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Good luck figuring out the Pac-12 this fall.
At the top, many believe this league is college football’s best. And what separates it from every other league in the nation — including the mighty SEC — isn’t just the fact that two teams will play 10 conference games but that all of the preseason powers will face each other this fall.
While other leagues play eight-game schedules and only two crossovers, the Pac-12 plays four crossovers and nine conference games. It’s made for a long list of must-see matchups out West in 2014.
1. Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
The Pac-12 South has gotten much better and has its own elite battles but the top ticket in the Pac-12 this fall is still the Ducks and Cardinal. The winner of this game has won the last four Pac-12 titles and that is likely the case again this fall. A knee injury hampered Marcus Mariota last year and a fully healthy QB for Oregon could finally give the Ducks a win over the Cardinal with No. 8 under center.
2. Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)
There is no better quarterback matchup in the nation than when Mariota and the Ducks fly south to battle Brett Hundley and the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. This is likely a preview of the Pac-12 title game and could have divisional, conference and national championship implications. Loosen up the scoreboard operator for this one.
3. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch.
4. USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)
This crosstown rivalry is getting some extra juice, as both programs appear to be surging in the right direction. Both teams are ranked in the preseason top 20 and both have elite starting rosters. Depth could be a big issue for the Trojans come late November but if they can stay healthy, USC could find itself in a winner-take-all South Division title match against one of its biggest rivals.
5. Stanford at UCLA (Nov. 28)
The Cardinal are the two-time defending champs but have to play all of its toughest games on the road, including a trip to UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season. These two played in back-to-back weeks two years ago and the Bruins haven’t forgotten. It could happen again this fall. Whether both divisions are already locked up or not, this game should be supremely entertaining.
6. UCLA at Arizona State (Sept. 25)
These two have posted back-to-back high-scoring shootouts with the road team winning both matchups between coaches Jim Mora and Todd Graham. Arizona State won 38-33 last year in the Rose Bowl while UCLA won 45-43 in the desert two years ago. This is the first of a group of critical round-robin games in the Pac-12’s South Division.
7. Stanford at Washington (Sept. 27)
The last time Stanford visited Seattle, the Huskies pulled off a signature upset in primetime in physical and nail-biting fashion. With a new sheriff patrolling the Washington sidelines, this game figures to be a fascinating schematic chess match. The Huskies are more talented than they’ve been since 2000 and toppling Stanford early in the year could make UW the top challenger to Oregon.
8. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot in the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
9. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three years. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.
10. USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)
Ever since Jim Harbaugh upset Pete Carroll in shocking fashion back in the mid-2000s, this USC-Stanford crossover battle has been a must-see matchup. Both programs have their sights set on a Pac-12 title game in the Bay Area and there is some added juice between these two now that Steve Sarkisian — who upset David Shaw two years ago at Washington — is coaching in Los Angeles. This will be a battle.
11. UCLA at Washington (Nov. 8)
The Bruins will get upset somewhere along the way, most likely on the road. And a trip way up north to Seattle is a prime upset alert situation. Other than quarterback, these two rosters are extremely comparable and the Huskies will give Jim Mora’s team all it can handle late in the year.
12. Stanford at Arizona State (Oct. 18)
A rematch of last year’s title game will take place in mid-October. In fact, these two played twice last year with Stanford winning both games with relative ease. Todd Graham’s squad will be out for revenge in this preseason top 20 matchup.
13. Arizona State at USC (Oct. 4)
The round robin in the South features two early games for Arizona State, one of which will come in Los Angeles against the Men of Troy. This game cost Lane Kiffin his job last year when ASU blitzed the Trojans' defense. USC went on to win seven out of nine after getting smoked by the Sun Devils.
14. Washington at Oregon (Oct. 18)
The Ducks are the pick in the North but Washington could become the top challenger by the time Oct. 18 rolls around. The talent gap might be too great for UW to overcome on the road but don’t tell that to Chris Petersen and his Dawgs.
15. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will take place for the 86th time in 2014 with both teams eyeing a trip to the postseason. The Irish lead the series 45-35-5 — including the vacated 2005 USC victory — and Notre Dame has won two straight and three out of four overall. Both teams enter the season ranked in the top 15 and by season’s end, each could be positioned to play for a national championship.
Best of the Rest:
16. Arizona State at Washington (Oct. 25)
17. Arizona State at Arizona (Nov. 28)
18. Oregon at Oregon State (Nov. 29)
19. Washington at Washington State (Nov. 29)
20. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
21. USC at Arizona (Oct. 11)
22. Arizona at UCLA (Nov. 1)
23. Oregon at Washington State (Sept. 20)
24. Oregon State at Washington (Nov. 22)
25. Washington at Arizona (Nov. 15)
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the 2014 season due to a shoulder injury suffered in practice on Monday. The news of Miller’s injury was reported by the Columbus Dispatch’s Tim May.
Eleven Warriors has more details on Miller’s injury, which will keep the senior out for the 2014 season. Miller is eligible for a redshirt season and could return in 2015.
Miller suffered a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss against Clemson and did not participate in contact drills during spring practice.
The senior appeared to be on track to return after shoulder surgery in February, but he was limited by soreness in his throwing arm this fall.
With Miller out for the season, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the No. 1 job. Barrett recently moved ahead of Jones on the depth chart and would be the favorite to start the opener against Navy.
With Miller ruled out for 2014, Michigan State is the favorite in the Big Ten. The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes in the conference title game last season and is a contender for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff format.
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the ACC’s best.
Boston College: 26
Despite his stature, running back Andre Williams’ strength was in big plays. He gained at least 20 yards on a carry 26 times in 2013, easily the best in the nation. But efficiency was an issue; the Eagles managed just a 38.0 percent success rate — an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure; that ranked 105th in the country.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Clemson’s defense allowed a 34.0 percent success rate in 2013, fifth-lowest in the country. But the breakdowns that did occur were significant: Clemson allowed 11 plays of more than 50 yards (107th in the country) and 28 of more than 30 (81st).
Duke reached the ACC title game in 2013 despite a bend-don’t-break defense that bent a bit too much. The Blue Devils allowed 6.8 yards per play on first down, 110th in the country. They also allowed 210 plays of at least 10 yards (116th). When they leveraged opponents into passing downs, they got more successfully aggressive, but passing downs were few and far between.
Florida State: 39.5
Florida State’s scoring margin was an incredible plus-39.5 in 2013. Granted, playing Bethune-Cookman and Idaho in non-conference (combined score: 134–20) helped, but the Seminoles’ scoring margin in ACC games was still plus-39.0. Against teams that finished with winning records? Plus-33.3. No matter how you slice it, Florida State dominated in 2013 like few teams ever have.
Georgia Tech: 4.9
One benefit to an option offense is that you really don’t have to change your play-calling when you get near the goal line. Georgia Tech averaged 4.9 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, 15th in the country. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets were also solid at shutting drives down — they allowed 3.9 points per trip inside their 40, 38th in the country.
Louisville’s defense improved dramatically in 2013, as evidenced most clearly by the Cardinals’ ability to close drives before the end zone. They allowed only 3.0 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, second in the country and first among major-conference teams. Meanwhile, the offense averaged a healthy 4.8 points per trip, 20th.
Miami averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per play against ACC opponents, second in the conference behind Florida State. The problem was that the defense gave back most of those gains, allowing 6.2 per play, 13th. Big plays were the culprit: the Hurricanes allowed 211 gains of 10-plus yards overall, 117th in the country.
NC State: 3.3
The average FBS team averaged 4.2 points per trip inside its opponent’s 40-yard line in 2013. NC State, however, averaged only 3.3 points per trip, 116th in the country. It got even worse in conference play; the Wolfpack averaged 3.0 points per trip, worst in the ACC.
North Carolina: 7.6
North Carolina’s offense was exciting despite youth in 2013; however, when things went wrong, they went wrong quickly. Despite ranking a solid 48th in yards per play, the Tar Heels averaged 7.6 yards to go on third downs, 108th in the country.
Of the 33 fumbles that took place in Pittsburgh games (11 by the Panthers, 22 by opponents), Pitt recovered only 11 of them, 33.3 percent. Fumble recovery rates are mostly random, and only one team (Akron at 31.4 percent) recovered a lower percentage. With an average recovery rate, Pittsburgh would have fallen on six to seven more loose balls in a season that saw them lose two games by a touchdown or less.
Led by Marquise Spruill’s 14.5, Orange linebackers recorded 41 tackles for a loss in 2013, even more than the 39 they recorded in 2012. The defense as a whole improved from allowing 5.7 yards per play in 2012 to 5.3 in 2013; unfortunately, the offense regressed from 6.0 to 5.1 in that same span.
Virginia was in no way efficient, averaging just 4.9 yards per play on first down (109th in the country) with a 38.0 percent third-down conversion rate (85th). But the Cavaliers’ biggest problem was a total lack of big-play ability. The offense gained 20 or more yards in a play just 34 times in 2013, 121st in the country. Virginia averaged better than 4.8 yards per play in just four of 12 games.
Virginia Tech: 8.3
Nobody leveraged opponents into passing downs more effectively than Virginia Tech did. Opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down against the Hokies’ defense, the highest average in the country.
Wake Forest: -6.4
An offense prone to three-and-outs and a shaky return game produced the worst field position averages in the ACC. In conference play, Wake Forest’s average starting field position was its 26.6, and its opponents’ average was the 33.0. The minus-6.4 margin was easily 14th of 14 teams; only Virginia (minus-5.4) and NC State (minus-4.6) came within 3.5 yards of that average.
College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took our annual look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.
Times and technology change, and these tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).
Get to know the new college football playoff and who is in the mix for the title. This is the official account, so be sure to follow on Tuesday evenings when the official rankings are released.
@ESPNCFB (2) and @CollegeGameDay (3)
We probably don’t need to tell you why to follow ESPN’s college football channels, but these are good places to start if you’re a Twitter newbie.
Whoa Nelly, just the news and only the news. No retweets or interaction, just links to all the roster moves and important nuggets from around the country.
@cbfowler (4) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (5)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day. Take a moment to welcome Fowler to his spot on ABC’s game of the week on Saturday night.
“Sources” McMurphy is in his second season with the Mothership as a leader in breaking news.
The veteran ESPNer is a must-follow for features on the Dot Com and his guests on the aptly named ESPN College Football Podcast.
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.
10 days until full slate of CFB games; Alabama has won 10 national titles during the poll era (since 1936), most of any FBS team— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2014
ESPN Conference Bloggers (10)
It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC, @ESPN_BigTen, @ESPN_Big12, @ESPN_Pac12Blog and @ESPN_SEC. Go for a deeper dive with all 29(!) of ESPN’s blog contributors.
@DennisDoddCBS (11) remains the veteran columnist of the staff that has added newshounds @JFowlerCBS (12) and @JonSolomonCBS (13) in recent years. After a tumultuous summer covering union efforts, autonomy and Ed O’Bannon, we’re sure they’re glad to get back to covering games.
News, notes and a little sarcasm from @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen
Staples can break down the difference between a cookout and a BBQ and talk offensive line play. @LindsayRaeSI (16) and @BrianHamiltonSI (17) are recent arrivals.
Campus Union (16)
@ZacEllis and @martinrickman maintain SI’s news and notes blog. Follow rickman if you have an aversion to capital letters.
in @finebaum interview musburger has discussed: -katherine webb -betting lines -eminem -the musburger drinking game sec network is amazing— martin rickman (@martinrickman) August 15, 2014
Bill Simmons isn’t a lover of college football, but he’s stocked his longform site some quality folks including @HollyAnderson (17) and @MattRHinton (18).
College football Twitter is full of sarcasm and hot takes. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Grantland keeps us all in line with his Xs and Os-heavy feed.
Fox Sports has become a player in college football coverage online with two ace hires of @BFeldmanCFB (20) and @slmandel (21). And for an — ahem, edgier take — there’s @ClayTravisBGID (22).
I can't wait until SEC fans start calling the network "biast." Probably already happening.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) August 14, 2014
The newspaper is more than infographics and that ubiquitous dot. USA Today hits all spots with old-school reporting and column-writing with @GeorgeSchroeder (23) and @DanWolken (24) and new-school #viral and #social content with @ForTheWin (25).
By now, @PaulMyerberg (26) has wrapped up his exhaustive team-by-team previews, but he’s still a must-follow during the year.
Other National Voices
@MattHayes_SN (27) is a long-time Sporting News columnist. Beware: He may or may not be sold on the Playoff. On the other hand, there’s Death to the BCS author @DanWetzel (28), who takes a victory lap this season. He’s still an ace columnist and key figure on Yahoo’s investigative wing.
If you want to see whose style we borrowed for this column, make sure you give @YahooForde (29) a read every week for his Forde-Yard Dash.
@RalphDRussoAP (30) is a student of the history of the game but also the ace on current events you’d expect from the Associated Press.
Miss anything during the college football Saturday? @MattBrownCFB’s (31) “The Professor” wrap-up is mandatory on Sunday morning.
The folks at Crystal Ball Run don’t have a BCS crystal ball trophy to chase in the playoff era, so they’ve moved their independent college football blog to @TheStudentSect (32).
@KevinOnCFB (34) and the staff at College Football Talk gather all the news of the day so you don’t have to.
Spencer Hall live tweeting “Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football” is only part of the fun.
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.
SB Nation’s longform/investigative reporter Steven Godfrey also describes himself as a “white trash sommelier.” So there’s that.
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom, ‘90s trivia and food. Especially food.
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will have another year of public discomfort watching Notre Dame football.
We’re glad to know that going public hasn’t diminished Ryan Nanni’s sophisticated brand of heckling.
Prolific Tweeter gets to watch his beloved Louisville Cardinals go for Round 2 with Bobby Petrino. This time, without a Big East Coast Bias to defend.
Arizona State changes uniforms every so often to give Todd Graham the sensation of coaching somewhere new (I realize I'm in a glass house).— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 18, 2014
No list of SB Nation contributors would be complete with mentioning extensive local coverage from the West Coast with @PacificTakes (42), the MAC with @HustleBelt (43), the non-Power 5 leagues with @UnderdogDynasty (44) and Texas A&M/GIFs with @GBHunting and @CuppyCup (45).
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Tomfoolery, indeed.
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.
Follow for updates from Bleacher Report’s video guru. Stay for his views on TV.
NFL.com has recently entered the college football media sphere with a bit of a draft focus. Follow @BryanDFischer (49), @ChaseGoodbread (50) and @MikeHuguenin (51) for knowledge galore.
Bo Pelini’s doppelganger is all legit now that the real Bo has acknowledged his presence. Hasn’t dulled Faux Pelini’s act, though.
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.
If you’re going to follow a fake coach and a fake former Big 12 commissioner, might as well follow a real person Tweeting on behalf of an anthropomorphic duck.
Speaking of Oregon, Paul Lukas is a must-follow to keep up with the changing looks, not just from Eugene, but all over.
Not ready to delve completely in the Reddit world? Dip a toe in by following their college football subreddit on Twitter. Highlights are #MSPaintMonday and #MSExcelThursday.
@awfulannouncing and @myoder84 (57)
Did someone say something stupid on TV? Want to know those SEC Network assignments? Hate preseason polls? Awful Announcing is the place.
@bubbaprog and @cjzero (58)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke and the independent C.J. Fogler are masters of locating and creating all those videos of great plays or images of sideline moments. You won’t miss a thing following these two.
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.
Bringing the Knowledge
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow Connelly, an Athlon contributor in the 2014 annuals, for statistical insight like no other.
No one knows Heisman trends quite like Chris Huston. Think your favorite player has a chance at the award? Ask Huston first.
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.
Coaches and Players
Good to know that a move to Penn State hasn’t diminished the best coach, assistant or otherwise, to follow on Twitter.
Most coaches’ Twitter accounts are pretty standard — inspirational quotes, excitement for the season and so forth. Les, of course, does things a little differently.
Watch closely and a DM intended for a Florida recruit may end up in your timeline. Number sign oops.
Tickets for free tweet lessons?#???????— Will Muschamp (@CoachWMuschamp) July 30, 2014
Georgia wide receiver and Star Wars fan-filmmaker Chris Conley is one of the brightest and most insightful players in the game.
Big Picture Topics
You only need to follow Hruby for 10 minutes to learn the former Sports on Earth columnist (and Georgetown professor) won’t be working for the NCAA anytime soon.
I always laugh at debates and surveys - "should college athletes be paid?" We don't have those debates about dentists or college janitors.— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) June 11, 2014
Kristi Dosh handles all the business news from college athletics. Want to follow the money? Follow Dosh.
College football will have its first gay active player less than a year after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player taken in the draft. Zeigler is the leading voice for LGBT issues in sports, and as a result, gets first dibs on coverage.
Around the SEC
One word. One long syllable: PAAAAAWWWWWWL.
Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football himself, returns to his home at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but you can also find him on the SEC Network.
@CecilHurt and @MattScalici (74)
Two generations and two outlets on the Alabama beat. Hurt from the Tuscaloosa News can turn a phrase with the best of the old-school columnists. Scalici is a multimedia workhorse in the AL DOT COM network.
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.
Around the ACC
Patrick Stevens has his finger on the pulse of the ACC but knows his way around the national scene, too.
Stay in tune with the defending national champions with the long-time Rivals site.
Teel graduated from James Madison and has worked for the Daily Press in Virginia for more than 30 years. No one has seen more change in the league than Teel ... and maybe Mike Krzyzewski.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Network (81)
@BTNDaveRevsine, @BTNTomDienhart and @BTNBrentYarina are as entrenched in Big Ten knowledge as anyone.
Greenstein brings a bit of a Northwestern bent as a Chicago Tribune writer, but he covers the whole league.
Callahan is as entrenched as anyone with the Nebraska program from top to bottom.
“Consigliere” of the Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com, Ramzy Nasrallah might need a kind word or two following the Braxton Miller news.
Buckeye fans, relax. It's going to be fine. Joe Bauserman has looked great in practice.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) August 19, 2014
Around the Big 12
Columnist and analyst from Fox Sports Southwest has an informed view on every team around the Big 12. Even Kansas
His last name is finger. His avatar is a finger. He covers Texas.
Players Texas can least afford to lose, factoring in depth behind them: 1. David Ash; 2. Quandre Diggs; 3. Kent Perkins; 4. Marcus Johnson.— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) August 10, 2014
At least Allen Kenney, an Oklahoma fan, is honest with his audience.
Around the Pac-12
The Los Angeles Times writer covers everyone in the Pac-12, of course with a focus on UCLA and USC.
Another venerable voice from Pac-12 land with views and news from Stanford and Cal.
Opinions on the Oregon schools from the never-shy Oregonian columnist.
Shane Dale’s Twitter handle and book are named after the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, so you’ll know what you’re going to get.
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West.
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.
Scout has made a renewed push in the recruiting market, and Brandon Huffman is their lead guy.
Last but not least...
The College Football Playoff executive in charge of developing one of the key tools for his selection committee found his solution from a Tweet.
As the Playoff administrators assembled their group of 13 selectors during the last year-and-a-half, chief operating officer Michael Kelly knew he had to find a tool to keep the assemblage of college football luminaries informed.
The BCS computers were out. The polls would be of no use. No one wanted the rigid tools similar to the ones used by the basketball committee — RPI, strength of schedule and so on.
The Playoff executives wanted the selection committee to be the last word, and handing the selection committee opponent records or total offense and total defense wouldn’t suffice.
Lucky for Kelly, a Twitter follower stepped up.
Ex-college baseball players, brothers Stephen and Scott Prather and a third partner Drew Borland, once had aspirations of starting a data-driven coach search firm that leaned heavily on an extensive database they developed as a side project. (Stephen Prather and Borland both played at Vanderbilt from 1998-2000; Scott Prather played at Georgia Tech from 1996-98 and spent five years in the minor leagues for the Cardinals.)
They had trouble catching on in the search firm market, but athletic departments and coaches liked their database, dubbed Coaches By The Numbers. They went forward with an analytic platform called SportSource Analytics, culling play-by-play and season data from college football games going back to 2001.
A year-and-a-half ago, with the Coaches By The Numbers consulting business in full swing, Stephen Prather noticed Kelly’s conundrum, and he thought SportSource Analytics might be the solution.
"Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part. That's the way it should be."
The Playoff executive committee and SportSource Analytics team (which also came to include Marty Couvillon, proprietor of cfbstats.com) met several times over the course of 18 months, including at CFP headquarters in Dallas with the selection committee.
“That Twitter (interaction) led to an online demo of our product,” Prather said. “Over the next year-and-a-half it went from ‘this is pretty cool’ to ‘can we build something specifically for the committee.’”
Kelly and the selection committee needed a tool that would provide the committee a wealth of comparative data, from surface-level statistics to more in-depth metrics. The interface had to be simple enough for even the more tech-adverse members of the committee. And the committee members had to be able to access it at anytime, anywhere.
“We found this to be the most user-friendly and what we needed for our committee,” Kelly said. “What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams. They even have great ways to go deeper.”
The College Football Playoff signed SportSource Analytics to a two-year contract to provide an exclusive platform for the selection committee. The team will be available through the selection process to provide tech support and answer questions about the tool, but both parties are clear that SportSource Analytics will not influence the committee on selection.
The platform will contain raw data on a per-play, per-possession, per-game and season-long basis but not a stand-alone metric similar to an RPI or Sagarin rating.
Prather and Kelly both said avoiding a “magic bullet” statistic was key. If the committee members can’t explain their reasoning, the data wouldn’t be useful, Prather said.
“We have nothing to do with the decision,” said Stephen Prather, who is a vice president for a commercial real estate company in Nashville. “We are building tools for them to look at data. ... We’re trying to give you ways of looking at data. We’re not trying to tell you what to look at.”
So what will the selection committee be able to access through the SportSource Analytics tool? That depends on the committee member.
The tool will allow committee members to compare teams in more than 60 statistical categories from the basic statistics — total offense and defense, turnover margin — but also more advanced metrics including yards per play, points per possession and detailed red zone success metrics.
The platform also will allow for detailed strength-of-schedule breakdowns including combined record of opponents, record of opponents’ opponents, record of conference opponents, records against ranked teams and teams with winning records.
Committee members also will be able to compare team performance in certain games, i.e. statistical data in games against winning teams. The platform will provide team sheets with data on all 128 teams, including detailed schedule analysis, statistical ranks and how they compare to the nationwide average.
The platform will allow committee members to dive as deep as they’d like, allowing them to customize more than 100 different rankings: How many points per possession did a team score against conference teams with winning records? That’s available.
How often are defenses holding top-25 opponents to three-and-outs? That’s available.
Which team has played the teams with the best cumulative conference record? That is available, too.
The tool also will be adaptive by request of selection committee members, so SportSource Analytics can add or create stat categories on demand.
“What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams,” Kelly said.
Of course, there’s the possibility committee members won’t take a deep statistical stat dive, either.
That’s not going to hurt Prather’s feelings. For him, maybe the playoff spots shouldn’t be determined exclusively by red zone defense.
“Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part,” Prather said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Once upon a time, 24-year-old Jeff Gordon set the NASCAR world on fire. In his third full season in the Cup Series, he won seven times, collected 23 top-10 finishes and intimidated The Intimidator himself en route to his first series title. It was a watershed moment, one that set the stage for other young, aspiring drivers to walk in Gordon’s path rather than spend 15 years “working their way up the ranks” in middling equipment before earning a primo shot.
We were reminded of that history on Sunday, as Gordon, now age 43, spent much of the Pure Michigan 400 battling with a version of his former self, 24-year-old Joey Logano. Combined, the duo led 154 of the race’s 200 laps, and staged a frantic final restart that ultimately leaned Gordon’s way. But while it was the veteran who won his third race of the year, earning the points lead while reversing historic roles, it was the upstart youngster who appeared to exit the race with a boost in confidence.
“We can win a championship,” Logano stated when asked what he could take from Sunday. “I really feel like we can do that. That is the message I want to put out there and I want to put it out there for my team, that we are strong enough to do it this year.”
It’s a confidence people have been searching for out of Logano since the much-hyped leader of NASCAR’s “next generation” rose to the Cup circuit full-time at the ripe old age of 18. People thought then his trajectory should match Gordon’s: a rocket-like launch to the top that included wins, championships and millions in endorsements by age 21 (what would have been his third full Cup season on tour). But perhaps, when looking back at the mountains of criticism this kid received, it’s apparent there is a limit to how much such a young driver can do. Take a look at where some of NASCAR’s other great drivers stood at age 24:
Dale Earnhardt Sr.: Made first Cup Series start (22nd).
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Five Cup starts, one top-10 finish.
Kevin Harvick: No Cup starts.
Jimmie Johnson: No Cup starts.
Matt Kenseth: No Cup starts.
Brad Keselowski: Made first two Cup Series starts (19th, 23rd).
Kurt Busch: Eight Cup wins, best finish of third in points.
Kyle Busch: Sixteen Cup wins, best finish of fifth in points.
As you can see, it takes a rare breed to cross the threshold of not just competing at the Cup level, but actually challenging for a championship. Gordon, at age 24, was mature enough to turn the tables, but no one since has come close to winning the title that young as he did in ‘95. Will the patience for Logano, who’s lasted six years and two different teams, have a chance of paying off?
NASCAR, whose evolution has been slowed significantly over the past several years, could use this simple case of history repeating itself. But the fact Logano’s finally coming close, armed with the confidence to put him over the top and become a new face carrying the sport, is one small beacon of hope in what’s been a troubling, tragic last few weeks.
“Through the Gears” after Michigan we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick horsepower takes the cake
Of course, for Logano to get over the hump there’s a formidable obstacle for the Penske Racing driver: Hendrick Motorsports. And not just Gordon, who was agitated but ultimately able to overcome some gamesmanship on the final series of restarts. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting second in points and versatile on all tracks this season, his final with crew chief Steve Letarte. Add in defending series champ Jimmie Johnson, whose top-10 finish Sunday was the perfect antidote for a summer slump and you’ve got a trio whose overall strength this season is hard to top.
“Frustration,” said Denny Hamlin when asked about battling HMS this season. “I’m trying to fight — do everything I can — to keep up with Hendrick engines.”
“Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now?” third-place Logano was asked in the midst of his “championship push.” “Yes, I do.”
That’s important, especially in an upcoming Chase where intermediates make up five of the 10 postseason tracks. With rule restrictions on those ovals keeping crew chiefs from radical changes, the best way to get better handling with NASCAR’s 2014 rules package is simple: find more speed down the straightaways. It leads to a greater ability to use the draft to your advantage, now active at places like Michigan, Charlotte and Texas because of track-record speeds.
Add in the ability for HMS to promote teamwork across the board, sharing information so that all teams can be successful, and it’s easy to see why Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson have won eight of the last 13 Cup races. By comparison, no other driver/organization has won more than two (Brad Keselowski/Penske).
One car, Kasey Kahne, continues to be a step behind the curve at HMS and in danger of missing the Chase and perhaps putting Kahne’s 2015 employment in peril. But even that could lead to a bonus for the three remaining HMS drivers, as the No. 5 turning into a test vehicle during the Chase and utilizing experimental setups could help the collective.
Logano, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick could each make a case to be joining the Hendrick cars inside that season finale Final Four. But don’t be surprised if it’s just one fighting the HMS trio that’s been head and shoulders above the competition all year.
SECOND GEAR: A new reality at Stewart-Haas Racing
While HMS exited Michigan on a high, Stewart-Haas Racing left with a different goal in mind: survival. Although Harvick ran second, the high watermark for the organization’s four cars, the weekend was marked by frustration and constant media questions surrounding the future of the team and its leader, Tony Stewart, who’s accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park remains under investigation.
“I’ve known Tony Stewart for a long time,” Harvick said Sunday. “I still don't believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that’s on a racetrack. I don’t think there's anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over. You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.”
Yet, while that’s the mantra inside SHR – pull together amidst unfair chaos that can’t be controlled – there remains a high degree of uncertainty. There’s no guarantee at all criminal charges won’t be pressed against Stewart with the investigation’s conclusion not expected for at least another week. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see Stewart at a racetrack or inside a car until the results are made public.
That leaves the shadow of what happened over everyone at the track, making quality performance that much more difficult without their leader. Jeff Burton performed admirably in Stewart’s place, climbing inside the top 15 but ultimately sent behind the wall with electrical problems. Danica Patrick, whose weekend started well in practice, made contact with her substitute teammate causing the race’s big multi-car wreck on Lap 25 that took out Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and a host of others. Kurt Busch, whose car was a top-5 contender, went over the edge in the closing laps, wrecking hard into the outside wall.
That’s three of four cars in need of a little TLC this week — the type of strong direction Stewart provides as co-owner. You can only pull so many others together for so long before that type of absence starts to wear.
THIRD GEAR: Larson’s lost opportunity?
One of the big stories of the summer has been rookie Kyle Larson pushing to make the Chase with a series of strong performances. But bad luck has dogged that effort, including a scary wreck at Michigan Sunday where a blown right-front tire may have ruined his chances. It’s the fourth major wreck for Larson this year (his third DNF) and it came with a last-place finish that could be the difference between making the Chase and missing it.
“I thought we had a car capable of winning the race for sure,” he said, despite early pit road contact with Earnhardt Jr. that messed up the toe of his No. 42 Chevy. “Those right-front’s blowing do not feel good.”
The wreck leaves Larson 24 points behind Greg Biffle with three races remaining to try and make the Chase on points. Of course, the rookie could also win his way in, which could make upcoming races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond that much more fun. Keep in mind Larson was fast at Richmond in the spring, winning the pole only to get spun on the first turn of the first lap by Clint Bowyer.
But if not, any bid for the postseason has now become a bit of a longshot. That’s a shame for a first-year driver that has clearly driven strong enough to deserve one.
FOURTH GEAR: Roush Fenway still flailing
Roush Fenway Racing entered Michigan with high hopes and looking for a rebound after a disastrous June on what historically has been one of its best tracks. A test a few weeks ago, along with Mark Martin’s return as driver consultant, instilled confidence that the three-car outfit had things pointed in the right direction. But Sunday? Even 10th-place Biffle, the highest running of the RFR outfit, was clearly a step behind from the drop of the green. Penske Racing’s two cars of Logano and Keselowski ran circles around Ford’s former top outfit, putting their rivals in place as second-class citizens. Heck, Keselowski ran eighth, two spots ahead of RFR despite slamming the outside wall with a blown tire late in the race.
“We were so loose, I just couldn’t drive it,” said Carl Edwards, who endured two pit road penalties en route to a disappointing 23rd. “We were just too loose today to be able to do anything.”
It’s been a rough month, with an expected Edwards announcement of his departure to Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday while Biffle lost sponsor 3M for 2015 (the team claims it has a replacement to be announced in the next few weeks). Then Friday, the Wood Brothers announced it was shifting its partnership to Penske for 2015, putting rookie Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 for a limited schedule while getting chassis built by Roush’s rival. It’s another small but subtle sign the balance of power has shifted in Blue Oval land for good.
Roush needs to find a way to turn the tables.
It was another rough day for Joe Gibbs Racing, as Kenseth got caught up in the Danica incident and Kyle Busch wrecked himself within the first five laps. “Struggling for speed,” was how Hamlin put it, having to scratch and claw his way into the top 10. After 12 wins in 36 races last year, JGR has just two through 23 races this year. … NASCAR’s new rule instituting drivers should stay in their cars didn’t change the racing, although it rarely had to be used on Sunday. No one criticized Larson for exiting his vehicle early with the car on fire and the wide, multi-groove Michigan track leaving him far away from potential danger. The real test will come at the rough-and-tumble Bristol short track Saturday night. … With a pole speed of 206.558 mph, it’ll be interesting to see what NASCAR does at Michigan going forward. Ryan Truex had a hard hit in practice, one that put him out with a concussion and several hard wrecks gave the garage area pause. You‘ve got to believe Monday’s Michigan test, used for 2015 rule changes, will be designed to slow the cars down dramatically.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Arizona State already has a variety of uniform and helmet choices to sport in 2014, but the program unveiled a new copper-themed look on Monday.
The uniform helps to honor the state’s history of copper producing and could be worn at some point during the 2014 season.
Check out Arizona State’s new copper-themed uniform for this season:
Giants management is nothing if not patient. Sweeping changes have almost never been encouraged or forced. Longtime and popular players could always count on loyalty from the team.
But after missing the playoffs four times in the last five seasons — a streak made worse by last season’s 0–6 start — everyone’s patience is out the window. Most of the offensive coaching staff was fired or reassigned to help fix what co-owner John Mara called a “broken” offense. Defensive captain Justin Tuck was allowed to leave without a fight, despite coming off one of his finest seasons. And the Giants spent more than $116 million on free agents in an uncharacteristic spending spree. A sign of desperation? In a way, yes.
“We want to take notice that we haven’t made the playoffs in the (few) years, and we don’t want that to be our trend,” GM Jerry Reese says. “That bothers me. I’m sure it bothers our ownership as well.”
Who knows what ownership will do — and who will be safe — if the trend continues. But the Giants sure did get aggressive to try to ensure that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to completely blame Eli Manning for the disaster that was the Giants’ offense last season, though it’s hard to absolve him, too. His career-high 27 interceptions were absurd, but a lot of it could be traced to the pounding he took behind the terrible offensive line and some questionable efforts and performances by his receivers. That’s why the Giants’ top priority this offseason was getting Manning some reliable help.
Did they? That’s debatable. They did sign guard Geoff Schwartz, one of the top linemen on the free-agent market, but the rest of their line is a question mark. They have a center who hasn’t played in two seasons (J.D. Walton), a left tackle coming off a bad leg and knee injury (Will Beatty) and will have a new starting right guard following Chris Snee's retirement prior to the start of training camp.
At least they got Manning some weapons. Free agent Rashad Jennings is a powerful and underrated runner. The team is hoping that either veteran Peyton Hillis or fourth-round pick Andre Williams can serve as a complement to Jennings now that David Wilson has been advised to retire from football due to concerns about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. Rueben Randle moves to the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the departed Hakeem Nicks, who played like he had one injured leg out the door last season. And the Giants’ top pick of the draft, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, could be the steal of the first round.
But the biggest change is the one that should help the most. Gone is offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his complicated — and some would say stale — offensive scheme. He’s been replaced by the younger Ben McAdoo, a disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, who is installing what is believed to be a West Coast-style, up-tempo attack. The early reviews from players were raves, especially from Manning, who admits to being “energized” by learning a new offense for the first time in his career. Assuming Manning is fully recovered from April surgery on his left ankle, the hope is that it will make him play better, too.
Was it a mirage or a miracle? Despite an 0–6 start last season and a disastrous offense and special teams, the Giants’ defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And they did it without much of a pass rush and with questions in their secondary. How? In large part because of the leadership of Jon Beason, they said.
Things seemed to change when Beason came over from Carolina in October in a steal of a deal for a seventh-round pick. The defense suddenly had a leader. The communication improved. They no longer looked like they were playing multiple schemes on the same play. That’s why the Giants made re-signing Beason their offseason defensive priority.
But they didn’t stop there. Knowing they had some bad coverage breakdowns, they spent wildly on their secondary, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walt Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps, producing what Thurmond believes can be “one of the best secondaries in the league.” They even got Beason some help in the linebacking corps with the addition of Jameel McClain.
The whole key to how good this defense can be, though, is the health of Jason Pierre-Paul, who played through a recovery from back surgery last season as well as an injured shoulder. He says he’s healthy now and looking to regain his 2011 form (when he had 16.5 sacks). And the Giants will need that since they let Tuck go after an 11-sack season.
If the Giants can generate a pass rush with all the back-end help, this could be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Without a pass rush, though, they may have nothing but problems.
It feels like it’s been years since the Giants had a dominant kick returner. The truth is it’s been years since they had even a decent one. Now it seems their cupboard is overflowing with players who can do special things with kickoffs and punts.
First they signed Demps, who figures to be the best punt returner they’ve had in years. But then they trumped that by bringing in the dangerous and speedy Trindon Holliday, who likely is the best kickoff returner they’ve had since Ron Dixon in the early 2000s. And then they drafted Beckham, a speedy and elusive receiver known to do special things on special teams, too.
It was interesting that the Giants didn’t fire their special teams coordinator, Tom Quinn, during the offseason purge, as many suspected they would. Instead they gave him tools to work with. As for the rest of his special teams, the Giants’ unit is as solid as they come. Punter Steve Weatherford didn’t have his finest season, but he’s only 31 and in phenomenal shape and has been mostly reliable. Kicker Josh Brown is 35, but he’s still accurate and reliable (nailing 88.5 percent of his kicks last year) and strong enough to nail a 52-yarder. And Zak DeOssie remains one of the finest long-snappers in the league.
The 7–9 season may have been miserable, but the silver lining was the 7–3 finish after the horrific start. And that came despite all the team’s issues.
If Manning is better, the Giants can’t help but be improved, and he should have the tools and the time to make that happen. There are still questions along the offensive line, but it’s stocked now with depth and NFL-quality players. And despite a glaring hole at tight end, Manning should have more weapons at his disposal than he had last year.
Pair that with a defense that should be much better, and this has all the makings of a bounce-back year for the Giants. The NFC East is no longer loaded, so it’s not hard to see the Giants win 10 games and the division. And if Manning regains his form and Pierre-Paul regains his health — admittedly two big ifs — the Giants have the potential to be real contenders.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC East
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC East
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 18:
• Jessica Alba threw out the first pitch for the Dodgers and didn't shame her family. That's all we ask out of our ceremonial first pitchers.
• This guy's punishment for coming in last in his fantasy baseball league — an embarrassingly revealing calendar that includes Body Issue and Constanza spoofs — is no doubt giving sadistic commissioners across the land evil ideas.
• The Rams have invited several Ferguson-area high school football players to their preseason game this Sunday as a respite from the chaos. Haven't those kids suffered enough?
• No Nadal at the U.S. Open. My interest in that event is waning fast.
• Worried that Peyton Manning has been underexposed, Gatorade is releasing a slew of new Manning commercials.
• Asdrubal Cabrera made a nifty behind-the-back flip to start a double play.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Rankings are a big part of any college football season, and even in the playoff format, the polls and projections are still an interesting exercise. For example: The AP Poll came out over the weekend, while the USA Today Coaches Poll came out a few weeks ago. And the Athlon Sports Top 25 has been out since May.
With a few small exceptions — Florida ranked in Athlon Sports, Texas being ranked by the Coaches and Nebraska by the AP — all three polls are extremely similar.
This doesn’t mean that all three are correct, however. It doesn’t mean that someone in the top 15 could end up missing a bowl game or that one team ranked No. 43 in the preseason couldn’t sneak into the top 10.
In fact, both are likely. With that in mind, which teams in college football need to lower their expectations in 2014?
Most preseason polls have the Bruins are ranked in the top 10. And Jim Mora's team is a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South. While UCLA should win the division, the concept that the Bruins are deep enough and talented enough to go unbeaten or 11-1 in the regular season seems farfetched. The schedule is nasty and there is little to no support around Brett Hundley on offense. The defense could be excellent, and I’m still picking UCLA to win the South. However, they will head to Levi’s Stadium with two or three losses already in hand.
Before the academic scandal, the Fighting Irish was a preseason top-15 caliber team. One that had an outside shot at pushing for a playoff spot and landing a top 10 ranking. With three starters and another key reserve not practicing or playing (mostly likely all season), the upside for the Irish takes a serious hit. This is now a fringe top 25 team that will struggle to win eight games this year.
The schedule, like most in the Pac-12, is downright nasty. But this team is extremely talented and is buoyed by a new coaching staff. The issues for USC are still about depth. Key defenders Jabari Ruffin and Kenny Bigelow have already been lost for the season and the lack of scholarships is bound to hurt the Trojans once again this fall. There's no question the starting 22 is talented. However, three or four losses is a definite possibility.
This one is sort of a no-brainer since the Cowboys aren’t ranked anywhere on the internet. But this is a program accustomed to competing for Big 12 titles and it won’t be anywhere near the title race this fall. Mike Gundy is eyeing a return to prominence in 2015.
The Aggies are going to be much better at the end of the year than they will be at the beginning. Or in the middle. But preseason Top 20 is way too high for this squad. This team is extremely talented on both sides of the ball, but the defense is still a major work in progress and a brutal final two months should drop TAMU to sixth in the West.
Are the Tar Heels ready to have a breakthrough season? Maybe so. Or it could be a year early for UNC to reach the ACC Championship. Larry Fedora has some serious talent to work with but it is mostly inexperienced and very young. I asked former OC (and current Arkansas State coach) Blake Anderson if this is the year UNC breaks through and wins the Coastal, and he quickly shot that down, pointing to 2015 as the breakout season in Chapel Hill.
The Tigers have an elite collection of players and are accustomed to competing for national championships. But LSU is missing important veteran pieces. There is no experience or proven talent at quarterback or wide receiver on offense and a true freshman (albeit a great one) is the talk of the running game. And LSU has major holes to fill on defense as well. This is still a great roster, but the SEC schedule is downright nasty with games against Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Charlie Strong is going to be just fine in Austin, but he has a lot of work to do in making over the Texas program from the inside out. David Ash is healthy, for now, and there is still plenty of talent on the roster. But a brutal schedule and very competitive middle portion of the Big 12 makes Texas a fringe Big 12 contender at best. Best case is probably eight wins.
The Cornhuskers are in better shape on defense than they’ve been in years, while the offense has a star in Ameer Abdullah to build around. Despite the optimism about the personnel, expectations need to be lowered in Lincoln due to a tough schedule. Wisconsin and Iowa miss Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, while Nebraska must face Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Fresno State on the road. The schedule is why Nebraska won’t win the West.
The Badgers have an elite offensive line, superstar tailback and excellent head coach. But the entire defensive front is being reworked, the quarterback position is far from settled and it starts the season facing LSU in Houston. This is a team who could easily win the Big Ten West but it’s not a team that should consider itself a playoff contender (or even someone who could win the Big Ten title).
NFC East champion Philadelphia was the only team in the division to finish with a winning record last season. Now that defensive coordinators have had an offseason to study Chip Kelly’s offense, will the Eagles have as much success in 2014 or will there be a new No. 1? Between Dallas, New York and Washington, which team is best positioned to challenge the Eagles’ divisional supremacy and contend for a playoff spot?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the NFC East looks entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Redskins.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The truth is the Cowboys have won when Jerry Jones hired Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells and allowed them to run the football part of the organization. Barry Switzer lived off the gas that was left in the tank by Jimmy and Wade Phillips kept it afloat to a degree after Bill left. The 136-136 won/loss record since 1996 says it all, a mediocre team that is marketed as well as any professional organization in all of sports.” …
“In recent years, they have been so cap-strapped that there is little that could be done via free agency and their drafts have only been marginally productive.” …
“Tony Romo gets all the blame, but in reality, he hasn’t gotten much help from his run game or defense. He’s coming off back surgery and that’s always tricky, however, all indications are that he will be fine for 2014.” …
“DeMarco Murray was injury-prone at OU and that trend has continued in Dallas, as he has missed 11 of 48 career games. When healthy, he is capable and provides some cover for Romo.” …
“Jason Witten continues to be a solid pro, but he has slowed down some in terms of run-after-the-catch, so the Cowboys are really hoping that last year’s second- rounder, Gavin Escobar, will take a huge step forward this year.” …
“Say what you will about Dez Bryant, but it does appear that he has matured on and off the field and is an absolute house to cover and tackle when he is engaged and into the game. Terrance Williams had an excellent rookie campaign and was a great value choice in the third round last spring. Dwayne Harris would be the slot if the season started tomorrow.” …
“On the offensive line, Tyron Smith enters his fourth season and has developed nicely into a prominent left tackle. The Travis Frederick pick was criticized at the time, however, he had a good rookie year and should only get better in the future. Doug Free has found a home at RT. Expect first round pick Zack Martin to find a starting role at one of the guard spots with the possibility of playing tackle, if necessary.” …
“Use any adjective to describe it, but ugly may be at the top of the list when it comes to describing the Cowboys’ defense in 2013. Wow, was this group bad and the stats don’t lie either: 32nd in yardage allowed, 26th in points allowed and 29th in third-down conversions.” ….
“Monte Kiffin was re-assigned and one of his pupils, Rod Marinelli, was brought in to be the coordinator.” …
“They added Henry Melton from Chicago, but he is coming off a knee injury and the rest of this defensive line may be as anonymous as any in the league.” …
“Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence (Boise State) is being counted on heavily to pressure the QB in 2014.” …
“Sean Lee is a nice player, but he has suffered through some injury situations [Editor’s note: Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL during OTAs in May], while Bruce Carter has yet to his athletic potential and Justin Durant is on his third team.” …
“Dallas has not gotten the return-on-investment hoped for at the cornerback positions. Brandon Carr signed for huge money from Kansas City, but is not a shutdown corner, and Mo Claiborne was probably over drafted at No. 6 in 2012, based on the way he has played in the past two years.” …
“The corners actually look OK when compared to the safeties. Barry Church has made himself into a player from being undrafted and J.J. Wilcox has only played defense for two seasons, so there is an upside to him.” …
“This defense has so far to go against the run and pass that if they can improve just slightly, it could take some wear off Romo and maybe give the organization a legit shot of getting over the hump and into the playoffs.” ...
New York Giants
“In many ways without changing the GM and head coach, the Giants moved away from their conservative philosophy and fired coaches and delved into free agency heavily to try and shake up their own franchise.” …
“Tom Coughlin got rid of long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and hired Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to call plays, while rather than waiting on the draft, GM Jerry Reese was active in signing at least 10 significant free agents.” …
“Still, the bottom line here is the play of Eli Manning. His 27 interceptions led the league and the turnover margin killed any chance of this team making the playoffs a year ago.” …
“McAdoo will install a more disciplined attack based on timing and reads and that adjustment may rejuvenate Manning mentally and physically.” ....
“Odell Beckham, Jr. was their first-round pick and he is really a good player. Along with Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle, they can now get a threat to all parts of the field.” …
“in 2013, with the line struggling up front, defenses could double those two and still squeeze off the run game. Will Beatty has been a disaster at LT, Chris Snee has gotten old [Editor’s note: Snee retired prior to the start of training camp.] and Justin Pugh had his rookie season ups-and-downs. They signed Geoff Schwartz from KC to help secure the inside of the pocket, but OGs are not game-changers.” …
“Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has lost some of his luster, but it’s primarily been because of Jason Pierre-Paul’s lack of production due to injuries. They need him to return to form, in addition to Damontre Moore or newly acquired Robert Ayers to provide some pass rush from the opposite side.” …
“The linebacker unit is a collection of average players and they inked Jameel McClain from the Ravens despite his neck injury in December.” …
“It’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the rescue at corner and that is surprising because of his struggles with the Eagles back in 2011 and ’12. Prince Amukamara was over-drafted, so he will never be a lockdown corner. Walter Thurmond was brought in from Seattle as a third corner. In the meantime, Antrel Rolle is arguably the best player on the team right now.” …
“Two Super Bowls will buy a GM and head coach almost as much time as they want, but there is no question that 2014 is an important year for Coughlin and Reese and almost all of the results will come from the right arm of Eli Manning, because this team is really average everywhere else.” …
“Many in the NFL felt the Chip Kelly experiment would be a boom-or-bust proposition, and so far, it’s been a big hit.” …
“Kelly managed the Riley Cooper situation during camp with the aplomb of a veteran pro coach and then had complete buy-in on his innovative scheme that resulted in the Eagles being second in total offense.” …
“it’s now obvious that offensive line play is a huge key for them, because they essentially locked up all five starters through the 2016 season and then released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28. The reaction from the players was surprising, but not a shock, they know the deal on DJax, he can be petulant, but make up for it on Sundays. Then again, despite his career-best numbers, he disappeared at times and is a WR at 5-10/175 that has to be ‘schemed’ open, unlike the classic 6’-/215 No. 1 receiver.” …
“Jeremy Maclin returns from an ACL, Cooper was inked to a five-year deal and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) are expected to contribute as rookies this year.” …
“Brent Celek has always been under-appreciated and Zach Ertz really showed up during the back half of the season.” …
“With the trade for Darren Sproles, combined with the skill set of LeSean McCoy, Kelly can really get creative with his 12 and 22 personnel groupings.” …
“And all of this is said without even mentioning Nick Foles who replaced Michael Vick and threw 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Foles surprised even his proponents with his sterling play in 2013.” The question will be how much opposing defenses adjust and take away some of his strengths after an offseason of evaluation.” …
“Regardless, for the Eagles to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, it’s all about their defense. The front seven has been reshaped into a 3-4 with Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks being two young players to really build around. Cox began to take to the scheme down the stretch and Kendricks is as explosive of a linebacker that is currently in the league.” …
“Trent Cole has tapered off some over the last three campaigns and Connor Barwin is actually better against the run than as a pass-rusher, which equated to the Eagles drafting OLB Marcus Smith (Louisville) in the first round.” …
“The secondary is their biggest weakness and that’s because of shaky play on the outsides and in the deep middle. Bradley Fletcher is ‘just a guy’ and Cary Williams thinks he’s better than he is, which can be a problem when trying to play within the system.” …
“Brandon Boykin had a terrific season as the nickelback and the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a veteran safety with some coverage ability. Eagles’ insiders feel good about Earl Wolff, and again, some of their defensive problems go back to a lack of pass rush.” …
“Now that the league’s coordinators have had a chance to study this Eagles offense, Kelly will have to show his adaptability in creating new ways to sustain the kind of success they enjoyed last year, but he earned a ton of respect within the league a season ago.” …
“It’s not a small thing that the Redskins fired the Shanahans, but kept GM Bruce Allen and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, because it keeps a semblance of continuity within the organization and puts the focus on repairing Robert Griffin III as a long-term NFL quarterback.” …
“Allen tapped into his Gruden tree and hired Jay as the new head coach and the person most responsible for turning around RGIII.” …
“One of the biggest moves of the offseason occurred when the NFC East rival Eagles released DeSean Jackson. It didn’t take Washington long to get him in their building and on the roster. With Pierre Garcon coming off a career year and Andre Roberts signing in March, this will be a versatile set of wide receivers.” …
“If TE Jordan Reed can return from injury, Griffin should have ample opportunity to spread the football around in Gruden’s offensive system.” …
“Alfred Morris probably takes a step back in this scheme, but he is capable and a workhorse style of ball-carrier.” …
“If the game was 7-on-7, the Redskins would be near the top of the league, unfortunately, it does take an offensive line and that is a major concern. Trent Williams can certainly play, but Shawn Lauvao had problems in Cleveland and Kory Lichtensteiger will be shifted to center from OG. Chris Chester is OK at right guard and Tyler Polumbus is a tall, stiff right tackle that is only ordinary.” …
“Defensively, this unit struggled for much of the 2013 season. They added Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys in free agency, but need much more from Jarvis Jenkins and others along the front.” …
“Outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo must get untracked this year for them to have any shot of getting off the field on third down. Perry Riley is underrated on the inside and Darryl Sharpton was inked from Houston, but the loss of London Fletcher will be significant.” …
“That’s why Ryan Clark was brought in from Pittsburgh and the hope is he can coordinate things in the back end and help develop Phillip Thomas and/or Bacarri Rambo. DeAngelo Hall is now 30, but can still play some, while David Amerson is a Cover 2-style corner with length. They should be worried about their Sub package slot corners.” …
“Inside the Beltway, it’s all about RGIII getting a full offseason and adapting to Gruden’s system. If that happens and no major injuries occur, this team can compete in the NFC East. In the meantime, the RGMe-to-MeSean Show will be one to watch.” ...
The Big 12 heads into 2014 looking to rebound on the national stage. Oklahoma is coming off a huge Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, and Baylor is likely to rank as a top 10 team by most this preseason after winning the conference title last year. The Sooners are a threat to win the national championship, but for the Big 12 to move up in the conference pecking order, Texas has to take a step forward under first-year coach Charlie Strong.
In order to rank the top 15 players in the Big 12 for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Allen Kenney, BlatantHomerism.com, (@BlatantHomerism)
Chris Level, RedRaiderSports.com, (@ChrisLevel)
Aaron Dickens, RedRaiderSports.com, (@AaronDickens)
Jesse Newell, Topeka Capital-Journal, (@JesseNewell)
David Fox, AthlonSports.com, (@DavidFox615)
Kevin Flaherty, The Shiver, (@KFlaherty247)
Ben Kerchveal, Bleacher Report, (@BenKercheval)
Seth Jungman, Viva The Matadors, (@VivatheMatador)
Jamie Plunkett, Frogs O'War, (@TheDSportsRant)
Garrett Cullen, West Virginia MetroNews, (@GarrettCullen)
Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMarkR)
Mitch Light, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMitch)
Ranking Big 12's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
|1||Bryce Petty, QB||13||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||228|
|2||Tyler Lockett, WR||2||10||0||1||0||1||1||0||0||0||206|
|3||Antwan Goodley, WR||1||1||4||3||1||2||2||0||1||0||174|
|4||Ryan Mueller, DE||0||1||2||4||4||0||0||1||1||1||164|
|5||Eric Striker, LB||0||2||4||3||2||0||2||0||1||0||163|
|6||Cedric Reed, DE||0||0||3||2||2||2||0||3||0||0||137|
|7||Spencer Drango, OT||0||0||1||0||1||1||3||0||2||0||83|
|8||Sam Carter, S||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||1||0||3||79|
|9||Davis Webb, QB||0||0||0||0||2||2||0||1||0||0||73|
|10||B.J. Finney, C||0||0||0||1||0||0||1||1||1||1||64|
|11||Le'Raven Clark, OL||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||3||2||1||63|
|12||Charles Tapper, DL||0||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||2||1||62|
|13||Trevor Knight, QB||0||0||0||2||0||0||1||1||0||1||59|
|14||Malcom Brown, DT||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||2||0||3||51|
|15||Quandre Diggs, CB||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||2||0||48|
|16||Malcolm Brown, RB||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||0||0||0||41|
|17||Shock Linwood, RB||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||1||2||35|
|18||Zack Sanchez, CB||0||0||1||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||31|
|19||Chucky Hunter, DT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||26|
|20||Jake Waters, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||21|
|21||Shawn Oakman, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||19|
|22||Johnathan Gray, RB||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||0||0||19|
|23||Ben Heeney, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||14|
|24||Daryl Williams, OT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||9|
|25||Quinton Spain, OG||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||8|
|26||Daryl Worley, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|27||Sterling Shepard, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|28||Matt Joeckel, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|29||Bryce Hager, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|30||E.J. Bibbs, TE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|31||J.W. Walsh, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|32||Desmond Roland, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|33||Jakeem Grant, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|34||Karl Joseph, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|35||Levi Norwood, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|36||Tyreek Hill, RB/WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|37||Chris Hackett, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
A Few Observations
* In a conference that is usually dominated by Texas and Oklahoma, the top four players in the experts poll are from Baylor and Kansas State.
* Bryce Petty recorded 13 of the 16 first-place votes.
* Only three players made an appearance on all 16 ballots: Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett and Baylor receiver Antwan Goodley.
* Who is the No. 2 quarterback in the Big 12 this year? Some have Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, but in this experts poll, Texas Tech’s Davis Webb ended up second in voting among quarterbacks.
* A few names to watch that could rank higher in this poll at the end of 2014: Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez, Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters, West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley and Texas running back Johnathan Gray.
Texas A&M’s quarterback situation was one of the most intriguing battles of the offseason, as the Aggies looked for a replacement for standout Johnny Manziel. And at least for the opener, the starting job in College Station is slated to go to sophomore Kenny Hill. The news of Hill’s promotion to the top quarterback spot was announced by coach Kevin Sumlin.
Hill played sparingly in 2013, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and one score. He also rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts.
The most action in Hill’s 2013 season took place against Sam Houston State, completing 5 of 6 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown.
Hill has big shoes to fill with Manziel’s departure, but he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. The Aggies possess one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and receiving corps, while running backs Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and Tra Carson are all capable options.
Allen – one of the top prospects in the 2014 signing class – will have a chance to unseat Hill as the season progresses. The true freshman should have a good grasp on the offense after enrolling early and could play against South Carolina if Hill struggles.
One positive for Hill in his first start: South Carolina could use three true freshmen extensively at cornerback in the opener.
Texas A&M’s high-powered offense may not be as explosive as it was in 2013, but whether it’s Hill or Allen at the controls, expect plenty of points and high-scoring affairs involving the Aggies in 2014.
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the SEC’s best.
Despite two late-season losses in 2013, Alabama has still had an incredible run over the last six seasons, going 72–9 with six top-10 finishes. But most of those nine losses have a common thread: pass defense. When Alabama loses, opponents complete 69.7 percent of their passes at 12.2 yards per completion. In Alabama wins, opponents complete 49.8 percent of their passes at 10.8 yards per completion.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play as a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football. Arkansas’ defensive success rate in conference play was 52.6, easily the worst in the SEC. Only one other defense allowed a Success Rate higher than 47.2 percent (Kentucky at 49.8). New defensive coordinator Robb Smith inherits the least efficient personnel in the league.
Gus Malzahn’s offense averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. That ranked third in the country behind only Ohio State (5.6) and Florida State (5.5). Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense ranked 41st in the same category, allowing only 3.9 points per trip.
The only thing more frustrating than struggling to move the ball is struggling to capitalize on the rare opportunities you create. Florida averaged just 3.5 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in 2013, 112th in the country. Despite rushing more than 40 times per game, Florida scored just 14 rushing touchdowns. Only 22 teams scored fewer, and only two averaged more rushing attempts per game.
Georgia’s field position margin in conference play was minus-2.6 — the Bulldogs’ average drive started at their 28.5, while opponents’ started at the 31.1. Georgia’s defense struggled to force three-and-outs, and the Bulldogs got next to nothing from the return game. Small disadvantages can add up in a season that features four losses by five or fewer points.
The Wildcats averaged just 4.4 yards per play in SEC games in 2013, last in the conference; the only team with almost as bad an offense (Florida at 4.7) balanced that out with solid defensive play. Kentucky was not so lucky, allowing 6.8 yards per play. The resulting minus-2.4-yard margin per play was by far the worst in the SEC.
Of the 37 fumbles that took place in LSU games in 2013 (22 by opponents, 15 by LSU), the Tigers recovered only 13, 35.1 percent of them. Based on fumbles and pass deflections, LSU should have had about a plus-7 turnover margin. Instead, it was plus-0; even worse, it was minus-3, with three fumbles lost, in the Tigers’ three losses, two of which came by three points.
Mississippi State: -18
Mississippi State played five teams that finished ranked in 2013. Average score: Opponent 32, Bulldogs 14, an average scoring margin of minus-18. The good news was that the Bulldogs went 7–1 against teams that finished unranked, though turnover luck may have played a role in that.
Mizzou ran 40.7 percent of the time on passing downs. To take pressure off of the passing games, offensive coordinator Josh Henson frequently used 3rd-and-5 or 2nd-and-9 as running downs. Once the pressure was diffused and opponents had to continue to respect the run, the Tigers found easy opportunities from their spread; last year’s top four receivers — Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, and Bud Sasser — all averaged at least 8.5 yards per target on passing downs. DGB averaged 10.3.
Ole Miss: -3.4
Ole Miss averaged 6.0 yards per play in 2013 and allowed just 5.3; the plus-0.8 margin ranked 35th in the country. But thanks to field position issues, the Rebels had to gain more yards on a given drive just to catch up. Their field position margin was minus-3.4, 101st in the country — on average, they started at their 26.6 (113th) while opponents started at the 30.0. The special teams unit is often culpable in situations like this.
South Carolina: 5.0
While the Gamecocks were certainly better than opponents at just about any yard line, they derived significant advantages near both goal lines. They averaged 5.0 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, eighth in the country; meanwhile, they allowed only 3.7 points per opponent’s trip, 13th. The resulting plus-1.3 point margin per trip was fifth-best in FBS.
Tennessee allowed 6.1 yards per play in 2013, 100th in the country. In SEC play, the Vols allowed 6.1 per play, 10th in the conference. Run defense was the culprit; the Vols ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+, a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent. But they were only 74th in Rushing S&P+.
Texas A&M: 4.9
As iffy as Texas A&M’s defense was, it got worse with its back against the wall. The Aggies allowed 4.9 points per trip inside their 40 yards line in 2013, 115th in the country. The offense averaged 5.0 points per trip, which ranked 11th; that means that the A&M defense was able to almost turn any opponent into the A&M offense when points were on the line.
When Vanderbilt’s defense made stops, it did so quickly. The Commodores forced enough three-and-outs and turnovers that the offense’s average starting field position was its 33.3, seventh-best in the country. In conference play, the Commodores’ average was first. Unfortunately, an often ineffective offense (80th in yards per play) gave away a lot of those gains.
Minnesota became the latest team to unveil an alternate helmet for the 2014 season, as the school released photos of a gold design slated to appear a few games this year.
The traditional “M” logo appears on the sides, and there’s a stripe down the middle featuring the Ski-U-Mah slogan.
Check out a full gallery of Minnesota’s new helmets for 2014:
Many believe that the Big 12 is a two-horse race in 2014.
While that is likely true, the rest of the conference is going to be extremely entertaining. Kansas State, Texas, TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State all believe they can step into that two-horse race and — because of the beauty of a true round-robin schedule — all five will get to face each other this fall.
It means that fans nationally should be paying attention to the Big 12 every Saturday. Here are the top 15 must-see Big 12 games in 2014.
1. Baylor at Oklahoma (Nov. 8)
The Bears have never won in 11 tries in Norman and the Big 12 title likely hangs in the balance on Nov. 8 when Art Briles brings his squad into Memorial Stadium. This was a 29-point blowout in favor of Baylor last year in Waco but both teams will be different this fall. Bryce Petty will have to be near perfect and the BU defense must develop before November if it wants to win this marquee showdown.
2. Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 11, Dallas)
The Red River Shootout (no, I don’t call it the Rivalry) enters a new era with a new chapter as Charlie Strong takes part in his first Cotton Bowl showdown. Texas won this game inexplicably a year ago and the Sooners should be plenty motivated to get revenge against a first-year coach. For better or worse, Strong’s work with the offensive line will be on full display.
3. Baylor at Texas (Oct. 4)
The Bears topped both Texas and Oklahoma at home last year but to repeat as Big 12 champs, Briles’ bunch must top both conference powers on the road this fall. The Bears have won in Austin before but this isn’t Mack Brown's Longhorns anymore. As far as early-season conference games go, this one is fascinating.
4. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
5. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.
6. Kansas State at Oklahoma (Oct. 18)
Many people believe that Kansas State could be the top challenger to the Sooners and Bears. However, the Wildcats must face both on the road. This was a 41-31 home loss for Bill Snyder a year ago and it was KSU’s only loss in the final seven games of the season. Going on the road will be even more difficult.
7. Kansas State at Baylor (Dec. 6)
Everything written above about KSU at Oklahoma applies to the trip to Waco as well. Kansas State had the Bears beat through three quarters but allowed Bryce Petty to bring Baylor back in the final period and secure a key road victory (35-25). Again, Snyder will have to be at his best to win on the road against Briles.
8. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Dec. 6)
This was a fantastic game a year ago and normally is one of the best in the league. With Oklahoma State taking a small step back into rebuilding mode this fall, the Bedlam Series doesn’t carry the same national weight as usual. But this is still an intense in-state rivalry and Mike Gundy would love nothing more than to knock the Sooners out of playoff contention with a road win over Bob Stoops.
9. Texas at Kansas State (Oct. 25)
The Wildcats were more than just a thorn in Mack Brown’s side, Kansas State owned the Longhorns. Before last year’s 31-21 win in Austin, the Wildcats had won five straight and seven out of nine against mighty Texas. So going to Manhattan, Kan., in October will be a huge moment in Strong’s first season.
10. Oklahoma at Texas Tech (No. 15)
The Red Raiders host both Texas and Oklahoma this fall and Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is more than capable of pulling off an upset (or two). This offense is electric and nearly beat the Sooners in Norman last fall. Expect plenty of fireworks late in the season out in Lubbock.
11. BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)
A revenge opportunity for the Burnt Orange players and a chance for Strong to land his first big win as the head coach. Especially, the way quarterback Taysom Hill and the Cougars abused the Longhorns' rushing defense a year ago.
12. Oklahoma at TCU (Oct. 4)
The Horned Frogs played in a lot of close games last season, including a narrow loss to the Sooners in Norman. Now, Oklahoma has to come to Fort Worth to face a much-improved TCU squad.
13. Texas at Texas Tech (Nov. 1)
Just like Oklahoma, Texas must travel to Lubbock in November to take on what could be the league’s top passing attack. This has upset alert written all over it.
14. Oklahoma State at Baylor (Nov. 22)
Revenge should be on the mind of Baylor when they welcome the Pokes to new McLane Stadium in the penultimate game of the year. Ok-State won 49-17 over Baylor last fall.
15. Baylor vs. Texas Tech (Nov. 29, Arlington)
If you like points and passing games, then look no further than this late-season matchup in Arlington. Davis Webb and Bryce Petty will be on full display. These two scored 97 points last meeting.
Best of the Rest:
16. TCU at Baylor (Oct. 11)
17. Kansas State at TCU (Nov. 8)
18. Oklahoma State at Kansas State (Nov. 1)
19. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)
20. TCU at Texas (Nov. 27)
21. Texas Tech at Kansas State (Oct. 4)
22. Texas Tech at Oklahoma State (Sept. 25)
23. Oklahoma State at TCU (Oct. 18)
24. Texas Tech at TCU (Oct. 25)
25. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 13)
For Athlon Sports, the offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season as much as any crazed college football fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason annuals, our national edition and regional previews for five conferences. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2014 editions, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason.
|2014 Preseason College Football Rankings|
The one thing Peyton Manning wanted most is the one thing he didn’t do. He broke so many records, shattered so many expectations last season. Then the Seattle Seahawks defense shattered his championship dreams.
When the 43–8 beat-down in Super Bowl XLVIII was over, and the Seahawks had lowered their “Legion of Boom” defense on what might have been the best offense the NFL has ever known, Manning was left with an empty feeling, despite all he had accomplished. He set records for, among other things, single-season passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The 76 touchdowns and 606 points scored by the Broncos were NFL records, too.
But at age 38, it remains all about the ring for the man who is arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation. And after the devastating way last season ended, it’s left some wondering if there’s any way he can do it again.
“If it was anyone else, you’d say there’s no way, especially after the way it ended,” says one NFL executive. “But do you really want to bet against Peyton Manning?”
The Broncos are attempting to do what no team has done since the 1972 Miami Dolphins — win the Super Bowl one year after losing it. No Super Bowl loser has even made it back to the Super Bowl the following year since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
“You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team,” Manning says. “The 2013 team, it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further — try to finish.”
Manning’s legacy is secure, but even he knows what another championship could do. His Super Bowl — in which he went 34-of-49 for 280 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — added fuel to his critics’ fire. That’s why even though John Fox lauded Manning for “maybe the most productive season in the history of the league a year ago,” he made sure to add that for the Broncos, “all the eggs are in the basket for ’14, and we’re doing everything we can to bring that championship back here to Denver.”
“With Peyton, there is no question, you never know how much longer he’s going to be around,” adds Broncos VP John Elway. “So in the mind, there is some urgency.”
That’s why they need Manning to produce another miracle. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl just two years after neck surgery nearly ended his career prematurely. Now he needs to do it again, before his career finally runs out of time.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Playing an iconic coach in a sports movie isn’t an easy task, especially if that coach happens to be in the audience.
Just ask actor Jim Caviezel, 45, who spent months in front of the camera capturing the emotions and dedication of legendary high school football coach Bob Ladouceur in the new movie “When the Game Stands Tall.”
From 1979 until his retirement in 2013, Ladouceur, now 60, built a machine at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High School. Although Ladouceur stressed teamwork over winning, his teams achieved an astonishing national record of 151 consecutive wins from 1992 through 2004.
To get inside the coach’s mind, we made Caviezel — best known for portraying the title role in 2004’s “The Passion of Christ” — an honorary reporter for Athlon Sports and had him interview Ladouceur.
Here are the highlights from their conversation:
Jim Caviezel: You’re not the type of person to say you’re going to win this many games in a row. Winning games was not something you stressed. The world does it completely different. How did you form your approach to coaching?
Bob Ladouceur: I played on teams in high school and college that were good role models. They were team-oriented. I was trained by coaches who said this is a team sport and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about who is getting credit or if you’re the star. It’s mostly what can you contribute to a team.
Caviezel: When I talked about playing the De La Salle football coach, people said they remembered when the win streak happened. When did the win streak get to a point where you knew that people were tracking it week to week?
Ladouceur: I really blocked it out. I never talked about the streak to the kids. I rarely talked about winning to the kids. I did when we got close to the state record or the national record, maybe a couple of games before. There were probably only four weeks in the whole thing that I really paid attention to it.
Caviezel: How did you feel when you learned there was going to be a movie about your career and your life?
Ladouceur: I have to admit that I wasn’t really excited about it. I always preach to the kids about humility and not singling yourself out or not making a show of your accomplishments. I like the movie. Hopefully, it will be taken as, these guys approach (the game) in a different way. These guys are looking for more than wins. They’re looking for a band of brothers.”
Caviezel: The hardest movies to make are the ones where the guy you’re playing is alive because you know there’s a foundation outside (the film). There’s a script outside. The most important question I’m leading to is: Did I do OK?
Ladouceur: I always thought — in any sports movie — that whoever takes on the role of playing the coach has a lot of guts. That’s a tough role to play and to make it believable and not schmaltzy or choreographed. Everybody who has seen the film said you did a good job of playing me. They said you stayed true to the character. That’s a great compliment because I feel like I’m a hard guy to play. All coaches are complex in some way. They’re hard to figure. There’s a lot of angst and a lot of other things in a coach’s life in the way he does business. What a hard role to play, and I think you did a good job.
Almost every softball team has one guy who seems to swing effortlessly and drive the ball over the fence. Well, it’s time for you to be that guy. To help you become your team’s “Sultan of Swat,” we talked to Team USA Softball star (and power hitter) Brian Wegman to get his advice on how to hit the long ball.
Biceps are Overrated
“When I first started playing, I wanted the beach muscles, so my workout plan was all about the biceps, triceps and chest. By my fourth year, I switched to core training with more deadlifts, squats, lower back and abs. The total body strength has really helped me with my power.”
“Being able to use your body weight and the explosion of your swing together is what separates a good swing from a great one. My hips will start to go forward before my hands move. By the time I start my swing, I’ve already transferred approximately 65 percent of my body weight from my back leg to my front leg.”
“Swinging up at a high-arc pitch is a common error. If you miss the center of the ball and hit the top half of it, the ball will go down. However, if you keep a line drive swing you can more easily hit the bottom half of a softball, which creates backspin, distance and carry.”
Wait for It
“I have no problem swinging at the first pitch, but it has to be my kind of pitch. If it’s not, I will let it go by, even if I take an outside strike.”
—By Billy Brown
Many NFL teams adopt a “playoffs or bust’’ mentality, but how many actually live it? With the franchise for sale and its future uncertain following the death of team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., in March, the Buffalo Bills seem to be going for broke.
How the front office, coaching staff and players want to honor their departed patriarch is clear. “It’s one word: win,’’ president and CEO Russ Brandon says. “The only thing Mr. Wilson was focused on was winning.’’
Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, the Bills have missed the playoffs for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons.
Employing an aggressive attitude to pay tribute to Wilson and stop this dubious streak, Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley made a series of bold free-agent moves and trades, none larger than sending a 2015 first-round pick to Cleveland to move up five spots in the draft and select the top wide receiver available in Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
The Bills have made it clear that they are all in with EJ Manuel as their starting quarterback. Not only did they hand him the top playmaker in the draft in Watkins, but they also added blocking depth and didn’t draft another quarterback to compete with him.
Manuel, the only first-round QB in 2013, set a Bills rookie record with 11 touchdown passes. But he missed six games with knee injuries, raising questions about his durability. If he’s not healthy, he won’t have a chance to fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback. With his size, arm strength and work ethic, all the tools are there.
Manuel and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have a true No. 1 receiver in Watkins. The Bills did not have a player in the NFL’s top 50 in receptions as veteran Stevie Johnson, since traded to San Francisco, proved incapable of giving Manuel a dominant game-changing target. Watkins, who had 240 career receptions and set 23 school records at Clemson, has the potential to be that guy. He has elite ability to go up and snare passes and make things happen after the catch, and he instantly upgrades Buffalo’s 28th-ranked passing game.
With Watkins drawing coverage, Robert Woods, the first Bills rookie with 40 catches since Lee Evans in 2004, figures to blossom, as does second-year pro Marquise Goodwin. The wild card is former Buc Mike Williams, who is looking to salvage his career under Doug Marrone, his college coach at Syracuse. Former Orange star Rob Moore is Marrone’s new receivers coach.
Tight end remains a pedestrian position with no real playmakers, but Buffalo continues to field one of the NFL’s most potent rushing attacks, led by Fred Jackson’s between-the-tackles power and C.J. Spiller’s speed to the outside. They combined for 1,823 yards. A draft weekend trade with Philadelphia for Bryce Brown was a major upgrade in depth.
Buffalo’s line is led by top center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn, who figures to be better in his third season in the league. Overall, however, things regressed in 2013 with Buffalo allowing 48 sacks and converting just 34 percent of its third downs. That’s thrown some jobs open for competition. St. Louis free agent Chris Williams will get a chance to win the starting left guard spot from Doug Legursky, and giant-sized rookies Cyrus Kouandjio (second round) and Seantrel Henderson (seventh round) will push veteran Erik Pears at right tackle.
The Bills lost highly respected coordinator Mike Pettine, who was hired by the Browns as their head coach. But Marrone reacted quickly, signing Jim Schwartz, the ex-Detroit Lions head coach, to run his defense and hiring two other strong defensive assistants in Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Fred Pagac (linebackers). Pettine ran a hybrid 3-4 scheme, which failed to solve Buffalo’s run-stopping problems but greatly improved its pass rush. Led by three players with 10 sacks or more, the Bills set a club record with 57 sacks and led the AFC. On the back end, Buffalo recorded 23 interceptions, second-most in the league.
Schwartz favors a 4-3 alignment but won’t try to fix what’s not broken and will incorporate some of Pettine’s ideas that favored Buffalo’s personnel so well. The Bills had 41 sacks from defensive linemen, led by Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5). In Schwartz’s scheme, strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson (4.0 sacks) will play end while solid backups Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant kick inside to tackle. Their value to the team will rise depending on the fate of Dareus, who is facing a league suspension after being arrested in Alabama on felony drug charges.
A big part of Buffalo’s pass-rush success is solid cover corners, and the team returns two strong ones in Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, two former first-round picks. McKelvin justified his four-year, $17 million deal with his best season. Free agent Corey Graham from Baltimore adds great depth and versatility.
The big loss was letting Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd ($54 million deal with Saints) depart in free agency. Byrd is one of the NFL’s great ball-hawks and will be missed. Da’Norris Searcy has talent and will have his first chance to start full time. Aaron Williams, converted from corner, found a home at strong safety and returns to man that spot.
The Bills need greatly improved play from their linebacker corps, especially considering the season-ending ACL injury Kiko Alonso suffered during a workout in July. Alonso led the team with 159 tackles and added four interceptions last season in a sparkling rookie debut. Nigel Bradham, Alonso's potential replacement as a starter, will miss the season opener for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Free agent Brandon Spikes, one of the game’s best run-stoppers, will man the middle. Spikes, who signed a one-year, $3-million deal, wore out his welcome in New England and is motivated to land a long-term contract. Giants free agent Keith Rivers will get a chance to nail down an outside position.
Former Dolphin Dan Carpenter, who signed as a free agent, turned one of the best seasons in Bills’ kicking history into a four-year, $9 million contract. Carpenter converted 33-of-36 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards. In a surprising move, the Bills retained career punting leader Brian Moorman, 38, who rejoined the club last October. Moorman averaged just 36.6 net yards, and his 41.2-yard average ranked among the worst in the league. He’ll have to hold off Jake Dombrowski to win the job in camp. Goodwin returns to man kickoff return duties — he averaged 21.9 yards — and McKelvin will handle punts again.
Flipping 6–10 to 10–6 will take more consistency from the offense and better run play by the defense. Ultimately, it’s on Manuel to take this opportunity, stay healthy and prove he’s the franchise quarterback the team needs so desperately. With no first-round pick in 2015 and a future new owner to impress, there is immense pressure on Manuel and the front office to win now.
PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC East
In their first two years on the job, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have brought the Rams back to respectability, a commendable achievement in itself given the sad state of the franchise when they arrived in 2012. All along, they’ve pointed to Year 3 of their rebuilding project — the 2014 season — as the year to get over the hump. The year to end what is now a string of 10 straight seasons without a winning record. The year the blockbuster “RGIII Trade” with Washington would bear its last fruit. Well, here we are. The selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson represented the last piece of property gained in return for giving the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s time to see results in St. Louis.
The Rams were forced to start a backup quarterback for more than half of the 2013 season and played nine top-10 defenses, yet they still scored their most points since 2006. But the bar has been set pretty low. They need to find another field goal here, another touchdown there to push their way into the postseason. The approach to that task involves two potential risks — sticking with Sam Bradford at quarterback and standing pat at wide receiver in a draft in which Sammy Watkins was there for the taking. Those are the kinds of decisions that can lead to contract extensions if they work, but pink slips if they don’t.
Bradford was headed to a career year statistically when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 at Carolina. He was nearly at full strength during OTAs, so his status for the regular-season opener is not in question. His group of pass-catchers — wideouts, tight ends and running backs included — needs to provide more help by minimizing drops and doing a better job of creating separation. Chris Givens failed to make a leap after a strong rookie season. He caught only 34 passes for 569 yards last season. Tavon Austin, a 2013 first-round pick, needs to polish his craft in every area, and the coaching staff must do a better job of utilizing his skills. Brian Quick is talented but has yet to catch more than 18 passes in a season. Kenny Britt, signed as a free agent, had flashes of brilliance during his five years with the Titans but lacked consistency and had difficulty staying out of trouble. Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan drafted by Fisher, had a career-high 51 catches in his first season with the Rams, but he too needs to be more consistent.
The Rams are well stocked at running back, with third-round draft pick Tre Mason, the former Auburn star, joining Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Robinson in the draft provides power to an offensive line that must grind out yards on the ground and keep Bradford from hitting the ground.
The Rams already had arguably the best defensive end tandem in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Now they’re adding the best interior pass-rusher in the 2014 draft in tackle Aaron Donald. And let’s not forget what could be the biggest offseason addition of all — Gregg Williams as the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. This was supposed to happen a couple of seasons ago when Fisher first took the job. But less than two months after being hired by Fisher during the 2011-12 offseason, Williams was suspended by the league for a year for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans. That led to a falling out between Fisher and Williams, one that included Fisher’s ouster of Williams’ son Blake after the ’12 season. But the two long-time friends patched things up in January, and two years later Williams finally gets to work his magic on the St. Louis defense.
The cornerstone will be that defensive line, which also includes two solid tackles in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, plus a superb utility man in end William Hayes. The Rams have five first-round picks in their front seven.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters in James Laurinaitis (middle), Alec Ogletree (weak side) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (strong side). Ogletree had a strong rookie year and has big-play potential. Laurinaitis remains dependable, durable and productive.
Williams will earn his pay trying to get the secondary up to snuff. The entire unit has only 71 games’ worth of NFL starting experience. Starting corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson remain raw and mistake-prone. And at safety, starters T.J. McDonald (strong) and Rodney McLeod (free) are far from finished products. It’s not going to work unless the entire secondary cuts down on mistakes and does a better job avoiding big plays. Rookie LaMarcus Joyner, who will play nickel back, must make an instant contribution.
The Rams are close to becoming one of the best special teams units in the league. Fewer penalties and a little more juice in the return game can make that happen. Austin has flashes of brilliance on punt returns as evidenced by a long TD against Indianapolis and a TD called back against Dallas last year. He’s a slithery change-of-direction demon who needs just a little daylight to make a lot happen. Meanwhile, the Rams have been searching for a dynamic kickoff returner since the days of Tony Horne and the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no clear-cut favorite for that job, and it’s a certainty there will be auditions throughout the preseason. Cunningham, a backup running back, doesn’t look or run like a classic kickoff returner, but he has shown a knack for at least providing decent field position.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein are developing into a consistent, productive pair. Hekker has that rare combination of hang time, distance and directional skill, setting an NFL record for net punting (44.2 yards) a year ago. Zuerlein was nearly automatic in ’13, avoiding the midseason slump of his rookie campaign. He’s got one of the league’s strongest legs.
Improvement is needed at wide receiver and tight end. An offensive line that includes three players with recent injury histories — Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells — needs to stay healthy. It’s shaping up as a make-or-break year for Bradford, who’s had injury issues of his own in two of his four Rams seasons. There’s nothing but inexperience in the secondary and next to no depth at linebacker. OK, the D-line has the makings of “great.” Still that’s a lot of “ifs” for what figures to be the youngest team in the NFL for the third consecutive season. And in case you’ve forgotten, the Rams reside in the toughest neighborhood of all, the NFC West. Throw in a non-division schedule that includes Denver, Kansas City, and Philadelphia — all playoff teams from a year ago — and the Rams may need more than a GPS tracker to find the postseason.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC West
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch this fall?
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The conversation about 2014's top freshmen not only in the SEC but in the nation begins with the No. 1 prospect in the class. From a power and speed standpoint, Fournette might be the closest thing college football has seen Adrian Peterson began his career at Oklahoma over a decade ago. He is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sure thing and is likely a front-runner for national freshman of the year.
2. Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
The mammoth 6-foot-6 freshman from West Monroe (La.) High School was the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the nation. He enrolled early and has already been working with the first team offense for most of the summer. How many national title contenders will have a true freshman anchoring the left tackle position?
3. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
The uber-recruit from Immokalee (Fla.) High redshirted a year ago and is ready to fulfill his lofty recruiting expectations. He’s gained some weight and will be charged with protecting the back end of a defense littered with seniors.
4. Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
After experiencing some speed bumps in the recruiting process, Thomas is finally ready to contribute in Tallahassee. He has freakish ability and is slated to start alongside Terrance Smith. Jimbo Fisher has proven he will ask big things of first-year starters and Thomas is the next in line.
5. Adoree Jackson, ATH, USC
For lack of a better term, Coach Steve Sarkisian adores his true freshman, do-everything dynamo. Jackson is penciled in as the star kick returner but will also get carries as a running back, catch passes as a receiver and could even get reps as a defensive back. Coach Sark will use Jackson in any and all ways this fall because it looks like the freshman can handle it.
6. Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
This list has to begin with the Charles Woodson clone in Ann Arbor. He will begin his career as the nickelback but could easily work into a starting role on defense. Peppers, in true Woodson fashion, is a dynamic return specialist and don’t be surprised if he gets some snaps on offense as well. He was the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2014 class for a reason.
7. Khaliel Rodgers, OL, USC
Rodgers, a four-star member of the 2013 class, has been through two springs and was considered the best center in the nation two years ago. He is penciled in at the pivot currently. Toa Lobendahn was a four-star early enrollee this spring and is currently holding the starting left guard position. The Trojans' front line is extremely talented, but also extremely inexperienced.
8. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
The five-star safety from Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside is slotted to start the moment he steps onto a college field for the first time. He has veterans to learn from but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound dynamo could be a savior at the back end of the Cavaliers' defense.
9. Ricky Seals-Jones | Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was a five-star top 25 prospect in the 2013 class. He redshirted last year after catching three passes in two games early in the year. His massive frame is a mismatch nightmare for most SEC defenses. Packaged with the smaller, more explosive and versatile Noil, this duo could easily develop into one of the SEC's best.
10. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
A man among boys, McDowell has rare size (6-6, 295) and quickness for such a young player. With an injury to Damon Knox, Pat Narduzzi needs McDowell to be ready to start sooner rather than later. He may not start the opener but he will be major factor for the Spartans this fall.
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11. Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
There was a reason Henry was the No. 1-rated player in the state of Pennyslvania last year. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety has been working with the starters at free safety before camp even opened. He can cover a lot of ground and has proven he should be on the field as much as possible early on in his career.
12. Myles Garrett | Justin Manning, DL, Texas A&M
The only player rated ahead of Garrett in the national recruiting rankings was Fournette. The freakish 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is set to carve out a critical role for a defensive line in desperate need of development. Garrett and former four-star redshirt freshman Justin Manning are two names who should establish themselves as future All-SEC types in 2014.
13. Damian Prince | Derwin Gray, OL, Maryland
Both Prince and Gray are in the heat of two position battles for starting time up front for the Terps. Prince (6-5, 295) was recently moved to guard and is the odds-on favorite to earn the starting job. Gray (6-5, 295) is battling Ryan Doyle for the starting right tackle spot. Both Prince and Gray are dramatically more talented options but need to catch on quickly to start all year.
14. Ermon Lane | Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
There is plenty of space in the offense behind senior Rashad Greene and both Lane (6-3, 205) and Rudolph (6-2, 185) have been exceptional in fall camp. Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston have had glowing things to say about the two tall playmakers.
15. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
The No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation is a tall, pocket passer from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain. The 6-foot-3 signal-caller is a student of the game and is battling Kenny Hill for full-time starting duties in College Station. Many believe Allen is the future and will eventually wrestle the starting job away from Hill permanently.
16. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
The star tailback from Oakley (Calif.) Freedom is currently sitting on the sidelines in Norman but was the top-rated recruit in the Big 12 for a reason. He has special ability and would figure into the starting running back situation if he can get onto the field. He has been suspended indefinitely pending an investigation into an altercation that took place in late July.
17. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
In just a few trips to the practice field, Adams already has Les Miles raving about his overall ability. The big-time defensive back prospect is already working with the starting defensive unit for coordinator John Chavis and is set to become the next in a ridiculously impressive run of elite secondary players for LSU.
18. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
The Nashville product is every bit of 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and he stands out on Tennessee's practice field. He's dealt with some health issues during his outstanding prep career, but if he can stay on the field, his rare combination of size and speed makes him an instant impact player for Butch Jones — both as a runner and pass-catcher.
19. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The No. 2-rated recruit in the Big Ten was the top inside linebacker in the nation and he is already pressing for starting reps in Columbus. The 242-pounder is breathing down Curtis Grant’s neck at MLB and should see plenty of snaps all year long. The early enrollee is the next great tackling star for Ohio State.
20. Jermaine Kelly, DB, Washington
Baker is the highest-rated member of the 2014 Husky class and has already earned a spot in the two-deep at safety. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, is slotted to start at cornerback for new coach Chris Petersen and his reworked secondary. Look for both Kelly and true freshman Budda Baker to lead a group of defensive backs that could feature half a dozen young contributors.
21. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Arkansas State head coach and former UNC assistant Blake Anderson told me last week that Hood is as ready made as any true freshman in the ACC. There is a crowded backfield in Chapel Hill but the 220-pounder might be the most talented of the bunch.
22. Jalen Tabor, DB, Florida
Both enrolled early in January and both will compete for the starting spot opposite All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. The loser of that battle will likely be the top nickelback — a position that is almost a starter in the modern SEC. Tabor is slightly more talented and fits better as a corner, while the more physical Duke Dawson has the ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Florida is the LSU of the East in terms of producing defensive backs.
23. Chikwe Obasih | Alec James, DL, Wisconsin
The Badgers could feature two redshirt freshman starting defensive ends in Week 1 against LSU. Obasih (6-2, 245) and James (6-3, 239) are undersized but both bring a quickness off the edge Wisconsin hasn’t had in years. Obasih was the starter throughout spring camp and James, a converted outside backer, has risen quickly into a starting role. There will be a rotation up front this fall but expect both Obasih and James to finish the year as the starters.
24. JuJu Smith, ATH, USC
Who knows what side of the ball it will be on but Smith appears to be earmarked for a large role as just a true freshman. He’s already gotten rave reviews as a wide receiver but rumors are swirling about the electric player switching to defensive back to start at nickelback. Wherever he lines up, keep an eye on the explosive youngster.
25. D.J. Calhoun, LB, Arizona State
One of three ASU early enrollees, Calhoun has shot up the depth chart to earn a potential starting spot at outside linebacker. His quickness and size allows him to be moved all over the formation. He will battle all fall camp to hold onto that starting spot and will undoubtedly be a long-term contributor for Todd Graham.
26. Oren Burks, S, Vanderbilt
The redshirt freshman moved from linebacker to safety when new coach Derek Mason took over. Mason wants his size (6-2, 215) at the back end of his defense. He has a chance to be one of the most imposing playmakers in a totally rebuilt secondary.
27. Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
He is battling with Anthony Jennings but the 6-foot-2, 195-pound dual-threat signal-caller brings a new dimension to LSU's offense. He may not win the starting job right away but all signs are pointing to this dynamic freshman as the future for Cam Cameron and Les Miles in Baton Rouge.
28. Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky
The massive 6-foot-7, 350-pounder (depending on the time of day) is already entrenched as a starter for Mark Stoops' defensive line. The head coach can barely hide his excitement about injecting this talented in-state product into the heart of his developing defensive front. Elam will go through growing pains but has the astounding quickness and agility that NFL scouts drool over when it comes to guys his size.
29. Gyasi Akem, LB, Oklahoma State
The Pokes are thin at linebacker after the departure of Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey but Akem figures to help fill the void. The quick but undersized (6-1, 201) freshman is eyeing a starting spot right out of the gate alongside veteran Ryan Simmons. He uses his speed well both as a pass rusher and dropping into coverage. Look for Akem to see time very early and possibly start against Florida State.
30. Andrew Nelson, OL, Penn State
One of the biggest question marks in the Big Ten this fall is the Nittany Lions' O-line. Herb Hand is going to try everything to counteract the concerning lack of depth and that likely means a lot of young players getting reps this fall. Nelson is already slotted to start at right tackle and pretty much any other player on the roster should expect to see time for the depleted Lions.
31. Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
He is one of (if not the) highest rated players to ever sign with Iowa State and apparently he is worthy of the hype. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound wideout is already working with the second unit and will undoubtedly be a starter in no time. His talent is obvious and he could be a historic player for the Cyclones.
32. Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
The Horned Frogs normally are known for having tenacious and talented defensive backs and this redshirt freshmen fit that bill. Texada is already penciled in as the starter opposite All-Big 12 pick Kevin White while fellow redshirt Cyd Calvin is listed as the top backup to both. Look for Gary Patterson to develop these talented youngsters into the next wave of great TCU cornerbacks.
33. KC McDermott, OL, Miami
The Hurricanes have plenty of holes to fill and one should be plugged by the monster (6-6, 315) in-state blocker. He has been worked at right tackle with the first team and he could be just one of a few first-year blockers who contribute in a big way for Miami.
34. Wesley Green, CB, South Carolina
Few teams took a bigger hit at one position like the Gamecocks did at cornerback. Which is why Steve Spurrier signed five defensive backs in this class. Green and fellow freshman Chris Lammons will get every opportunity to land starting roles in Lorenzo Ward's secondary.
35. Chad Thomas, DL, Miami
It’s hard to hide Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s excitement about having Thomas on the roster. The local product checks in at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with excellent burst and great agility. He is the type of South Florida defender the Canes have been sorely lacking.
36. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona
The former standout from famed Bishop Gorman High School has been taking most of the first-team reps and appears to have a leg up on Jerrard Randall and Jesse Scroggins. His skill set fits Rich Rodriguez’ offense perfectly and he’s had a year to sit and learn the playbook. He was a big-time winner in high school and is one of the highest-rated QB recruits to ever sign at Arizona.
37. Tony Brown | Marlon Humphrey, DB, Alabama
One of the few weaknesses for Alabama is at cornerback where graduation and the NFL Draft have finally caught up with Nick Saban. Brown (6-fooot, 190) enrolled early and will be fighting for one of two open corner sports all camp long. He was the top defensive back signee in the SEC and was considered the No. 9 overall prospect in the nation. Humphrey is no less talented and he brings an equally impressive 6-foot-1 frame to a secondary in need of quick help (relatively speaking).
38. Curtis Samuel, AP, Ohio State
Fans have been pointing to Dontre Wilson as a guy who could fill the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. And while Wilson is going to have an excellent sophomore season, it’s actually Samuel who is drawing the brightest reviews. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is listed as a wideout but has been getting plenty of carries out of the backfield. Look for Samuel to play a lot in a variety of roles this fall.
39. Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
While twin brother Tyrell will be suiting up for Fresno State after being dismissed from Oregon, Tyree is set to take over as the starting strong safety. The long, rangy athlete has put in the work this offseason and is in line to become a breakout defender in his redshirt freshman season in Eugene.
40. Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder recently was moved into the starting lineup at left guard for Kirk Ferentz. Surrounded by seniors and juniors, the Ohio native is proving quickly that he belongs on the field for Iowa.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 15:
• In honor of Shark Week, enjoy this slideshow of hot girls with sharks.
• The opening day of the SEC Network gave rise to this mesmerizing GIF of a Mississippi State cowbell shaker.
• Arian Foster continues to frustrate the media in Houston with his useless answers to their useless questions. Speaking of Foster, remember never to share a hot tub with the guy. Click here to find out why.
• The star of college football's offseason has been Bo Pelini. Relive his greatest hits.
• The most cringeworthy moments in sports history, from Eminem to the Buttfumble.
• I'm as sick of the Ice Bucket Challenge as anyone, but what Paul Bissonnette did with it is impressive.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]