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The NFL’s new league year officially starts today. One of the first orders of business will be free agency, which starts up at 4 E.T. this afternoon. With about 600 free agents on the market, there will be lots of activity and business should be brisk from the outset.
Here are 10 key players that everyone will be keeping an eye on in anticipation of where they will end up signing. All of these players are unrestricted free agents, meaning they can sign with whichever team they want to or makes them the best offer.
1. Peyton Manning, QB
Even though he turns 36 in less than two weeks, Manning is the hottest commodity on the market. Released by Indianapolis last week, Manning has crisscrossed the country since then visiting different teams to gauge their interest in signing him so he can resume his NFL career.
There’s no shortage of interest in the four-time NFL MVP despite the questions surrounding his physical condition following three neck surgeries in 19 months and not playing in a single game all of last season. At this stage in his career Manning clearly wants to go to a team that will turn over the offense to him from the start and that has the pieces in place to be a Super Bowl contender.
Interested teams: Manning has already visited Arizona and Denver and teams like Miami, Kansas City, Seattle, Tennessee and Washington have all expressed interest in some form or fashion. I don’t think you should rule out San Francisco either, especially if the 49ers don’t re-sign Alex Smith.
Where he ends up: At this point, it sounds like it’s a two-team race between Arizona and Denver, although Manning is reportedly meeting with both Miami and Tennessee over the next couple of days. Denver, Miami and Tennessee each would allow Manning to stay in the AFC, something he seems to prefer. Miami has the biggest need at quarterback of those three, but Manning's meeting with the Broncos was said to have gone well and Titans owner Bud Adams has said he will do whatever it takes to sign the former University of Tennessee quarterback. Arizona doesn't have a lot of cap space to work with, but the Cardinals can free up some by cutting players, starting with incumbent quarterback Kevin Kolb. Arizona also appears to have the offensive personnel and game plan that fits better with Manning, especially when it comes to one Larry Fitzgerald. In the end, I think Manning will follow in Kurt Warner’s footsteps and relocate, fittingly enough, to Phoenix where he will look to resurrect his career out in the desert. ARIZONA
UPDATE: Manning informed Denver on March 19 of his desire to sign with the Broncos. On March 20, prior to his introductory press conference, Manning and the Broncos agreed on a five-year, $96 million contract.
2. Mario Williams, LB
Houston could have applied the franchise tag to Williams in order to keep him with the team, but they chose not to, making the former No. 1 overall pick a free agent. The Texans instead committed big money to re-signing running back Arian Foster and have several other key free agents and very little cap space to work with, so the chances are Williams will be wearing a new uniform in 2012.
Injuries have limited Williams the past two seasons as he played just five games last season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Still, he is a two-time Pro Bowler who is just 27 years old and he averaged nearly 11 sacks a season from 2007-10. There figures to be a large market for an athletic, dynamic pass-rusher who can play either linebacker or defensive end.
Interested teams: Pretty much any team that can afford Williams would love to add him to their roster. Teams like Dallas, New England and Tennessee will surely reach out to gauge his interest, as could Chicago, Jacksonville, Seattle and Tampa Bay. I also wouldn’t rule out Denver, especially should the Broncos not manage to bring Manning into the fold. Broncos coach Mike Fox had a fair amount of success in Carolina with a player similar to Williams by the name of Julius Peppers.
Where he ends up: Titans owner Bud Adams has already gone on record that he wants Manning on his team. But who is team really needs is Williams, a dynamic defensive player who has an established track record of being able to get to the quarterback. The Titans finished 31st out of 32 teams in sacks last season and have several free agents of their own along the defensive line. Williams fills both needs and the Titans also offer the added bonus of facing his former Texans’ teammates twice every season. TENNESSEE
UPDATE: Williams signed a six-year contract with Buffalo on March 15 that could be worth as much as $100 million.
3. Vincent Jackson, WR
San Diego chose not to use the franchise tag on Jackson a second straight season, granting the Pro Bowl wide receiver the free agent status he has been yearning for. Now’s the opportunity for Jackson, who bounced back from a disappointing 2010 season with 60 catches for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, to finally cash in.
There are about 60 wide receivers in this year’s free agent class, but Jackson’s combination of size, speed and athletic ability will probably make him the most sought after at the position. He would fill the bill for any team looking for a No. 1 wideout, especially one that has a quarterback that likes to throw the ball deep down the field.
Interested teams: Teams like Chicago, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Washington all need a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver. San Diego fits that bill as well and don’t rule out a reunion with the Chargers, who have some cap space to work with. Buffalo, St. Louis and Tampa Bay are possibilities as well. And there’s teams like Carolina, Minnesota and New England who could look to add Jackson as a complement to what they already have. Can you imagine Jackson lining up beside or opposite of Wes Welker with Tom Brady pulling the trigger or Cam Newton having Jackson and Steve Smith as options?
Where he ends up: Jackson wants to get paid and I think he also wants to be the clear-cut No. 1 guy wherever he lands. Jay Cutler likes to throw the ball downfield and the Bears haven’t had a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver since the days of Willie Gault. Or at least that’s the way it probably feels like to Bears fan. Either way, this makes too much sense to me to not happen. CHICAGO
UPDATE: Jackson signed a five-year contract with Tampa Bay worth more than $55 million on March 13.
4. Carl Nicks, OL
New Orleans’ preference would have been to apply its franchise tag to Nicks rather than quarterback Drew Brees. But the Saints were unable to come to terms with Brees on a new contract before the deadline, so they tagged Brees, making Nicks a free agent.
A First-Team All-Pro last season, the Saints’ top priority is to re-sign Nicks, who is certain to draw plenty of attention. If anything, re-signing Nicks could serve two purposes. Besides keeping the Saints’ stout offensive line intact, bringing Nicks back would figure to make Brees, who Nicks helps protect and keep upright, happy and possibly more amenable to working out their differences regarding a new, long-term contract.
Interested teams: Which team wouldn’t want to add an All-Pro left guard like Nicks? That said, New Orleans is going to do everything it can to keep him, but I expect teams like Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle and even Washington to be involved and if anything, drive up the bidding.
Where he ends up: Unless some team with a lot of cap space decides to throw a ridiculous amount of money Nicks’ way, I just don’t see the Saints letting him get away and risk ticking off Brees even more at this point in their contract negotiations with him. NEW ORLEANS
UPDATE: Nicks signed with Tampa Bay for five years and a reported $47.5 million.
5. Stephen Tulloch, LB
Probably not a name many would expect on this list, but Tulloch has been one of the best middle linebackers in the entire league the past three seasons and like the aforementioned Williams, he is just 27 years old. Tulloch didn’t miss a beat in his first season with Detroit after being with Tennessee the previous five as he collected 92 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and recovered three fumbles.
Interested teams: Detroit would like nothing more than to bring Tulloch back as he is a perfect fit for head coach Jim Schwartz’s, who also coached him in Tennessee, defensive system. However, young, productive middle linebackers who can cover a lot of ground and are available like Tulloch are few and far between. Don’t be surprised to see teams that need help at linebacker, like Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tampa Bay to be in play either.
Where he ends up: Of these candidates, the Eagles probably have the biggest need, but given how much they spent in free agency last season, probably won’t be able to last long should a bidding war develop. If the Eagles aren’t seriously involved, I don’t see Tulloch wanting to leave a situation like he has in Detroit and some Lions’ players have already restructured their contracts to free up more cap space to help keep last season’s roster intact. DETROIT
UPDATE: On March 20, Tulloch agreed to a new five-year contract to remain with the Lions.
6. Marques Colston, WR
Colston (6-4, 225) has the look of a No. 1 wide receiver, but is probably best suited for a team where he can share the load, and not tote it on his own. He has certainly produced like a top wideout, with five 1,000-yard receiving seasons and an average of eight touchdown receptions during his career.
He also has missed at least one game in four of his six seasons and a pretty extensive medical history for someone under 30. Colston also is more of a slot or possession-type of receiver who is perfectly suited for his role in New Orleans’ passing attack.
Interested teams: I’m pretty sure New Orleans would gladly welcome Colston back, but it would have to be at their price given their other free agents and available cap space. Outside of the Saints, Colston seems to a good fit for teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tampa Bay or Washington, who could use a possession/slot receiver to help bolster their corps. Chicago could be a player if they are unable to sign the aforementioned Jackson, and Indianapolis and St. Louis are two other teams to keep an eye on.
Where he ends up: The Saints are the best fit for him and who wouldn’t want to catch passes from Drew Brees? I’m just not sure the Saints are in a position to afford him and will be hard-pressed to match any offers made by teams with more cap space. If a bidding war does ensue for Colston, then it may come down to who offers him the most money, even if it means going to a team that doesn’t have the look of a contender next season or even in the immediate future. This may seem a little far-fetched, but we know for sure that there will be a new quarterback in place here and most likely the top two receivers from last year will not be back, so why not the Colts? INDIANAPOLIS
UPDATE: New Orleans re-signed Colston before the start of free agency on March 13 to a four-year contract worth around $40 million.
7. Matt Flynn, QB
Flynn has served as Aaron Rodgers’ back up in Green Bay the past four years. His apprenticeship under the 2011 NFL MVP is similar to Rodgers’ three-year stint as the backup to Brett Favre.
Now does that mean Flynn is going to be a Super Bowl champion and NFL MVP within the next four years? Not likely, but at the very least it does look like he’s going to get his chance at being some team’s starter. Several teams appear to have a need at the position and Flynn could serve as Plan B for these teams if they are not able to lure Manning to their city.
Interested teams: Cleveland, Miami and Seattle appear the most likely destinations for Flynn, and two of these three seem be out of the running for Manning’s services. The Dolphins’ new head coach is Joe Philbin, who served as the Packers’ offensive coordinator the past five seasons.
Where he ends up: Familiarity with the head coach and the offensive system he most likely will implement are no doubt appealing, but let’s not forget about the south Florida climate. Where would you rather play in December – sunny Miami or on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field? Come on now. Be honest. If the Dolphins are unable to lure Manning's talents to South Beach, then I think Flynn is Plan B. MIAMI
UPDATE: Flynn reached agreement with Seattle on a three-year contract on March 18. The deal is reportedly worth $26 million.
8. Brandon Lloyd, WR
After a breakthrough 2010 campaign with Denver, Lloyd started off slowly last season while being caught up in the Broncos’ quarterback controversy. Lloyd was traded to St. Louis after just four games and was fairly productive (51 rec., 683 yards, 5 TDs in 11 games) considering the Rams ranked 30th in the league in passing offense.
Lloyd will be 31 by the time the 2012 season rolls around, but still looks to have plenty left in the tank as he came up just shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in 2011. He would be a perfect sidekick for a team that already has an established No. 1 wide receiver.
Interested teams: The same teams that figure to go after Jackson and Colston will more than likely keep tabs on Lloyd as well. That means teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Washington will probably at least kick the tires. Then there's New England, where Josh McDaniels is the offensive coodinator running a system that Lloyd has already had success in at both Denver and St. Louis. Lloyd appears to be a perfect complement to Welker should New England be willing.
Where he ends up: Lloyd’s breakout season in Denver came when McDaniels was the Broncos’ head coach. The two were reunited last year in St. Louis, where McDaniels was the Rams’ offensive coordinator, after Lloyd was traded to the Rams. McDaniels is now back with New England as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. So guess where Lloyd has already started he would like to end up? NEW ENGLAND
UPDATE: Lloyd and the Patriots reached agreement on a three-year, $12 million deal on March 17.
9. Cortland Finnegan, DB
Tennessee and Finnegan were unable to agree on a long-term contract and the Titans used their franchise tag on safety Michael Griffin, placing the former All-Pro cornerback on the market. The cost of the franchise tag for cornerbacks (more than $10.2 million for a one-year deal) is one of the reasons why the Titans didn’t tag Finnegan, who is certainly looking to be paid like one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
The former seventh-round pick has played with a chip on his shoulder from the start of his rookie season in 2006 and has established a reputation for his physical style of play. Any team looking to shore up its secondary and add some fire to its roster will probably take a close look at Finnegan.
Interested teams: Detroit and St. Louis, two teams with ties to Finnegan already immediately come to mind. Schwartz, the Lions' head coach, previously served as the Titans’ defensive coordinator. Then there are the Rams, now coached by Jeff Fisher who was the Titans’ head coach when Finnegan was drafted through 2010. Cincinnati and Tampa Bay are two other teams that could show interest and I wouldn’t rule out Dallas or Washington either.
Where he ends up: Detroit and St. Louis both bear watching if nothing else for their connections to Finnegan and need for a top-flight, tough cornerback. The Rams are in better shape cap-wise, but the Lions appear to offer the better opportunity to make it to the postseason and possibly contend for a Super Bowl. However, Finnegan has made it clear he wants to be paid and paid well, so I think he will end going to the team that makes him the best offer, which usually brings Dallas and Washington into play. However, on Monday the NFL announced it was taking away millions of cap space from both the Cowboys and Redskins for front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season, which could take both teams out of the running for Finnegan and any of the other marquee free agents for that matter. That leaves the Bengals and Buccaneers, both of which have plenty of cap space to make Finnegan a big offer. On the surface, the Bucs seem to be the better fit and have the more pressing need for Finnegan, who is reportedly trying to convince a certain free agent wide receiver with the last name Jackson to join him in Tampa as a package deal. If this happens that would be quite the housewarming gift for new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.TAMPA BAY
UPDATE: On March 13, Finnegan signed a five-year deal worth approximately $50 million with St. Louis on where he will be reunited with Jeff Fisher, his former head coach when he was wtih the Titans.
10. Reggie Wayne, WR
Wayne, who will turn 34 in November is on this list for the same reason that I could have put fellow Indianapolis cast-off tight end Dallas Clark. They both were very productive playing with Peyton Manning and it's not out of the realm of possibility that either of them could be reunited this fall.
Wayne has already put together a Hall of Fame-worthy resume with 862 receptions, 11,708 receiving yards and 73 touchdowns in 11 seasons. The majority of that came with No. 18 throwing the ball to him. Wayne's days as a true No. 1 wide receiver are probably behind him, but he could be a very productive complementary wide receiver for some team who also could serve as a mentor for young players at his position.
Interested teams: The ties to Manning connection shouldn't be overlooked, but when you consider the teams Wayne's former quarterback has either visited or is scheduled to visit, only Denver and Miami seem to fit. Arizona has cap space issues to negotiate and other needs they will need to fill other than wide receiver, while I don't think Tennessee is that interested in a Manning-Wayne reunion. If Wayne is willing to play with another quarterback than I think his market could increase quite a bit and teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, San Diego, Seattle, Washington and possibly even New Orleans could get involved.
Where he ends up: As I said earlier, I think Manning ends up in Arizona, but I don't see Wayne joining him there. I actually think Clark would have a better chance of ending up with the Cardinals in that scenario than Wayne for what it's worth. If he can't play with Manning then I think Wayne will look to either get back to Miami, where he played in college, or to New Orleans, where he's from. The Saints will more than likely lose Colston to another team, so Wayne would be a nice replacement. And if he can't catch passes from Manning, I think Wayne would "settle" for Brees. NEW ORLEANS
UPDATE: On March 13, Wayne agreed to a new three-year deal to return to the Colts.
— by Mark Ross, published on March 13, 2012, updated at 2 p.m. CT on March 29
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I spend a lot more time watching baseball than I do college basketball, but it’s a law that everyone — sports fan or not — must fill out a bracket. And I must obey the law. So knowing what I know about baseball, here’s my bracket.
1 Kentucky vs. 16 Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky
8 Iowa State vs. 9 UConn
Iowa State alum Buster Brown was 51-103 with a 3.21 ERA in the majors. Just how bad was his run support? So the Cyclones lose in a low-scoring affair. Scott Burrell, former fifth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, and UConn won it all last year, but will lose to Kentucky this year. No one from Mississippi Valley State has played in the major leagues. A handful of players have made it to the Show from WKU, and 11 Hilltoppers were drafted in the past two years, so that’s an easy call. I know just enough about college basketball to know that WKU can’t keep the Cats out of the Sweet 16.
5 Wichita State vs. 12 VCU
4 Indiana vs. 13 New Mexico State
Wichita State has been to seven College World Series, winning it all in 1989. VCU has never been. So that settles that. Indiana is synonymous with basketball, New Mexico State not so much. If this were about basketball, the Hoosiers would advance to the Sweet 16, but Joe Carter wins this one with a walk-off for the Shockers.
Wichita State has Darren Dreifort and Braden Looper, but I like Cy Young winner Brandon Webb to send UK to the Elite Eight.
6 UNLV vs. 11 Colorado
3 Baylor vs. 13 South Dakota State
UNLV, Colorado, Baylor and South Dakota State have a combined three CWS appearances — all three by Baylor. Former Baylor Bear and Hall of Famer Ted Lyons has 356 complete games, 27 shutouts and 23 saves in the majors. The Bears will cruise. Oh, to complete the bracket, take UNLV over Colorado.
7 Notre Dame vs. 10 Xavier
2 Duke vs. 15 Lehigh
Crash Davis, an infielder not a catcher, played in 148 games over three seasons for Connie Mack during WWII. Basketball All-American Dick Groat won NL MVP in 1960. Two-sport star Quinton McCracken played defensive back for Steve Spurrier before playing 999 games in the majors. With those three stars, Duke takes this bracket rather easily, although Notre Dame’s 6’5” righthander Ron Reed, who doubled as a forward on the hardwood, will give the Blue Devils a battle.
I’ll ride Groat, Quinton and Crash over Baylor into the Elite Eight.
1 Michigan State vs. 16 LIU Brooklyn
8 Memphis vs. 9 Saint Louis
Michigan State wins easily over LIU Brooklyn. Brooklyn hasn’t played good baseball since the 1950s. Let’s see, Saint Louis and Memphis should be a blowout. Duh. Memphis Redbirds, Saint Louis Cardinals; Triple-A, Majors. Why does the University spell out Saint? The Spartans enjoyed a trip to the College World Series in 1954, and although they didn’t win or finish second, Tom Yewcic was named the Most Outstanding Player. The Saint Louis Bilikens earned a spot in 1965. They didn’t win, finish second or have the MOP. Spartans advance.
5 New Mexico vs. 12 Long Beach State
4 Louisville vs. 13 Davidson
The Dirtbags of Long Beach State played in four CWS from 1989-98, so a first-round win is a cinch. Same for Louisville, who was in college baseball’s final eight as recently as 2007. So edge to the Cardinals. Besides, the Cardinals’ nickname means something in baseball right now.
Can’t stop thinking about Tom Yewcic. Michigan State over Louisville and into the Elite Eight.
6 Murray State vs. 11 Colorado State
3 Marquette vs. 14 BYU/Iona
There’s very little tradition here, but BYU’s Danny Ainge will lead the Cougars into the Sweet 16. I understand VCU found its way into the Final Four from the First Four last season. Why can’t BYU do that? After all, Jack Morris is a big-game pitcher. I’ll go with Murray over Colorado in the battle of the first-round State schools. But BYU will march into the Sweet 16.
7 Florida vs. 10 Virginia
2 Missouri vs. 15 Norfolk State
Mizzou, with seven CWS appearances and one title, rolls past Norfolk State. Florida and Virginia both visited Omaha last summer and have played in the CWS a combined four times since 2009. Don’t sleep on a school that produced both Eppa Rixey and Ryan Zimmerman, but the Gators have a stronger tradition than UVa. Following David Eckstein’s lead, the Gators will do all the little things to defeat Missouri and play in the Sweet 16
Okay, I’m allowed to do this once. I flipped a coin and Florida won, so the Gators are in the Elite Eight.
1 Syracuse vs. 16 UNC-Asheville
8 Kansas State vs. 9 Southern Miss
I love the Asheville Tourists nickname and their tradition at the Single-A level. But there has been only one major leaguer from UNCA, Ty Wigginton, which is no match for Syracuse and its 26 big leaguers, not to mention the fact that the Syracuse Chiefs have competed at the Triple-A level since 1961. Southern Miss was in the CWS a few years ago, but will be taken down by the Orange.
5 Vanderbilt vs. 12 Harvard
4 Wisconsin 13 Montana
Harvard has played in the CWS four times, but had just one alum drafted in the first round of the regular June draft. Vanderbilt has played in just one CWS (2011) but has had 12 players selected in the first round in June, seven since 2007. Harvard may have a slight edge in SAT scores, but the Commodores have the athletic advantage. Wisconsin, behind Hall of Famer Addie Joss, cruises by Montana, then loses to VU’s David Price. Buster Olney, Tyler Kepner and Lee Jenkins are among those covering the Commodores’ run.
Pedro Alvarez of Vanderbilt awakens just in time to knock a game-winning double off Dave Giusti of Syracuse to send the Black and Gold to the Elite Eight.
6 Cincinnati vs. 11 Texas
3 Florida State vs. 14 St. Bonaventure
It makes no sense that Texas and Florida State are in the same group. Who does this seeding anyway? Since WWII, Texas has had an alum in the majors leagues every season but 1961. Florida State can claim an alum in the majors all the way back to include 1961. Texas has played in 34 College World Series, winning six championships. Florida State has played in 20, but never taken home the hardware. But I’m going with the Seminoles in an upset and move FSU into my Sweet 16. If this game were played 15 years ago, I’d go with Roger Clemens, but I like Buster Posey and the Drew brothers (J.D. and Stephen) now over Brandon Belt and Huston Street.
7 Gonzaga vs. 10 West Virginia
2 Ohio State vs. 15 Loyola (MD)
Ohio State should dominate this regional (or whatever the basketball folks call these four-team groups). The Buckeyes are the only team that can claim an appearance in baseball’s big, big dance, having won a championship in 1966. But they haven’t made it to the CWS since 1967. Of the 25 West Virginia alums in the majors, none have appeared in an All-Star Game, so I’ll give the edge to Gonzaga’s Jason Bay.
Posey just keeps getting stronger and leads the Seminoles into the Elite Eight.
1 North Carolina vs. 16 Lamar/Vermont
8 Creighton vs. 9 Alabama
This is as strong of a quartet as there is in the tournament. Creighton has experience in the CWS, which is played near its home in Omaha. Alabama has been five times, twice a runner-up (Texas 1983, LSU 1997). The Tar Heels have been nine times, five times since 2006. UNC was runner-up back-to-back years to Oregon State. The Creighton Bluejays can bring some heat when Bob Gibson is on the mound. But there’s no offense. Of the 18 Creighton alumni in the major leagues, nine are position players, and Gibson is third among all those players in hits, runs and stolen bases, second in home runs. Lamer has three alums that played in the bigs last season. Vermont hasn’t been represented since Kirk McCaskill retired after 1996. Edge to Lamar. I have the Tar Heels advancing past Alabama. B.J. Surhoff is the all-time leader among big league alumni of North Carolina. Since his dad, Dick Surhoff, played in the NBA, I like North Carolina as a threat to win it all.
5 Temple vs. 12 California/South Florida
4 Michigan vs. 13 Ohio
All of these teams have visited the CWS except for South Florida. There have been 16 appearances from this group with four titles. California and Michigan each have two championships, but none since 1962. So, it’s easy to take Cal and Michigan into the second, uh, make that third round. Cal played in the CWS last June. We love the distinguished alumni list of Wolverines: Three Hall of Famers, Charlie Gehringer, George Sisler and Barry Larkin, plus Jim Abbott, Bill Freehan and J.J. Putz. But the two that stand out above all of them are Moses Fleetwood Walker and brother Welday Wilberforce Walker. Google those guys and you’ll learn why they’re special. Wolverines march on.
The Tar Heels have excellent tradition in both the CWS and NCAA tournament. We couldn’t find any information on the football tournament. Evidently there is a real confusing bracket that’s not really a bracket at all. But we like the sky blue Heels in both basketball and baseball. On to the Elite Eight.
6 San Diego State vs. 13 NC State
3 Georgetown vs. 14 Belmont
Of the 35 Georgetown alumni to play in the majors, 21 of them left the game by 1916. And only one player has made the show since 1960. I think the Hoyas are primed for an upset by the upstart Belmont Bruins. Perhaps the best game of the first (or is it second?) round might be the San Diego State-NC State game. The Aztecs are led by point guard-turned baseball coach Tony Gwynn, who incidentally had 3,000 knocks in between. The Wolfpack features the play of power forward Tim Stoddard, who holds the distinction of starting an NCAA Final and winning a championship as well as relieving in the World Series and earning a ring. We believe Stephen Strasburg’s elbow will hold up and pitch the Aztecs into the Sweet 16.
7 Saint Mary’s vs. 10 Purdue
2 Kansas vs. 15 Detroit
Kansas claims James Naismith as its first basketball coach. I’m going to editorialize for my own benefit; since he was officially hired as a physical education instructor, he must have coached baseball there at some point. Detroit claims Dick Vitale as a former coach. Advantage KU. Purdue and Saint Mary’s have a combined zero College World Series appearances. The Purdue Boilermakers list Bob Friend and Archi Cianfrocco among their 20 alums in the bigs. Saint Mary’s claims Hall of Famer Harry Hooper and Icehouse Wilson as two of its 60. Saint Mary’s defeats Purdue, but falls to Naismith and Kansas.
A part-time baseball coach like Naismith can carry a team only so far. Backing up the Gwynns (Tony, his brother Chris and son Tony Jr.) and Strasburg are Mark Grace and Graig Nettles. Aztecs keep rolling into the Elite Eight.
Elite Eight Games
So, who will play in the Final Four? One of my colleagues, Mitchell Light, a college basketball expert, might have you believe that Kentucky, Marquette, Syracuse and North Carolina will make it to New Orleans. But he thinks baseball is better with the DH, so what does he know?
Down by one in the bottom of the ninth, Duke’s Groat hits a two-run homer with McCracken on base to shock the Wildcats and send Kentucky home. (Or some scenario such as that.)
Spartans Kirk Gibson and Steve Garvey played a little football, so they can probably play a little basketball as well. Behind Hall of Famer Robin Roberts and a little help from Mark Mulder, Sparty puts the chomp on the Gators.
Florida State’s 20 CWS appearances trump Vanderbilt’s one. But that’s all right, that’s okay….
The Tar Heels have had 27 players drafted in the past five years. And 14 of them went in the first seven rounds.
In the Final Four, Kirk Gibson hits a miracle shot to catapult the Spartans into the finals against North Carolina, as Florida State proves once again that it can’t quite win the big one.
I understand from colleagues that former Chicago White Sox farmhand Michael Jordan was a decent basketball player at North Carolina, so just as we predicted in our College Basketball magazine, the Tar Heels will win the National Championship.
The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.
Name two double-digit seeds that you believe will win at least one game.
Mitch Light: I realize I’m not the only member of the Long Beach State bandwagon, but I really like this team to beat New Mexico in the 5 vs. 12 matchup in the West Region. The 49ers feature an elite guard in Casper Ware and a solid cast of role players. They don’t have great size, but senior forward T.J. Robinson is averaging a double-double and shooting over 50 percent from the floor. This team also won’t be spooked by the big stage; Long Beach has played at Pittsburgh, San Diego, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina and also played Xavier, Auburn and Kansas State on a neutral court.
I also like Ohio University in a 4 vs. 13 game against Michigan in the Midwest Region. Ohio defends the 3-point shot very well — opponents only shoot 30.3 percent — and Michigan relies heavily on the 3-point arc. Keep an eye on junior guard D.J. Cooper, who scored 23 points as a freshman two years ago when the Bobcats pounded Georgetown 97–83 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Mark Ross: Long Beach State (No. 12 in the West) will have its hands full with Drew Gordon and No. 5 New Mexico, but this is a veteran team that starts four seniors and one junior and won’t be intimidated by the higher-seeded Lobos. The 49ers’ non-conference schedule this season included eight teams — Creighton, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville, Montana, North Carolina, San Diego State and Xavier — that are in this year’s field of 68. And although Long Beach State went 1–7 in these games (beat then-No. 15 Xavier on a neutral court in December), the 49ers’ margin of defeat was a respectable 7.4 points. This is a team that has been working toward this point all season, and not only do I think they will upset New Mexico, I also sixth-seeded think they have good shot at beating Louisville, should the Cardinals take care of business against Davidson, and advancing to the Sweet 16.
Speaking of Xavier, the Musketeers (No. 10 in the South) have been inconsistent throughout the season, but played well in the A-10 Tournament before falling to St. Bonaventure in the championship game. Xavier gets No. 7 seed Notre Dame in the first round, and I think the Musketeers will be too much for the Fighting Irish to handle. Notre Dame was hit hard early by injuries and had a remarkable season going 13–5 in the Big East, but most of its big wins came at home. The Fighting Irish have struggled against athletic, guard-oriented teams that can defend, and Xavier seems to fit the bill here.
Nathan Rush: West Virginia (No. 10) and Belmont (No. 14) are the double-digit underdogs with the best chance of winning at least one game. The Mountaineers are playing Gonzaga (No. 7) in Pittsburgh, which is less than two hours away from their home in Morgantown. Along with a “homecourt” edge, WVU also has senior leaders in Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant as well as a Tournament-tested coach in Bob Huggins; “Huggy Bear” is 15–4 all-time in the first round of the Big Dance. The Bruins are a longshot against Georgetown (No. 3), but Rick Byrd’s team is well-coached, experienced and more athletic than most realize. Plus, the Hoyas are fresh off of back-to-back losses in the first round, making John Thompson III’s squad vulnerable for late-game “deja vu all over again” jitters against a smart Belmont team hungry to earn the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
Patrick Snow: I have been a fan of San Diego State all season, but the 6th-seeded Aztecs are ripe for an upset versus lower-seeded NC State. Steve Fisher’s bunch lost four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 club, but SDSU still won 26 games. Even though sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin has been on fire lately, I believe NC State will be able to pack it in on defense against the Aztecs, a team that only shot 34 percent from 3-point range (T-182nd in the nation) this season. For the Wolfpack, sophomore forward C.J. Leslie can be a force inside and played well down the stretch. Guard Lorenzo Brown is one of the more underrated players in the country, as he contributes in all areas of the game. That duo is part of five NC State players who average double-digit points, and Mark Gottfried’s team should share the ball well enough to beat San Diego State.
Saint Mary’s had a solid year in winning the West Coast Conference and breaking Gonzaga’s decade-plus stranglehold on WCC regular-season league titles. However, Purdue showed improvement late — winning five of its last seven regular-season games — and Robbie Hummel has been playing back to his 2009-10 form. The senior forward is a great story of perseverance after multiple ACL tears, and he forms a trio of top treymakers with Ryne Smith and D.J. Byrd. The Gaels will be led by a formidable duo in Aussie guard Matthew Dellavedova and burly Rob Jones inside, and Randy Bennett’s club should control the boards. But Purdue’s veteran group should be able to control the tempo, and I see Matt Painter’s Boilermakers pulling the upset over Saint Mary’s.
Braden Gall: I will go with St. Bonaventure (No. 14) and Long Beach State (No. 12). In an East Region loaded with hot teams — Vanderbilt won the SEC tourney, Florida State won the ACC tourney and Montana has won 14 straight — St. Bonaventure enters having won five straight and the Atlantic 10 tourney. The Bonnies are an excellent offensive team (38th in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings) with stud big man Andrew Nicholson playing like a lottery pick. He has averaged 26 points and 10.6 rebounds per game over his last seven, and the Bonnies are 6–1 over that span. Something has to give against a team that plays stellar defense like Florida State, which also lacks a true point guard.
New Mexico also plays excellent defense, but Long Beach State can really score and certainly won’t be scared of the Mountain West champs. Dan Monson’s bunch has played Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Xavier, Kansas State, San Diego State, Pitt and Creighton in non-conference action. The 49ers lost to Kansas by eight, North Carolina by six, Creighton by two and the Aztecs by four in overtime. They have won 18 of their last 20 and are as prepared to make a Sweet 16 run as any mid-major squad in the tourney.
The verdict is in and the news is not good for North Carolina. A NCAA investigation regarding improper benefits and other violations under former coach Butch Davis has concluded, with the NCAA levying some significant penalties against the program. North Carolina was found to have committed multiple violations, including academic fraud, failure to monitor, ineligible participation of players and impermissible agent benefits.
As a result of the violations, the Tar Heels were slapped with a one-year postseason ban (2012), placed the program on three years probation and penalized the team with a reduction of 15 scholarships. In addition to being ineligible for a bowl game in 2012, if North Carolina wins the Coastal Division, it won’t be allowed to participate in the ACC Championship.
North Carolina will be the second team banned from postseason play next year, as Ohio State was already barred from competing in the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game. Miami and Oregon are still awaiting an announcement from the NCAA on investigations into its programs and both could be hit with a bowl ban for 2012.
Although losing 15 scholarships over three years is going to hurt the program, it’s not a significant blow (30 over three years) like USC received from the NCAA. The Tar Heels will have to be a little more selective in the recruiting process and depth could be an issue in certain spots, but overall, North Carolina shouldn’t suffer too much on the field due to the scholarship reductions.
The Tar Heels will also be forced to vacate wins from the 2008 and 2009 seasons, while former assistant coach John Blake has been hit with a three-year show-cause penalty. The investigation concluded Blake was paid by an agent for access to players on the North Carolina roster . The show-cause penalty will likely end any hope Blake has of returning to the collegiate coaching ranks. Former head coach Butch Davis was fired before the start of the 2011 season and will work as an assistant with new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. Davis was not hit with a show-cause penalty.
With this unknown finally removed from the program, North Carolina can move forward and turn the focus back to the field. But how will these sanctions and NCAA penalties affect this team in 2012?
Considering the Tar Heels were building some momentum with the hire of Larry Fedora as their new coach, along with the return of quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard, it’s a huge blow not being able to compete in a bowl or the ACC title this season. North Carolina was going to be picked anywhere from second to fifth in the unpredictable Coastal, but was expected to be one of the ACC's bowl teams and contend for at least eight wins next year.
With no bowl or conference title to play for, it’s fair to wonder if the expectations should be lowered for North Carolina in 2012. A NCAA investigation hung around the Miami program last year, and the Hurricanes finished with a disappointing 6-6 record. The Tar Heels clearly know what’s ahead and the obstacles facing the program in 2012, 2013 and 2014. However, with some talented pieces returning on offense, it’s a setback not being able to compete for the conference title. With no bowl or conference title on the line, it's all about pride for the Tar Heels in 2012.
The real danger for North Carolina is not allowing the scholarship reductions and bowl ban put the program into a slide. However, with Fedora’s solid track record at Southern Miss, it’s hard to imagine the Tar Heels slipping too far in the Coastal and this team should be back in a bowl in 2013.
Considering none of the sanctions were on Fedora’s watch, the bowl ban and scholarship reductions should buy him more time. Knowing he would need some time to drive the program out of potential sanctions, Miami made a clear and long-term commitment to coach Al Golden at the end of 2011. North Carolina’s case isn’t as severe as the Hurricanes, but Fedora will need time to restock the 15 lost scholarships. After undergoing a lot of turmoil recently, the Tar Heels need to focus on giving Fedora whatever he needs to win and bring some stability to a program that is capable of being a contender in the ACC Coastal.
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The golf world is breathlessly awaiting news this morning about the health of Tiger Woods, last seen limping into a golf cart after his tee shot on the 12th hole at Doral's Blue Monster. Tiger's re-emergence was only one storyline of what has been a compelling 2012 PGA Tour season, but it was a big one. The Tour needs a healthy, competitive Tiger, a player who stirs emotion - both positive and negative - and draws in casual fans in a way that the Rory McIlroys of the world simply cannot.
But let's face it - Tiger is 36, and it's an old 36. Years of strenuous workouts, not to mention the inhuman level of torque and twisting that he's put his body through in transforming golf into a power game, have taken a significant toll. What once seemed a leisurely stroll to 19 majors and the all-time record has become a death march.
So, as we await word on what is being called a left Achilles injury by the Woods camp, it's worth chronicling what is becoming an extensive injury history for Tiger. Here are the various and sundry body parts that have been tweaked, treated or dinged during Tiger's career:
2011 - Sprain of medial collateral ligaments in left knee and minor strain of his left Achilles.
June 2008 - “As far as the procedure, it was an ACL reconstruction of my left knee. They did take a graft, basically a tendon out of my right hamstring, and implemented it into my left knee and made it into my new ACL; and they fixed a little bit of cartilage damage I had in there.” — Woods, who fought through an injured ACL and a stress fracture of his left tibia to win the 2008 U.S. Open
April 2008 - Surgery so secret even Tiger’s swing coach Hank Haney didn’t know until after the fact. Widespread speculation that the injury occurred during a fist-pumping celebration in the ’07 PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
December 2002 - Fluid from around ACL drained, Benign cyst removed
1994 - Benign tumor removed
May 1995 - Injured during Stanford Intercollegiates
June 1995 - Exited U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills after five holes of the second round, injuring left wrist hitting out of rough
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 15: Bill Haas
Born: May 24, 1982, Charlotte, N.C. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,088,637 | World Ranking: 14
Brandel Chamblee's Take:
The 2011 FedExCup champ has never finished in the top 10 in a major, but he was one of the few in the world to make the cut in every major in only his sixth year on Tour. It has taken him awhile to find his footing, but at 29 years old he should, over the next decade, be one of the premier players in the game. His top-5 ball-striking rank coupled with his ranking of third in putting from inside five feet explains his success last year and point towards great things in 2012. It looks like Haas might not know how good he is, but simultaneously lifting the Tour Championship trophy and the FedExCup should give him the confidence to contend and perhaps win a major in the very near future.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T42
U.S. Open - T23
British Open - T57
PGA Championship - T12
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T26 (2010)
U.S. Open - T23 (2011)
British Open - T57 (2011)
PGA Championship - T12 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 2
Missed Cuts: 3
by David Fox (@DavidFox615 on twitter)
An unfortunate fact for college basketball is that many fans are just getting acquainted with the sport around tournament time.
Athlon Sports won’t judge.
For those about to get a heavy dose of college hoops over the next three weeks, we’ll help you get caught up. We broke down the NCAA Tournament field A to Z, highlighting some key teams, coaches, players, statistics and trends to watch.
It’s an exhaustive list, so some hardcore college basketball aficionados may learn a thing or two as well.
Alaska. With South Dakota State making the field by way of the Summit League’s automatic bid, Alaska and Maine are the only states never to have a team in the NCAA Tournament. The Dakotas were two of the last three states in the Lower 48 to join the field with North Dakota State earning a bid in 2009. The wait for Alaska to join March Madness may be a while, though. Alaska does not have any Division I basketball teams.
Burgess, Bradford. A year after advancing from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU won’t catch anyone off guard. Neither will its prolific wing Burgess. A year ago, Burgess averaged 15.7 points and 7 rebounds during the Final Four run. Like the rest of the Rams, Burgess got hot from 3 on the way to the national semifinal, hitting 17 from beyond the arc in six games. He’s one of two starters back to defend the Final Four along with center D.J. Haley.
Charity stripe. Any Memphis fan can stress the importance of free throw shooting in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers that year were one of the worst teams from the line in the country in 2008, a deficiency that bit Memphis in the finals seconds against eventual national champion Kansas. Be nervous watching these teams from the free-throw line: Cincinnati (64.1), Kansas State (66.6), Connecticut (66.1). On the other hand, teams to like at the free-throw line: Missouri (76.5 percent), Indiana (76.2), Wichita State (75.1), Baylor (75.1) and Harvard (74.6). As for John Calipari’s current team, Kentucky led the SEC by shooting 72 percent from the line.
Defense. Be cautious of teams vulnerable on defense in the NCAA Tournament. Some teams that worry us include: Creighton (101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions according to kenpom.com, 183rd nationally), Davidson (98.7 points), Florida (98.3 points) and Saint Mary’s (97.4 points).
Eustachy, Larry. The return of Larry Eustachy to the NCAA Tournament is one of the major redemption stories for the coach and his program. He left Iowa State in disgrace in 2001 after he was photographed with beer in his hand among students at a campus party in Columbia, Mo. The AP National Coach of the Year admitted he had problem with alcohol and set out to solve it. He landed at Southern Miss in 2004 and rebuilt the program for its first Tournament appearance since 1991.
Fathers. Where would Creighton and Detroit be without good genes? Both teams’ star players – Doug McDermott at Creighton and Ray McCallum at Detroit – happen to be the sons of their head coaches. Both took different routes to play with their fathers. Greg McDermott, then the struggling head coach at Iowa State, didn’t think Doug had the size to flourish in the Big 12. The McDermotts reunited in the Missouri Valley where Doug became the league player of the year. Elsewhere, Ray McCallum Jr. could have played just about anywhere but he ended up in the Horizon League. The son spurned Arizona, Florida and UCLA to play for his father Ray McCallum Sr. at Detroit.
Green, Draymond. Few players in the country are as NCAA Tournament-tested as Michigan State forward Draymond Green. He came off the bench for the Spartans’ Final Four runs in 2009 and 2010 and had his best career tournament game in his only start last season with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a round of 64 loss to UCLA. In 12 NCAA Tournament games, Green has averaged 9.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. Look for him to exceed those averages as the centerpiece for the Spartans this season.
Harvard. Between Jeremy Lin and Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard has had a couple of opportunities to brag about its alums in the sports world. Finally, the Crimson can brag about current players in the NCAA Tournament. After falling short in a one-game playoff with Princeton for the Ivy League title last season, Harvard avoided such drama this season by winning the Ivy and earning its first NCAA Tournament since 1946.
Injuries. A handful of injuries could dampen teams’ hopes in the Tournament. Start with a torn ACL for Indiana point guard Verdell Jones. North Carolina also will be concerned with a wrist injury for ACC defensive player of the year John Henson. Injuries to Michigan State’s Branden Dawson, Duke’s Ryan Kelly and Florida’s Will Yeguete will put pressure on role players for each team.
Jayhawks. Kansas continued the longest active streak for NCAA Tournament appearances at 23 straight years in the field. Since losing to Bucknell and Bradley in the first round in back-to-back years, Kansas has won at least one game in the last five Tournaments, including the 2008 national championship. Mid-majors, though, still seem to have a hex on Kansas as the Jayhawks lost to VCU in the Elite Eight last season and Northern Iowa in the second round in 2010.
Kentucky. The Wildcats enter the tournament as the prohibitive favorite after losing only a buzzer-beater to Indiana on Dec. 10 and Vanderbilt this past weekend. Kentucky reached the Elite Eight in the first season under Calipari and the Final Four in the second season. Big Blue Nation is expecting the next step with good reason: Kentucky is stocked with future NBA talent, and it might have the best player in the country in Anthony Davis. Still, youth is a concern with freshmen and sophomores making up six of its top seven players. Kentucky won’t out-shoot many teams from 3-point range, either.
Lopsided losses. North Carolina is on the short list of teams capable of winning the national title, but the Tar Heels still have the 33-point loss to Florida State from Jan. 14 on their resume. Here are the worst losses for other top title contenders: Kentucky (by 7 points to Vanderbilt), Syracuse (9 points at Notre Dame), Kansas (10 points to Kentucky in Maui), Michigan State (15 points at Indiana), Ohio State (11 points to Kansas), Duke (22 points at Ohio State), Missouri (16 points at Kansas State).
Majerus, Rick. This season will mark the return of Saint Louis to the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens have been absent since 2000 under now-Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. This is also a return to the Tournament for Rick Majerus, who last coached in the Big Dance with Utah in 2003. The coach who led the Utes to the national championship game in 1998 left Utah citing health reasons partway through the 2003-04 season. After working with ESPN, he took the USC job for four days before leaving the Trojans due to health concerns.
New Orleans. The Final Four returns to New Orleans for the fifth time in the last 30 years, a fact a handful of top teams hope brings good mojo. North Carolina won the title twice here in 1982 and 1993. Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a championship in the Superdome in 2003. The Orange also played for a title in New Orleans in 1987 when they lost to Indiana. Kansas has reached the Final Four twice in New Orleans (2003, 1993). Kentucky has done it once (1993).
Orange. Syracuse first fought through the Bernie Fine scandal to start the season. Then came the Yahoo! Sports story that indicated Syracuse since 2001 played at least 10 players who failed tests for banned substances. Distractions don’t seem to be a problem for this group, though. If there’s another potential distraction to add: Since the 2003 championship, Syracuse has been eliminated by lower seeds in four of its last six appearances, including to sixth-seeded Marquette in the round of 32 last year.
Patsos, Jimmy. The NCAA Tournament is a great vehicle for drama and nail-biting, but it’s also a great vehicle to introduce basketball’s most interesting personalities to the mainstream. Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos will be one of those this season. He picked up part-time work as a bartender while coaching under Gary Williams at Maryland, he loves the Grateful Dead, and he’ll talk and talk and talk. He can coach a bit, too. Loyola went 29-140 from 1999-2000 through 2004-05, his first season. This year, Loyola won 24 games and won the MAAC tournament for the Greyhounds’ first NCAA bid since 1994.
Quincys. Pierre Jackson is Baylor’s leading scorer, and Perry Jones is Baylor’s biggest star. That said, Baylor wouldn’t be the contender it is without its Quincys, particularly Quincy Acy. The forward is Baylor’s heart and motivator on the floor. The freshman Quincy Miller is far from a finished product, but he’s valuable contributor.
Rants. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Lamar coach Pat Knight weren’t shy in delivering blunt assessments of their teams in front of the cameras. They must have been just as effective in the locker room. Cincinnati’s brawl with rival Xavier was one of the low points of the season, but the Bearcats turned around their season after Cronin clearly expressed his embarrassment after the incident. The Bearcats lost that day, in addition to losing to Presbyterian and Marshall weeks earlier. Cincinnati went 19-7 and reached the Big East tournament final after the brawl. After a Feb. 22 loss to Stephen F. Austin, Knight evicerated his seniors. Lamar went 6-0 since, winning the Southland tournament for the school’s first Tournament bid since 2000.
St. Bonaventure. The NCAA slapped the Bonnies with the “lack of institutional control” in 2004, setting up a major reclamation project for coach Mark Schmidt. By defeating Xavier for the Atlantic 10 tournament final, St. Bonaventure earned its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2000 and knocked a bubble team out of the field. The country now will get to know senior Andrew Nicholson, one of the nation’s best-kept secrets. Against Xavier, Nicholson had one of the best games of his career with 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks.
Tigers. Missouri hasn’t made the most NCAA Tournament appearances without a trip to the Final Four. That distinction belongs to BYU with 27 Tournaments without a Final Four. Missouri is right behind with 25 appearances without reaching the national semifinals. Led by Jimmer Fredette, BYU had one of its best shots last season before falling in the Sweet 16 to Florida. Missouri is in perhaps its best position to end that drought this year with its best seeding since being a No. 1 seed in 1994 (the Tigers lost to Arizona 92-72 in the Elite Eight that season).
USF. The Bulls may be a shining beacon to the likes of UCF, SMU and others, moribund basketball powers who will soon join a basketball-centric conference. The Bulls went 1-15 in their first season in the Big East before navigating a weaker Big East schedule this year to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1992.
Valleys. As in the Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley conferences. Since 2008, the MVC’s only tournament wins were Northern Iowa’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2010. Could the Valley make another major statement in this tournament? History says it could be. When the Missouri Valley is a multi-bid league, as it is this season with Wichita State and Creighton in the field, it tends to succeed. In 2007, Southern Illinois reached the Sweet 16 when the MVC was a two-bid league. In 2006, the MVC had four bids with Bradley and Wichita State advancing to the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley, a traditional one-bid league, has scored upsets in the last two tournaments with Morehead State upsetting fourth-seeded Louisville in 2011 and Murray State upsetting fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in 2010. This year, the OVC will be favored in its first tournament game with 30-1 Murray State in the field.
Western Kentucky. Western Kentucky was one of the most unlikely teams to clinch a spot in the field when the Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt tournament. Western Kentucky was 5-11 when it fired head coach Ken McDonald on Jan. 6. Then-interim coach Ray Harper went 4-7 before the Hilltoppers elevated him to permanent head coach on Jan. 19 after a loss to South Alabama. That loss was the last under Harper. Western Kentucky won its final six games, including the regular-season finale against Sun Belt champ Middle Tennessee and the conference tournament. At 15-18, Western Kentucky is the only team in the field with a losing record.
Xavier Thames. San Diego State’s third leading scorer, Thames started his career at Washington State. He’s one of a handful of transfers who could make an impact on this year’s field: Mike Moser (UCLA to UNLV), Drew Gordon (UCLA to New Mexico), Matt Carlino (UCLA to BYU), Rob Jones (San Diego to Saint Mary’s), Brandon Wood (Valparaiso to Michigan State), Chris Allen (Michigan State to Iowa State).
Yarou, Mouphtaou. We’ll use this spot – and the name of the Villanova forward – to note two major absences from the NCAA Tournament. The state of Pennsylvania has two teams in the field (Lehigh and Temple), but not Pittsburgh and Villanova. Pitt had made 10 consecutive tournaments, and Villanova made seven. Both were the longest active Tournament streaks in the Big East. That honor now falls to Marquette with seven consecutive trips to the Tournament.
Zellers. Expect a handful of sick days back in Washington, Ind., with hometown favorites Tyler and Cody Zeller playing a major role in the Tournament. Tyler anchors the frontcourt of a team with title hopes in North Carolina. If that could be upstaged, at least in Indiana, Cody helped pull the Hoosiers out of the cellar with their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008.
—by David Fox (@DavidFox615 on twitter)
CHECK OUT ALL OUR NCAA TOURNAMENT PREVIEWS
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The countdown to the 2012 college football season continues with a look at the top quarterback battles in the nation. Spring practice is already underway at many campuses and will continue for many teams into late April. Quarterback battles are one of the most popular topics when it comes to spring practice, but there's no guarantee they will be settled by the end of April. Expect many of the battles on this list to last well into the fall.
The Biggest, Most Important Quarterback Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
A year after claiming the national championship and watching Cam Newton hoist the Heisman Trophy, Auburn’s offense was stuck in neutral in 2011. The Tigers finished ninth in the SEC in passing offense and managed just 25.7 points a game. Barrett Trotter led the team with 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Clint Moseley threw for 800 yards and five scores. Kiehl Frazier threw for only 34 yards, but was a valuable contributor on the ground by rushing for 327 yards and three scores. Trotter decided not to return to the team for 2012, leaving Frazier, Moseley and true freshman Zeke Pike to battle for the job. In addition to breaking in a new quarterback, coordinator Gus Malzahn departed to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Coach Gene Chizik tapped Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to lead Auburn’s offense, which will likely be a little more conservative than the Tigers saw under Malzahn. Pike and Frazier have more upside, but how quickly will they develop as passers? Moseley is more of a caretaker, but may have to start until one of the young quarterbacks is ready. Don’t be surprised if Auburn starts three different passers in 2012.
Projected Winner: Frazier
The Broncos have a plethora of holes to fill, but none bigger than finding a replacement for quarterback Kellen Moore. The general feeling is coach Chris Petersen and new offensive coordinator Robert Prince will find a way to keep Boise State’s offense among the best in the nation next year, but there may be a few growing pains. Four candidates will compete for the job this spring, with junior Joe Southwick and sophomore Grant Hedrick the early frontrunners. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and true freshman Nick Patti will also get an opportunity to win the No. 1 spot. With a tough road test against Michigan State awaiting the Broncos in the first week of 2012, settling the quarterback battle is going to be crucial to Boise State’s chances at winning.
Projected Winner: Southwick
It’s a shock to see the lack of playmakers and offensive talent Florida has on the roster going into 2012. Considering the Gators had so much offensive success under former coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, it’s almost hard to believe Florida finished 10th in the SEC in total offense last year. There wasn’t much that went right with the Gators’ offense last year and there’s a new coordinator taking over this season – Brent Pease from Boise State. Pease led a high-scoring offensive attack with the Broncos, but will have his work cut out for him in 2012. Jacoby Brissett made two starts last year and ended with 206 passing yards, two touchdowns and four picks. Jeff Driskel threw for 148 yards and brings more mobility to the offense. Although Brissett and Driskel were both highly-regarded recruits, neither did enough to lock up the job going into the spring. Whichever quarterback wins the job also needs the receiving corps, running backs and offensive line to play better in 2012.
Projected Winner: Brissett
There’s a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball for the Hurricanes in 2012, so it may be difficult to better last season’s 6-6 record. Jacory Harris was a lightning rod for criticism during his career, but actually turned in a solid senior year, throwing for 2,486 yards and 20 scores. The battle to replace Harris is already off to a slow start, as Stephen Morris suffered a back injury and will miss spring practice. With Morris sidelined, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and true freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Crow will compete for the top spot. Williams was the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2010, throwing for 2,075 yards and 13 scores and grew up north of Miami in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Dewey and Crow lack experience, but enrolled early for spring practice. Although Morris won’t return to practice until the fall, he has to be the favorite to take the first snap for Miami this year.
Projected Winner: Morris
For the Irish to get back into contention for a BCS game, settling the quarterback position is the top priority. Coach Brian Kelly did a good job of plugging in different quarterbacks at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but has yet to find that same success with Notre Dame. Dayne Crist began 2011 as the starter, but was eventually benched in favor of Tommy Rees. Andrew Hendrix also received playing time last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown, while adding 162 yards and a score on the ground. Rees finished with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns, but also tossed 14 picks. Crist decided to transfer to Kansas for his senior year, leaving Rees, Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to compete for the No. 1 spot this spring. Kiel ranked as the No. 24 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100, but has drawn mixed reviews from scouts and there’s no guarantee he will be ready to start this year. Although Rees may be limited in how far he can take Notre Dame’s offense, he may represent the safest choice. Golson and Hendrix provide a running dimension, but neither have much (or any) experience. Considering the Irish know what they have in Rees, the guess here is a different quarterback starts the season opener.
Projected Winner: Hendrix
A year after claiming their first BCS bowl victory, Oklahoma State has some large holes to fill on offense if it wants to claim the Big 12 title in 2012. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon have moved onto the NFL, which will force the Cowboys to rely a little more on running back Joseph Randle. Weeden didn’t miss a start over the last two years, which left little time for backup Clint Chelf to get onto the field. Chelf has been solid in limited action, completing 34 of 49 passes for 520 yards and five touchdowns. However, Chelf isn’t secure as the starter, as redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and incoming freshman Wes Lunt will compete for the job this spring. Lunt was a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and could be Oklahoma State’s long-term answer to the quarterback position.
Projected Winner: Chelf
Darron Thomas’ surprising decision to enter the NFL Draft leaves a vacancy at quarterback for the Ducks this spring. Although Thomas was a solid player for Oregon, the Ducks have done a good job of plugging in new starters under center and not missing a beat. Bryan Bennett is the frontrunner to replace Thomas, as he made one start last season and impressed during his limited action. Bennett threw for 369 yards and six scores, while adding 200 yards on the ground. Although Bennett is believed to have a sizeable lead on the field going into preseason workouts, he will be pushed for playing time by incoming freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, along with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and junior Dustin Haines. Mariota is biggest challenger for the starting nod, but look for Bennett to take the first snap for Oregon in 2012.
Projected Winner: Bennett
Replacing Andrew Luck isn’t going to be an easy task for Stanford coach David Shaw. Vying to replace Luck this spring will be a handful of candidates, including sophomore Brett Nottingham, freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan and juniors Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo. Nottingham completed 5 of 8 throws for 78 yards and a touchdown in a backup role last year, but has yet to record his first start. Nunes is expected to be Nottingham’s biggest challenger, but has only two career attempts. The Cardinal can lean on a solid rushing attack while the quarterbacks get acquainted to the starting role. However, there’s going to be a drop-off in production with Luck throwing passes in the NFL next year.
Projected Winner: Nottingham
Contending for the Big 12 title isn’t out of the question for the Longhorns in 2012. However, Texas has to settle the quarterback battle early and get the starter settled before Big 12 play arrives. David Ash took control of the No. 1 spot thanks to his performance in the Holiday Bowl against California. Ash ended last season with more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (4), but can add a different dimension to the offense with his rushing ability. If Ash struggles, the Longhorns will turn to Case McCoy or incoming freshman Connor Brewer. All reports out of Texas’ spring practices indicate Ash is off to a strong start and appears to be pacing the field to take the first snap in 2012.
Projected Winner: Ash
Moving to the SEC is already a difficult task, but the Aggies have to do it with a new quarterback taking over in 2012. Ryan Tannehill finished a solid two-year run as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback by throwing for 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns. There’s no clear-cut No. 1 passer going into fall practice, but the team has some intriguing options. Sophomore Jameill Showers worked as the No. 2 quarterback last year, completing four of five passes for 40 yards. Joining the mix this spring will be sophomore Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and true freshman Matt Davis. Manziel ranked as the No. 14 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school by Rivals.com, while Davis was ranked as a four-star prospect. Davis enrolled early to participate in spring practice and should be a good fit for new coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense. Considering Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s success at building a successful offense at Houston, the Aggies will eventually figure things out this season. The guess here is Showers wins the job, but will be pushed by Davis and Manziel throughout the year.
Projected Winner: Showers
It’s been a struggle for UCLA’s offense to establish any consistency over the last couple of years. Will that change under new coordinator Noel Mazzone? Kevin Prince has battled injuries throughout his career, but is expected to begin spring practice as the favorite. Richard Brehaut threw for 948 yards and six scores last season and will likely be the No. 2 quarterback when spring drills open. The wildcard in the competition is Brett Hundley. The redshirt freshman ranked as one of the top 100 recruits coming out of high school by Rivals.com and brings a different dimension to the offense with his mobility. If Hundley is ready, he will quickly assume UCLA’s No. 1 spot. However, look for Prince to gain an early edge in spring practice and at least start the season opener.
Projected Winner: Prince
It’s not crazy to think the winner of this quarterback battle could lead the Pac-12 in passing yards. And yes, that’s counting Matt Barkley at USC. New coach Mike Leach produced some of college football’s top offenses at Texas Tech and will look to rekindle the magic with the Cougars in 2012. Jeff Tuel’s 2011 campaign was hindered by injuries, but a glimpse at his 2010 numbers shows his potential – 2,780 yards and 18 scores. Connor Halliday played well in limited action last season, throwing for 960 yards and nine touchdowns, but a lacerated liver ended his season early. Whether it’s Tuel or Halliday getting the start for Washington State next year, this should be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2012.
Projected Winner: Tuel
The Badgers dipped into the transfer ranks to find their starting quarterback last season, will we see them do it again? Russell Wilson was one of college football’s top quarterbacks last year, throwing for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns. With Wilson out of eligibility, Wisconsin has no clear No. 1 quarterback entering spring practice. Jon Budmayr has battled elbow problems the last two seasons and his status for 2012 is uncertain. Curt Phillips has not played since 2009 due to knee injuries and will be limited in spring practice. Incoming freshman Bart Houston recently had shoulder surgery and will be sidelined for the start of fall practice. Joel Stave and Joe Brennan are Wisconsin’s only healthy quarterbacks, but this position could get a boost this spring if Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien joins the team. O’Brien is expected to seriously consider Wisconsin as a destination, especially since he has a clear path to the starting job. If O’Brien doesn’t land in Madison, it’s a tossup as to who will be the starter.
Projected Winner: Brennan
The Next Tier
Arizona State – Todd Graham’s high-octane offense didn’t work out at Pittsburgh, but that style should fit in well at Arizona State. The decision of Brock Osweiler to leave early for the NFL Draft left a big void in the Sun Devils’ passing attack, leaving three inexperienced candidates to compete for the job this spring. Sophomores Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly, along with redshirt freshman Michael Eubank have combined to throw just seven attempts in their short careers, leaving Graham with a lot of inexperience under center. Eubank ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals, but Bercovici was listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart last year. With no clear-cut frontrunner, this battle could go deep into fall practice.
Cincinnati – Due to a leg injury against West Virginia, the Bearcats got a glimpse of life at quarterback after Zach Collaros. Munchie Legaux completed just 47.4 percent of his throws, while tossing five scores and four interceptions. Legaux added 185 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Jordan Luallen attempted only four passes, but showcased his rushing ability by chipping in 135 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Legaux and Luallen enter spring practice as the top options for coach Butch Jones, but don’t rule out senior Brendon Kay, redshirt freshman Patrick Coyne or incoming freshmen Trenton Norvell or Bennie Coney from making a run at the position. Legaux is the favorite, but he has to get better as a passer if Cincinnati wants to challenge for a Big East title.
Colorado – The battle to replace Tyler Hansen is already off to a strange start. Nick Hirschman completed 18 of 35 passes for 192 yards last season, but suffered a broken bone in his foot while walking that will keep him out of spring practice. Hirschman’s bad luck will give Texas transfer Connor Wood a clear path to the starting job. However, Hirschman will have a shot to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the fall for the Buffaloes.
Connecticut – Finding a consistent passing game has eluded Connecticut over the last few seasons. Coach Paul Pasqualoni took a few steps this offseason to get the Huskies out of the Big East cellar in passing yards, bringing in junior college recruit Chandler Whitmer and incoming freshman Casey Cochran. Both quarterbacks will have a chance to win the job this spring, as Johnny McEntee was unimpressive as the starter and Scott McCummings appears to be best suited for a change of pace role. This is a wide-open battle and may not be decided in spring ball.
Iowa State – The Cyclones open spring practice with two players neck-and-neck for the No. 1 spot. Steele Jantz got off to a good start last season, leading Iowa State to a 3-0 start with wins over Iowa and Connecticut. However, Jantz was injured in the win over the Huskies and never appeared to be 100 percent the rest of the way. Jared Barnett took over for Jantz and finished with 1,201 yards and six scores, while leading the Cyclones to an upset win over Oklahoma State. Both players are mobile, which adds an extra dimension to the Iowa State offense. Expect this battle to go down to the wire and it wouldn’t be surprising to see both players get a start in 2012.
Kentucky – After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense last season, the Wildcats have plenty of room to improve. Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith played significant snaps in 2011, with neither gaining clear separation as the No. 1 passer. Newton threw for 793 yards and eight scores, but completed only 47.7 percent of his throws. Smith had a higher completion percentage (54.9), but threw for only four scores and tossed four picks. Although both quarterbacks have to be better, the Wildcats need more help from the receiving corps and running backs in 2012.
Mississippi State – With running back Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf expiring their eligibility, there will be some new faces stepping into key roles for the Bulldogs next season. Relf was inconsistent as a passer, and Mississippi State ranked a disappointing 94th in passing offense last year. Junior Tyler Russell started four games last season and finished with a respectable statline – 1,034 yards and eight touchdowns. Russell will face competition from redshirt freshman Dak Prescott this spring, but Mississippi State could play both quarterbacks in 2012.
Ole Miss – There wasn’t much to get excited about when it came to the Rebels’ offense last year. Ole Miss ranked 11th in the SEC in passing, total and scoring offense and averaged just 129.6 rushing yards per game. Quarterback play was a major factor for the struggles, as three players (Randall Mackey, Barry Brunetti and Zack Stoudt) received meaningful playing time. Mackey finished with the most passing yards (1,112), but completed just 49.7 percent of his throws. Brunetti likely has the most upside, but all three candidates will be pushed for playing time by incoming junior college transfer Bo Wallace.
Purdue – There’s an old football cliché that says if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. What about three quarterbacks? That’s the dilemma facing Purdue coach Danny Hope this spring, as the Boilermakers return four quarterbacks with starting experience. Sean Robinson is expected to move to linebacker, leaving Rob Henry, Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush as the contenders this spring. Marve has struggled with knee injuries recently, while Henry missed all of last season with a torn ACL. TerBush started all 13 games last year and threw for 1,905 yards and 13 touchdowns. Although Marve should be closer to 100 percent, Henry and TerBush are the most likely candidates to start. Henry’s dual-threat ability would be an added dimension for a Purdue offense that has a chance to be improved in 2012. A two or three-quarterback system can’t be ruled out, but Henry figures to eventually wrestle away the No. 1 gig.
Rutgers – Even with the departure of coach Greg Schiano to the NFL, the Scarlet Knights figure to be picked near the top of the Big East in 2012. However, the difference between just contending and finishing at the top could boil down to quarterback play. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova shared snaps last year, but there’s very little separation going into the spring. Dodd finished last year with 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Nova threw for 1,553 yards and 11 scores. Nova has more upside, but Dodd has more experience. New coach Kyle Flood certainly has a tough task trying to sort out the quarterback situation this spring.
San Diego State – The Aztecs are coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. However, coach Rocky Long has some work to do if he wants to get San Diego State back in a bowl game in 2012, as quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman have departed. Helping to soften the blow of Lindley’s departure was the transfer of former Oregon State passer Ryan Katz to San Diego State. Although Katz was benched last year in Corvallis, he should be a solid replacement for Lindley and will keep the Aztecs in contention for a spot among the top three in the Mountain West.
SMU – Kyle Padron was benched after a poor outing against Texas A&M in the season opener and never cracked the starting lineup the rest of the year. J.J. McDermott was adequate as SMU’s starter the rest of the year, throwing for 3,421 yards and 17 scores. McDermott finished his eligibility, while Padron decided to transfer to Eastern Washington, leaving Stephen Kaiser as the only quarterback with an attempt on the roster this spring. However, former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert is expected to arrive at SMU this summer and barring a poor performance in the fall, will be the Mustangs No. 1 passer for the season opener.
Southern Miss – Austin Davis had a productive four-year career as Southern Miss’ starting quarterback and will be missed in 2012. There’s very little experience returning under center, as Arsenio Favor tossed three passes in backup duty last year. Redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd will push Favor this spring, but true freshman Anthony Alford will throw his hat into the ring in the fall. Alford is the team’s most talented quarterback, but how quickly will he pickup the offense?
Tulsa – If the Golden Hurricane can replace G.J. Kinne, they should be one of the favorites to win Conference USA in 2012. Kalen Henderson backed up Kinne last year, but his numbers were abysmal – 8 of 29, 122 yards and four interceptions. In fairness to Henderson, a majority of his playing time came against Oklahoma State and that was his first extended action. Henderson should be better after a spring practice to work with the No. 1 unit on offense, but he will be pushed by Nebraska transfer Cody Green. In two seasons with the Cornhuskers, he threw for 657 yards and five touchdowns. Green also rushed for 254 yards and three scores in Lincoln. Look for Green to eventually emerge as Tulsa’s No. 1 quarterback for 2012.
UCF – After a solid freshman year, Jeff Godfrey was one of Conference USA’s biggest disappointments in 2011. Godfrey threw for just five touchdowns on 232 attempts and chose to transfer from the team at the end of the year. Blake Bortles played well in relief, throwing for 958 yards and six touchdowns. Bortles is the favorite to become UCF’s starting quarterback, but former Missouri signal-caller Tyler Gabbert will get into the mix.
Returning Starter, but….
Boston College – Chase Rettig holds the top spot, but is expected to get a push for playing time from Josh Bordner. Rettig completed 53.6 percent of his throws, tossed nine picks last year and topped only 200 passing yards twice last season. Bordner has only two career attempts, but is a good runner and his mobility would add a different dimension to the Boston College offense.
California – Zach Maynard wasn’t awful last season (2,990 yards, 17 touchdowns), but was too inconsistent and struggled with his accuracy at times. The senior will open spring drills as the No. 1 passer, but coach Jeff Tedford will give redshirt freshman Austin Hinder, sophomore Allan Bridgford and incoming freshman Zach Kline every opportunity to win the job. Kline has generated the most buzz in Berkeley, as he ranked as the No. 40 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100.
Georgia Tech – Tevin Washington had his moments, but also drew the ire of coach Paul Johnson last season and has to get better if he wants to hold onto the No. 1 spot. Washington led the team with 987 yards and 14 rushing scores, but completed only 49.3 percent of his throws. The Yellow Jackets don’t throw the ball a lot, but Washington needs to bump his completion percentage higher and lower his interceptions (8). Synjyn Days was solid in a relief role last year, rushing for 237 yards and four touchdowns on 48 attempts, while throwing for 198 yards. Redshirt freshman Vad Lee is an intriguing prospect and will also push for playing time this spring. Washington should finish spring as the No. 1 quarterback, but Johnson will have a quick hook to Days or Lee if he struggles this year.
Penn State – Rob Bolden (eight) owned an edge in starts over Matt McGloin (five) last year, but neither was particularly impressive. Bolden completed a miserable 39.3 percent of his throws and tossed seven picks to only two touchdowns. McGloin was better, throwing for 1,571 yards and completing 54.1 percent of his passes. Under new coach Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions would like to throw the ball more in 2012, but that’s going to require more efficient play from the quarterbacks. McGloin should win the job out of spring practice, but keep an eye on sophomore Paul Jones, who missed 2011 due to academic issues.
Pittsburgh – Tino Sunseri has drawn the ire of Pittsburgh fans over the last two years, but the senior still gives the Panthers their best chance to win in 2012. New coach Paul Chryst was one of college football’s top coordinators during his time at Wisconsin and should adapt the Pittsburgh offense to Sunseri’s strengths. Trey Anderson and Mark Myers will be Sunseri’s biggest competition in the spring, but neither was able to work their way into consistent playing time last year. Chryst will also take a look at two converted players – defensive back E.J. Banks and tight end Anthony Gonzalez – at quarterback this spring, but Sunseri should finish atop the depth chart going into fall practice.
Utah – A shoulder injury ended Jordan Wynn’s 2011 season just four games into the year. Wynn also had shoulder surgery at the end of 2010, so durability is certainly a concern for new coordinator Brian Johnson. The Utes should be USC’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12 South, but Wynn has to stay healthy and give Utah a consistent passing attack. If Wynn can’t stay healthy, look for the Utes to turn to senior Jon Hays or incoming freshman Travis Wilson (a three-star recruit by Rivals).
Vanderbilt – Jordan Rodgers is clearly the Commodores’ No. 1 quarterback entering spring practice, but there’s a wildcard on the table that could open things up this summer. Danny O’Brien is transferring from Maryland and is eligible to play right away. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin tutored O’Brien with the Terrapins, but both sides are in a holding pattern until a tampering allegation against Vanderbilt is investigated. Rodgers will also face competition from Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels and redshirt freshman Josh Grady, but his biggest test could come from O’Brien if he comes to Nashville.
Virginia – The Cavaliers opened spring practice last season with four candidates vying for the starting job. Michael Rocco eventually emerged as the No. 1 passer, but tossed 12 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns. David Watford showed promise in his true freshman season, finishing with 346 yards and three touchdowns on 74 attempts. Watford has a lot of room to grow, but Rocco provided steady leadership in the starting role last year. Virginia needs Rocco to stretch the field and take better care of the ball in 2012, but he should be able to hold off a charge from Watford this spring.
Vacancy Available, but No Battle?
Baylor – Let’s go ahead and get the obvious out of the way: Robert Griffin will be missed. However, this Baylor team is well-equipped to survive Griffin’s departure and remain a factor in the Big 12. Senior Nick Florence has seven career starts and has thrown 290 attempts over the last three years. Barring a surprise performance by sophomore Bryce Petty this spring, Florence will be Baylor’s No. 1 quarterback entering the fall.
Michigan State – Even though Kirk Cousins earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year, he might have been one of the conference’s most underrated players. Cousins threw for 3,316 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, and led the Spartans to back-to-back seasons of 11 victories. Andrew Maxwell has no starts and only 51 attempts in his two seasons on campus, but all signs point to him as the clear No. 1 quarterback.
Northwestern – Dan Persa’s injuries allowed Northwestern to build some depth at the quarterback position last year, with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian receiving meaningful playing time. Colter served in a jack-of-all-trades role with the Wildcats last year, throwing for 673 yards and six scores, rushing for 654 yards and catching 43 passes for 466 yards. Siemian completed 16 of 26 throws for 256 yards and three scores last season. Colter is a better runner, while Siemian is regarded as a better passer. With two quality quarterbacks, both players could see significant snaps for Northwestern in 2012.
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This time last year, the NFL lockout had just begun, claiming free agency as one of its first casualties. When the NFL finally got back to business on July 30, free agency was just one of numerous pieces of business that happened in earnest as teams had to scramble to make up for lost time.
Fortunately for teams, players and especially fans, that was then and this is now. The lockout is totally in the rear-view mirror and the NFL has resumed its normal operating schedule with free agency set to start at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Considering there about 600 free agents out on the market, more than 1/3 of all the players in the NFL, there’s no doubt teams have used all of the time afforded them to get ready for the flurry of activity that will begin Tuesday afternoon.
To keep you up to speed, we've put together a quick rundown of how this year’s free agent class shapes up.
For starters, this year’s class of free agents is heavy on the defensive side of the ball. About half of the entire class are defensive players. The biggest group of available players is cornerbacks and wide receivers, each of which numbers around 60. Safeties and outside linebackers follow on the defensive side, each having more than 50, while the number of available inside linebackers in this year’s class is fewer than 40.
It’s a widely held belief that championship teams are built up front, meaning the offensive and defensive lines. If that’s the case, then teams will have plenty of potential building blocks to choose from as there are more than 90 available players from each group.
On offense, it’s little surprise that wide receivers are the largest group (about 60) considering the proliferation of pass-oriented offenses in recent years. There are also nearly 50 running backs (including fullbacks) and more than 30 tight ends looking to land with a team.
Of course, we can’t forget about the quarterback, right? This year’s free agent quarterback class numbers nearly 40 and includes some guy named Manning.
And to be fair, we can’t leave out the special teams guys, represented by about 30 punters, kickers and long snappers, who round out this year’s free agent class. In fact, of the 21 teams that used the franchise tag this year, five of them applied them to their kicker. In addition, the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions, applied their franchise tag to their punter, Steve Weatherford.
Now let’s take a closer look at each position group.
Peyton Manning is hands down the biggest prize of this group and he is the first domino that needs to fall to get the rest of the movement started. Manning’s decision not only dictates what will happen to some of the other free agent quarterbacks, but it’s also sure to have an impact on the upcoming draft as several teams will look to one (free agency) or the other (draft) to fill their signal-caller needs.
Besides Manning, Drew Brees is technically a member of this class, but he’s not going anywhere as New Orleans slapped the exclusive franchise tag on their field general. Brees may not be thrilled with the move by the team, which could hamper progress toward a long-term contract, but regardless he’s with the Saints at least for one more year because of the exclusive tag.
Then there’s Alex Smith, who, like Manning, is a former No. 1 overall pick. Smith played the best football of his career last season as his 49ers went 13-3 and won then NFC West. If Smith doesn’t re-sign with San Francisco, one of the many rumored potential destinations for Manning, it remains to be seen if another team’s willing to make him their starter.
The other interesting name out there is Matt Flynn. Flynn’s served as Aaron Rodgers’ back up in Green Bay the past four years, but could find himself headed to Miami. There he could become the Dolphins’ starter and be reunited with former Packers’ offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who is Miami’s new head coach.
Other notable free agent quarterbacks: Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, Chad Henne, Kyle Orton, Curtis Painter, Brady Quinn, Vince Young
Baltimore and Chicago both used their franchise tag on their running backs, so it doesn’t appear that Ray Rice and Matt Forte will be changing uniforms this season. Two other marquee running backs were removed from the potential free agent pool recently when Houston signed Arian Foster to a five-year deal and Seattle kept Marshawn Lynch in the fold with a four-year pact.
There’s still plenty of backs to keep an eye on, including Peyton Hillis, who is almost guaranteed of a change of scenery given how his last season in Cleveland went, both on the field and off of it. Staying in the AFC North, Cedric Benson’s time in Cincinnati may be coming to an end, but it seems highly likely that some other team will find room for a running back who’s rushed for 1,000 or more yards the past three seasons and doesn’t turn 30 until the end of the year.
Joseph Addai, LeGarrette Blount, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant, Brandon Jacobs and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are other 1,000-yard rushers who are currently less than 30 years old that are on the market. At first glance, it appears that Green-Ellis, depending upon what direction Tampa Bay goes with its first-round pick (Alabama’s Trent Richardson perhaps?), is the likeliest to remain with his old team. Addai and Jacobs are among the most recent free agents added to the pool as they were both released on Friday.
Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson headline the group of veterans with more than 10 years of experience looking for jobs. In the case of Tomlinson, he’s looking for the right fit on a team that has a good shot at winning the Super Bowl, the only thing missing from his impressive resume.
One other situation that bears watching is in Pittsburgh. Isaac Redman is a free agent, but don’t be surprised if he stays with the Steelers. Redman took over the starting duties after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the team’s final-regular season game on New Year’s Day. While nothing’s been decided, it’s entirely possible that Mendenhall will be lost for the entire 2012 season, which would put even more impetus on bringing back Redman.
Other notable free agent running backs: Lance Ball, Michael Bush, Justin Forsett, Earnest Graham, Tim Hightower, Jerious Norwood, Kevin Smith, Mike Tolbert, Cadillac Williams
With nearly 60 wide receivers available, there figures to be a fair amount of movement within this group. This is also a group from which several bidding wars among interested teams could take place in the hopes of adding the likes of a Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Mike Wallace or Reggie Wayne.
That group doesn’t include Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson and Wes Welker, who each tagged by their respective teams and most likely won’t be switching uniforms this coming season.
One wide receiver that is looking to cash in after a big season is Laurent Robinson. Robinson started last season with San Diego, but was released by the team at the end of training camp. Robinson quickly signed with Dallas, only to be released less than a week later due to a hamstring injury.
Robinson got a second chance with Dallas, however, due to a rash of injuries to the Cowboys’ wide receivers, and this time he made it count. In just 11 games, Robinson led Dallas and finished tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions. Other than those already mentioned, there’s arguably no other wide receiver in a better bargaining position right now than Robinson.
There’s also one other interesting name out there that certainly bears watching – Randy Moss. Moss didn’t play in 2011 after a disappointing 2010 that saw him suit up for three different teams. However, it looks like Moss wants to return in 2012 as he worked out for New Orleans last week. Does any team have any interest in the mercurial Moss, who is currently second all-time in touchdown receptions, fifth in receiving yards, ninth and receptions and turned 35 in February? We shall see.
Other notable free agent wide receivers: Danny Amendola, Deion Branch, Plaxico Burress, Early Doucet, Lee Evans, Pierre Garcon, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Jerome Simpson, Donte Stallworth, Roy Williams
Washington used its franchise tag on Fred Davis, so it appears the Redskins will stick with him even though he missed the last four games of the season after being suspended for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
While Davis may not be going anywhere one former All-Pro tight end is definitely looking for a new team. Dallas Clark was one of five players cut by Indianapolis on Friday, just two days following the release of Manning. Clark was hampered by injuries all of last season and will turn 33 in June, but he's also a productive and dependable tight end with more than 400 receptions, nearly 5,000 yards receiving and 46 touchdowns. He compiled most of these numbers with Manning, could a reunion be in order?
Other notable free agent tight ends: Martellus Bennett, John Carlson, Kellen Davis, Joel Dreessen, Randy McMichael, Leonard Pope, Bo Scaife, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jeremy Shockey, Jacob Tamme
When New Orleans decided to use the franchise tag on Brees, that meant the team was not able to tag left guard Carl Nicks. The Saints top priority is to re-sign Nicks, but the First-Team All-Pro in 2011 is sure to attract plenty of interest from other teams.
Jeff Backus, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Ryan Diem, Russ Hochstein, Steve Hutchinson and Kareem McKenzie are among the veterans of this group hoping to continue their NFL careers.
Center will be an interesting position to watch as well as free agent options include Matt Birk, Dan Koppen, Jeff Saturday, Scott Wells and Casey Wiegmann.
Other notable free agent offensive linemen: Stacy Andrews, Demetrius Bell, Jacob Bell, Dan Connolly, Ben Grubbs, Andre Gurode, Artis Hicks, Montrae Holland, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Deuce Lutui, Sean Locklear, Todd McClure, Chris Myers, Barry Richardson, Jake Scott, Max Starks
Cliff Avril (Detroit) and Calais Campbell (Arizona) were tagged, as was Robert Mathis (Indianapolis). That tag wasn’t on there long, however, as the Colts and Mathis quickly came to terms on a new long-term contract. Kroy Biermann also re-signed with Atlanta before making it to free agency, but that still leaves about 90 defensive linemen who are available.
The defensive end pool includes John Abraham, Raheem Brock, Shaun Ellis, Israel Idonije, Aaron Maybin and Cory Redding. Teams looking to bulk up the interior of their defensive line have plenty of choices as well, including Brodrick Bunkley, Tommie Harris, Albert Haynesworth and Paul Soliai.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Haynesworth won’t be signing another $100-million contract in the immediate future, However, considering the two-time First-Team All-Pro will be just 31 this season, there’s a good chance another team will take a chance on him, provided the price is right.
Other notable free agent defensive linemen: Anthony Adams, Dave Ball, Michael Bennett, Adam Carriker, Wallace Gilberry, Kelly Gregg, Williams Hayes, Jason Jones, Jeremy Mincey, Amobi Okoye, Cory Redding, Shaun Rogers, Aaron Smith, Dave Tollefson, Gerard Warren
Last year four linebackers were tagged by their respective teams. This season, the only team to use its franchise tag on a linebacker was Dallas on Anthony Spencer.
One team that could have used its tag on a linebacker was Houston on Mario Williams, but the Texans chose not to, making the former No. 1 overall draft pick a free agent. Even though injuries have limited Williams the past two seasons, including just five games played in 2011 due to a torn pectoral muscle, the two-time Pro Bowler who is just 27 figures to be one of the most attractive free agents in this year’s class.
The teams that miss out on Williams have other options including Chase Blackburn, who made the biggest play of his career when he picked off Tom Brady in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVI in February, as well as Gary Brackett, Dan Connor, James Farrior, London Fletcher, David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Tulloch.
Other notable free agent linebackers: Bobby Carpenter, Mario Haggan, Geno Hayes, E.J. Henderson, Erin Henderson, Leroy Hill, Bradie James, Manny Lawson, Rocky McIntosh, Joey Porter, Matt Roth, Barrett Ruud, Ernie Sims, Wesley Woodyard
This season teams applied the franchise tag to three safeties and one cornerback. So while Tyvon Branch (Oakland), Dashon Goldson (San Francisco), Michael Griffin (Tennessee) and Brent Grimes (Atlanta) are more than likely staying put, there are still more than 110 defensive backs who are free agents.
Cortland Finnegan, LaRon Landry and Reggie Nelson are three options who will probably draw a lot of attention in hopes of landing a lucrative long-term contract. Some other names to watch include Brandon Carr, Brian Dawkins, Jim Leonhard, Richard Marshall, Terence Newman, Tracy Porter, Carlos Rogers, Aaron Ross and Lardarius Webb, to name a few.
Other notable free agent defensive backs: Jason Allen, Will Allen, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ronde Barber, Melvin Bullitt, Chris Carr, Cedric Griffin, Kelvin Hayden, Chris Hope, Adam Jones, Justin King, Jacob Lacey, Brodney Pool, Bob Sanders, Greg Toler, Madieu Williams, Gibril Wilson, Eric Wright, Tom Zbikowski
Thanks to the franchise tag, it appears that Connor Barth, Phil Dawson, Mike Nugent, Matt Prater and Josh Scobee won’t have to worry about trying on a new uniform this season. The same cannot be necessarily said about Jay Feely, Nick Folk, Shayne Graham, John Kasay and Neil Rackers, who are free agents.
And while Weatherford won’t be hitting the market, some punters who could be on the move include Britton Colquitt, Donnie Jones, Brad Maynard, Matt McBriar and Matt Turk. And let’s not forget about the long snappers, either, as nine of them are part of this year’s free agent class.
Regardless of your positional preference, the size and makeup of this year’s free agency class offers plenty to watch and monitor as the process gets underway on Tuesday afternoon. Football fans had to do without it out last year because of the lockout, but it’s back this year.
Fittingly enough, the NCAA Tournament also kicks off on Tuesday, as opening-round games will take place in Dayton, Ohio. So while the first step in determining this year’s men’s basketball champion happens Tuesday night, earlier in the day the fate of about 600 NFL players will begin to play out as well with the start of free agency. Welcome to March Madness, NFL-style.
— by Mark Ross, updated at 3 p.m. CT on March 13, 2012
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Nebraska Cornhuskers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 10-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7
Passing: Taylor Martinez, 2,089 yards, 13 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Rex Burkhead, 1,357 yards, 15 TD
Receiving: Kenny Bell, 32 rec., 461 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Will Compton, 82
Sacks: Cameron Meredith, 5
Interceptions: Four tied with one
Redshirts to watch: DT Todd Peat, DT Kevin Williams, OL Ryne Reeves, LB David Santos, OL Ryan Klachko
Sept. 1 Southern Miss
Sept. 8 at UCLA
Sept. 15 Arkansas State
Sept. 22 Idaho State
Sept. 29 Wisconsin
Oct. 6 at Ohio State
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Northwestern
Oct. 27 Michigan
Nov. 3 at Michigan State
Nov. 10 Penn State
Nov. 17 Minnesota
Nov. 23 at Iowa
Offensive Strength: The backfield is clearly the position of strength for this roster. Taylor Martinez still has loads to learn but returns for his third season as the starter. All-American candidate Rex Burkhead is arguably the most complete player in the nation at any position. And the depth behind both is improved from a year ago. All seems right in the world when the Cornhuskers have a powerful running game.
Offensive Weakness: The loss of two all-conference performers and another with 13 starts up front along the line has left the biggest void on the offense. The cupboard is far from bare as an all-league guard returns in Spencer Long and upside prospects like Andrew Rodriguez look for breakout seasons in 2012.
Defensive Strength: The overall depth of the roster. The unit has stars in the making on every level of the defense, so Bo Pelini just needs to put the right people in the right places to succeed. The D-Line has loads of upside and the secondary is extremely deep, but...
Defensive Weakness: This side of the ball lost most of its star power. Particularly hard hit were the cornerback and linebacker positions, where the best player at his position in the conference graduated. This group has churned out elite level players on every level of the defense over the last 3-4 years and finding leaders might be the biggest concern for a unit that needs direction.
Spring Storylines Facing the Huskers:
1. The continued physical and mental development of Taylor Martinez. The sky is once again the limit with this team but will go only as far as the inconsistent signal caller will take them. Martinez, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, will point to his command of the offense as his biggest area of growth in 2011. However, it doesn't matter how in control T-Magic is if he cannot complete passes when he wants to. His mental toughness and overall maturity also appeared to improve last season, leaving his accuracy and consistency as the major hurdles left to clear. He will work heavily this spring on footwork, throwing motion and developing a new set of receivers. Martinez's athletic ability will never be a question as there are few players in the nation that cover the first 10 yards as quickly as he can. So the ceiling for the 2012 Cornhuskers will tied directly to Martinez's ability to complete key third down and fourth-quarter passes.
2. Outside of getting more from Martinez, rebuilding the offensive line after losing three starters including All-Big Ten honorable mention blockers Mike Caputo and Marcel Jones is Nebraska's biggest offensive issue. With the loss of 13-start left tackle Yoshi Hardrick as well, Pelini needs to find some pieces to protect Martinez this spring. The good news is Long brings second-team all-Big Ten recognition back to the right guard position. After him, however, there is a long list of names looking to gain starring roles: Rodriguez, Tyler Moore, Seung Hoon Choi, Cole Pensick, Mark Pelini, Justin Jackson and Ryne Reeves. The two most important commodities on this team will line-up in the backfield, so keeping them healthy and opening up lanes on the ground will be major area of concern this spring.
3. Who will fill the void left by weakside linebacker, and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, Lavonte David. Pelini has stated confidence in both Alonzo Whaley and David Santos as the top two candidates to fill the massive void left at the Will backer spot. No matter how much confidence the reworked defensive staff has in Whaley and Santos, no team in the nation can remove its heartbeat — aka 285 total tackles in two years — from the chest cavity of the defense and operate at the same level. All eyes in Lincoln will be on those two tacklers this spring.
4. Longtime Pelini minion John Papuchis takes over as the defensive cooridnator and he is charged with reinvigorating a defense that appears to have lost its edge. This unit, albeit led by a Boy Named Suh, was downright nasty three seasons ago but has clearly lost its tenacity in the last two years. The Blackshirts finished 64th nationally in rushing defense in 2011 and 63rd in 2010. This coming on the heels of finishing ninth in the nation against the run in 2009. Losing tackles Jared Crick and Terence Moore, as well as end Josh Williams, doesn't help matters either. Yet, with developing stars expected to produce career years (Baker Steinkuhler, Chase Rome, Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith), Papuchis has all the pieces in place up front to re-install the Blackshirt way. He just needs to go out and produce now (no pressure).
5. Additionally, replacing the Big Ten's top coverman, Alfonzo Dennard, and honorable mention All-Big Ten safety Austin Cassidy will be an area of focus as well. There is a lot of depth and talent in the secondary as Andrew Green, Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Justin Blatchford should fill in admirably for Dennard while P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford, Harvey Jackson and the injured Courtney Osbourne return to the safety position. This is a very deep collection of defensive backs, but deciding how the pieces will fit and rotate together will be key this spring.
Related Content Links:
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Oklahoma State Cowboys 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 12-1, 8-1 Big 12
Spring practice: March 12-April 21
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 8
Passing: Clint Chelf, 20 of 30, 307 yds., 3 TD, 0 INTs
Rushing: Joseph Randle, 208 car., 1,216 yds., 24 TDs
Receiving: Tracy Moore, 45 rec., 672 yds., 4 TDs
Tackles: Daytawion Lowe, 97
Sacks: Two players tied with 2
Interceptions: Two players tied with 5
Redshirts to watch: QB J.W. Walsh, CB Miketavius Jones, LB Kris Catlin, OL Devin Davis, WR Torrance Carr, WR David Glidden
Early Enrollees: TE Blake Jackson, DT Calvin Barnett, QB Wes Lunt, LB Jeremiah Tshimanga
JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Calvin Barnett, OL Chris Grisbhy, TE Blake Jackson
Transfer to watch: S Shamiel Gary (Wyoming)
Sept. 1 Savannah State
Sept. 8 at Arizona
Sept. 15 UL Lafayette
Sept. 29 Texas
Oct. 13 at Kansas
Oct. 20 Iowa State
Oct. 27 TCU
Nov. 3 at Kansas State
Nov. 10 West Virginia
Nov. 17 Texas Tech
Nov. 24 at Oklahoma
Dec. 1 at Baylor
Spring Storylines Facing the Cowboys
1. Coming off a 12-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford, Oklahoma State has some work to do if it wants to win the Big 12 title in 2012. The Cowboys return 11 starters, but suffered some key losses on both sides of the ball. While Oklahoma State will certainly struggle to match last year’s win total, the program is on stable footing and has won at least nine games in each of the last four seasons. A drop off in victories is certainly expected considering the personnel losses from last season. However, don’t completely write off the Cowboys from finding a way to be a factor in the Big 12 race, especially with coach Mike Gundy recruiting well and some key pieces back in the mix for 2012.
2. All eyes in Stillwater this spring will be on the battle on to replace quarterback Brandon Weeden. The former baseball player had a terrific two-year run as Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback, throwing for 9,004 yards and 71 scores. Junior Clint Chelf is the early frontrunner to replace Weeden and has fared well in limited action, throwing for 520 yards and five scores on 34 completions. Although Chelf has the most experience, incoming freshman Wes Lunt – a four-star prospect by Rivals – and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh will get every opportunity to win the job this spring. Luckily for the new quarterback, the Cowboys have a deep group of running backs that can help take the pressure off the passing attack. Joseph Randle returns to Stillwater after rushing for 1,216 yards and 24 scores last season, and will be expected to challenge for All-Big-12 and All-American honors.
3. Outside of the quarterback position, Oklahoma State has two other burning questions to answer on offense this spring. The Cowboys must replace two key receivers, including All-American Justin Blackmon. Michael Harrison was expected to be one of the main contributors to Oklahoma State’s receiving corps, but he left the program this spring. Tracy Moore, Josh Stewart and Isaiah Anderson are the early favorites to start in 2012, while junior college recruit Blake Jackson brings an interesting blend of size (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) and speed to the position. Outside of developing a pecking order at receiver, the Cowboys have to settle on a starting front five. Tackle Levy Adcock and center Grant Garner were two of the best in the Big 12 last year and will be missed. However, line coach Joe Wickline is one of the best in college football, and has some pieces to work with, including guard Lane Taylor and the return of Jonathan Rush from injury.
4. With eight starters back on defense, it’s not out of the question this group should be better in the big four statistical categories – scoring, pass, total and rush defense. The linebacking corps is rock solid with the return of Shaun Lewis, Alex Elkins and Caleb Lavey. The secondary will miss safety Markelle Martin, but Daytawion Lowe is back at free safety and transfer Shamiel Gary has two years of starting experience from Wyoming. Brodrick Brown is quietly one of the top cornerbacks in the nation and should contend for All-American honors. The biggest question on the defense is the line and production from the end spots. Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones combined for 12 sacks last year and will be missed off the edge. Nigel Nicholas has been moved from tackle to help with the depth at end, but the Cowboys need Ryan Robinson, Cooper Bassett and Tyler Johnson to emerge as solid contributors.
Related Content Links
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big 12 Predictions
2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis
The following is a list of NFL players who are expected to be free agents on March 13 provided they are not re-signed before then. Players are grouped by position with their 2011 team.
Players who had the franchise tag applied to them by their respective team are included in this list.
This list will be updated as information becomes available.
Richard Bartel, Arizona
Charlie Batch, Pittsburgh
Kyle Boller, Oakland
Tom Brandstater, St. Louis
Drew Brees, New Orleans (Franchised)
Mark Brunell, New York Jets
Kellen Clemens, St. Louis
Jake Delhomme, Houston
Dennis Dixon, Pittsburgh
A.J. Feeley, St. Louis
Jeff Garcia, Houston
Chris Greisen, Dallas
Max Hall, Arizona
Byron Leftwich, Pittsburgh
Matt Leinart, Houston
J.P. Losman, Miami
Luke McCown, Jacksonville
Kevin O'Connell, New York Jets
Curtis Painter, Indianapolis
Tyler Palko, Kansas City
Vince Young, Philadelphia
Joseph Addai, Indianapolis
Lance Ball, Denver
Jackie Battle, Kansas City
Kahlil Bell, Chicago
Cedric Benson, Cincinnati
LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay
Brock Bolen, Jacksonville
Lorenzo Booker, Minnesota
Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia
Tashard Choice, Buffalo
Kevin Faulk, New England
Tony Flammetta, Dallas
Justin Forsett, Seattle
Matt Forté, Chicago (Franchised)
Earnest Graham, Tampa Bay
Ryan Grant, Green Bay
Ahmard Hall, Tennessee
Bruce Hall, Buffalo
Jerome Harrison, Detroit
Jacob Hester, San Diego
Tim Hightower, Washington
Thomas Jones, Kansas City
Matt Lawrence, Baltimore
Mewelde Moore, Pittsburgh
Maurice Morris, Detroit
Sammy Morris, Dallas
Moran Norris, San Francisco
Jerious Norwood, St. Louis
Lousaka Polite, New England
Issac Redman, Pittsburgh
Marcel Reece, Oakland
Ray Rice, Baltimore (Franchised)
Mike Sellers, Washington
Owen Schmitt, Philadelphia
Alfonso Smith, Arizona
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona
Chester Taylor, Arizona
LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets
Derrick Ward, Houston
Chauncey Washington, Dallas
Cadillac Williams, St. Louis
Kris Wilson, Baltimore
Seyi Ajirotutu, Carolina
Danny Amendola, St. Louis
David Anderson, Washington
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City (Franchised)
Plaxico Burress, New York Jets
Greg Camarillo, Minnesota
Michael Clayton, New York Giants
Mark Clayton, St. Louis
Jerricho Cotchery, Pittsburgh
Patrick Crayton, San Diego
Dominique Curry, St. Louis
Rashied Davis, Detroit
Lee Evans, Baltimore
Richard Goodman, San Diego
Jesse Holley, Dallas
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Oakland
Bryant Johnson, Houston
Legedu Naanee, Carolina
Jordan Norwood, Cleveland
Kassim Osgood, Jacksonville
Preston Parker, Tampa Bay
Roscoe Parrish, Buffalo
Courtney Roby, New Orleans
Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati
Micheal Spurlock, Tampa Bay
Maurice Stovall, Detroit
Chansi Stuckey, Arizona
Brett Swain, San Francisco
Jerheme Urban, Kansas City
Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh
Wes Welker, New England (Franchised)
Roy Williams, Chicago
Matt Willis, Denver
Billy Bajema, St. Louis
Anthony Becht, Kansas City
Richie Brockel, Carolina
Dallas Clark, Indianapolis
John Gilmore, New Orleans
Anthony Hill, Indianapolis
Tory Humphrey, New Orleans
David Johnson, Pittsburgh
Edgar Jones, Baltimore
Reggie Kelly, Atlanta
Donald Lee, Cincinnati
Jeron Mastrud, Miami
Matthew Mulligan, New York Jets
Jake O'Connell, Kansas City
Bear Pascoe, New York Giants
Justin Peelle, San Francisco
Leonard Pope, Kansas City
Martin Rucker, Jacksonville
Bo Scaife, Cincinnati
Visanthe Shiancoe, Minnesota
Jeremy Shockey, Carolina
Stephen Spach, St. Louis
Stacy Andrews, New York Giants
Demetrius Bell, Buffalo
Jacob Bell, St. Louis
Jason Brown, St. Louis
Patrick Brown, Minnesota
Vernon Carey, Miami
Cooper Carlisle, Oakland
Kirk Chambers, Atlanta
Chris Clark, Denver
Marc Colombo, Miami
Leonard Davis, Detroit
Derrick Dockery, Dallas
Brandyn Dombrowski, San Diego
King Dunlap, Philadelphia
Trai Essex, Pittsburgh
Jeff Faine, Tampa Bay
Ramon Foster, Pittsburgh
Adam Goldberg, St. Louis
Andre Gurode, Baltimore
Rex Hadnot, Arizona
Kevin Haslam, Jacksonville
Anthony Herrera, Minnesota
Stephon Heyer, Oakland
Corey Hilliard, Detroit
Russ Hochstein, Denver
Montrae Holland, Dallas
Brandon Keith, Arizona
Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh
Scott Kooistra, Minnesota
Dan Koppen, New England
Kyle Kosier, Dallas
James Lee, Tampa Bay
Doug Legursky, Pittsburgh
Mark LeVoir, St. Louis
Sean Locklear, Washington
Daniel Loper, Dallas
Deuce Lutui, Arizona
Kareem McKenzie, New York Giants
Marcus McNeill, San Diego
Pat McQuistan, New Orleans
Scott Mruczkowski, San Diego
Lydon Murtha, Miami
Ryan O'Callaghan, Kansas City
Tony Pashos, Cleveland
Chilo Rachal, San Francisco
Jamey Richard, Indianapolis
Barry Richardson Kansas City
Chad Rinehart, Buffalo
Dennis Roland, Cincinnati
Brett Romberg, Atlanta
Jake Scott, Tennessee
Max Starks, Pittsburgh
Eric Steinbach, Cleveland
Kasey Studdard, Houston
Robert Turner, New York Jets
Tony Ugoh, New York Giants
Kraig Urbik, Buffalo
Fernando Velasco, Tennessee
Casey Wiegmann, Kansas City
Bobbie Williams, Cincinnati
Pork Chop Womack, Arizona
Tony Wragge, St. Louis
Victor Abiamiri, Philadelphia
C.J. Ah You, St. Louis
Ikaika Alama-Francis, Miami
Cliff Avril, Detroit (Franchised)
Remi Ayodele, Minnesota
Dave Ball, Tennessee
Justin Bannan, St. Louis
Rocky Bernard, New York Giants
Tyler Brayton, Indianapolis
Raheem Brock, Seattle
Mason Brodine, Oakland
Desmond Bryant, Oakland
Tim Bulman, Houston
Calais Campbell, Arizona (Franchised)
Andre Carter, New England
Jeff Charleston, New Orleans
Nate Collins, Jacksonville
Tim Crowder, Tampa Bay
Jermelle Cudjo, St. Louis
Leger Douzable, Jacksonville
Shaun Ellis, New England
Eric Foster, Indianapolis
Aubrayo Franklin, New Orleans
Clifton Geathers, Dallas
Gary Gibson, St. Louis
Wallace Gilberry, Kansas City
Kedric Golston, Washington
Howard Green, Green Bay
Kelly Gregg, Kansas City
Tony Hargrove, Seattle
Tommie Harris, San Diego
Jovan Haye, Tampa Bay
William Hayes, Tennessee
Albert Haynesworth, Tampa Bay
John Henderson, Oakland
Sammie Lee Hill, Detroit
Vonnie Holliday, Arizona
Jimmy Kennedy, New York Giants
Sergio Kindle, Baltimore
Derek Landri, Philadelphia
Trevor Laws, Philadelphia
Kyle Love, New England
Bryan Mattison, St. Louis
Aaron Maybin, New York Jets
Ryan McBean, Denver
Albert McClellan, Baltimore
Clinton McDonald, Seattle
Brandon McKinney, Baltimore
Steve McLendon, Pittsburgh
Phillip Merling, Miami
Jayme Mitchell, Cleveland
Amobi Okoye, Chicago
Jeremy Parnell, Dallas
Zach Potter, Jacksonville
Nick Reed, Tampa Bay
Fred Robbins, St. Louis
Shaun Rogers, New Orleans
Malcolm Sheppard, Tennessee
Aaron Smith, Pittsburgh
Ronald Talley, Arizona
Marcus Thomas, Denver
Dave Tollefson, New York Giants
Gerard Warren, New England
Jimmy Wilkerson, Seattle
Brandon Williams, Arizona
Xavier Adibi, Minnesota
Antwan Applewhite, Carolina
Marcus Benard, Cleveland
Kevin Bentley, Indianapolis
Chase Blackburn, New York Giants
Darryl Blackstock, Oakland
Jerome Boyd, Oakland
Gary Brackett, Indianapolis
Keith Brooking, Dallas
Cody Brown, Detroit
Titus Brown, Cleveland
Bobby Carpenter, Detroit
Jonathan Casillas, New Orleans
Stephen Cooper, San Diego
Andra Davis, Buffalo
Na'il Diggs, San Diego
Tim Dobbins, Houston
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, New Orleans
Dannell Ellerbe, Baltimore
Isaiah Ekejiuba, Detroit
James Farrior, Pittsburgh
London Fletcher, Washington
Keyaron Fox, Washington
Omar Gaither, Carolina
Jonathan Goff, New York Giants
Larry Grant, San Francisco
Quentin Groves, Oakland
Gary Guyton, New England
Mario Haggan, Denver
Clark Haggans, Arizona
David Hawthorne, Seattle
Geno Hayes, Tampa Bay
E.J. Henderson, Minnesota
Leroy Hill, Seattle
Ramon Humber, New Orleans
Bradie James, Dallas
Brandon Johnson, Cincinnati
Bryan Kehl, St. Louis
Niko Koutouvides, New England
Manny Lawson, Cincinnati
DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Matt McCoy, Seattle
Rocky McIntosh, Washington
Brit Miller, St. Louis
Marvin Mitchell, Miami
Jarvis Moss, Oakland
Ashlee Palmer, Detroit
Mike Peterson, Atlanta
Brady Poppinga, St. Louis
Joey Porter, Arizona
Matt Roth, Jacksonville
Barrett Ruud, Tennessee
Jordan Senn, Carolina
Tim Shaw, Tennessee
Ernie Sims, Indianapolis
Dan Skuta, Cincinnati
Anthony Spencer, Dallas (Franchised)
Austin Spitler, Miami
Reggie Torbor, Buffalo
David Vobora, Seattle
Erik Walden, Green Bay
Philip Wheeler, Indianapolis
Chavis Williams, Baltimore
Thomas Williams, Carolina
Wesley Woodyard, Denver
Hamza Abdullah, Arizona
Husain Abdullah, Minnesota
Oshiomogho Atogwe, Washington
Alan Ball, Dallas
Dominique Barber, Houston
Yeremiah Bell, Miami
Will Blackmon, New York Giants
Tyvon Branch, Oakland (Franchised)
Tramaine Brock, San Francisco
C.C. Brown, Jacksonville
Stevie Brown, Indianapolis
Phillip Buchanon, Washington
Melvin Bullitt, Indianapolis
Jarrett Bush, Green Bay
James Butler, St. Louis
Chris Carr, Baltimore
Reggie Corner, Buffalo
Jon Corto, Buffalo,
Kennard Cox, Seattle
Travis Daniels, Kansas City
Craig Dahl, St. Louis
Brian Dawkins, Denver
Quintin Demps, Houston
Abram Elam, Dallas
Matt Giordano Oakland
Dashon Goldson, San Francisco (Franchised)
Cletis Gordon, Carolina
Danny Gorrer, Baltimore
Deon Grant, New York Giants
Courtney Greene, Jacksonville
Michael Griffin, Tennessee (Franchised)
Brent Grimes, Atlanta (Franchised)
Chris Harris, Detroit
Kelvin Hayden, Atlanta
Roderick Hood, St. Louis
Chris Hope, Tennessee
James Ihedigbo, New England
Kelly Jennings, Cincinnati
Rashad Johnson, Arizona
Tyrell Johnson, Minnesota
David Jones, Jacksonville
Nathan Jones, New England
Sean Jones, Tampa Bay
Justin King, St. Louis
Jacob Lacey, Indianapolis
Reshard Langford, Kansas City
Jim Leonhard, New York Jets
Keenan Lewis, Pittsburgh
Roy Lewis, Seattle
Bret Lockett, New England
Corey Lynch, Tampa Bay
Elbert Mack, Tampa Bay
Derrick Martin, New York Giants
Bryan McCann, Oakland
Kyle McCarthy, Denver
Brandon McDonald, Detroit
Bryant McFadden, Pittsburgh
Jon McGraw, Kansas City
William Middleton, Jacksonville
Jeromy Miles, Cincinnati
Antwaun Molden, New England
Ryan Mundy, Pittsburgh
Terence Newman, Dallas
Paul Oliver, San Diego
Jarrad Page, Minnesota
Sabby Piscitelli, Kansas City
James Sanders, Atlanta
Bob Sanders, San Diego
Benny Sapp, Minnesota
Lito Sheppard, Oakland
Anthony Smith, Tennessee
Reggie Smith, San Francisco
Darian Stewart, St. Louis
Donald Strickland, New York Jets
Leigh Torrence, New Orleans
Frank Walker, Dallas
Lardarius Webb, Baltimore
Byron Westbrook, Washington
Jonathan Wilhite, Denver
Cary Williams, Baltimore
Madieu Williams, San Francisco
Gibril Wilson, Cincinnati
Connor Barth, Tampa Bay (Franchised)
David Buehler, Dallas
Brandon Coutu, Buffalo
Graham Gano, Washington
Shayne Graham, Baltimore
Steven Hauschka, Seattle
John Kasay, New Orleans
Richmond McGee, Cleveland
Mike Nugent, Cincinnati (Franchised)
Matt Prater, Denver (Franchised)
Neil Rackers, Houston
Dave Rayner, Buffalo
Josh Scobee, Jacksonville (Franchised)
Britton Colquitt, Denver
Nick Harris, Jacksonville
Donnie Jones, St. Louis
Jeremy Kapinos, Pittsburgh
Brad Maynard, Cleveland
Mat McBriar, Dallas
Daniel Sepulveda, Pittsburgh
Matt Turk, Houston
Dave Zastudil, Arizona
Kenneth Amato, Tennessee
Morgan Cox, Baltimore
Clark Harris, Cincinnati
Matt Katula, Minnesota
Chris Massey, Chicago
Mike Windt, San Diego
Updated at 12 p.m. CT on March 30, 2012
- by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
The next batch of in-coming college football All-Americans have inked their respective letters of intent. Recruiting is the life blood of the greatest sport on the planet, and, while coaching stills plays the biggest role in winning a championship, having better players can go a long way to earning a trip to the BCS.
Recruiting is an inexact science by definition. It is virtually impossible to accurately peg the mental make-up of any 17-year old child -- much less high-profile, over-coddled 17-year-old athletes. But team recruiting rankings offer the best indication of which team has the best ingredients each coach has to work with each season.
There are many prospects who come to campus without a position. Many times, the most gifted athlete on a high school team is asked to play quarterback or both sides of the ball full-time. Once these 'athletes' get to campus, the coaches have the exciting but sometimes difficult decision to make on where to play a give prospect. Is this kid a tight end, outside linebacker or defensive end? What about this do-everything slot man who is also great in coverage? These types of players can offer versatility to a head coach who needs to fill voids on his depth chart. It just may take a year or two to figure out exactly where he helps the team the most.
Here are the best incoming 'athletes' in the nation (tight ends below):
|1.||Stefon Diggs||6'||185||Olney, MD||No. 5||Maryland|
|2.||Cyrus Jones||5'10"||192||Baltimore, MD||No. 48||Alabama|
|3.||Davonte Neal||5'9"||175||Scottsdale, AZ||No. 56||Notre Dame|
|4.||Angelo Jean-Louis||6'||182||Wellington, FL||No. 85||Miami|
|5.||Bralon Addison||5'10"||185||Missouri City, TX||No. 111||Oregon|
|6.||Marvin Bracy||5'9"||170||Orlando, FL||No. 126||Florida State|
|7.||Sheldon Dawson||5'11"||180||Memphis, TN||N0. 188||Georgia|
|8.||Dominic Ramacher||6'3"||230||Denton, TX||No. 231||Oklahoma State|
|9.||Daje Johnson||5'10"||175||Pflugerville, TX||No. 255||Texas|
2012 Athlon Sports Positional Recruiting Rankings:
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Running Backs
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Linebackers
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Defensive Backs
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Offensive Linemen
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Quarterbacks
College Football 2012 Positional Recruiting Rankings: Athletes
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Kentucky (1), Duke (2)
The Kentucky Wildcats (32–2, 16–0 SEC) enter the Big Dance as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite suffering their second loss of the season to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game. In his third season at UK, coach John Calipari has assembled the most talented team in the country. The Cats are anchored by shot-swatting freshman center Anthony Davis (14.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.7 bpg) — the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft — whose talented supporting cast includes freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), sophomore shooter Doron Lamb (13.3 ppg, 47.4 3PT%), sophomore forward Terrence Jones (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), freshman point guard Marquis Teaque (9.7 ppg, 4.7 apg) and senior glue guy Darius Miller (9.4 ppg). After making the Elite Eight and Final Four in Coach Cal’s first two seasons, Kentucky fans are hoping the third time is the charm; anything less than a net-cutting ceremony in New Orleans on Monday night, April 2, will be a disappointment in Big Blue Nation.
The Duke Blue Devils (27–6, 13–3 ACC) have been a different team since freshman scorer Austin Rivers (15.4 ppg) hit the shot heard ‘round the world to beat North Carolina on a deep 3-pointer over 7-footer Tyler Zeller as time expired in Chapel Hill. Doc Rivers’ son secured his place in Duke-Carolina lore while also establishing himself as the go-to guy on this year’s Duke squad. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has won four national championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010), played in eight national title games and made 11 trips to the Final Four. But Coach K has never had a team quite like this one. The Devils are an inside-outside bunch with no Grant Hill or Shane Battier type on the wing. Duke lives by the 3-point shot — where Rivers, Seth Curry (13.4 ppg), Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg) and Andre Dawkins (8.5 ppg) have combined to hit 39.1 percent (225-of-576) from long range. The Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) and Kelly can clean up the glass down low, but Duke will likely live by the three or die by the three in the Tourney.
Player to Watch – Perry Jones III, Baylor (3)
This season, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III morphed into the iconic, Heisman Trophy-winning superhero now known simply as “RG3” among NFL Draft watchers and Redskins fans. NBA scouts are eager to see if Jones will become “PJ3” by making a splash in the NCAA Tournament. After returning to school despite his reputation as a sure one-and-done recruit, the 6’11”, 235-pound sophomore averaged a respectable 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds. But more was expected from the skillful forward, who will have his chance to make a new name for himself on the national stage.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – UNLV (6)
These may not be Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels, but first-year coach Dave Rice was a player on the 1990 national championship squad led by Larry Johnson, so these Rebels certainly have a Vegas edge to them. A pair of UCLA transfers — Mike Moser (14.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and Chase Stanback (12.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg) — are joined by the unselfish backcourt duo of local legend Anthony Marshall (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.6 apg) and senior Oscar Bellfield (9.8 ppg, 5.3 apg), giving UNLV a chance to run to the second weekend of the Big Dance, where a potential rematch of the 1991 title game with Duke awaits.
Upset Pick – VCU (12) over Wichita State (5)
Coach Shaka Smart led VCU to the Final Four as one of the inaugural “First Four” play-in teams last season. Now the CAA Tournament champions will square off with the Missouri Valley regular season champs from Wichita State in a battle of the mid-majors. Senior slasher Bradford Burgess (13.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) was a key contributor during last year’s run and will be counted on to take over if the Rams hope to Shaka the Shockers.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – North Carolina (1), Kansas (2)
The North Carolina Tar Heels (29–5, 14–2 ACC) were the preseason No. 1 team in the country in nearly every poll, including Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25. And although UNC is still stacked — with all-world sophomore wingman Harrison Barnes (17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 7-foot senior center Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), shot-blocking junior forward John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and pass-first point guard Kendall Marshall (7.5 ppg, 9.7 apg) — there are more questions circling the Tar Heels in March than there were in November, when Carolina opened the year with a win over Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. The Tar Heels’ toughness and end-game finishing ability are issues of concern in Chapel Hill. Coach Roy Williams has won two national titles (2005, 2009) at North Carolina and been to a combined seven Final Fours (at UNC and Kansas). The question is whether or not this year’s team can win it all in New Orleans — the city in which Dean Smith won his two national championships, in 1982 and 1993.
The Kansas Jayhawks (27–6, 16–2 Big 12) are led by a national player of the year candidate in 6’10” junior Thomas Robinson (17.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and a senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg). But KU is far from a two-man team; junior combo guard Elijah Johnson (9.6 ppg, 3.8 apg), 7-foot junior Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg) and junior slasher Travis Releford (8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) give coach Bill Self the type of veteran experience and leadership most powerhouse programs have not seen in decades. The Jayhawks have no bad losses on their resume — with all six defeats coming against NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Duke, Davidson, Iowa State, Missouri, Baylor) — and will be a tough out once the ball is tipped on this year’s Tourney. Still, doubters will continue to point to Self’s back-to-back first round exits in 2005 and 2006, when Kansas was a No. 3 and No. 4 seed, respectively.
Player to Watch – Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (4)
The heir to the UTEP two-step fortune, Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) does not have the same killer crossover as his old man but he does have the same killer instinct in big games. The 6’6” sophomore from Miami has become the centerpiece of the Wolverines’ attack. Michigan had a 4–5 record in games the remarkably consistent Hardaway scored 10 or fewer points; the Maize-and-Blue’s other four losses were against Duke, Indiana and Ohio State twice — big time competition Hardaway averaged 16.5 points per game against.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Temple (5)
A veteran backcourt trio consisting of senior Philly native Ramone Moore (17.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg), junior combo guard Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg) and senior Argentine point guard Juan Fernandez (11.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg) — all of whom are 6’4” matchup nightmares — lead an Owls club that has a high basketball IQ collectively. As a team, Temple shoots 47.2 percent from the field, 71.8 percent from the free throw line and 40.2 percent from 3-point range, all while averaging 23 assists-plus-steals compared to 13 turnovers per game.
Upset Pick – Belmont (14) over Georgetown (3)
Coach Rick Byrd has over 500 wins at Belmont, but has yet to notch his first victory in the NCAA Tournament — despite coming painfully close against Duke (71–70) in 2008. This could be the year that changes. Bruins are making their fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons with a team that has six players who average between 8.5 and 14.1 points per game. Junior point guard Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs the show and will need to be a difference maker against Georgetown — the school that beat Belmont 80–55 in 2007.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Syracuse (1), Ohio State (2)
The Syracuse Orange (31–2, 17–1 Big East) are a No. 1 seed for the third time in program history. Coach Jim Boeheim has a deep and talented roster capable of locking down the opposition on defense, with the Orange’s signature stingy 2-3 zone. Brazilian big man Fab Melo (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 bpg) patrols the paint with authority, blocking and altering shots near the rim. Syracuse is a different team with a focused Melo on the floor, but the 7-footer has a tendency to lose his cool and will need to avoid foul trouble if he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the original Melo, Carmelo Anthony, who led SU to its only national title in 2003. Offensively, 6’7” senior Kris Joseph (13.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and sophomore guard Dion Waiters (12.6 ppg) reliably carry the bulk of the scoring load; junior Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), 6’8” sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) and senior point guard Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) are each capable of turning in big numbers on any given night.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) lost a hard-fought Big Ten title game to Michigan State but enter the Big Dance with a team capable of making a run to New Orleans. The Buckeyes orbit around sophomore center Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), a physical force on both ends of the floor. “Big Sully” is playing his best ball when it matters most, averaging 24 points, nine boards and two blocked shots per game during the Big Ten Tourney. Sullinger is flanked by a pair of sweet-shooting, versatile forwards in sophomore Deshaun Thomas (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior William Buford (14.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), while sophomore Aaron Craft (8.6 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.4 spg) competently mans the point. Coach Thad Matta has led OSU to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances; yet despite bringing some of the nation’s top talent to Columbus, Matta has only one Final Four berth — as national runners-up with Greg Oden in 2007 — since taking over in 2004.
Player to Watch – Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin (4)
The success of coach Bo Ryan’s deliberate tempo is predicated on his senior point guard’s ability to make plays with the shot clock winding down. Taylor (14.7 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.7 rpg) is a tough-as-nails floor general who personifies the Badgers’ brand of ball. Wisconsin lacks the athleticism to run with the majority of the field of 68, but few teams have the caliber of coach on the floor that Taylor provides UW.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Vanderbilt (5)
Can a team that started the year ranked in the top 10 nationally and ended the season by beating Kentucky in the SEC title game even be considered a Sweet 16 sleeper? Vanderbilt has NBA-caliber, veteran talent on every level — with junior sharpshooter John Jenkins (20.0 ppg, 45.3 3PT%), senior lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’11” senior center Festus Ezeli (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg). But coach Kevin Stallings’ squad is also on a three-Tourney run of first-round losses and fresh off an emotional SEC Tournament title — VU’s first since 1951.
Upset Pick – West Virginia (10) over Gonzaga (7)
Say what you will about the man’s personality, but Bob Huggins is a proven NCAA Tournament tactician. “Huggy Bear” has only missed the Big Dance twice (2007 at Kansas State and 2006, when he was not coaching) and failed to advance to the second round just once (2009 at West Virginia) since Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1995; Huggins is 13–1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during that time. Senior forward Kevin Jones (20.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and senior guard Truck Bryant (17.2 ppg) don’t want to end their careers as outliers in Huggins’ math madness of March.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Michigan State (1), Missouri (2)
The Michigan State Spartans (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) locked up the fourth No. 1 seed by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game — after sharing the conference’s regular season crown with the Buckeyes. Coach Tom Izzo seems to be in the Iz-zone in March; MSU’s main man has led the Spartans to six Final Four appearances, and is aiming for his third trip in four years. Senior “dancing bear” point forward Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) does it all for Sparty, presenting a 6’7”, 230-plus-pound matchup nightmare for opponents due to his rare combination of interior size and perimeter skills. Sophomore sensation Keith Appling (11.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and senior Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood (8.3 ppg) provide steady backcourt play, while junior heavyweight Derrick Nix (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6’10” sophomore Adreian Payne (6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) bring the signature toughness of Izzo’s teams to the paint.
The Missouri Tigers (30–4, 14–4 Big 12) are the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 college basketball season. After going 23–11 (8–8 Big 12) and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Mike Anderson’s final year, the Tigers have been on a tear in Frank Haith’s first season on the job — and Mizzou’s final year in the Big 12, before jumping to the SEC next season. The Tigers’ three primary ball-handlers — senior Marcus Denmon (17.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), junior Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg) and sophomore Phil Pressey (10.0 ppg, 6.3 apg) — combined to shoot 85.2 percent (317-of-372) from the free-throw line this year. But Mizzou is undeniably undersized. Wingman Kim English is 6’6” but prefers to hang out downtown (14.9 ppg, 47.3 3PT%). That leaves the onus on 6’8”, 240-pound senior Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and 6’9”, 270-pound senior Steve Moore to do the dirty work.
Player to Watch – Bradley Beal, Florida (7)
The Gators are a guard-heavy, 3-point shooting squad led by diminutive dynamos Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, who combined to shoot UF all the way to the Elite Eight last year. Florida really only has two big men, Patric Young and Erik Murphy. But coach Billy Donovan has Beal, a 6’3” freshman who can score (14.6 ppg), rebound (6.5 rpg) and pass (2.2 apg). If the Gators are able to survive a tough 7-10 draw against Virginia, they match up well against size-challenged Missouri — if Beal can maintain his recent SEC Tournament statline of 18 points, 7.5 boards and five assists per game.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Murray State (6)
The Racers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bracket, getting no respect from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee despite posting a 30–1 record that included a 23–0 start to the season and wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. Underrated junior guard Isaiah Canaan (19.2 ppg) will have his chance on the hardcourt, however. Murray State should be given a home team’s welcome during the opening weekend in Louisville, which is an easy four-hour drive from Murray, Ky.
Upset Pick – Long Beach State (12) over New Mexico (5)
The 49ers started the year with a 4–5 record — following losses to NCAA Tournament competition from North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State and Montana — but ended on a 21–3 run, locking up both the Big West regular season and postseason crowns. Steve Alford’s New Mexico club is everyone’s darling heading into the Dance, but the senior trio of point guard Casper Ware (17.4), wing Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and big man T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg) will play the role of Cinderella when the clock strikes zero.
The NCAA Men's Basketball Championship field of 68 is out and the brackets are revealed. Kentucky, who lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship game earlier today, stands as the No. 1 overall seed.
Here are the top four teams in each region:
South: Kentucky, Duke, Baylor, Indiana
East: Syracuse, Ohio State, Florida State, Wisconsin
West: Michigan State, Missouri, Marquette, Louisville
Midwest: North Carolina, Kansas, Georgetown, Michigan
CLICK IMAGE BELOW TO ENLARGE THE NCAA BRACKET 2012
by Matt Taliaferro
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Boston Red Sox
If you navigated last September without shaming yourself, your family, your employers and the city you call home, congratulations! You had a better month than the Red Sox. When September began, they led the AL East and owned the best record in baseball. When it ended, they owned the greatest collapse in baseball history, and the fallout swiftly claimed their manager, GM and training staff — not to mention their good standing with Boston sports fans. The task in 2012 will be rebuilding their image and reclaiming the postseason berth that has eluded them for the past two seasons. They’ll do so with a new manager, Bobby Valentine, who’s no stranger to controversy, and a new GM, Ben Cherington, who wants the team to get younger and more dynamic. They have the talent to win it all, but there are holes, too. About all we can say with certainty is that any beer and fried chicken will be consumed on the players’ own time.
If there’s a group to blame for last year’s clubhouse shenanigans, it’s the starters. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz were the ones drinking beer during games, and they collectively have something to prove. Lester is the ace and pretty close to a sure thing, though he’s coming off a 2011 that saw his innings and strikeout totals decrease by about 10 percent each. Beckett was an All-Star last year, but he was considered the ringleader of wrongdoing, so he’ll have a target on his chest. Lackey is out for the year following offseason Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Buchholz is an outstanding No. 3 — provided the stress fractures in his back that limited him 82.2 innings last year are healed. Reliever Daniel Bard is hoping to make the leap to the rotation after two dominant seasons as a setup man, and the fifth spot is up for grabs, with winter pickups like Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla fighting it out.
Eighties hair rockers Cinderella warned us, “Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The Red Sox will soon discover whether they’re living those words after watching closer Jonathan Papelbon sign with the Phillies. They replaced him by acquiring righthander Andrew Bailey from the A’s. Bailey may not be Papelbon, but he’s a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year who has been taking the ball in the ninth practically from Day 1 in the big leagues. With Bard shifting to the rotation, another acquisition — former Astros closer Mark Melancon — becomes the primary setup man. Jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Aceves returns to provide an invaluable multi-inning power arm with the added ability to make the occasional spot start. From there, one player to keep an eye on is rehabbing (Tommy John) left-handed specialist Rich Hill, who hasn’t allowed a run since 2009.
Dustin Pedroia will continue to battle New York’s Robinson Cano for the title of game’s best second baseman. He’s coming off a Gold Glove season that saw him set career-highs in homers (21) and RBIs (91). He’s also coming into his own as the heart and soul of the team and a true leader with veteran Jason Varitek now retired. Mike Aviles played just 14 games at shortstop last season, but will get the first crack at playing everyday this season. That is until the 22-year-old Jose Iglesias can prove he can hit big league pitching. He’s shown he can play Gold Glove defense, but his bat isn’t ready yet. Newcomer Nick Punto is Plan C at short.
Where once there was Manny and Big Papi, the Red Sox hope to have A-Gon and Youk. Few 3-4 punches in the game are as potent as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and third baseman Kevin Youkilis — provided Youkilis stays healthy. Gonzalez nearly won the batting title in his Red Sox debut, and another year removed from shoulder surgery, he should have the power to top 40 homers again. Youkilis has steadfastly refused to alter the all-out way he plays — “I’d rather retire,” he says — and as a result, he hasn’t topped 136 games since 2008. When healthy, both he and Gonzalez are guaranteed .950 OPS types with the ability to grind at-bats and leave the park.
The Red Sox are pretty much guaranteed to receive above-average production from their outfield — because Jacoby Ellsbury is in it. The game’s newest superstar returns for an encore as one of the most dynamic players alive. The Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner did everything en route to a second-place finish in the MVP voting, and matching his 30-30 totals will be a challenge. The challenge is entirely of a different sort for left fielder Carl Crawford. The $142 million man is out to show that last year’s woeful season was an aberration born of acclimating himself to Boston. While it can’t help his confidence that owner John Henry admits he opposed the signing, Crawford is a man on a mission. That mission, however, might be delayed a bit; Crawford underwent surgery on his left wrist in the offseason and is not expected to be ready for Opening Day. As for right field, newcomers Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross should form a nice platoon.
Among the victims of September’s collapse was the second-longest-tenured member of the Red Sox — catcher Jason Varitek, who retired this winter. The Sox seemed ready to move on after signing Kelly Shoppach to back up starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and with young masher Ryan Lavarnway waiting in the wings. Saltalamacchia is looking to build on a fine 2011 season, his first as a full-time starter and one that saw him hit 16 homers and slug .450. Those numbers would look even better, but he withered in September, hitting just .162. Shoppach is here to hit lefties (.909 lifetime OPS) and throw out base-runners (league-leading 41 percent caught stealing last year).
In an organization that aims to rate as far above the league average as possible at every position, Ortiz represented the greatest single advantage in the game. He hit 29 homers (28 as the DH). No other DH reached 20. His OPS of .964 ranked more than 100 points higher than No. 2 Victor Martinez. He made his seventh All-Star team and won his fifth Silver Slugger. The 36-year-old is supposed to be on the downside, but outside of a brief interleague slump and a mediocre September (.769 OPS), he was a beast. He accepted arbitration rather than test the market, and the Red Sox will happily return him to the heart of their order. As for the bench, the Sox will have Punto and right-handed outfielder Darnell McDonald, as well as Shoppach, and possibly Lavarnway, who can serve as a right-handed DH.
Theo Epstein’s departure for the Cubs marked the end of an era in Boston. Over his nine seasons, the Red Sox won a pair of World Series and became one of the model franchises in the game, last September notwithstanding. Epstein’s replacement, Cherington, brings a similar intellect to the position, but with a slightly different focus. Whereas Epstein eventually became seduced by the idea of flexing the team’s formidable financial muscle, Cherington is a player development guy at heart. That approach was reflected in his first two major deals, acquiring young arms Melancon and Bailey. Valentine will make for good copy, and though it remains to be seen how his approach will play in Boston, he’s universally regarded as a brilliant strategist. The Cherington-Bobby V. partnership could be the perfect marriage — or end in a War of the Roses divorce. But it will not be blah.
If the leaders in that clubhouse have any pride whatsoever, the Red Sox will bounce back in a big way. Outside of Ellsbury, every player on the roster has room to improve, and all of New England — not to mention the rest of baseball — will be watching hawkishly to see how they respond. In a tough-as-nails American League that now includes Albert Pujols, the Red Sox will not skate to the postseason. The key will be the health and conditioning of the starting rotation, with all eyes on Beckett and Buchholz. The Sox have circled the wagons and proclaimed that they’re not the freak show everyone thinks. Now comes their chance to prove it.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
Talk about options. Ellsbury could bat third, too, after his monster 2011. But why mess with a good thing?
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
With the pin out of his foot, Pedroia is poised to follow up a bounce-back 2011 with an even better 2012.
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
With his shoulder fully healed a year after labrum surgery, ready to challenge for the Triple Crown.
3B Kevin Youkilis (R)
If Youk could stay healthy, the Red Sox would be in a lot better shape.
DH David Ortiz (L)
Ortiz was far and away the best DH in baseball last year, and even at age 36, that trend should continue.
RF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Is battling with Cody Ross for at-bats.
LF Carl Crawford (L)
Prefers to bat second; Sox could drop Ellsbury to third and hit Pedroia leadoff if Crawford regains form. Slow coming back from wrist surgery.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
The man they call Salty hit for surprising power last year (16 HRs).
SS Mike Aviles (R)
Phenom Jose Iglesias is still not ready for major league pitching, so Aviles will keep this job for now.
C Kelly Shoppach (R)
He can still pound lefties and throw, which is what the Sox need.
OF Darnell McDonald (R)
Will have to fight to win his job in spring training. A strong September helps his cause.
OF Cody Ross (R)
Most likely will be part of a platoon in right field. But if Crawford continues to heal slowly, Ross will be ready to play in left.
C Ryan Lavarnway (R)
Even if he opens the season in Triple-A, he’ll end it in the big leagues.
INF Nick Punto (S)
The Sox acquired the former Twin and Cardinal for his leadership and solid defense.
LH Jon Lester
Ace hasn’t quite put together a Cy Young-caliber season yet. Maybe 2012 will be his year.
RH Josh Beckett
Talk about a man with something to prove after being at the center of the beer and fried chicken controversy.
RH Clay Buchholz
He has something to prove, too, after a back injury ended his season in June.
RH Daniel Bard
One of the X-factors will be Bard’s ability to transition to the rotation.
RH Aaron Cook
The Rockies’ all-time wins leader gets a chance with a new organization.
RH Andrew Bailey (Closer)
The New Jersey native is East Coast through and through, which should help his transition.
RH Mark Melancon
He closed in Houston, but if he can set up in Boston, the Sox could be in business.
RH Alfredo Aceves
Also a candidate to start, the rubber-armed Aceves is a huge weapon as a multi-inning reliever.
LH Felix Doubront
The Sox expected big things out of Doubront last year, and he fizzled. It’s make-or-break time.
RH Matt Albers
The 95 mph-throwing Albers was a revelation in the sixth and seventh.
LH Franklin Morales
A second lefty never hurts, which gives Morales an edge to get the last roster spot.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
One of the most intriguing coaching positions in college basketball became available when Illinois dismissed Bruce Weber on Friday morning after nine seasons in Champaign. Some consider Illinois one of the elite jobs in the sport. The school has a strong history of success and is located near the hoops hotbed of Chicago. Others, however, believe this job is overrated. This faction contends that it’s very difficult to win at a high level unless you are willing to swim in murky recruiting waters.
That, however, is a debate for another day.
Right now, let’s take a look at some of the coaches that the school likely will target.
Shaka Smart, head coach, VCU
Smart emerged as a star in the coaching world when he guided VCU to the Final Four last season. This season, the Rams are back in the NCAA Tournament despite losing most of their key contributors from the Final Four team. He has a 38–16 record in the CAA in his three seasons at VCU. Smart, who has plenty of Midwest ties, would be a home run.
Brad Stevens, head coach, Butler
Stevens is perhaps the most respected head coach in the sport not named Mike Krzyzewski. Butler reached to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four seasons as a head coach, highlighted by back-to-back trips to the national title game. Stevens has made it clear that he is very happy at Butler, but he might have to listen if Illinois came calling.
Chris Collins, associate head coach, Duke
Collins is an Illinois native who starred at Duke in the mid-'90s and has served on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at his alma mater since 2000. He has no experience as a head coach, and his candidacy might be hurt due to the fact that several of Coach K’s assistants have not enjoyed a high level of success as head coaches.
Anthony Grant, head coach, Alabama
Grant, a former Billy Donovan assistant, has been a head coach for six seasons, three at VCU and three at Alabama. He took VCU to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 (and beat Duke in the first round) and 2009 and is on the verge of taking Bama to the NCAAs for the first time since 2006. Alabama is good job. Illinois is a better job.
Kevin Stallings, head coach, Vanderbilt
Stallings is in his 13th season at Vanderbilt and will have the Commodores in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the past six seasons and the sixth time in nine seasons. Stallings is an Illinois native who played at Purdue and served as the head coach at Illinois State for six seasons. He is happy at Vanderbilt, but could be ready for another challenge.
Chris Mack, head coach, Xavier
Mack has been very successful in his two-plus seasons at Xavier, but he reputation took a hit early this season when his team was involved in a post-game brawl with rival Cincinnati.
Scott Drew, head coach, Baylor
Drew will be taking Baylor to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past five seasons. He has done a tremendous job recruiting to Baylor, but isn’t regarded as an elite strategist. He is a native of Valparaiso, Ind.
Buzz Williams, head coach, Marquette
Williams’ name has come up for several Big 12 jobs in recent season, but he has elected to remain at Marquette. He has taken the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in five straight seasons.
Gregg Marshall, head coach, Wichita State
Marshall has a 303–142 record in 14 seasons as a head coach. He took Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament seven times in nine seasons and will have Wichita State in the field this year (as a high seed) for the first time in his five seasons.-by Mitch Light
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, aka "Gronk," is throwing his hat into the ring for The Madden NFL 13 Cover in a big way. Gronk recently put together a video of himself "getting jacked at all times, going crazy" in a bid to win votes. BTW, we're loving the retro work out pants worn by his brothers.
By Mitch Light
Selection Sunday is just days away. Here's a conference-by-conference look at the Field of 68, as of Friday morning.
In: Duke, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia
Worth a mention: NC State
Notes: NC State is over .500 in the ACC (9–7) and technically has no top-50 RPI wins. But it does have two wins over Miami (No. 55) and one over Texas (No. 52) — and two of those came away from home. The Pack need to beat Virginia in the ACC quarters to have a chance. The biggest intrigue in Atlanta surrounds Duke and North Carolina. The Tar Heels appear to be in decent shape to land a No. 1 seed, but Duke could play its way into that spot if it wins the ACC Tournament.
American East (1)
In: Stony Brook
In: Dayton, Saint Louis, Temple, Xavier
Worth a mention: Saint Joseph's
Notes: Xavier and Dayton were the two final teams in the field as of Friday morning. It’s tough to differentiate between these two rivals. Xavier’s computer numbers are a bit better, but Dayton has better wins. Xavier did win at Vanderbilt, but the Commodores were missing center Festus Ezeli at the time. Dayton has wins over Alabama (at full strength), at Temple (not at full strength), vs. Saint Louis and vs. Ole Miss. This debate will be settled on the court, however, as these two rivals play in the A-10 Tournament tomorrow night in Atlantic City. The winner should be in decent shape. The loser could still be in, but it will be very close.
Big 12 (6)
In: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Texas
Worth a mention: None
Notes: Texas picked up a huge win over Iowa State Thursday in the Big 12 Tournament. The Horns are in good shape.
Big East (10)
In: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Seton Hall, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia
Worth a mention: None
Notes: West Virginia is still in decent shape, even after blowing a lead vs. UConn in the Big East Tournament. Seton Hall, with seven top-100 RPI wins, is on shaky ground; beating Louisville Wednesday night would have ended any doubt. South Florida was impressive in its win over Villanova on Wednesday, but let one get away vs. Notre Dame on Thursday. Seton Hall and South Florida will be sweating Selection Sunday.
Big Sky (1)
Big South (1)
Big Ten (6)
In: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Worth a mention: Northwestern
Notes: Northwestern’s chances took a huge hit with the OT loss to Minnesota on Thursday. Simply put, it’s hard to put a team that is only 1–10 vs. RPI top-50 teams into the field. The Wildcats have had ample opportunities to get that ‘big’ win, but only did so once — vs. Michigan State at home.
Big West (1)
In: Long Beach State.
In: Drexel, VCU
Notes: Drexel snuck in on Thursday night after Mississippi State lost to Georgia. The Dragons don’t have the profile of an NCAA team — they have one win over a top-80 RPI team (VCU at home) and have three losses to teams ranked 120 or lower — but Bruiser Flint’s club did win 27 games and dominate the CAA. This one is tough.
In: Memphis, Southern Miss
Worth a mention: Iona
Iona is 25–7 with an RPI of 40. The Gaels have four top-100 wins but also have two losses to teams ranked 220 or worse. It’s hard to pick between Iona and Drexel.
In: Norfolk State
In: Creighton, Wichita State
In: Colorado State New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV
Worth a mention: None
Notes: Colorado State picked up a convincing 81–60 win over TCU in the MWC quarterfinals on Thursday. The Rams are in.
In: Long Island
In: Murray State
Pac 12 (1)
Worth a mention: Arizona, Oregon, Washington
Notes: Washington suffered a crushing blow in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, losing to Oregon State. The Huskies won the regular season but do not have a win vs. a team ranked in the top-80 of the RPI. That is stunning. Arizona has only one win to brag about, at Cal in early February. The Cats might have to win the league tourney to get in. Oregon (RPI 63, KenPom 63) played well down the stretch but lost to Colorado in the Pac-12 quarterfinals. The Ducks are done.
In: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Worth a mention: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee
Notes: Mississippi State played its way out Thursday night with a loss to Georgia — its second of the season to the Dawgs — in the opening round of the SEC Tournament. Crushing. Tennessee has two wins over Florida and a win at home vs. Vanderbilt, but there also several warts on the résumé. They are 17–13 overall (win vs. Chaminade doesn’t count) and have four losses to 100+ RPI teams. This is a good team that might have to reach the SEC semis to warrant serious consideration. Ole Miss will have to beat Tennessee on Friday night to remain in the picture. The Rebels have some solid wins — Alabama (with JaMychal Green back in the lineup), Miami, Mississippi State — but also has a lot of losses (12).
In: South Dakota State
Worth a mention: Oral Roberts
ORU’s résumé looks similar to Drexel’s and Iona’s — a lot of wins, but not a lot of good ones. In a normal year, this team wouldn’t have much of a shot at an at-large bid. But this isn’t a normal year.
Sun Belt (1)
In: Western Kentucky
In: Mississippi Valley State
In: BYU, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
Notes: BYU has solid numbers (RPI 46, KenPom 48), and six of the Cougars’ eight losses have come against teams ranked in the RPI top 30.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Oklahoma Sooners 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-3, 6-3 Big 12
Spring practice: March 5-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Passing: Landry Jones, 355 of 562, 4,463 yards, 29 TD, 15 INT
Rushing: Dominique Whaley, 113 att., 627 yards, 9 TD
Receiving: Kenny Stills, 61 rec., 849 yards, 8 TD
Tackles: Aaron Colin, 84
Sacks: Corey Nelson, 5.5
Interceptions: Tony Jefferson, 4
Redshirts to watch: DT Jordan Wade, DT Jordan Phillips, DT Marquis Anderson, DE Nathan Hughes, OT Dylan Dismuke
2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 at UTEP
Sept. 8 Florida A&M
Sept. 15 Bye Week
Sept. 22 Kansas State
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 at Texas Tech
Oct. 13 Texas (Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas)
Oct. 20 Kansas
Oct. 27 Notre Dame
Nov. 3 at Iowa State
Nov. 10 Baylor
Nov. 17 at West Virginia
Nov. 24 Oklahoma State
Dec. 1 at TCU
Offensive Strength: The line has to be considered the most stable position on the offensive side of the ball. Only one departing player needs to be replaced while five players with playing experience return, including multiple All-Big-12 performers Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans.
Offensive Weakness: The biggest issue on offense has to be with the pass-catchers. The loss of Ryan Broyles, the NCAA's all-time leading receiver, was painfully obvious over the last month of the 2011 season. Tight end James Hanna and wideout DeJuan Miller are gone as well. Running back could be an issue, especially if Dominique Whaley doesn't return 100 percent from an ankle injury.
Defensive Strength: The back seven of the defense has to be considered the strength. The linebackers return a pair of all-conference tacklers and the secondary is absolutely loaded with upside talent. However, the coaching staff needs to get them to perform up to their potential.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive line will be the area of focus for new (and old) defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Replacing the conference's "co-best" defensive player as well as another first-teamer at the end position will be key this spring. The Sooners lost 113 total tackles, 14 sacks and 32 tackles for a loss along the defensive line.
Spring Storylines Facing the Sooners:
1. Which Landry Jones will show up for the Sooners this fall? One wouldn't think that a 12,000-yard quarterback who is approaching 100 career touchdowns would be an issue. However, the numbers are well-documented and well-scrutinized. Jones showed major development from 2009 to 2010. He increased his completion percentage - 58.1% passing to 65.6% - and significantly dropped his interception rate - one every 32.1 attempts versus one every 51.4 attempts. Yet, 2011 saw Jones regress in both categories (63.1% and 37.5 attempts/INT). Additionally, his road record has been a major issue. He is 7-8 on the road as a starter and is 19-1 in Norman. Finally, he limped to the finish in 2011, going without a single touchdown pass in the final three games of the regular season (with five interceptions nonetheless). There is no reason to think Jones won't bounce back as a senior and the unquestioned leader of Crimson and Cream nation, but questions still hang over his head. This team will go as far as Jones takes them — which could be an eighth conference championship in 13 years.
2. A month of spring practice developing and organizing the wide receviers will go a long way to helping Jones return to form this fall. Without Broyles, this unit struggled mightily down the stretch. Kenny Stills has NFL ability and should be the go-to target for Jones this fall. Jaz Reynolds looks to be second in line but has to stay healthy. After those two, names like Kameel Jackson, Trey Franks and Sheldon McClain need to prove they can be contributors this fall. Trey Metoyer did not qualify last season, but is expected to be a key contributor in Oklahoma's receiving corps. Junior college recruit Courtney Gardner will also push Jackson, Franks and McClain for playing time.
3. The return of Mark Stoops has to have Sooners fans excited about their defense. Stoops helped build the BCS National Championship unit of 2000 — one of the greatest defensive teams ever assembled — and will be charged with refiring a stagnant unit. Brent Venables left for Clemson after a two uncharacteristically poor showings on defense: 55th nationally in total defense in 2011 and 53rd in 2010. There is uber-talent in the secondary and linebacking corps and those two areas should be the strength of this unit. But Stoops first order of business will be to develop a defensive line that watched Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander and first-team All-Big 12 end Ronnell Lewis depart for the NFL. Look for former elite recruit R.J. Washington, as well as David King and Geneo Grissom, to stablize the end position. Stacy McGee, Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker and Torrea Peterson should solidify the interior of the line.
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2012 No. 11 Recruiting Class: Oklahoma Sooners
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Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
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2012 Big 12 Schedule Analysis