Carolina. A potential matchup problem with an ability to step away from the basket, Artis could flourish as the season progresses.
At small forward, sophomore Sheldon Jeter is an enticing mystery. Jeter, who began his career at Vanderbilt, is a highly regarded talent who offers the versatility to play multiple positions.
Pittsburgh Panthers Facts & Figures
Last season: 26-10, 11-7 ACC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Coach: Jamie Dixon (288-96 at Pittsburgh, 126-64 Big East/ACC)
ACC Projection: Seventh
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Robinson is the consummate delivery man. He ranked sixth nationally in assist-turnover ratio and possesses unquestioned command in setting the tempo. But here’s the rub: Pittsburgh needs more from the Bob Cousy Award finalist. He averaged just 7.6 points and rarely created his own shot. He must be a difference-maker in all facets if Pittsburgh is to evolve into an ACC contender.
Shooting guard Cameron Wright is raw at times but provides explosiveness and aggressiveness. He hit double figures 20 times and can stuff the stat sheet with his rebounding and passing. If Wright continues to ascend, the backcourt could be formidable.
A potential X-factor is change-of-pace speedster Josh Newkirk, a sophomore who was strong late in the season. He will give Dixon the option of using three-guard sets with his versatility. The purest scorer among the group is 6-6 junior Durand Johnson, a sharpshooter with unlimited range. He was averaging 8.8 points off the bench before a season-ending ACL/meniscus injury Jan. 11.
Despite Dixon’s success — he has a .750 winning percentage — he hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in five years and missed the tourney altogether in ‘12. Because of this, the veteran coach finds himself in the midst of a conflicted fan base. Some are ecstatic that he’s put Pittsburgh basketball on the map over the past decade, while others believe he needs to raise the bar higher.
Dixon accepts all points of view. “We understand what the fans want. We expect the same for ourselves,” says Dixon, who’s been to three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. “It’s what we keep working for, reaching for.”
With the lack of a dominant star and uncertainty in the frontcourt, Dixon’s team will need time to jell. As always, he’ll coax maximum effort and results from his youthful group.
Will it be enough to land the Panthers back in the Sweet 16? The Elite Eight? Perhaps not, but another trip to the NCAA Tournament is more than realistic.
Of Pittsburgh’s four newcomers, Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter is expected to provide the most immediate impact. The sophomore averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in his lone season in Nashville. Junior-college transfer Tyrone Haughton needs seasoning, but offers solid defensive skills around the rim. Combo-forward Ryan Luther offers versatility, as he can score from outside or in the paint. Late signee Cameron Johnson, a swingman, is a redshirt candidate.
Just one week after knocking off TCU, Baylor became the latest casualty in the Big 12, leaving the conference with no unbeaten teams and no teams in the Legends Poll Top 8.
The Bears fell 41-27 in Morgantown and dropped from No. 4 in the rankings, receiving zero Top 8 votes this week.
No. 2 Florida State survived in a heavyweight bout against Notre Dame Saturday night, knocking off the Irish 31-27 to keep its 23-game win streak alive. Notre Dame impressed the Legends Poll voters and remained at No. 7, despite the loss.
No. 4 Alabama moved up a spot and remains the highest ranked 1-loss team after dismantling Texas A&M 59-0 at home. Top-ranked Mississippi State was idle.
Ole Miss maintained its No. 3 ranking with another impressive defensive performance against Tennessee. Idle Auburn rounded out the top 5.
No. 6 Oregon moved back into the Legends Poll rankings, followed by Notre Dame and Michigan State.
|1||Mississippi State (11)||6-0||109||1|
|2||Florida State (3)||7-0||96||2|
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
The Eastern Conference hasn’t been the same without Derrick Rose. The Chicago Bulls, originally thought to be the top roadblock to LeBron James’ kingdom, couldn’t compete with James’ Miami Heat superteams without their killer point guard, who played only ten games over the past two seasons with knee injuries. James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers now; the Bulls lost their shot at James' Miami squad.
But the would-be rivalry between Rose and the four-time MVP may still see its fiercest days yet.
This is what the basketball world thought last night, watching Rose explode in a 107-98 preseason loss against the Cavs in Columbus, Ohio. He started off cautiously, moving the ball through Chicago’s offense patiently, but attacked Cleveland’s defense relentlessly once he found its cracks, racking up 16 points in the second quarter and providing some breathtaking clips:
Rose finished with 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting in 24 minutes — still likely well below the minutes he’ll play by midseason — along with three assists, five rebounds and zero turnovers. He was a marvel, and if he can reproduce this kind of effort with any consistency, the Bulls just might be the threat to the Cavaliers’ supremacy that the East is otherwise lacking.
The friction between these two teams is only increased by the biting words Joakim Noah had after the game, reminding Ohioans of his past criticisms of their land — including when he said that “Cleveland really sucks” in bringing up his NCAA triumph over Ohio State. The former University of Florida Gator had this to say when asked why he was booed by the fans in attendance: “Because we won the championship. And then we beat them in football. It's all good, though.”
Even though Cleveland won the exhibition, the Bulls still made a hell of an impression. Even lacking their best perimeter defender in Jimmy Butler, who was out with a sprained left thumb, they still looked like valiant fighters. Stay tuned for what might be the most exciting rivalry in the 2014-15 NBA season, which resumes with a Halloween special when Cleveland visits the Bulls.
— John Wilmes
Notre Dame and the ACC (and its 14 teams) have announced future dates for matchups until 2025.
The Fighting Irish will play five ACC opponents most seasons, but there are some seasons with four or six matchups.
Of note: Notre Dame won’t play Florida State again until 2018, while the Fighting Irish play at Clemson in 2015.
1. Notre Dame at Virginia, 9/12
2. Georgia Tech at Notre Dame, 9/19
3. Notre Dame at Clemson, 10/3
4. Notre Dame at Pitt, 11/7
5. Wake Forest at Notre Dame, 11/14
6. Notre Dame vs. Boston College (Fenway Park), 11/21
1. Duke at Notre Dame, 9/24
2. Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (MetLife Stadium), 10/1*
3. Notre Dame at NC State, 10/8
4. Miami at Notre Dame, 10/29
5. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame, 11/19
1. Notre Dame at Boston College, 9/16
2. Notre Dame at North Carolina, 10/07
3. NC State at Notre Dame, 10/28
4. Wake Forest at Notre Dame, 11/04
5. Notre Dame at Miami, 11/11
1. Syracuse at Notre Dame, 9/22
2. Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, 10/13
3. Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, 10/20
4. Florida State at Notre Dame, 11/10
5. Notre Dame at Wake Forest, 11/17
1. Notre Dame at Louisville, 9/2 (Labor Day)
2. Virginia at Notre Dame, 9/28
3. Notre Dame at Georgia Tech, 10/19
4. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame, 11/02
5. Notre Dame at Duke, 11/09
6. Boston College at Notre Dame, 11/23
1. Notre Dame at Wake Forest
2. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
3. Duke at Notre Dame
4. Clemson at Notre Dame
5. Louisville at Notre Dame
1. Notre Dame at Florida State, 9/6 (Labor Day)
2. Notre Dame at Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina at Notre Dame
4. Notre Dame at Virginia
5. Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
1. Notre Dame at North Carolina
2. Notre Dame at Syracuse
3. Boston College at Notre Dame
4. Clemson at Notre Dame
1. Notre Dame at NC State
2. Notre Dame at Duke
3. Notre Dame at Louisville
4. Wake Forest at Notre Dame
5. Notre Dame at Clemson
6. Pittsburgh at Notre Dame
1. Miami at Notre Dame
2. Notre Dame at Georgia Tech
3. Florida State at Notre Dame
4. Virginia at Notre Dame
1. Notre Dame at Miami
2. NC State at Notre Dame
3. Notre Dame at Boston College
4. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
5. Syracuse at Notre Dame
* - Designated ‘home’ game for Syracuse
@ - Designated ‘home’ game for Notre Dame
The 2014 World Series begins tonight in Kansas City, as two Wild Card teams meet in the Fall Classic for the first time since the 2002 Series that saw the Angels beat the Giants in seven games. The been-there-done that San Francisco Giants head east to take on the stout Kansas City Royals in Game 1 tonight at Kauffman Stadium.
Both teams were long shots at the beginning of the Postseason, having to overcome more heralded teams, and the Wild Card play-in game. Here are five storylines to watch as the World Series kicks off.
Both the Giants and the Royals feature supreme pitching talent in their respective bullpens. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy is much more tactical with his bullpen maneuvers compared to that of Royals manager Ned Yost. Bocky isn’t afraid to mix up relievers in different innings to keep opposing hitters and managers guessing. Yost is much more concrete in his relief strategy. Kelvin Herrera will get the ball in the 7th, Wade Davis in the 8th, and Greg Holland in the 9th.
Even the pitchers themselves are contrasting in pitching styles. The Royals come at you with a “here it is, try and hit it” approach; while the Giants are much more analytical about how they pitch to a hitter. One thing both stables have in common, they are effective.
The combo of Herrera, Davis, and Holland has been outstanding, to be modest. The Royals as a complete bullpen unit have thrown 35 innings, yielding a .179 AVG and 1.80 ERA during the Postseason. Herrera pitched 8 1/3 of those innings giving up one run and posting a 1.08 ERA. Davis is even better in the 8th with a 0.96 ERA in 9 1/3 innings pitched, surrendering one run as well. The same story applies for Holland who has notched six saves (Four of those vs. Baltimore, tying Dennis Eckersley’s postseason record for saves in one series) and a 1.13 ERA in eight innings pitched, also giving up just one run.
San Fran’s veteran cohort of Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Segio Romo, and Santiago Cassila has all been here before, twice actually. All four of the Giants primary bullpen arms were with the club during their first two World Series runs in 2010 and 2012. The roles have changed but the names have stayed the same.
In his last 18 appearances, lefty vet Jeremy Affeldt, has not given up a single run. Lefty specialist Javier Lopez hasn’t surrendered a run either in his last 15 mound appearances. But no Giants reliever has been as potent as Santiago Casilla. Cassilla has only given up two hits in his seven Postseason appearances this year, and didn’t give up a hit for a month prior to those hits in Game 4 of the NLCS. Thus far, Casilla has put up zeros in the ERA, Runs, and Earned Runs columns.
The Giants pen hasn’t been as “dominating” compared to that of the Royals because of one glaring stat. The Giants have given up seven home runs thus far in the Postseason. Hunter Strickland was responsible for surrendering four of those, two to Bryce Harper. Strickland only appeared once in the NLCS against the Cardinals but still gave up a dinger. Strickland and Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum will be the wild cards out of the Giants pen. 21 year-old lefty Brandon Finnegan has been outstanding for Ned Yost and the Royals, and could be the ace in the hole for KC. Finnegan was the Royals first-round draft pick out of TCU this past July, and he clearly has the stuff to make hitters miss in The Show, striking out 10, posting a 1.00 WHIP and 1.29 ERA to go along with just one earned run and one hit in 4.1 innings of work.
ROYAL SPEED vs. BUSTER POSEY
Much has been made about the Royals’ blazing speed on the base paths, and for good reason, their speed is game changing. The Royals led all of baseball in stolen bases with 153 and proved time and time again just how dangerous their base stealing ability is throughout the Postseason as eight different runners have stolen a bag at some point this October.
Giants All-star catcher Buster Posey is more than adequate behind the plate but finds himself in the middle of the pack when it comes to catching base thieves. So far this postseason, Posey has only picked off one runner and allowed three to advance safely. Granted, that is a small sample size, but even his regular season numbers aren’t that great. During the 2014 season, Posey only threw out approximately 30 percent of all runners, allowing 59 steals, ranking him 12th in baseball in bases stolen.
If speedsters Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and Alcides Escobar can get on base, look for Ned Yost to give his guys the green light to run on the former NL MVP.
We are all but guaranteed to see Giants lefty ace Madison Bumgarner and the Royals’ “Big Game James” Shields in at least two appearances this series as they both take the hill in Game 1 tonight.
Bumgarner earned his title as the NLCS MVP with fantastic performances all October long. In four postseason games this Fall, Bumgarner has given up just five earned runs, while striking out 28, and posting a 1.42 ERA, .170 AVG, and 0.76 WHIP in 31.2 innings.
Shields, on the other hand, hasn’t exactly lived up to his “Big Game” moniker. In 50.1 career innings of postseason work, Shields has put up a 5.19 ERA, and only reached the 7th inning once, way back in 2008 when the Rays went to the World Series. If the Royals’ are aspiring for one more post-series champagne shower, they are going to need more from their veteran hurler.
BIG STICKS AND TIMELY HITS
Neither the Royals nor the Giants were known during the regular season for hitting the long ball. In fact, the Royals ranked last in all of baseball in homers (95), while the Giants were 17th (132). But October has brought out the big bats at all the right times.
Eric Hosmer’s October coming out party has been better than anything Kid ‘N Play could host at their parent’s house. Hosmer and his bat have propelled the Royals to their first World Series in 29 years, thanks to his .448/.556/.759 slash line, 2 HR, a double, triple, and and 8 RBI in eight games. Its not just how much damage Hos is doing, but when he is doing it. His one-out triple in the 12th in the AL Wild Card game sparked KC’s comeback over the As in one of the best baseball games you could ever hope to see. And his 11th inning jack in Los Angeles in Game 2 of the ALDS might have been the back breaker the Angels were dreading. But Hos isn’t alone in his offensive conquest. ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain has been nothing short of remarkable with his timely hitting including 15 total bases, 12 hits, 9 runs, 3 doubles, 4 RBI, and 2 stolen bags in just 8 games this October, while Mike Moustakas has added four homers of his own.
The Giants haven’t been as fortunate at the plate, but have found ways to muster up runs, usually by capitalizing on other team’s errors. San Fran’s Postseason team batting average is a lackluster .244 with an OBP of .318. If the Giants are going to score runs, it will be much tougher against the Royals, one of the soundest defenses in baseball. The Giants may also need more home run heroics earlier in games because of the strength of KC bullpen in later innings. Buster Posey (.302/.354/.302) and Pablo Sandoval (.326/.396./406) have been the Giants most reliable hitters through the Postseason, amassing 27 hits, but only four went for extra bases, all of which belong to Sandoval.
For the Giants to raise the Commissioner’s Trophy one more time, players like Hunter Pence (.256/.341/.333), Brandon Belt (1 extra base hit), Michael Morse (4 at-bats, 1HR), and Brandon Crawford (.211/.279./342) will have to deliver when it matters most.
GIANT EXPERIENCE vs. ROYAL MAGIC
Both clubs are coming into the World Series scorching hot. The Royals have picked the perfect time to go streaking (“…through the quad, and into the gymnasium, and into the World Series…everybody’s doing it”), winning their last eight games against teams that were all better than them in the regular season. But October doesn’t care about what you did April through September. Of the Royals 25-man roster, only three players have ever played in the postseason. Judging from the way the Royals have made acrobatic plays in the outfield, stolen bases, and hit dramatic home runs, you never would have guessed it, but of the team’s 25-man Postseason roster, only three players have October experience. Maybe this team is just naïve enough to take on this tested, veteran Giants ball club.
The Giants have been here before, twice, actually. Bumgarner, Sandoval, Posey, Lincecum, Crawford, Belt, Casilla, Lopez, Romo, Pence, Affeldt, and Machi were all apart of the 2012 Giants team that won it all against the Detroit Tigers. Thanks in part to their stringent defense, reliable pitching, and polished at bats, the Giants are never out of a game. Someone always seems to step up for them at the right time, whether it’s Lincecum out of the bullpen, Sandoval smacking three homers in one game, or latest-additions Michael Morse and Travis Ishikawa hitting homers, the Giants typically deliver in October.
This Fall Classic matchup between the Royals and Giants has all the makings of a fantastic conclusion to yet another outstanding MLB season.
By Jake Rose
The San Francisco Giants are making an unlikely postseason run to try and win their third World Series in five seasons. The Giants bring experience, grit and small ball to Kansas City tonight to take on the fairy-tale Royals in Game 1.
This could very well be business as usual for the Giants, another Postseason series, another Commisioner’s Trophy in the case. Here are four reasons why the San Francisco Giants will win the World Series and become the team of the decade.
Been There Done That…Again
Experience is something that is not on the side of the Kansas City Royals. Only three of the 25 players on the World Series roster have postseason experience. The same cannot be said for the Giants.
Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Castilla, Madison Bumgarner, Jeremy Affeldt, Jean Machi and Ryan Vogelsong were all part of the Giants 2012 World Series team. Bumgarner, Lincecum, Affeldt, Castilla, Romo, Lopez, Posey and Sandoval were all pieces in the 2010 World Series winning team. To say that these guys have experience is quite the understatement.
Each player knows his role on the team. The Giants aren't flashy, they don't hit a lot of homers, they don't steal a lot of bases — they play great team ball. The cliche is “doing all the little things well.” That is the 2014 San Francisco Giants. They work counts, have timely hits, have solid pitching, and play efficient defense well enough to win championships.
This isn’t the first October rodeo for Santiago Castilla, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. They all know what they are doing. All four relievers have been a part of both of the Giants' World Series championships since 2010. Their roles have changed over time, but the job still remains the same. Romo was the set-up man in 2010 to the bearded Brian Wilson and moved to the closer role in 2012, where Castilla was the set up man. Lopez has always been the lefty on lefty specialist, shutting down southpaws whenever called upon. And Jeremy Affeldt, well, he gets everyone out.
Giants relievers have allowed a postseason low 1.78 ERA in 35 1/3 innings. But the “Core Four” of relievers have been so good that they have only allowed one run in over 19 innings of work. That one run was Kolten Wong’s walk-off homer in Game 2 of the NLCS off Sergio Romo. Neither Castilla, Affeldt nor Lopez has given up a run in their last 17, 18, and 15 Postseason appearances, respectively. Wow, good luck KC.
The good ole boy from North Carolina has been anything but easygoing on the mound. In fact, Madison Bumgarner has been nasty. The Giants ace will take the ball in Game 1 of the series tonight in KC, and more than likely Game 4, and Game 7 if needed.
The 25 year-old southpaw is already in his third World Series in his young, five year career. The NLCS MVP has made 4 Postseason appearances thus far and pitched 31.2 innings. In those 30-plus innings, MadBum has chalked up a 1.42 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 28 strikeouts, and just five walks and five earned runs…and not to mention a complete game shutout in the NL Wild Card against the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates.
If Royals lefties Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Nori Aoki, Alex Gordon, and Jarrod Dyson think they stand a chance against Bumgarner, they should think again. MadBum’s numbers against lefties during the regular season are startling: .224/.246/.293, just 10 extra base hits, 58 strikeouts, 5 walks, and 12 RBI against 174 left-handed at bats.
Actually, bunting doesn't sound like a bad idea. Right, Ned Yost?
Just like his players, Bruce Bochy has been here, and won that — twice. Bruce Bochy knows exactly what buttons to press to put his guys in the right spot, to make the right plays, at the right time. Whether its pinch-hitting Michael Morse and then watching him hit the game-tying homer in Game 5 of the NLCS, or knowing when to go to his two-time Cy Young Award Winner, Tim Lincecum in the bullpen, Bruce just knows.
If there was ever any doubt as to whether Bochy was going to Cooperstown before this October, it's disappeared now. Bochy could be the difference in the series, especially if he forces Ned Yost’s hand to make a decision that gives the veteran Giants an advantage. Bochy’s greatest managerial trait is allowing his players to make mistakes and then learning from them down the road. Bruce knows this team better than anyone, and he could be the reason the Giant win another World Series title.
By Jake Rose
The Royals are the darlings of the baseball Postseason, and winners of eight in a row. KC started out in the Wild Card game against the Oakland As, then went on to sweep the American League’s best team, the Los Angeles Angels in three games, and then the homer-happy Baltimore Orioles in four straight.
The boys from Kansas City take on the perennial National League powerhouse San Francisco Giants in Game One tonight at Kauffman Stadium in KC. Here are four reasons why the Royals will beat the Giants and win the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
7, 8, 9
The Kansas City bullpen is downright dirty. As an opposing player you know that Kelvin Herrera is coming in to start the 7th, then Wade Davis in the 8th, and then Greg Holland to finish you off in the 9th. You know that all three of them are going to bring heat, sometimes triple digit heat…you also know you aren't hitting that heat.
Between the three of them, they have given up just three runs in 25.2 innings of work, while all three of them have 10 strikeouts. If you're going to score on the Royals, score early, because once the 7th inning starts, you might as well go home.
Dave Roberts has the most famous stolen base in Postseason history, igniting the miraculous 2004 Red Sox comeback against the Yankees. After this World Series is over and done with, we might be talking about a ton of stolen bases from the Royals. So far this Postseason, KC has nabbed 13 bags, coming from eight different players.
Buster Posey is a very able catcher defensively, but he is in the middle of the road when it comes to throwing runners out. Over the course of the 2014 season Posey threw out just 30% of the runners that attempted to steal a bag on him. The Royals stole 80% of the bags they attempted to take, just .5% away from being tops in baseball. Safe to say that Posey is going to have a plate full of Royals runners.
Defense Wins Championships
The Royals Leather Expo has been going on all October long. The KC outfield has especially been in the spotlight. Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Nori Aoki roam the outfield hunting down baseballs like Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, and Sam Ellliot hunted Cowboys in Tombstone, just faster and not on horses.
Outfield walls, foul territory tarps, railings, have all tried to stop Royals defenders from making plays, all failed. The Giants best chance to beating the Royals defense is to hit the ball where they can’t get to it, out of the ball park. Hitting the ball in the Kauffman Stadium fountains and into McCovey Cove is the best prospect the Giants have in circumnavigating the Royals defense.
The Magic of October
Maybe you don't believe in fairy tales, or luck, or magic, but the Royals do — they have to. There is no logical explanation for the fact that they were able to come back time after time and beat the As in the AL Wild Card game. There was no explanation as to why they were able to sweep Mike Trout and the AL-best Angels. There was no reasoning as to why they were able to completely silence the biggest bats in baseball, in the Baltimore Orioles. Heck, we are still all perplexed that this team made the Postseason at all!
This team was dead last in home runs. Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz hit almost half as many long balls than the entire Royals team did this season.
But time and time again, whether it is Eric Hosmer hitting every pitch he sees, Mike Moustakas diving over a row of fans to make a falling catch, Alex Gordon flashing his leather in left field, Jarrod Dyson stealing third, or Lorenzo Cain doing, well, everything, this team is destined to win the World Series, and shock the world.
By Jake Rose
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for October 21:
• Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace has the hottest hairstylist in the SEC. That's her in the picture.
• Another grumpy coach: Jimbo Fisher, who's tired of taking questions about his saintly quarterback.
• The Blade Runner got five years. Haven't been following closely enough to know whether to be outraged.
• Unlike his surly colleagues, Les Miles takes a dumb question and has fun with it.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
While injuries continue to leave their mark on the fantasy landscape, the Week 8 outlook has already been impacted by something that happened off of the field. On Saturday, Seattle traded wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Jets for a conditional 2015 draft pick, shaking up the depth chart at the position for both teams. As it relates to this exercise, the biggest beneficiaries appear to be Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse (see below), both of whom could be available in your league.
Elsewhere, both of Buffalo’s starting running backs had to be carted off the field on Sunday while new ball carriers appear to be emerging for Jacksonville and St. Louis. And that’s just part of the waiver wire story this week with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay coming back from bye and the New York Giants and San Francisco taking Week 8 off.
Athlon Sports is here to help you sort through some of the potential free agent options. The players listed in our weekly fantasy football waiver wire may be one-week adds, some may be worth holding on to all season long and some are of the “sleeper” variety that you may simply want to keep an eye on.
Teams on bye: New York Giants, San Francisco
Week 7 Recap: Joe Flacco didn’t repeat his five-touchdown performance from Week 6, but he did add two more to his season total. He also threw two picks, but it didn’t matter much in the Ravens’ 29-7 win over the Falcons. Flacco is still solidly among the top 10 QBs in fantasy scoring for the season.
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
The bruised nerve in his shoulder doesn’t look it’s just going to go away, so Palmer definitely carries a fair amount of injury risk. However, he’s made two straight starts now and in the three games he has played, Palmer’s averaged 23 fantasy points per game (Athlon scoring). Even though it’s a small sample size, Palmer’s per-game average ranks him sixth among QBs for the season. Arizona has enough weapons and a solid enough offensive line, along with a pretty good defense that can create additional scoring opportunities, to at least put Palmer in a position where he can score 20 or more fantasy points on a weekly basis. The question becomes is that enough of a potential reward to accept the inherent risk that comes with Palmer’s shoulder?
Week 7 Recap: Mark Ingram played for the first time since breaking his hand in Week 2, but he was ineffective (10 att., 16 yds.) against Detroit’s front seven. Neither Ben Tate nor Isaiah Crowell (7 att., 18 yds.) could find any room to run against Jacksonville, as the Browns finished with just 69 yards rushing on 30 carries in the loss to the Jaguars. And Shane Vereen completely dominated the touches on offense (16 total, 114 yds., 2 TDs) in New England’s Thursday night win over the Jets, as Brandon Bolden caught one pass for four yards and didn’t get a single carry.
Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, Buffalo Bills
Sunday’s last-second win against Minnesota was a costly one for Buffalo’s backfield. C.J. Spiller broke his collarbone, most likely ending his season, while Fred Jackson could miss up to a month because of a groin injury. That left Dixon (13 att., 51 yds.) to carry the load. Dixon has been nothing special in his five seasons (3.4 ypc), but he could provide some value, especially if he gets 15-20 carries per game. Whether that happens or not could depend somewhat on Brown. Philadelphia’s seventh-round draft pick in 2012, Brown posted three 100-yard rushing games with the Eagles, including 347 in back-to-back contests in 2012. Acquired by Buffalo via trade during this year’s draft, Brown has yet to see any game action with the Bills, but that could change given the injury situation. Dixon may get the nod for the short term, but Brown carries more upside and seems to be a better fit to fill Spiller’s role after Jackson returns.
Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams
It has taken some time, but Mason may finally be taking over as the Rams’ No. 1 ball carrier. The third-round pick didn’t get a single carry in the team’s first four games, but he’s picked up 125 yards on 23 carries (5.4 ypc) over the last two. He led the way with 85 yards on 18 carries and scored his first career touchdown in the impressive win against Seattle on Sunday. Perhaps even more telling than Mason’s increased workload is the fact that starter Zac Stacy and backup Benny Cunningham combined for just two carries, and both of those were by Cunningham. Whether Mason has officially replaced Stacy atop the depth chart remains to be seen, but he’s definitely the hot hand right now and at minimum should be back on your radar.
Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars won their first game of the season thanks in large part to Robinson’s 127 yards rushing. Toby Gerhart was sidelined with a foot injury and rookie Storm Johnson got just six carries (16 yds., TD), leaving the rest up to Robinson. The former college quarterback, who also has been used as a wide receiver, wound up with 22 carries and averaged nearly six yards per tote (5.8 ypc) against the Browns. He also scored on an eight-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Even when Gerhart returns, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch may choose to stick with Robinson, since he’s been the Jags’ most productive back thus far. And in some leagues, Robinson may carry eligibility at both RB and WR, which only increases his appeal.
Week 7 Recap: As expected, Rueben Randle led the Giants in targets (nine), while finishing second in both catches (six) and yards (74) in the loss to the Cowboys. The Giants are on bye, but Randle will maintain his status as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver moving forward. Mohamed Sanu shared in the Bengals’ struggles against the Colts, catching just three of nine targets for 54 yards in the shutout loss. Brandon LeFell took a backseat to the Shane Vereen show on Thursday night, but he still topped all Patriot wide receivers in yards with 55. Arizona did a good job limiting Oakland’s big plays, as the Raiders had just one catch of 20 or more yards and it wasn’t by Andre Holmes (3 rec., 34 yds.).
Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, Seattle Seahawks
It was quite a weekend for the defending Super Bowl champions, who bid farewell to Percy Harvin before losing to St. Louis on the road. Trading Harvin to the Jets may actually end up being addition by subtraction for the Seahawks and it’s definitely a positive from a fantasy standpoint for Baldwin and possibly Kearse. With Harvin gone, Baldwin is without question Russell Wilson’s No. 1 target, which was evident following the 11 targets Baldwin got against the Rams. He finished with seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown and there’s no reason to not expect similar production moving forward. Baldwin moves from borderline WR3/flex territory to becoming a pretty safe WR2 with upside. Kearse likewise also could benefit since he takes over as the starter opposite Baldwin. He averaged 16.7 yards on his three catches against St. Louis and Kearse in essence is now what Baldwin was when Harvin was still in Seattle.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans injured his groin in the Buccaneers’ Week 4 win in Pittsburgh. Originally expected to miss between two to four weeks, Evans returned last week against Baltimore, catching his second touchdown in as many games. Now coming off of the bye, Evans has had more time to heal and could be in position to capitalize. After getting off to a slow start, Evans has averaged seven targets over his last three games. He’s caught at least four passes in every game, but has been more productive since Mike Glennon took over for an injured Josh McCown. With the hope that Evans is back to close to being 100 percent healthy, the former Texas A&M star may be ready to show the rest of the league why he was the seventh player taken in May’s draft.
Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins
Mike Wallace is the Dolphins’ No. 1 target, but the Miami wide receiver that has made the most waves recently has been Landry. The Fins’ second-round pick in May, Landry has averaged six targets over Miami’s last five games and he caught his first touchdown two weeks ago against Green Bay. This past Sunday, he tied tight end Charles Clay (see below) for second in targets (five) and matched Wallace’s 46 yards receiving in the win in Chicago. At minimum, Landry has replaced Brandon Gibson as the team’s slot receiver, so the rookie should see a fair amount of looks moving forward.
Week 7 Recap: Jordan Reed tied for the team lead in targets (six), catching five passes for 54 yards in the Redskins’ win over the Titans. Jimmy Graham ended up playing against Detroit and although he didn’t catch a pass (2 targets), his mere presence pretty much negated any impact Benjamin Watson’s (1 rec., 3 yds.) might have had otherwise.
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
It’s just one game, but hopefully it’s the start of Clay’s return to fantasy relevance. After doing next to nothing over the first five games, Clay finished with a season-high 58 yards and, more importantly, caught his first touchdown pass since Week 14 of last season in the Dolphins’ road win in Chicago. Clay has been dealing with a knee injury since Week 1, but looked awfully spry against the Bears. I’m not ready to reinstall Clay as an every-week TE1 starting option, but he’s definitely someone I would keep a close eye on moving forward. Don’t forget, Clay was No. 7 in fantasy points among TEs last season.
Week 7 Recap: Buffalo’s DST did indeed bounce back on Sunday against Minnesota, registering five sacks and two INTs on its way to 12 fantasy points. Next up for the Bills, a visit to the Big Apple to play a Jets team that’s ranked sixth in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing DSTs.
Yes, the Colts have Andrew Luck, but maybe it’s time to start taking this defense a little more seriously. Following Sunday’s shutout of Cincinnati, Indianapolis’ DST has posted double-digit fantasy points in five straight games. The Colts have averaged four sacks per game during this span, along with a total of 11 takeaways. For the season, Indy’s DST is sixth in fantasy points and that’s after scoring just three total in the first two games (at DEN, PHI).
Scoring is based on Athlon Sports default scoring which is 6 points for all TDs, .5 points per reception and 1 point PER 25 yards passing, 10 yards rushing/receiving and 40 return yards.
The new college football playoff format has added even more intrigue to the 2014 season. Instead of figuring out the top two teams in early December, the focus has shifted to finding four teams to play in the first FBS postseason playoff format.
To help select the four playoff teams, a 13-person committee was picked, which includes names like Barry Alvarez, Oliver Luck, Pat Haden and Jeff Long, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former coach Tyrone Willingham.
Each week, Athlon Sports hopes to replicate the playoff committee’s work by asking some of college football’s top media members to vote on their top eight teams. The official playoff committee will release its rankings starting on Oct. 28, but this poll will attempt to project how the playoff picture stacks up after each week until the end of the year.
Bobby Bowden (@TheBobbyBowden), Legends Poll
Gene Stallings, (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Don Nehlen (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Zac Ellis (@ZacEllis), Sports Illustrated
David Fox (@DavidFox615), Athlon Sports
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis), Fox Sports
Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey), SBNation.com
Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB), SportsonEarth.com
Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello), Campus Insiders
Brad Crawford (@BCrawfordSDS), SaturdayDownSouth.com
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247), Eersports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
Adam Powell (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch) Athlon Sports
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Post-Week 8 Playoff Projection
Takeaways From Expert Poll Results
* Mississippi State, Florida State and Ole Miss are the clear frontrunners in this week’s playoff poll. Only 20 points separate the Bulldogs and Rebels from the No. 1 spot, and Florida State edged Ole Miss by just three points.
* Alabama jumps from No. 8 to No. 4 this week. The Crimson Tide rank as the highest one-loss team in the playoff projection.
* Four of the top five teams in this week’s committee vote are from the SEC.
* After losing to Florida State 31-27 on Saturday, Notre Dame only dropped three spots to No. 8. The Fighting Irish are still alive for a playoff bid, especially since coach Brian Kelly’s team has opportunities to earn quality wins against Arizona State and USC.
* In addition to the committee agreeing on a clear trio at the top, there’s a significant drop after the top six teams. Oregon ranks No. 6 with 68 points, with Michigan State checking in at No. 7 with 29 points.
* Mississippi State did not rank below second in this week’s committee vote.
* Florida State picked up three first-place votes (6) after recording only three last week.
Group of 5 Rankings
One team from the Group of 5 conferences - American Athletic, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt - will play in one of college football's premier (New Year's Bowls) each season.
1. East Carolina
The Pirates were on bye last Saturday and return to action on Thursday night against Connecticut. East Carolina’s toughest remaining games follow this week’s matchup against the Huskies, as a date at Temple is ahead on Nov. 1, followed by a Nov. 13 road trip to Cincinnati.
Another week, another blowout victory for Marshall. The Thundering Herd crushed FIU 45-13 to improve to 7-0. Marshall’s remaining schedule is favorable, but there’s not an opportunity to earn a victory against a ranked opponent. Doc Holliday’s team needs help to pass East Carolina in the Group of 5 rankings.
3. Boise State
Broncos used another monster effort from running back Jay Ajayi (158 yards, 2 TDs) to knock off Fresno State. Boise State takes on a BYU team riding a three-game losing streak this Friday.
4. Colorado State
Rams picked up a solid win over Utah State (16-13) on Saturday and host rival Wyoming in Week 9. Colorado State plays only one opponent (Air Force) with a winning record over the final five weeks of 2014.
Key Games With Playoff Implications in Week 9
Miami at Virginia Tech
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Is this an elimination game in the Coastal Division?
BYU at Boise State
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Broncos need to win this one to stay alive for Group of 5 New Year’s Bowl spot.
California vs. Oregon (Santa Clara)
10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Showdown with Stanford looming next week for the Ducks. California’s defense should be a good opportunity for quarterback Marcus Mariota to improve his Heisman stock.
Texas at Kansas State
Noon ET, ESPN
Wildcats positioned to be a Big 12 title contender thanks to win over Oklahoma last Saturday.
Mississippi State at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Bulldogs should be healthy after bye week, while the Wildcats look to bounce back after disappointing performance at LSU. After giving up 41 points to the Tigers, can Kentucky find a way to slow down Dak Prescott?
Michigan at Michigan State
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Spartans have won five out of the last six meetings in this series. Michigan desperately needs a win to reduce the pressure on coach Brady Hoke.
West Virginia at Oklahoma State
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Mountaineers are one of the nation’s most-improved teams this year, and a win over Oklahoma State would setup an interesting showdown with TCU on Nov 1. Does Oklahoma State have an answer for West Virginia receiver Kevin White?
Arizona at Washington State
5 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
If you like offense, this is the game to watch on Saturday evening.
Ole Miss at LSU
7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Rebels are just a small favorite (3.5) on Saturday night. Was LSU’s performance in the last two games a sign of things to come? Or was that just feasting on teams from the East Division?
Alabama at Tennessee
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Crimson Tide shouldn’t have much trouble with a Tennessee offense that has scored just 12 points in its last two games against FBS opponents.
South Carolina at Auburn
7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Surprisingly, these two teams have met only seven times since 1996. And interestingly enough, Auburn has won all seven matchups.
Ohio State at Penn State
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Penn State’s offensive line will have its hands full against Ohio State’s aggressive defensive line. Buckeyes have two more opportunities to improve before the showdown in East Lansing against Michigan State on Nov. 8.
USC at Utah
10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Don’t count out Utah in the Pac-12 South title picture. Utes are quietly 5-1 and have a chance to take a step forward in division race with USC this Saturday, followed by games against Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.
Arizona State at Washington
10:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Taylor Kelly is expected to start at quarterback for Arizona State on Saturday night, but he will have his hands full against a tough Washington defense.
With eight weeks in the books, college football’s bowl and national title picture is surrounded in uncertainty.
The new playoff format has added a new layer of intrigue, as four teams – instead of two – will have a shot at the national championship once the bowl pairings are announced in early December.
While only eight weeks are in the books, it’s never too early to start looking at what the bowl picture might hold for each conference and team this year. The post-Week 8 bowl projections are a mixture between picks for the next few weeks, how things would look if the season ended today, and the results from the first eight weeks of action. Expect several changes over the next few weeks.
Teams just missing the projections: ULM, Texas State, USF, Syracuse, North Carolina, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Wyoming, Fresno State, UTEP, San Jose State, California and Texas. Remember: It’s only Week 8. Several changes are coming, and it’s impossible to project all of the wins and losses the rest of the way considering how much changes week-to-week in college football.
College Football's Post-Week 8 Bowl Projections
|New Orleans||Dec. 20||Sun Belt vs.|
| UL Lafayette vs.|
|New Mexico||Dec. 20||C-USA vs.|
| UAB vs.|
|Las Vegas||Dec. 20||Mountain West vs.|
| Boise State vs.|
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 20||MAC vs. |
| Bowling Green vs.|
|Camellia||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Akron vs.|
|Miami Beach||Dec. 22||American vs.|
|Boca Raton||Dec. 23||C-USA vs.|
| FAU vs.|
|Poinsettia||Dec. 23||Mountain West vs.|
|Colorado State vs.|
|Bahamas||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| Marshall vs.|
|Hawaii||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| MTSU vs.|
San Diego State
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs. |
| Rutgers vs.|
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||ACC vs. |
| Boston College vs.|
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| NC State vs.|
|Military||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Pittsburgh vs.|
|Sun||Dec. 27||ACC vs. |
| Virginia vs.|
|Independence||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Georgia Tech vs.|
|Pinstripe||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
Virginia Tech vs.
|Holiday||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs.|
| Wisconsin vs.|
|Liberty||Dec. 29||SEC vs. |
| Tennessee vs.|
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 29||ACC vs.|
| Duke vs. |
|Texas||Dec. 29||Big 12 vs.|
| Oklahoma vs.|
|Music City||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Minnesota vs.|
|Belk||Dec. 30||ACC vs.|
| Louisville vs.|
|San Francisco||Dec. 30||Big Ten vs. |
| Iowa vs. |
|Outback||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs.|
|Citrus||Jan. 1||Big Ten/ACC vs.|
| Ohio State vs.|
|Armed Forces||Jan. 2||American vs.|
| Houston vs.|
|Taxslayer||Jan. 2||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Miami vs.|
|Alamo||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Kansas State vs.|
|Cactus||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Oklahoma State vs.|
|Birmingham||Jan. 3||American vs.|
| Memphis vs.|
|GoDaddy||Jan. 4||MAC vs. |
| Toledo vs.|
|New Year's Bowls|
|Peach||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| East Carolina vs.|
|Fiesta||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Oregon vs.|
|Orange||Dec. 31||ACC vs.|
| Clemson vs.|
|Cotton||Jan. 1||At-large vs.|
| Michigan State vs.|
|Related: Projecting the Playoff Teams After Week 8|
| Florida State vs. |
| Mississippi State vs.|
|National Title||Jan. 12||Semifinal Winner vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
* Indicates conference is not projected to fill its available bowl slots. At-large team will be selected to fill spot.
Last season was as bad as it’s ever been for the Los Angeles Lakers. The historically dominant franchise (holders of 16 NBA championships, second only to the Celtics' 17) plummeted after team leaders Kobe Bryant and the porcelain Steve Nash went down with injuries, and coach Mike D’Antoni ran out the rest of the year allowing young men of moxie like Nick Young, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Hill and Xavier Henry to run the show on the way to a 27-55 record, the team’s worst ever.
Lakers big man legend Pau Gasol languished under D’Antoni, and left this summer for the Chicago Bulls even though Byron Scott replaced D’Antoni on the bench. The Lakers’ front office whiffed on marquee free agents like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, recommitting to Bryant and their young, ineffectual core as a Plan B.
The early results haven’t been pretty. Bryant, whose sense of self-censorship went out the window years ago, is saying things like this about promising rookie Julius Randle, a No. 7 overall pick from Kentucky and one of the bright spots on a bad team:
Kobe on Julius Randle having him and Byron Scott as mentors: "It means he can't f--- it up. If you f--- this up you're a really big idiot."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) October 20, 2014
Such talk reeks of hubris gone unchecked, for far too long. Bryant’s also getting crossed over badly by Utah Jazz youngster Alec Burks:
And coach Scott, hot off a 64-166 record over three years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has begun to profess a strange, seemingly satirical mission statement for the 2014-15 Lakers. He’s said that the team will shoot fewer than fifteen three-pointers per game, stressing that taking shots from deep “gets you to the playoffs … I don’t believe it wins championships.”
If the coach’s projections come true over the year, the team will shoot less three bombs than anyone in the league, despite rangy shots being one of the possible strengths of this limited roster. Scott, with this concept, seems lost in the sea of nostalgia for a time when the league wasn’t as three-happy as it is now — like the 1980s, when Scott joined Magic Johnson in the “Showtime” era and won three Lakers titles.
But that epoch is well over. And the suddenly sinking Lakers organization is either allowing Scott and Bryant to continue their proud, folly-rich charade so they can tank and get more prized draft picks like Randle next June, or they’re simply tying their anchor to the wrong men.
— John Wilmes
Few believed Xavier would finish in the top half of the retooled Big East based on last year’s preseason predictions. But the Musketeers, picked seventh by the league’s media in the fall, went on to tie for third with a 10–8 conference record, including a 7–2 mark at home.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for a Xavier team that floundered down the stretch and fell to NC State in an NCAA Tournament “play-in game” in nearby Dayton. XU dropped nine of its final 15 games and suffered a major setback when center Matt Stainbrook strained the MCL in his left knee in the last regular-season road game. Although Stainbrook returned for the postseason, he was not at full strength.
Fast forward to this season’s new-look team, which features nine scholarship freshmen and sophomores. High expectations abound for the six rookies — Larry Austin Jr., Trevon Bluiett, Makinde London, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Edmond Sumner — that form the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history.
There’s much to learn about this team, starting with the identities of new scoring leaders. Last year’s top producers are gone — Semaj Christon was a second-round pick in the NBA Draft after leaving Xavier following his sophomore season, and Justin Martin opted to play his final season at SMU as a graduate transfer.
The Xavier edition is one of dozens available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere now.
Stainbrook was a known quantity — despite being in his first season at Xavier after transferring from Western Michigan — for his scoring, rebounding and passing skills. His work down low allowed Jalen Reynolds time to develop as a freshman. The 6-9 forward made modest contributions for much of the season but showed his vast potential with a 17-point, 16-rebound effort in a win at St. John’s in February. Reynolds, one of the team’s best athletes, is explosive around the basket.
James Farr, also 6-9, traveled a different trajectory by starting the season strong and fading in February. Farr, who can stretch defenses with his long-range shooting, has the potential to be a difference-maker if he develops more consistency on the defensive end of the floor. London and O’Mara also may impact the front line as they compete for minutes off the bench.
The departure of Martin, who played small forward and also served as a stretch-4, opens the door for Bluiett, a heralded prospect. The 6-6 wing, who averaged 35.7 points as a high school senior, is perhaps the most college-ready player among the newcomers. Macura is another capable shooter who could make an impact, either at small forward or shooting guard.
Xavier Musketeers Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-13, 10-8 Big East
Postseason: NCAA First Four
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Coach: Chris Mack (111-57 at Xavier, 58-24 A-10/Big East)
Big East Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA First Four
Point guard Dee Davis is the elder statesman of the team by virtue of being the only fourth-year Musketeer on the roster. He developed into an effective pass-first guard as a junior while still contributing 7.7 points to go with his 4.7 assists. As a senior, Davis will be asked to increase his production while providing leadership to an otherwise young backcourt.
Xavier gains experience in junior guard Remy Abell, a transfer from Indiana who shot 48.5 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore at IU two years ago. He is capable of being a factor on both ends of the court.
At times last season Myles Davis was among the first players off the bench, capable of draining clutch 3-pointers and changing momentum. The shooting guard struggled down the stretch, both offensively and defensively, and vowed to improve in the offseason. If he has, the New Jersey native will be a key cog in Xavier’s rotation.
Sophomore Brandon Randolph and Sumner, one of the freshmen, will battle for time off the bench at the point. Randolph played significant minutes early last season but fell out of the rotation in the final two months.
Chris Mack has the youngest roster in his six-year tenure, but he still has plenty of talent at his disposal — despite losing his top two scorers, each with eligibility remaining.
If the Musketeers can cure some of the ills that afflicted them last season — inconsistent bench production, stretches of poor defense — they will be in the mix at the top of the Big East standings. Catching the rookies up to speed and rolling with their early mistakes will be key.
Remy Abell, a transfer from Indiana, practiced with Xavier last season and should play major minutes. Trevon Bluiett arrives with an impressive offensive resume, but like the other freshmen — Larry Austin Jr., Makinde London, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Edmond Sumner — he must prove he can play defense.
The first year of the new Big East alignment brought a little bit of everything: a national player of the year and one of college basketball’s all-time greats (Creighton’s Doug McDermott), a national top 10 team (Villanova) and one surprising NCAA participant (Providence).
At the same time, the new league also showed its limitations. None of its four teams in the NCAA Tournament advanced beyond the first weekend. And after the season, arguably the league’s best coach at one of the Big East’s top programs left for a middling ACC team.
Even if Buzz Williams’ departure from Marquette to Virginia Tech was as much a product of internal politics as anything, the move wasn’t a great sign of health for the league.
The Big East may enter the 2014-15 season with same kinds of highs and lows. Villanova returns the core of a team that was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Georgetown and Xavier continue to be NCAA contenders.
But the Doug McDermott Show is gone, putting Creighton into a rebuilding year along with Marquette, under new coach Steve Wojciechowski, and Butler.
That leaves teams like Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s — also-rans at the end of the previous Big East era — making up the depth of the league.
Previews of every Big East team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
Big East 2014-15 Preseason Picks
1. Villanova (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
The clear-cut favorite to win the league, the Wildcats could be poised for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Can Josh Hart replace James Bell?
2. Georgetown (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 64
Despite the loss of Markel Starks, John Thompson III will have this team in the mix. The key could be Joshua Smith: Will he stay healthy and eligible?
3. Xavier (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA First Four
Had everyone returned, the Musketeers could have competed for a league title. Jalen Reynolds is ready for a breakout season up front.
4. St. John’s
Postseason projection: NIT
There is still plenty of talent and athleticism on the roster, and Rysheed Jordan and D’Angelo Harrison form a dynamic guard duo.
Postseason projection: NIT
Life without Bryce Cotton begins for Ed Cooley. LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris will score, but Kris Dunn needs to stay healthy.
6. Seton Hall
Postseason projection: NIT
The most intriguing team in the league. Isaiah Whitehead can score, Angel Delgado is a dominant rebounder, and Sterling Gibbs is back.
Postseason projection: NIT
Roosevelt Jones’ return from injury will be the biggest key. He and Kellen Dunham will form a terrific – and productive – perimeter tandem.
Steve Wojciechowski enters his first season with very little up front — but plenty of perimeter punch, including Todd Mayo and Matt Carlino.
A rebuilding job begins for Greg McDermott. His son and three other starters have moved on, and big reinforcements are a year away.
Oliver Purnell has won nine Big East games since joining DePaul four seasons ago. Could this be his last go-round in Chicago?
2014-15 Big East Superlatives
Player of the Year: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
Smith-Rivera will shoulder more of the load with the departure of do-it-all point guard Markel Starks. His 17.6 points per game suggests Smith-Rivera is ready. The junior also averaged 87.3 shooting from the free throw line.
Best Defensive Player: Chris Obekpa, St. John’s
Obekpa has twice led the Big East in blocks, topping out at 2.9 a year ago.
Most Underrated Player: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova
Hilliard was one of the most improved players in the league last season, improving from 31.5 percent shooting from 3-point range to 41.4 despite taking 45 more shots last season.
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
If Seton Hall is going to make a long-awaited rise, the arrival of Whitehead from Brooklyn will be a big reason why. The McDonald’s All-American should offer a scoring boost to an experienced backcourt.
Top coach: Jay Wright, Villanova (full Big East coach rankings)
First-Team All-Big East
G D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s
G Kellen Dunham, Butler
G D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
F LaDontae Henton, Providence
F JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova
Second-Team All-Big East
G Darrun Hilliard, Villanova
G Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
G Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
F Roosevelt Jones, Butler
C Matt Stainbrook, Xavier
Third-Team All-Big East
G Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
G Matt Carlino, Marquette
G Sterling Gibbs, Seton Hall
G Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
C Joshua Smith, Georgetown
The team never seemed to get any momentum. The Hoyas lost to Northeastern, then beat Kansas State and VCU. They lost six of seven Big East games in January, then beat Michigan State. And just when it looked like Georgetown could make a case for the NCAA Tournament, it lost five of its last seven — with the wins coming over Creighton and Xavier, of course.
There were availability questions surrounding Greg Whittington at the start of the season and Josh Smith in the middle of the season — plus various injuries. With fewer question marks heading into this season, Georgetown should be back in the mix for an NCAA Tournament invite.
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Like last season, the key for the Hoyas will be the availability of Smith. He played just 13 games before being ruled academically ineligible, costing Georgetown in Big East play. He played fewer than 20 minutes per game, but was third on the team in scoring. Smith was a force at times in November and December, opening the season with 25 points against Oregon and also notching six straight double-figure scoring outings in non-conference play. The talent has never been the question for Smith; it’s his conditioning. Can Smith stay on the floor? When he gets the ball on the block, he’s nearly unstoppable.
Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba are gone from last season, but John Thompson III won’t lack for options. Mikael Hopkins was something of an unsung presence inside for the Hoyas, leading the team in blocked shots and providing Georgetown with a capable passer. Sophomore Reggie Cameron might be the team’s best pure outside shooter.
Two reasons for excitement, though, are freshmen Paul White and Isaac Copeland. White is a 6-8 forward who can stretch the floor and also put the ball on the deck and get to the rim. He has the ability to be a matchup problem. Copeland has a higher ceiling than White, and is another versatile forward who can knock down shots from the perimeter.
Georgetown Hoyas Facts & Figures
Last season: 25-7, 8-10 Big East
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
Coach: John Thompson III (227-104 at Georgetown, 107-62 Big East)
Big East Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Georgetown bids farewell to point guard Markel Starks, a four-year player. Over the last two seasons, Starks was a scorer and playmaker who cemented himself as one of the Big East’s best guards.
Without Starks, the onus will fall on junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Smith-Rivera led the Hoyas in scoring last season and could be ready for a Big East Player of the Year-type of campaign. He finished last season on a tear, averaging 25.0 points in his last three games.
Jabril Trawick might not put up big scoring numbers, but the team is different when he’s not on the court. He missed five games due to a broken jaw last season — and Georgetown went 1-4 in his absence. He’s an athletic guard who also might be the team’s best perimeter defender. Aaron Bowen had his moments last season as a backup on the wing, using his athleticism to bring energy off the bench.
Two freshmen will also play roles on the perimeter. L.J. Peak is a bigger wing who has plenty of athleticism. Tre Campbell is the only pure point guard on the team, and could have to play an immediate role if Smith-Rivera is more comfortable off the ball.
Outside of Villanova, the Big East is wide-open — and Georgetown will be right in the mix for that second tier. If Smith is eligible, healthy and in shape — or at least able to play 20 minutes a night for an entire season — the Hoyas probably will be the second-best team in the league. Smith is that important.
When Smith brings consistent scoring to the post, all the other ingredients are there for Thompson. Smith-Rivera is one of the best guards in the country; Hopkins and Trawick bring experience; and there is depth across the roster. The Hoyas’ four-man recruiting class brings a little bit of everything.
It’s difficult to say an 18–15 team that lost its do-it-all senior point guard will be significantly improved the next season, but that should be the case for Georgetown. Expect a bounce-back season in the nation’s capital.
Georgetown had one of the better recruiting classes in the country, and it’s a four-man group that helps shore up different areas — with a nice mix of immediate impact and future potential. Paul White and Isaac Copeland are both versatile forwards who will certainly help with their ability to stretch the defense. Tre Campbell is a pure point guard, and L.J. Peak is a strong, athletic wing.
Multi-car teams working together: it’s a modern NASCAR philosophy that began in the 1980s, failed miserably, and was redefined during the 1990s by Hendrick Motorsports. Built with Jeff Gordon, massaged by Terry Labonte and perfected by Jimmie Johnson, the organization has won 11 championships based on multiple cars sharing information, turning from rivals on the racetrack into individuals openly helping one another. It’s a motto of “one for all, all for one” that HMS has even employed through its engine and chassis-sharing partnerships with teams like Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi’s two-car effort — both considered “strong allies” to aid their growing information library.
Yet here we are, with four races remaining in the Sprint Cup Series season and “one” refers to the number of Hendrick-owned cars still in contention for a title. Johnson? Gone. Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Toast (and facing a crew chief change in 2015, to boot). Kasey Kahne? Well, one could argue he should never have made the Chase in the first place. But considering the organization’s long history of success, along with wins in 11 of the season’s first 32 races, going 1-for-4 in this new playoff format has to be considered a minor shock. Johnson has a history of winning titles, knowing when to peak at the right time; Earnhardt, in his final season with Steve Letarte, appeared to be at his Hendrick peak. Now 40, one wonders if NASCAR’s most popular driver will have another season as good as this.
Brad Keselowski knows a thing or two about that teamwork. After all, he was brought up within Hendrick Motorsports, being groomed to one day fill a seat within its Cup roster. When he left for Penske Racing on his own timetable, he did things his own way but never forgot the power of sharing information. After handpicking his teammate, Joey Logano, Penske’s two-driver effort has become closer than ever, a formidable foe fighting organizations that have twice as many cars on the track (and, in theory twice the resources).
It was that Keselowski-Logano duo — knowing former was in trouble as the lap[s wound down at Talladega — that worked together over the frantic final laps. With the No. 2 team needing a win to make the Chase, there was Logano’s No. 22 fighting to hit Keselowski’s back bumper at every turn. Glued together every chance they got, their teamwork achieved the goal of getting both drivers into the final eight, as Keselowski earned the victory in a green-white-checker finish where even fierce rival Matt Kenseth — who would have loved to have turned him sideways instead of drafting with him — fell short at the finish line.
Where was Hendrick’s effort, whose drivers Johnson and Earnhardt combined to lead 115 of 194 laps? Twenty fourth and 31st, respectively. In the final 10 laps, and with both drivers needing a victory to advance, the modus operandi on the radio was “every man for himself.” Especially in Junior’s camp, where an outright refusal to work together left both men vulnerable before Greg Biffle did his part in finishing off Junior’s Chase the way his Kansas bump — while also accidental — left Johnson in the same boat. Hendrick had two teams, housed in the same shop acting as individuals. Meanwhile, Penske’s two produced perfect synergy.
Surely in the days to come we’ll talk about bad luck, bad formatting and all the little things that kept Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne from moving on. But on a day where teamwork reigned supreme, Hendrick emerged without a top-10 finish and it seemed, as the champagne rained down on Keselowski, that NASCAR’s multi-car king was beaten in the game he created.
“Through the Gears,” post-Talladega, we go …
FIRST GEAR: Keselowski’s great save
Much of the last week’s news was focused around Brad Keselowski’s on-track behavior. After a $50,000 fine following his actions at Charlotte which included separate incidents with Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart (who got docked 25K himself), the 2012 champion was under a microscope. The old theory of “getting kicked when you’re down” came into play, and it seemed plenty of pundits both inside and outside of the garage were ready and willing to pile on.
Here’s the problem for them: Keselowski and his team didn’t stay down for long. Despite a spin by Jamie McMurray, one where his No. 1 car slammed into Keselowski’s passenger side door, the bunch never lost focus. In both repairing the damage, aligning the driver with teammate Logano and practicing strong pit stops, the team never lost its fire. So when the pack shuffled a bit entering the final lap, Keselowski was in perfect position to seize control of the race. Here’s the irony of it all: rival Kenseth, one week after locking Keselowski in a headlock, charged to second and was right behind his adversary at the checkered flag.
“It was funny how this racing world works out,” Keselowski said. “I don't know why it is that way. I don't know why it seems like every week where there's either a fight in the garage or a mishap or something like that happens, those two cars and people end up together, whether it was our cars were parked together in the garage area, or on the racetrack for the win in the closing laps at Talladega. I don't know why that happens.”
“You have to do what’s best,” added Kenseth. “That's where I felt I had to put my car for my best chance at the best finish.”
So Keselowski survived, bouncing back from two tough weeks, and once again has an excellent shot to win a title. Two championships in three years, after zero in twenty-plus years for owner Roger Penske, is a good way to earn unconditional, lifetime support from your organization.
“He's a great driver,” said the owner. “We have a long-term relationship with him. If he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that's OK with me. We'll let NASCAR figure out if he's over the line or not. I guess it cost us 50 grand. I'll take 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn't you?”
SECOND GEAR: Kyle’s great fall
For the first time in his 10-year career, Kyle Busch entered Talladega sitting on five straight top-10 finishes inside the Chase. For a driver who’s been doomed by self-inflicted wounds, it appeared he’d finally learned the consistency needed within NASCAR’s championship format to contend. At ninth in the standings, 26 points ahead of teammate Matt Kenseth, it would take an epic fail for Busch to miss the final eight. Announcing his wife’s pregnancy this weekend, very little could bring Busch crashing down to earth with a simple strategy: run at the back, stay out of trouble and pick your drafting partners wisely.
And along came rookie Austin Dillon. The No. 3 car became the demise of Busch’s best ever Chase. Riding in the back, trying to stay out of trouble, the No. 18 Toyota was in perfect position to avoid “The Big One” when it inevitably happened on lap 104. Following contact between J.J. Yeley and Aric Almirola, the track was blocked and Busch slowed immediately. Everywhere, cars scattered but there were only a handful running behind Busch. Surely Dillon, who’s completed more laps on the circuit than anyone else this season, would see the wreck unfolding in front of him.
The answer came in the form of scrunched sheet metal, Busch’s car getting spun hard into other cars and his Chase bid officially becoming toast. Due to a weird scenario of other contenders avoiding wrecks and a limited amount of attrition (at least for ‘Dega) from the big wreck that did happen, Busch could do no better than 40th, allowing several others to pass him on points and ending his bid for this year’s title.
“There is no safe place in here,” claimed crew chief Dave Rogers. “Everyone, every time we come to a speedway everyone will strategize — we’re going to ride in the back, we’re going to ride in the front, we’re going to do this. The truth is that if you’re out there on the racetrack at Talladega or Daytona, you have a pretty good chance that you’re going to get in a wreck and today was our day. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Busch left the track without comment; a bad time for immaturity to rear its ugly head. With a believed new crew chief coming in 2015, it would have been a good moment for the 29-year-old to show some leadership. While he had a right to be frustrated, we didn’t see Kahne, Johnson or Earnhardt ducking the cameras. Whatever crew chief assumes the reins in 2015 (Rogers is said to be promoted within JGR) keeping Busch’s mood swings in line will clearly be their number one assignment.
THIRD GEAR: Underdogs triumph again at ‘Dega
NASCAR’s most unpredictable track has always been a prime place for David to slay Goliath (see: David Ragan, pulling the upset of the decade last year for underfunded Front Row Motorsports). On Sunday, none of NASCAR’s lower-tier teams was a true threat to win but several made it through with exceptional performances. Landon Cassill, passed over for top-tier rides in the free agent market, gave the best impression, forcing owners to give a second look with a fourth-place finish driving for a small-time Hillman Racing team that built its equipment from the ground up. That’s right, no major team support, making the achievement for the No. 40 bunch that much more impressive.
“We don’t have a lot to work with. But what we do work with, we set out to run good at these four superspeedway races,” Cassill said. “And we proved that this year. Fourth place is just amazing.”
Cassill’s pseudo-teammate, Travis Kvapil, came home sixth driving a Circle Sport car for just the second time all season. It’s the best effort for owner Joe Falk since returning to the Cup circuit in 2011 after a decade away. And Casey Mears, while better funded with single-car Germain Racing, earned a serviceable 10th-place finish. In all, six non-Chasers crept into the top 10, the most for any playoff race this season.
FOURTH GEAR: What happens now?
With the Chase field cut to eight, there’s a clear separation between favorites and underdogs in position to make NASCAR’s first ever “Final Four.” The two Penske cars, Logano and Keselowski, have won 11 races and are the clear favorites to advance. Kevin Harvick, with over 1,800 laps led, has been dominant at times during the postseason and has the full support of Stewart-Haas Racing. Same for Gordon, has all of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal and would lead the points without NASCAR’s Chase format.
The other four drivers, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, have combined for just three wins this season. Anything can happen, of course, and each one has victories at Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix since 2012. But if any of them did it this time, knocking out the four contenders above, it would have to be considered a minor upset.
NASCAR’s new qualifying format took its toll on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The Roush Fenway driver failed to qualify after a misunderstanding on timing left the No. 17 Ford heading out too late during his session. With so many “underdog” cars timing into the field, Stenhouse was too low in owner points to earn a provisional to start the race (among those needing a provisional: five Chasers, Tony Stewart and talented rookie Kyle Larson). It’s the second time in two weeks an RFR team, once the pride of Ford’s stock car racing effort, has failed to qualify. (Trevor Bayne missed the show at Charlotte.). … Rookie Justin Allgaier in the single-car No. 51 effort also missed his first race of the season. It’s the first time two cars inside the top 30 in owner points have failed to qualify all season, causing critics to attack NASCAR’s provisional system. My question: Why? If a car couldn’t get up to speed and has had a difficult season it deserves to go home, no matter how many sponsors adorn it or fans are in town to see it race. It is an athletic competition, after all. … Two cautions for debris — the second of which set up a green-white-checker finish — makes you wonder what will happen at Homestead. (To be fair, the second one at Talladega, occurring just after a spin, had a less dramatic effect on the outcome rather than if it happened after a 60-lap green flag run.) You would think NASCAR would go caution-free in the final laps unless there’s a wreck or a giant bull is running around at the start/finish line. There would be no silly cautions for debris to decide a winner-take-all race for the championship … right? Right?
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
These San Francisco Giants have been here before. Twice recently, actually. Having won the World Series in 2010 and ’12, this team oozes postseason experience. No stage is too big for these guys, no spotlight too bright. In contrast, the American League champion Kansas City Royals have two players with World Series experience. James Shields made one start in the 2008 Series for Tampa Bay and tossed 5.2 scoreless innings. Second baseman Omar Infante had one plate appearance off the bench for Detroit in 2006, and was the Tigers’ full-time second baseman in 2012. The experienced Giants have eight players who were part of both the 2010 and ’12 champions. Another six players were part of one or the other. San Francisco had won 40 postseason games prior to this season since the Royals last played in October in 1985.
Before his arrival in San Francisco, manager Bruce Bochy led the San Diego Padres to the World Series in 1998. Bochy managed the Padres for 12 seasons and guided the team to four division crowns. He just completed his eighth season in San Francisco. Kansas City skipper Ned Yost is managing in the postseason for the first time this year.
Both teams feature terrific bullpens and win with determination and grittiness. Opportunistic is probably the best way to describe the offenses, and the Royals will create opportunities with speed, while the Giants won’t.
The experienced Giants will not likely beat themselves. They make very few mistakes in the field and on the bases. The young, brash Royals may be susceptible to a little overexcitement causing a few mistakes. With such good bullpens and both managers playing a conservative style, one mistake could cost a game.
San Francisco Giants
The quartet of Panik, Posey, Pablo and Pence anchors an opportunistic lineup that went through a stretch of scoring 13 of 20 runs in the postseason that weren’t produced by a hit. Specifically, it’s Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the 2010 World Series MVP, that will carry the team. Travis Ishikawa led the Giants with seven RBIs in the NLCS, three of them coming on the final swing of the series. He won’t start against left-handed starter Jason Vargas, but Ishikawa could be a factor in late innings against the right-handed-heavy Kansas City bullpen.
The rotation begins with one of the best in baseball in lefthander Madison Bumgarner. The NLCS MVP won the wild-card play-in game and Game 1 of the NLCS. Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy have pitched well recently, but are basically six-inning pitchers. Should Peavy, Hudson or Game 4 starter Ryan Vogelsong falter early, expect a short leash with Yosmeiro Petit and Tim Lincecum available in the bullpen.
The Giants’ success rides on the relief corps. Lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez set up the late innings for Sergio Romo, the closer in the 2012 World Series, and Santiago Casilla, the current closer. With lefties Affeldt and Lopez, Bruce Bochy has more matchup options than the Royals. With the exception of allowing Jean Machi face Oscar Taveras in Game 2, Bochy pretty much controlled all the late-inning matchups in the NLCS.
There are few names most fans will recognize, but outfielder Juan Perez will see some time in left field vs. lefties and in the late innings, and Michael Morse provides serious pop off the bench as evidenced by his game-tying homer in the clinching game of the NLCS.
The Giants aren’t as spectacular defensively as the Royals, but they make all the plays and will not beat themselves. Brandon Crawford is a gem at shortstop.
Keys to Winning
The bullpen, no doubt, will carry a heavy load. Other than Bumgarner, Giants starters will not go deep into games. Bochy is a master at getting the matchups he wants, and the relievers know their roles. Catcher Posey must control the Royals’ running game, or Kansas City could create big innings.
Posey may be the most important cog for the Giants because he anchors the lineup and he’ll be responsible for thwarting the Royals’ best offensive asset — their ability to steal bases. Lefty reliever Lopez will face Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas with games on the line.
Kansas City Royals
Their recent power surge in the postseason belies the fact that the Royals were last in the majors in home runs this season. Their hallmark is the stolen base, not the long ball. KC defeated the A’s in the wild-card game with seven steals and no homers. Then they tagged the Orioles for four homers in four games with only one steal. Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain was named ALCS MVP and he must be involved in the offense. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler all can be streaky. Now is not the time for slumping.
Ace James Shields was acquired from the Rays in 2013 for this moment. He has been a horse and can go toe-to-toe with Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura will likely pitch Game 2 at home with vets Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas going at San Francisco. All the Royals ask is that these guys get a lead into the seventh inning.
There is no doubt that the pen is the strength of this team. Closer Greg Holland has saved six of their eight wins this postseason, including all four wins in the ALCS. He is reliable and can be dominant. Setup man Wade Davis is the best in the business and earned a pair of wins over Baltimore. Kelvin Herrera owns the seventh inning. The three each made 65 or more appearances with ERAs better than 1.50. No team in history has ever had two relievers accomplish that in the same season, let alone three.
Manager Ned Yost won’t use his bench to pinch-hit much, but he loves calling on speedsters Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson to pinch-run.
The only hint of weakness on defense is Mike Moustakas at third. Otherwise, Gold Glove candidates flash leather all over the field.
Keys to Winning
Similar to the Giants, the Royals will ask the pen to do some heavy lifting. The starters must keep the team in the game through five innings. Kansas City cannot afford to abandon the running game. Speed is the club’s best asset, and they must keep pressure on the Giants’ defense.
Starters Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, who both pitched well at home in the ALCS, must step up on the road now. Lefty swingers Gordon, Hosmer and Moustakas will see a steady diet of lefthanders out of the San Francisco bullpen.
Giants in 5
This past weekend in the SEC lacked some of the drama we had seen in previous weeks, but there were some very interesting results. Alabama was a heavy favorite over Texas A&M, but who could have predicted such a dominant performance from the Tide? And how about Georgia? Many had the Dawgs on upset alert at Arkansas, but Mark Richt’s team was very impressive in its methodical beatdown against Arkansas. Here are some interesting stats from the week that was in the SEC.
10 Amazing College Football Stats from Week 8 in the SEC
Interceptions thrown by Bo Wallace, in 108 attempts, against SEC competition in 2014. In his first two seasons at Ole Miss, Wallace threw a combined 20 INTs in 567 attempts against SEC opponents. In all games this season, Wallace ranks second in the league in passing yards per game (271.3), second in touchdown passes (17) and third in yards per attempt (9.1).
Yards per play allowed by the Mississippi State defense, ranking 64th nationally. Among teams in the current AP top 10, only Oregon (5.59) has allowed more. The Bulldogs have given up more than 5.0 yards per play in all three SEC games and allowed UAB to average 7.12 per snap in State’s 47–34 win in Week 2.
Times this season Alabama has had at least 600 yards of total offense in a game — 602 vs. Texas A&M, 672 vs. Florida and 620 vs. Florida Atlantic. The Crimson Tide hit the 600-yard mark a total of three times in Nick Saban’s first seven years in Tuscaloosa — 668 vs. Kentucky in 2013, 615 vs. Ole Miss in 2011 and 626 vs. Duke in 2010.
Years since Tennessee has won back-to-back SEC games. The Vols won consecutive games against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in November 2010 in the first season of the Derek Dooley era. Since that stretch, Tennessee is 4–23 in league games.
Rushing attempts by Georgia freshman Nick Chubb in the last two games. No player in a Power 5 conference has more carries over a two-game stretch this season. Chubb had a total of 31 rushing attempts in five games before Todd Gurley was suspended.
Times Florida has thrown for at least 300 yards against an SEC opponent in Will Muschamp’s three-plus years at Florida. The Gators had 305 yards passing in last year’s 34–17 loss at home to Vanderbilt.
Yards per play averaged by the Missouri offense in three games against SEC opponents — yet the Tigers are 2–1 in the league with wins at South Carolina and Florida. Nationally, only Wake Forest is averaging fewer yards per play (2.24) against its league competition.
Total points scored by Texas A&M in its past two games — 59–0 at Alabama and 35–20 to Ole Miss. It is the fewest scored by the Aggies in a two-game stretch since the end of the 2004 season when they lost to Texas 26–17 in the regular-season finale and 38–7 to Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
Completed passes by the LSU offense, the fewest in the SEC. The Tigers have also attempted the fewest passes per game (22.0) in the league. Among non-option-based teams, only Boston College (20.7) and Minnesota (17.3) have attempted fewer passes per game.
Touchdown-scoring drives of at least 70 yards by the Arkansas offense against Georgia on Saturday. In its first six games, Georgia had allowed a total of only seven such drives — one vs. Vanderbilt, and two vs. Tennessee, South Carolina and Clemson.
There used to be somebody fast and fierce enough to make LeBron James look over his shoulder. His name was Derrick Rose.
The Chicago Bulls point guard, and famed Chicago native, topped James for MVP voting in the 2010-11 season, becoming the youngest player to ever win the award as the then-22-year-old Rose led his team to a league-best 62-20 record. LeBron and the Miami Heat, however, ended up besting the inexperienced Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals that year, four games to one. But a message was sent: This was going to be one of the best rivalries in the league for some time.
Fate, of course, had other ideas. Since Rose tore his ACL on the first day of the 2012 NBA playoffs, he’s played just ten regular season games over two seasons. The Indiana Pacers, not the Bulls, became Miami’s biggest hurdle in the East as they returned to the Finals for three straight years.
Now LeBron’s back in Cleveland, though, and Rose is back on the court. The time Rose has missed means he can’t operate near The King’s level anymore — not yet, anyway. But he is an integral part of a strong roster, featuring a much-improved Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and newcomer veteran Pau Gasol. Behind the leadership of ever-intense coach Tom Thibodeau, Chicago promises to be LeBron’s harshest Eastern enemy yet again.
With the talent James has around him, it’s hard to believe anyone will be able to beat the Cavs in the long run. Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Co. make for a far stronger, deeper cast than the game’s best player has ever had to work with — even if they’re not quite as experienced as his Heat running mates. In his time away from home, LeBron was able to rearrange the NBA talent market to make his birthplace a magnet for winners. James’ offseason team-building campaign was quite the coup.
If anyone in their conference can take down Cleveland before they find their rhythm and become a juggernaut, though, it’s the indomitable Chicago Bulls. Make sure to catch tonight’s game for a preview of the East’s new power structure.
— John Wilmes
About a month ago, the schedule for Week 9 of the college football season probably didn’t look all that meaningful.
At that time, Baylor and Oklahoma were the clear cut favorites in the Big 12, so games like Texas-Kansas State and West Virginia-Oklahoma State probably carried little weight.
Ohio State was still stinging from a loss to Virginia Tech, so a game at Happy Valley probably didn’t carry much buzz.
And USC-Utah may have looked like a formality for USC rather than a matchup featuring a Pac-12 South upstart.
Recent weeks have changed the stakes.
The Big 12 is one of the most wide-open leagues in the country with Kansas State and West Virginia moving into the role of contenders. Ohio State’s offense has topped 50 points in four consecutive games. And Utah has picked up back-to-back Pac-12 wins over UCLA and Oregon State to position the Utes as a factor in the division.
The Week Ahead: Oct. 25
All games Saturday. All times Eastern.
Texas at Kansas State
When and where: Noon, ESPN
We’re watching because... Kansas State can further solidify its Big 12 credentials against an improving Texas team. The Wildcats squeaked by Oklahoma thanks in part to two missed field goals and an extra point in Norman. If K-State is truly a national contender, the Wildcats should be able to handle Texas at home. The Longhorns, though, may end up as one of the most improved teams during the second half of the season. Tyrone Swoopes is a rising star after passing for 321 yards and rushing for 95 against Iowa State on Saturday.
Vegas says: Kansas State by 10
West Virginia at Oklahoma State
When and where: 3:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... this game has the best chance for weekly Big 12 fireworks. West Virginia is a sneaky-good 5-2 team. The Mountaineers have a win over Baylor on the resume and the two losses came to Alabama and Oklahoma in games decided in the second half. After building a 3-0 record against the worst teams in the league, Oklahoma State received a rude awakening win a 42-9 loss to TCU. The Cowboys will need to bounce back from a two-turnover, 258-yard effort on offense.
Vegas says: Oklahoma State by 2 1/2
Ole Miss at LSU
When and where: 7:15 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... LSU is starting to look like LSU again. After starting 0-2 in the SEC, the Tigers picked up back-to-back wins over Florida and Kentucky. Does that signal a team ready to beat No. 3 Ole Miss? No. But this does look like a much tougher game that it seemed at the start of the month. The Rebels’ defense is dominant, but LSU returned to its running back-by-committee for 303 rushing yards against Kentucky.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 3 1/2
Ohio State at Penn State
When and where: 8 p.m., ABC
We’re watching because... Ohio State is starting to round into Big Ten title form. If the Buckeyes’ are legitimate contenders, they won’t have too much trouble with an undermanned Penn State team, even on the road. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has accounted for 10 total touchdowns in two Big Ten games, and Ohio State’s defensive line should be no match for the poor Penn State offensive front.
Vegas says: Ohio State by 13
USC at Utah
When and where: 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1
We’re watching because... Utah is creeping into the Pac-12 South picture. The Utes should be kicking themselves for coughing up a one-point loss to Washington State at the end of September. The Utes have since defeated UCLA and Oregon State. A win over USC would be a clear signal that Utah is ready to contend in the Pac-12. Otherwise, this will be a matchup of two of the best running backs in the league. Utah’s Devontae Booker is averaging 188 rushing yards per game in league play. USC’s Buck Allen is averaging 149 yards.
Vegas says: USC by 1
Talk Back on U-verse Game of the Week
Each week, AT&T U-verse and Athlon Sports will host a live interactive experience for an SEC game in which two greats from each school will take fan questions live throughout the game.
This week, former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia and former Auburn wide receiver Ben Obomanu will join Athlon Sports’ Braden Gall at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for the fun.
Visit att.com/talkback during South Carolina-Auburn to watch the game with us.
South Carolina at Auburn
When and where: 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
We’re watching because... we haven’t written off Auburn as an SEC West contender. Mississippi State and Ole Miss remain undefeated, and Alabama flexed its muscles. Auburn can't be dismissed, even after the loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Tigers still have Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama on the road, so they can’t squander an opportunity against a vulnerable Carolina team at home.
Vegas says: Auburn by 17 1/2
Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of Pac-12 football action:
187.7: Devontae Booker yards per game in the last three games
After three weeks of the season, the junior college transfer had rushed for 179 yards on 31 carries. In the three games since, Booker has rushed for 563 yards (187.7 ypg) and five touchdowns on 89 carries. This includes his 229-yard, 3-TD effort in the double overtime win over Oregon State on the road in Week 8. A performance that was topped with Booker being named Athlon Sports' national player of the week.
33.0: Sacks by the Utah defense
It’s not just the offense that has been getting it done for the Utes, however. Utah is one win away from reaching a bowl for the first time since joining the Pac-12 because of a nasty defensive front seven. Kyle Whittingham’s bunch registered five sacks against Oregon State and are leading the nation with 33.0 QB takedowns this fall. The Utes are averaging 5.5 sacks per game, which nearly two more than the next best team in the nation (Virginia Tech, 4.0).
25.4: Oregon’s average margin of victory over Washington since 2004
Oregon has won 11 consecutive games against Washington. What’s more impressive is how the Ducks have dominated the Huskies. Following the 45-20 win on Saturday, Oregon has now defeated Washington by an average of 25.4 points per game over the last 11 meetings. The Huskies have lost by 20 or more points in 10 of the those games and have never kept the final outcome within two scores. The average score between these two over the last 11 years is Oregon 43.7, Washington 18.3. That’s 481 to 202.
238: Consecutive Marcus Mariota passes without an INT
Marcus Mariota set a Pac-12 record by going 353 attempts without an interception between the end of 2012 and most of '13 (Arizona picked him off twice last year). But since tossing two INTs against Oregon State last year, Mariota has now gone 232 attempts without an INT, including all 188 this season. Those are the two longest streaks without an interception in conference history.
72: Consecutive weeks Stanford was ranked in the AP Poll
With a tough road loss to Arizona State over the weekend, Stanford dropped from the AP Poll for the first time since Week 2 of the 2010 season. The Cardinal had been ranked by the AP for a school-record 72 consecutive weeks but fell out of the Top 25 following Saturday night's loss. Speaking of the Sun Devils…
1,243: Mike Bercovici passing yards in three starts
After completing 23-of-33 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown in a critical upset win over Stanford’s snarling defense, Arizona State’s backup quarterback now has 1,243 yards passing in three starts. That’s more passing yards than 24 FBS teams have for the entire 2014 season. Taylor Kelly is the starter but Bercovici has been brilliant with huge wins over USC and Stanford and may make Todd Graham’s decision a tough one once Kelly is healthy.
Listen to the Week 8 recap podcast:
7: Cody Kessler’s USC single-game TD record
Matt Barkley owns nearly every major passing record in USC history. But one he no longer holds is the Trojans' single-game record for touchdown passes. Kessler, who backed up Barkley in 2011 and '12, set the new standard with seven touchdown tosses in the win over Colorado. The Trojans' current quarterback is getting overlooked nationally despite ranking 10th in the nation in passer efficiency (162.08) and trailing only Mariota (19:0) with an 18:1 TD:INT ratio.
43.9: Jared Goff’s passing efficiency increase from last year
Cal’s Jared Goff completed his first season in Berkeley last year with a passing efficiency mark of 123.4. He finished Week 8 of this season ranked fifth in the nation with a 167.3 rating following a near upset of UCLA. With a passer rating that's currently 43.9 points higher than last season, Goff is the nation's most improved QB with respect to this statistic. Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell is No. 2 (41.2 points higher) and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott is No. 3 (39.0).
2: Pat Haden sideline altercations
After his bizarre sideline argument with officials against Stanford (who could forget), USC athletic director Pat Haden got into his second in-game dust-up of the year this past Saturday. This time the other party was former Trojans running back LenDale White, who had some choice tweets about defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (they’re NSFW) during USC's 28-26 victory over then-No. 10 Arizona two weeks ago. Which bring us to Saturday, when Haden and White engaged in conversation, presumably about the former star running back's earlier commentary, as the Trojans were putting the finishing touches on a Homecoming victory over Colorado. The discussion quickly turned from friendly to heated, and White eventually wound up getting a personal escort out of The Coliseum.
0: Number of players on USC’s roster from Colorado
USC has players from 19 different states, including Idaho, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Minnesota and Delaware, on its roster but none from the state of Colorado. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes have 55 current players on their roster from the state of California. The Trojans beat the Buffs 56-28 in Los Angeles Saturday night.
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox recap all of Week 8's action in college football. This week's edition features Florida State's win over Notre Dame, the entertaining Big 12, a Will Muschamp debate, Oregon's return and much more. The fellas also give you their playoff poll as well.
Stanford has established a tradition of playing tough defense, the best in the Pac-12, but at some point even the best defensive teams need to find a way to score some points. The days of Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart now seem like distant memories for Stanford football. The Cardinal has to hope the offense can pick things up soon, because a road trip to Eugene, Oregon is creeping up in two weeks.
Stanford has now been held to 20 points or fewer in four games this season. The Cardinal are 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense, but Stanford has been ranked in the bottom half of the conference in total offense each of the past two seasons as well. This season, no team in the Pac-12 has a lower first downs-per game average than Stanford (19.0 first downs per game). The Stanford offense converts on third down just 38.2 percent of the time, 11th in the Pac-12.
The red zone has also been unkind to Stanford this season. In 30 red zone trips, Stanford has scored just 20 times, the worst success rate in the Pac-12. As hard as it may be to believe, that statistic gets a bit uglier when discussing touchdown percentage inside the 20-yard line. Stanford has scored 14 touchdowns in 30 red zone trips in seven games. That is next-to-last in the Pac-12, just a few percentage points ahead of Oregon State.
The most likely reason Stanford’s offense has been struggling this season may be due to the fact the Cardinal had to start an almost entirely new offensive line this season. Stanford lost four starters up front, as well as a starting tight end from 2013. Good teams tend to have experience and depth on the offensive line, and that does not appear to be the case for Stanford this season and it is showing. Stanford has allowed 15 sacks this season, which ranks 73rd nationally.
This week Stanford faces Oregon State. Like Stanford, Oregon State’s offense has been struggling on a regular basis this season, perhaps missing the big play ability of wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The next week Stanford will face Oregon, a team the defense has shown the ability to slow down. The Ducks though have kept their offense on track this season despite taking a loss. This year, the Stanford defense may only be able to carry the Cardinal so far.
Stanford has already lost three games this season, equaling last season’s total loss total. David Shaw may still be one of the better coaches in the game, and he has plenty of experience coaching offense. If any coach can find a way to get Stanford’s offense turned around, it would figure to be Shaw. But time is starting to run thin, if it has not already.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Two weeks ago, Utah scored a victory over a top 10 UCLA program that let the rest of the Pac-12 know the Utes had finally arrived to compete in the conference. After a bye week, the Utes showed true resiliency by edging Oregon State in double overtime on the road on a Thursday night. This week Utah will once again to make a statement in the Pac-12 as the Utes host USC, another ranked opponent. At 5-1, Utah is showing signs of being able to compete in the Pac-12 South, a division with more ranked teams than the vaunted SEC West at this point in the season.
The question remains though, how much faith can be placed in Utah to keep this going? Is Utah here to stay on this competitive field in the Pac-12, or will this be a blip on the radar? All signs seem to suggest Utah is not going anywhere just yet in the Pac-12 South. The recruiting has been improving since moving to the Pac-12, and the talent coming in is beginning to help the program go toe-to-toe with their new conference rivals. TCU’s rise in the Big 12 may be a bit more noticeable and respected nationally, but Utah’s transition to big time football is not to be overlooked either.
For Utah, it starts on defense and running the football, a solid foundation for any winning program in college football. Utah is averaging 210 rushing yards per game with Devontae Booker leading the way with 742 yards and seven touchdowns so far. That ability to run the football has helped take the pressure off quarterback Travis Wilson to do everything he can, although Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has now started to give Kendal Thompson a chance to play under center as well, while searching for a way to turn the passing game’s results around. Wilson has not thrown an interception this season, but his completion percentage has been less-than-inspiring in recent weeks.
While the running game keeps the offense going, it is the Utah defense that seems to have carried the team early on. Utah has the Pac-12’s third best defensive unit, allowing 379.0 yards per game and just 4.74 yards per play. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks with 33.0 in six games, an average of 5.50 sacks per game. Senior Nate Orchard has led the effort to bring pressure into the opposing backfield with 10.5 sacks. Orchard has stepped up to replace last season’s defensive leader, Trevor Reilly (team high 8.5 sacks in 2013).
The biggest area of improvement on the defensive side of the football though has come in the secondary. Last season the Utes were last in the nation with just three interceptions all year long, tied with Kentucky, Illinois, Temple and UTEP. This year is quite a different story for defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake’s secondary. Through six games, Utah has picked off seven passes.
The world is noticing what Utah is doing, but there is still work to be done in Salt Lake City. The schedule sitting in front of Utah includes four games against teams currently ranked in the top 25 (No. 20 USC, No. 14 Arizona State, No. 6 Oregon and No. 15 Arizona), and a match-up with unranked Stanford sits in that stretch. At this point in the college football season though, why not Utah?
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)