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Georgia hosts Clemson in a huge non-conference game for two programs with aspirations of playing in the inaugural CFB Playoff. Several other SEC teams have key games against non-SEC foes at neutral sites — Wisconsin meets LSU in Houston, Ole Miss battles Boise State in Atlanta and Alabama takes on West Virginia, also in Atlanta. There are two games matching up two SEC teams, and they’re both big. South Carolina hosts Texas A&M in the first-ever game on the SEC Network, and Arkansas makes the trip to Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
Week 1 Preview and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Clemson (+7.5) at Georgia
5:30 ET, ESPN
This crucial Week 1 showdown features an intriguing matchup of two veteran quarterbacks thrust into starting roles for the first time in their careers. At Clemson, Cole Stoudt steps in for Tajh Boyd, one of the most beloved (and productive) players in school history. Meanwhile, Hutson Mason takes over at Georgia for Aaron Murray, who set several SEC career records. On paper, Mason appears to have more talent at his disposal, but there is a quiet confidence at Clemson that the Tigers’ offense — with Chad Morris still calling the plays — won’t take a step back despite the loss of Boyd, All-America wideout Sammy Watkins and 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell. Don’t expect Georgia to abandon its passing game, but the Bulldogs will lean heavily on an absurdly deep crop of running backs that is led by Heisman contender Todd Gurley. Two key matchups to watch: Clemson’s outstanding defensive front — anchored by end Vic Beasley — against Georgia’s good but not great offensive line, and Georgia’s secondary vs. a Clemson passing attack that has specialized in the big play in the Morris era.
2. Texas A&M (+10.5) at South Carolina
Thursday, 6 ET, SEC Network
All eyes will be on the SEC Network Thursday evening when the Johnny Manziel-less Aggies visit South Carolina for the first time in school history. Sophomore Kenny Hill will be at the controls of an A&M offense that will still score plenty of points — when hasn’t a Kevin Sumlin offense been productive? The big issue for the Aggies is on defense, where they were gashed on a routine basis throughout a disappointing 2013 season. Texas A&M allowed a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry and 221.3 yards per game against SEC opponents. That’s not good news when South Carolina is the Week 1 opponent. The Gamecocks feature one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a running back (Mike Davis) who could be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Davis is reportedly dealing with some minor injuries, but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t play on Thursday night.
3. Ole Miss (-10.5) vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Thursday, 8 ET, ESPN
Boise State established itself as a legitimate player on the national scene with a string of early season wins over big-name opponents from major conferences — vs. Oregon in 2008 and ’09, Virginia Tech in ’10 and Georgia in ’11. The Broncos, however, have not fared as well in recent years, losing at Michigan State in ’12 and at Washington in ’13 (by 32 points). Expect this trend to continue. Boise State is coming off an 8–5 season — its worst since 1998 — and will not have Chris Petersen roaming the sidelines for the first time since ’05. This program isn’t likely to slip into irrelevance, but its days of flirting with the top 10 could be over. Ole Miss, on the other hand, is trending in the other direction. Hugh Freeze has accumulated top-flight talent on both sides of the ball and has his team positioned to be a factor in the brutal SEC West. The Rebels should be able to flex their muscles on both lines of scrimmage and win this game with relative ease.
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
4. LSU (-5) vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
9:00 PM ET, ESPN
There’s a theme developing in Week 1: Untested quarterbacks in big games. Wisconsin, the favorite in the new Big Ten West, named former junior college transfer (and one-time South Carolina Gamecock) Tanner McEvoy as its starter over incumbent Joel Stave. McEvoy, a dual threat who is more advanced as a runner, started at safety in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. LSU has yet to name a starter, but sophomore Anthony Jennings — the hero of the comeback win over Arkansas late last season — is expected to get the nod over true freshman Brandon Harris. The job for both quarterbacks in this game: Hand the ball off to the running backs and get out of the way. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry en route to a Big Ten-best 123.8 yards per game last season. LSU might not list Leonard Fournette as its starter, but it will be a significant surprise if the true freshman does not end up being the Tigers’ primary ball-carrier. Some believe Fournette is the best running back prospect to enter the college ranks since Adrian Peterson arrived at Oklahoma in 2004.
5. Arkansas (+20.5) at Auburn
4 PM ET, SEC Network
The defending SEC champs open the season at home against a team that failed to win a league game in 2013. Don’t, however, assume that this will be easy for Auburn. Arkansas features some elite talent at running back and should be able to move the ball on the ground. A year ago, the Hogs ranked fourth in the league in rushing against SEC opponents, and Auburn, despite its success as a team, had trouble stopping the run. Arkansas, though, will need to do far more than run the ball to win this game. The Hogs will have to find some way to slow down what should be an explosive Auburn offense — even without quarterback Nick Marshall in the starting lineup. This game could be high scoring. Auburn will score more.
6. Utah State (+6.5) at Tennessee
Sunday, 7 ET, SEC Network
Chuckie Keeton is no stranger to SEC country, having made his first career start at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium as a true freshman in the 2011 opener. Keeton and the Aggies held a 10-point lead late into the fourth quarter but were unable to hang on, dropping a 42–38 decision to the defending national champs. Keeton returns to the Southeast as a seasoned senior who has won a bunch of games for a very solid Utah State program. The Aggies, however, only return seven starters from a team that won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference last season. Utah State will eventually be a very good team in 2014, but it might take some time. Tennessee’s troubles are well-documented — no starters back on either line of scrimmage, suspect quarterback play, etc. — but the Vols should have enough to survive a stiff Week 1 challenge.
7. Alabama (-26) vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
3:30 ET, ABC
The most interesting news regarding this game — other than the fact that West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett claims his first kiss was with Nick Saban’s daughter — is that Jacob Coker might not start at quarterback for Alabama. Coker, the presumed QB1 since he announced his transfer from Florida State, will play, but senior Blake Sims could take the first snap of the 2014 season. It shouldn’t matter in this game — Bama is a huge favorite for a reason — but the Crimson Tide will need to get the quarterback position settled at some point before the schedule heats up in late September. West Virginia should be improved, but the Mountaineers simply don’t have the personnel to hang with Alabama — especially away from Morgantown.
8. Temple (+13.5) at Vanderbilt
Thursday, 9:15 ET, SEC Network
The Derek Mason era begins in Nashville against a Temple team that was probably better than its 2–10 record from a year ago. The Owls went 2–4 in the latter half of the season, with wins over Army and Memphis sandwiched around four losses by an average of 4.8 points. Vanderbilt’s decision to go with Patton Robinette as its starting quarterback was a bit of a surprise. Robinette went 2–1 as a starter last year and also took significant snaps in wins over Georgia and Tennessee, but he’s not considered an ideal fit for offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell’s system. Mason and Dorrell insist their quarterback will not be on a short leash, so Robinette will have ample opportunities to prove his critics wrong.
9. Southern Miss (+30.5) at Mississippi State
7:30 ET, SEC Network
The last time these two in-state schools met, Brett Favre was in charge of the Southern Miss offense. The Golden Eagles lost that day in 1990, 13–10 in Starkville, but went on to win six of their final eight games to finish with an 8–4 mark. The 2014 Eagles have more modest goals. After snapping a 23-game losing streak with a win in the ’13 finale, Southern Miss would love to flirt with a .500 mark in the second season of the Todd Monken era. Mississippi State, on the other hand, would be disappointed with anything less than eight wins. The Bulldogs must navigate through the difficult SEC West, but this could be the most complete team at MSU since Dan Mullen took over. It will be a bad sign if State does not win this game with ease.
10. Idaho (+36.5) at Florida
(7 ET, ESPNU)
The most important season of Will Muschamp’s career as a head coach begins with a visit from a really bad Idaho team. The Vandals, 1–11 last season, have not won a road game since beating San Jose State in November 2011. Idaho played seven road games last season and gave up at least 40 points six times, including 59 at Ole Miss and 80 at Florida State. Advice to Florida fans: Don’t make any conclusions on the new Gator offense based on this game. Idaho is not good.
11. UT Martin (+19.5) at Kentucky
(12:00 ET, SEC Network)
Kentucky begins Year 2 of the Mark Stoops era against a UT Martin team that won seven games in 2013. The Skyhawks, however, went 0–2 against FBS opponents, losing to Memphis 21–6 and Boise State 63–14. Patrick Towles won a hotly contested battle to start at quarterback for Kentucky. The Cats don’t quite have SEC-caliber talent on the offensive line, but they have some able bodies at wide receiver and a nice collection of running backs. We might actually see the “Air Raid” attack that offensive coordinator Neal Brown promised to bring back to the Bluegrass.
12. South Dakota State (+29.5) at Missouri
3:30 ET, ESPNU
This is the only sure thing in an otherwise tricky non-conference schedule for Missouri. After this Week 1 visit from the Jackrabbits, the Tigers travel to Toledo and then host UCF and Indiana. They should be 4–0 heading into SEC play, but none of those three games will be easy. Saturday afternoon’s game, however, shouldn’t be too taxing. South Dakota State is a solid FCS team but isn’t good enough, on either side of the ball, to make Mizzou sweat.
SEC Week 1 Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
Texas A&M at South Carolina
S. Carolina 38-17
|S. Carolina 38-24||S. Carolina 34-24||South Carolina 34-26|
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Ole Miss 35-21
|Ole Miss 34-13||Ole Miss 34-17||Ole Miss 34-10|
Temple at Vanderbilt
|Vanderbilt 27-13||Vanderbilt 31-17||Vanderbilt 28-13|
UT Martin at Kentucky
|Kentucky 41-10||Kentucky 38-13||Kentucky 37-10|
Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
|Alabama 31-13||Alabama 38-10||Alabama 30-13|
South Dakota State at Missouri
|Missouri 45-14||Missouri 45-17||Missouri 41-10|
Arkansas at Auburn
|Auburn 38-21||Auburn 38-24||Auburn 37-24|
Clemson at Georgia
|Georgia 24-21||Georgia 27-24||Georgia 34-27|
Idaho at Florida
|Florida 44-3||Florida 45-10||Florida 51-0|
So. Miss at Mississippi State
MIss. State 48-10
|Miss. State 38-10||Miss. State 40-13||Miss. State 37-10|
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
|LSU 31-14||LSU 30-20||LSU 34-31|
Utah State at Tennessee
Utah State 28-24
|Tennessee 34-27||Tennessee 27-24||Tennessee 20-9|
See if you can follow the Big Ten in Week 1: Rutgers and Maryland are in the league, and one of those teams will open the season in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the three best games for the league this week will take place in Houston, Baltimore and Dublin.
The Big Ten is going worldwide in Week 1. If you need help staying grounded, luckily there’s one MAC vs. Big Ten game taking place in West Lafayette.
Some traditions are forever.
Week 1 Preview and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Pac-12 | SEC
All times Eastern.
Big Ten Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston)
Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Expect Wisconsin to rely heavily on Melvin Gordon against a reloading LSU defense in the top game of the week. Tanner McEvoy, though, may be the most interesting player in the field for Wisconsin. The Badgers made the bold move to bench incumbent Joel Stave for the more mobile McEvoy. LSU has a knack for shutting down running quarterbacks (see: Manziel, Johnny), and Wisconsin has no proven pass-catchers on the roster.
2. Ohio State vs. Navy (Baltimore)
Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network
All eyes will be on J.T. Barrett as he takes over for Braxton Miller. Without Miller, rising star running back Ezekiel Elliott is the Buckeyes’ returning leader in total offense at just under 24 yards per game. From Bowling Green to Utah to Florida to Ohio State, Urban Meyer has rarely had subpar quarterback play, but getting the redshirt freshman Barrett ready to contend for the Big Ten may be Meyer’s toughest challenge yet.
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
3. Penn State vs. UCF (Dublin)
Saturday, 8:30 a.m., ESPN2
After concerns that an eruption of a volcano in Iceland would alter travel plans, Penn State will start the James Franklin era without a hitch — assuming the Nittany Lions can handle the defending Fiesta Bowl champions. First-round draft pick Blake Bortles out-dueled freshman Christian Hackenberg in Happy Valley last season for UCF’s 34-31 win. Bortles is gone, and Penn State is hoping Hackenberg, a potential first-round pick himself, can hold his own behind a rickety Penn State offensive line.
4. Cal at Northwestern
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
Few coaches have had as trying a year as Pat Fitzgerald. An injury-ravaged Northwestern lost seven of its final eight games last season, voted on unionization during the summer and then lost running back Venric Mark to a transfer and receiver Christian Jones to an injury in the weeks before the season. A win over a troubled Cal team would go a long way to easing some of last year’s struggles.
5. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Seattle)
Thursday, 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers. Now hop on a flight to Seattle to test your shaky pass D against a Mike Leach offense. Washington State will look to feast in the passing game while Rutgers tries to figure out something — anything — on offense. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen opted with experience in quarterback Gary Nova, who has thrown 39 interceptions the last three seasons.
6. Appalachian State at Michigan
Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Don’t expect a replay of Appalachian State’s 34-32 win over Michigan from 2007, considered one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Appalachian State is coming off a 4-8 season. In 2007, Appy State was about to win its third consecutive FCS title. Michigan, though, isn’t an easy team to trust after losing five of its final six games last season.
7. FAU at Nebraska
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Nebraska has the nation’s longest active winning streak in season openers at 28 in a row. That figures to continue against Conference USA contender FAU, a school that employed Bo Pelini’s brother until Oct. 31 last season. FAU quietly had a standout finish to last season. The Owls allowed 3.6 yards per play in November, second-best nationally, while recording six interceptions and no touchdown passes.
8. Western Michigan at Purdue
Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Darrell Hazell’s first season wasn’t pretty, but Purdue figured something out on offense in November. Purdue accounted for more offensive touchdowns in the last four games (11) than it did in the first eight (10). Western Michigan has gone from one of the more steady MAC teams to a 1-11 rebuilding project in one season under P.J. Fleck. Purdue will look to pick up its first FBS win since Nov. 24, 2012.
9. Eastern Illinois at Minnesota
Thursday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
Minnesota has increased its win total in each of its three seasons under Jerry Kill from three wins to six to eight, but Eastern Illinois will bring a remnant from a more forgettable time. Eastern Illinois features quarterback Andrew Manley, who passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns for New Mexico State in a 28-21 win over Minnesota in 2011.
10. Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Friday, 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Michigan State will hope its defense of its most recent outright Big Ten title goes better than the last one. The Spartans followed their 1966 outright league title with a 37-7 loss to Houston to start the 1967 season. This time, Michigan State is more likely to get a warm up before facing Oregon in Eugene for a potential make-or-break game for the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.
11. Youngstown State at Illinois
Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network
Wes Lunt returns to his home state after his transfer to Illinois from Oklahoma State. Offense doesn’t appear to be an issue for the Illini, but will the defense help save Tim Beckman’s job?
12. Northern Iowa at Iowa
Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network
Iowa returns its top passer, rusher and receiver for the first time since 2010. With that comes expectations of contending in the new Big Ten West. Iowa hasn’t always handled hype well. Will this season be different? Northern Iowa nearly knocked off Iowa in 2009 before losing 17-16. The Hawkeyes haven’t lost to Northern Iowa since 1898.
13. James Madison at Maryland
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Maryland makes its league debut in the Big Ten Network against a James Madison team coached by Everett Withers, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Minnesota.
14. Indiana State at Indiana
Saturday, noon, ESPNews
Indiana State (1-11 last season) will make Indiana look good. Even the Hoosiers’ defense could tee off on an offense that ranked 114th in the FCS last season.
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|Rutgers v. Wash. St. (-8)||Wazzu 52-14||Wazzu 42-21||Wazzu 45-31||Wazzu 41-17|
|Eastern Ill. at Minn.||Minn 35-14||Minn 31-17||Minn 40-14||Minn 30-27|
|Jax State at Michigan St.||MSU 38-7||MSU 34-3||MSU 38-7||MSU 37-0|
|Penn St. (-1) v. UCF||PSU 17-14||PSU 27-20||PSU 27-20||PSU 23-20|
|Ohio St. (-19) v. Navy||OSU 38-21||OSU 34-10||OSU 34-20||OSU 34-16|
|Appy St. at Michigan||Mich 42-14||Mich 38-17||Mich 38-13||Mich 34-13|
|Cal at Northwestern (-13)||NW 38-17||NW 31-21||NW 34-24||NW 31-24|
|FAU at Nebraska (-24)||Neb 31-13||Neb 41-7||Neb 40-13||Neb 31-24|
|Western Mich. at Purdue (-12)||Purdue 28-14||Purdue 27-23||Purdue 31-20||Purdue 23-13|
|LSU (-4 1/2) v. Wisconsin||LSU 28-21||LSU 31-14||LSU 30-20||LSU 27-24|
|YSU at Illinois||Illinois 35-28||Illinois 38-21||Illinois 40-13||Illinois 28-10|
|No. Iowa at Iowa||Iowa 31-10||Iowa 27-10||Iowa 30-20||Iowa 27-17|
|JMU at Maryland||Maryland 42-14||Maryland 38-10||Maryland 45-14||Maryland 38-11|
The ACC enters 2014 with momentum. The conference survived realignment, Louisville joined the league, and Florida State ended the SEC’s run of dominance by defeating Auburn in the national championship. 13 games dot the schedule for the ACC in Week 1, including the Seminoles taking on Oklahoma State in Arlington, Clemson traveling to Athens to take on Georgia, and Miami and Louisville meeting as the only conference game of the week on Labor Day night.
ACC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Clemson (-7.5) at Georgia
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of overall intrigue and watchability, this is the premier game in the ACC for Week 1. Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the last three years, while Georgia is hoping to rebound from an injury-filled 8-5 campaign. Both teams have new faces stepping into key roles, but none bigger than Tigers’ quarterback Cole Stoudt as he replaces Tajh Boyd. Stoudt faces a Georgia secondary that has been in flux throughout the offseason and needs help from a front seven that will be among the best in the SEC. A similar scenario will play out when the Bulldogs have the ball, as senior quarterback Hutson Mason is making his third career start. Mason and Georgia’s offensive line has a tough matchup against Clemson’s veteran defensive front, but the Tigers have concerns in the secondary. This one could go either way. A high-scoring affair or a low-scoring defensive struggle wouldn’t be surprise.
2. Miami at Louisville (-3.5)
Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The only game featuring two ACC opponents takes place on Labor Day night in Louisville. Miami and Louisville met in the Russell Athletic Bowl, with the Cardinals giving the Hurricanes a 36-9 whipping. But that was last season, and plenty has changed between the two programs. Louisville is now under the direction of Bobby Petrino, and Teddy Bridgewater left for the NFL. Miami returns a good chunk of last year’s roster (12 starters) but will start a true freshman under center (Brad Kaaya). Petrino and quarterback Will Gardner won’t have top receiver DeVante Parker at their disposal due to injury. Parker’s injury will create more opportunities for sophomore James Quick and seniors Eli Rogers and Kai De La Cruz in the passing game. This game also features the return of running back Duke Johnson for Miami, and it’s critical for the junior to get on track to take some of the pressure off of Kaaya in his first start. There’s a lot of new in both programs for this game. Has Miami closed the gap since last year’s bowl loss? Or is Louisville still the better program right now?
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
3. Florida State (-17.5) vs. Oklahoma State (Arlington)
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Florida State begins its national title defense in a neutral site environment against a rebuilding Oklahoma State team. The Seminoles are big – and for good reason – favorites in this matchup. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team returns 16 starters, including defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The Cowboys return just eight starters and must replace 28 seniors from last year’s squad. A rebuilt offensive line is the biggest concern for coach Mike Gundy, but quarterback J.W. Walsh also needs to play with more consistency. Even though Oklahoma State’s defense has a couple of All-Big 12 candidates, this should be a good opportunity for Winston and his revamped receiving corps (including true freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane) to gain valuable reps before a key ACC contest against Clemson on Sept. 20. Barring a sluggish performance by Florida State, it’s hard to see this one being close in the fourth quarter.
4. UCLA (-21) at Virginia
Noon ET, ESPN
With an 18-31 record in four years, 2014 is a make-or-break season for Virginia coach Mike London. But London’s future certainly isn’t helped by a schedule that features non-conference games against UCLA and BYU, combined with a crossover division matchup against Florida State and Louisville. The Bruins are one of the favorites in the Pac-12 and return 14 starters from last year’s 10-3 team. Virginia’s defense is a good matchup for UCLA’s young offensive line, but the Cavaliers need to find a way to generate points. Sophomore Greyson Lambert edged David Watford at quarterback this offseason, and he should have his hands full against a UCLA defense that finished No. 4 in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed (conference-only games). It’s a long road trip from Los Angeles to Charlottesville, and a Noon ET start means an early wake-up call for the Bruins. A few early struggles are possible, but UCLA has too much talent for a Virginia team that’s still searching for answers on offense.
5. Wake Forest at ULM (-1.5)
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
The Dave Clawson era at Wake Forest opens with a tricky road trip. ULM has improved under fifth-year coach Todd Berry and returns 14 starters from a team that finished 6-6 last year. The Warhawks also have a familiar face at quarterback in NC State transfer Pete Thomas. The Demon Deacons are a young team and plan to start only seven seniors in the opener. True freshman John Wolford is slated to open under center, and Clawson needs to find new playmakers and develop an offensive line to help his young quarterback. Points could be at a premium on Thursday night.
6. Georgia Southern at NC State (-20.5)
12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network
The Wolfpack enter 2014 riding an eight-game losing streak, but there’s hope for a turnaround in 2014 with the arrival of transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Georgia Southern joins the FBS ranks in 2014 and ended 2013 by winning its final three games last year, including a 26-20 upset over Florida. With a favorable non-conference schedule, it’s important for NC State to get off to a good start and have a 4-0 mark before playing Florida State on Sept. 27.
7. William & Mary at Virginia Tech
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS
An upset is unlikely here, but William & Mary could make Virginia Tech sweat for a while. The Tribe ranked No. 2 among FCS teams in scoring defense (14 ppg) and held opponents to just 118.1 rushing yards per game last season. It’s a good thing for William & Mary to have a good defense, especially with a new starter at quarterback (Steve Cluley) in a hostile environment. Virginia Tech’s offense is filled with unknowns, starting at quarterback with Michael Brewer and with talented, but unproven playmakers at running back and receiver. It may take a quarter or two for the Hokies’ offense to get on track, but the defense is enough for Frank Beamer’s team to pull away from the Tribe in the second half.
8. Boston College (-17) at UMass
3 p.m. ET, ESPN3
With a matchup against Pittsburgh next Friday, Boston College hopes to use UMass as a tune-up for its ACC opener. The Eagles have several new faces stepping into key roles on offense, including Florida transfer Tyler Murphy at quarterback, UConn transfer Shakim Phillips at receiver and sophomore Myles Willis replacing Andre Williams at running back. The Minutemen are 2-22 over the last two seasons and is under the direction of new coach Mark Whipple. UMass is slated to start Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel at quarterback.
9. Delaware at Pittsburgh
Noon ET, ESPN3
Openers have not been kind to Pittsburgh’s third-year coach Paul Chryst. The Panthers were upset by Youngstown State in 2012 and lost to Florida State last year. Chryst hopes the third time is a charm, taking on a Delaware team that just missed the first FCS top 25 poll. New Pittsburgh quarterback Chad Voytik looked sharp in limited action last year, and this will be his first taste of extended action. The Panthers’ rebuilding defense also figures to get a good test from a Blue Hens’ offense that averaged 32.8 points per game last year.
10. Villanova at Syracuse
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
The Orange finished 2013 with momentum on their side, winning four out of their last six games. With 13 starters back, second-year coach Scott Shafer has a chance to push Syracuse to eight wins in 2014. Shafer and coordinator George McDonald want to push the tempo on offense this season, which largely depends on the development of quarterback Terrel Hunt and the receiving corps. Villanova ranked as the No. 8 team in Athlon’s projected 2014 FCS top 25 and hope to bounce back after finishing 6-5 last year.
11. Liberty at North Carolina
6 p.m. ET, ESPN3
All eyes in Chapel Hill will be at quarterback on Saturday night. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t reveal his starter, as the battle between Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky continued into fall practice. In addition to the quarterbacks, the Tar Heels will play a handful of young players on defense, which could present a few headaches against a balanced Liberty offense. The Flames (led by coach Turner Gill) could hang around for a while, but North Carolina simply has too much firepower on offense.
12. Wofford at Georgia Tech
12:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports South
Don’t expect the forward pass to be utilized much in this one. Georgia Tech averaged only 15.6 attempts per game and Wofford averaged 12.5 last season. This matchup against the Terriers will be the first start for new Yellow Jackets’ quarterback Justin Thomas. The sophomore’s development is critical for Georgia Tech’s Coastal Division title hopes. Paul Johnson has won five out of his six openers with the Yellow Jackets and should cruise to an easy victory.
13. Elon at Duke
6 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Duke shouldn’t have too much trouble in its season opener, as the defending Coastal Division champs host an Elon team that went 2-10 last year. The Blue Devils suffered season-ending injuries to tight end Braxton Deaver and linebacker Kelby Brown, and this game should allow coach David Cutcliffe a chance to play a few younger players to build depth.
Week 1 ACC Predictions
|Clemson (-7.5) at Georgia||UGA 24-14||UGA 24-21||UGA 27-24||UGA 31-24|
|Miami (+3.5) at Louisville||UL 21-14||UL 34-27||UL 31-24||UL 27-20|
|FSU (-17.5) vs. Okla. State||FSU 49-10||FSU 44-17||FSU 48-17||FSU 41-17|
|UCLA (-21) at Virginia||UCLA 42-10||UCLA 38-13||UCLA 34-13||UCLA 33-14|
|Wake Forest (+1.5) at ULM||ULM 17-14||ULM 31-28||ULM 24-20||ULM 34-24|
|Ga. Southern (+20.5) at NC State||State 21-13||State 34-17||State 38-10||State 34-17|
|William & Mary at Va. Tech||VT 35-3||VT 27-3||VT 34-10||VT 30-10|
|Boston College (-17) at UMass||BC 42-7||BC 34-17||BC 38-10||BC 37-14|
|Delaware at Pittsburgh||Pitt 31-7||Pitt 38-14||Pitt 40-20||Pitt 30-17|
|Villanova at Syracuse||SU 28-10||SU 34-17||SU 41-17||SU 33-17|
|Liberty at North Carolina||UNC 42-10||UNC 45-10||UNC 45-17||UNC 41-13|
|Wofford at Georgia Tech||GT 38-10||GT 38-17||GT 45-13||GT 41-13|
|Elon at Duke||Duke 35-13||Duke 38-10||Duke 41-13||Duke 33-14|
College football’s 2014 season officially gets underway on Thursday, as South Carolina hosts Texas A&M on the new SEC Network. The Gamecocks begin 2014 as a preseason top-10 team and should be one of the favorites to win the East Division. The Aggies are in rebuild mode without quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews. But coach Kevin Sumlin's team features plenty of young talent, including freshmen receivers Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones. This matchup is also the first game on the new SEC Network.
This will be the first meeting between South Carolina and Texas A&M.
Texas A&M at South Carolina
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. South Carolina’s OL vs. Texas A&M’s Front Seven
South Carolina’s offensive line ranks as one of the best in the SEC and should have their way with Texas A&M’s front seven. The Aggies allowed 236.3 rushing yards per game last season (conference-only contests), and depth along the defensive front is a bigger concern after the departure of end Gavin Stansbury and the dismissal of tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne. True freshman Myles Garrett is not listed as a starter on the first depth chart, but the five-star prospect is slated to play major snaps. Talent isn’t a problem on Texas A&M’s defensive front. However, how quickly can players like Garrett, true freshman Zaycoven Henderson and sophomore Daeshon Hall acclimate to life in the SEC? If the Aggies struggle to stop the run once again, South Carolina’s offensive line and rushing attack – led by All-SEC running back Mike Davis – will have its way up front.
2. Debut of New Quarterbacks
Thursday night’s game is the first for Texas A&M in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies will certainly miss Manziel, but this offense isn’t hurting for talent at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Sophomore Kenny Hill edged true freshman Kyle Allen for the starting job in the fall and Thursday night’s game is his first opportunity to start. Hill played limited snaps last year and finished with 183 passing yards on 16 completions and 37 rushing yards on seven attempts. On the other sideline, Dylan Thompson is no stranger to the starting lineup, as this will be his fourth start as a Gamecock. Thompson has been a capable fill-in for Connor Shaw over the last two years, but 2014 is his first chance to be the full-time starter. The South Carolina native is 3-0 as a starter and could have a huge debut against Texas A&M’s suspect defense.
3. South Carolina’s rebuilt defense
Texas A&M isn’t the only defense with concerns heading into the opener. South Carolina returns six starters on defense, but the Gamecocks suffered significant losses on the defensive line and in the secondary. Up front, end Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Kelcy Quarles depart, while three true freshman are slated for major snaps in the secondary (Wesley Green, Chris Lammons and Al Harris Jr.). Although the Aggies won’t have Johnny Manziel under center, this offense is still dangerous. New quarterback Kenny Hill has a deep group of receivers, and there’s options at running back with Trey Williams, Tra Carson and Brandon Williams. Coordinator Lorenzo Ward plans on mixing in more three-man fronts to take advantage of the depth at linebacker. Will this unit perform at a high level from the opening snap? Or will it take Ward a few games to find the right mix. Texas A&M should be a good barometer test.
Even with three first-round picks departing, Texas A&M’s offense will be dangerous. South Carolina’s defense has enough new pieces stepping into the lineup to keep this one close, as the Aggies should have success moving the ball. However, can Texas A&M get stops? If the defense continues to struggle, the Gamecocks will have no trouble moving the ball on the ground or through the air. Running back Mike Davis was injured in fall camp, but he is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday. Considering South Carolina’s strong offensive line and Davis leading the way on the ground, the Gamecocks will simply wear down the Aggies and open the year with a key conference victory.
Prediction: South Carolina 34, Texas A&M 24
Each week, Athlon Sports brings the fans a taste of Las Vegas with our panel picks against the spread for every top 25 game and Braden Gall’s top individual games of the week.
Here are his Week 1 picks:
Boise St (-10) vs. Ole Miss (Atlanta)
Normally the Broncos are excellent in season openers against high-level competition. Normally Ole Miss isn’t considered high-level competition. But Chris Petersen isn’t in Boise any longer and this isn’t your father’s Ole Miss squad. The Rebels are extremely talented and will dominate the line of scrimmage in Atlanta. Prediction: Ole Miss -10
Rutgers (+8) vs. Washington St (Seattle)
This is the tale of two programs heading in two totally different directions. Kyle Flood is in serious hot seat territory in New Jersey while Mike Leach returns a star quarterback and a deep receiving corps on a team that has bowl aspirations. The Cougars will put up a big number. Prediction: Washington State -8
Florida St (-17.5) vs. Okla. St (Arlington)
The Pokes are a solid program but this might be one of Mike Gundy’s worst rosters since taking over in Stillwater. Florida State is not only the defending champion but could actually be in improved this year. The Noles won games by an average of 40 points last year and this one could fall into that category as well. Prediction: Florida State -17.5
Penn State (+2) vs. UCF (Dublin)
I was almost shocked to see UCF as the favorite in this game. James Franklin is a proven sideline wizard and Christian Hackenberg is a special player. The Knights won this game last year but lost its catalyst in Blake Bortles (as well as eight other starters). It will be close but PSU will win outright… so take the points. Prediction: Penn State +2
Miami (+3.5) at Louisville
These aren’t close to being the same two teams that played in the lop-sided Russell Athletic Bowl to end last season. Gone is Teddy Bridgewater, Charlie Strong and numerous other stars from the UL roster. And back are Duke Johnson and a host of incoming talented freshmen for Miami. But Bobby Petrino is coaching the Cardinals who have a deep and talented running game to lean on. The Canes haven't closed the 27-point gap just yet. Prediction: Louisville -3.5
Washington (-17) at Hawaii
Norm Chow is on the hot seat for a reason at Hawaii. Chris Petersen is stepping into his debut performance at his shiny new gig in Seattle. The Huskies' defense will dominate the headlines in this one. Washington doesn’t need Cyler Miles to win this one in easy fashion. Prediction: Washington -17
Listen to the Week 1 Cover 2 podcast:
Top 25 Picks ATS:
|Top 25||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||David Fox||Steven Lassan|
|Florida St (-17.5) vs. Okla. St|
|W. Virginia (+26) vs. Alabama|
|La. Tech (+38) at Okla.|
|Ohio St (-16) vs. Navy|
|Arkansas (+19.5) at Auburn|
|UCLA (-21) at Virginia|
|Texas A&M (+10.5) at S. Carolina|
|SMU (+32.5) at Baylor|
|Clemson (+7.5) at Georgia|
|Wisconsin (+5) vs. LSU|
|Fresno St (+21.5) at USC|
|Rice (+21) at Notre Dame|
|Boise St (+10) vs. Ole Miss|
|FAU (+21) at Nebraska|
|Wash. (-17) at Hawaii|
The college football offseason is long and, perhaps for many people, a little too eventful.
Lawsuits, court cases and conference realignment have all taken their time in the summer headlines in recent years. At least this summer, the sport had a little more excitement in its offseason — even if the NCAA itself was on trial at one point.
The College Football Playoff may be one of the most transformative events in the sport's history. While the Playoff itself was formed more than a year ago, the pieces started to take shape during the summer of 2014.
In a literal sense, the Playoff won’t start until Jan. 1, 2015, but the new postseason format will come to define the 2014 season. It’s a clear No. 1 in our look at all that’s new in college football even if it’s not the only fresh development fans will notice.
1. The College Football Playoff
By now, most fans — at least those likely to be reading this site — are aware the four-team playoff has replaced the BCS. The mechanism of how teams are selected and placed into the Sugar and Rose bowls (this year, at least) takes a bit of explaining. And much of the "who goes where" will change after this season. Long story short: The 13-person selection committee, using film study and a super-cool stat platform, will seed and place four teams into the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day for national semifinals. The two winners will face each other in a championship game at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 12.
2. The New Year’s holiday will be great again
The prestige of playing on New Year’s Day diminished during the BCS era as more high-profile bowls moved into the first week of January and lesser bowls moved into Jan. 1. This season and every year the Rose Bowl is involved, the semifinals will be played on New Year’s Day. The selection committee also will place top remaining teams in the rankings (more on those at No. 5) into the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta. Seven of those premier bowl spots likely will be taken up by the Power 5 and one spot is guaranteed to the top team from outside of the major conferences. Try to stick with us.
3. The Power 5
You’re going to start seeing that term a lot. Consensus has decided that’s what we’re calling the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC now. Sorry, AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. Not to say those leagues are “powerless,” but then again...
4. Tuesday is all right for griping
No more BCS means we can stop overreacting to weekly polls, right? Wrong. In the name of transparency (and TV ratings!), the College Football Playoff selection committee will release a weekly top 25 on Tuesday nights starting Oct. 28. In theory, teams will know where they stand in the playoff picture, but we foresee plenty of excuses for coaches and fans to start howling if their teams move inexplicably.
5. Chris Fowler is the new voice of Saturday night
Every season features a handful of movement in the broadcast booth. None will be more significant than College GameDay’s Chris Fowler moving into the play-by-play role on ABC’s Saturday Night Football alongside Kirk Herbstreit. Where is our beloved Brent Musburger? Glad you asked...
6. The SEC Network
Musburger moves into a play-by-play role for the top game on ESPN’s SEC Network with analyst Jesse Palmer. Any misgivings about major providers carrying the network have been allayed, so now most fans have access to 24 hours of SEC-centric live games, pre-game shows, replays, analysis, debate and documentaries. While the Big Ten Network needed a few years to find its footing and distribution, the SEC Network launch was all but flawless. The Pac-12 Networks, without ESPN backing, is still struggling to get into homes. Not that this needed reinforcement, but ESPN tightened its grip on broadcast dominance. CBS still has the top SEC game of the week, but not the exclusive 3:30 p.m. Eastern window. Also, say farewell to Fox Sports 1’s pregame show and the old Jefferson Pilot/Raycom SEC game of the week.
7. The Big Ten realigns, still pleases no one
The Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers and used the opportunity to ditch the Legends and Leaders divisions in favor of more geographically sound East and West divisions. While the divisions are more logical, they’re not necessarily balanced. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State are all in the East while Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will carry the banner for the West.
8. Other conference dominoes fall
Believe it or not, this is the last year of major conference movement for a bit (we think). Louisville is in a new league (the ACC) with an old coach (Bobby Petrino). The American is even more Conference USA-ish with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Conference USA adds Western Kentucky and Old Dominion, and the Sun Belt adds giant-killers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern and independent refugees Idaho and New Mexico State. The Football Bowl Subdivision is up to 128 teams.
9. Bitcoin and Popeyes are our new favorite bowl sponsors
Bowl season continued to blow up with four new games — five if you count the Playoff championship game. The Miami Beach (BYU vs. AAC), Bahamas (C-USA vs. MAC), Boca Raton (C-USA vs. MAC) and Camellia (MAC vs. Sun Belt) bowls have bumped us up to 39 bowls. As long we continue to see fanciful sponsors of fried chicken (the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl), duck calls/reality show subjects (the Duck Commander Independence Bowl) and virtual money (the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl), we’re on board.
10. Other new odds and ends
Three teams have new stadiums — Baylor (McLane Stadium), Houston (TDECU Stadium) and Tulane (Yulman Stadium). ... Notre Dame replaced its sometimes-controversial and occasionally too tall natural grass with artificial turf. ... 20 teams hired new coaches. ... Dozens of teams will wear new helmets and uniforms at some point during the year.
How much heartbreak can a team take and keep pushing for the Super Bowl? The 49ers are about to find out. The 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes died last season with a crushing 23–17 loss in the NFC Championship Game to the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s first-down pass from the Seahawks’ 18 to Michael Crabtree was tipped by cornerback Richard Sherman in the end zone and intercepted by Malcolm Smith with under a minute left. Two years ago the 49ers suffered a 34–31 Super Bowl loss to Baltimore as their final drive ended with three straight Kaepernick incomplete passes from the Ravens’ 5-yard line. Three years ago the 49ers reached the NFC title game in coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season but lost 20–17 in overtime to the New York Giants.
“It’s like Sisyphus, all the way to the top and then the season ends and the boulder rolls all the way back to the bottom,” Harbaugh said in March. “Then we’re pushing again. We’re going to start pushing that rock, that boulder, see if we can get it to the very top.”
After their painful loss to Seattle, the 49ers had an offseason filled with front-office controversy and troubling off-the-field incidents. There were reports of a feud between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke and questions about Harbaugh’s future with the team. Time could be running out for Harbaugh to lead the 49ers to the top of the NFL’s mountain.
After ranking 30th in passing last season at a dismal 186.2 yards per game, the 49ers appear ready to climb at least into the middle of the pack and have a more balanced overall offense. They re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who led the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a 49er, and traded for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who had three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2010-12. What’s more, the 49ers should have a healthy Crabtree — Kaepernick’s favorite receiver — from the outset. Last year, Crabtree missed the first 11 games with a torn Achilles tendon. In Boldin, Crabtree, Johnson and explosive tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has four quality targets. Wideout Brandon Lloyd, a free-agent pickup, would make five, if he earns a job. All the 49ers are lacking is an experienced speed receiver to stretch the field.
In his first full season as a starter last year, Kaepernick averaged only 199.8 yards passing per game with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Kaepernick has one of the NFL’s best fastballs, but he needs to improve his accuracy and his ability to read defenses in order to become an elite quarterback. He is already one of the NFL’s most dangerous running quarterbacks. Although offensive coordinator Greg Roman cut back on the number of read-option plays, Kaepernick still rushed for 524 yards in the regular-season and 243 more in the playoffs.
Frank Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards last season for the third straight year and seventh time in his career, but he averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per carry. Gore keeps himself in remarkable shape, and his passion for the game hasn’t waned. But he turned 31 in May, and the 49ers will likely reduce his load by giving more carries to rookie Carlos Hyde and and possibly Marcus Lattimore, who spent his rookie season recovering from a knee injury. Kendall Hunter was part of the equation until he tore his ACL during training camp.
Gore will run behind one of the NFL’s top offensive lines that returns four starters — tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone. Center Daniel Kilgore is expected to replace Jonathan Goodwin.
The 49ers still boast one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses, featuring stars such as Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and lineman Justin Smith, but a few cracks have appeared in what once was an all but impenetrable defensive wall.
One year after losing free safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent, the 49ers parted ways with three more defensive backs who started during their 2012 Super Bowl season. Strong safety Donte Whitner signed with Cleveland; cornerback Tarell Brown signed with the Raiders; and cornerback Carlos Rogers was cut to clear salary cap room and joined Brown in Oakland.
The 49ers signed ex-Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea as a free agent to replace Whitner. Bethea and free safety Eric Reid, coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season, should form a solid tandem. Tramaine Brock, who impressed while starting seven games for an injured Brown last season, is slated to open this season as a starter. But the 49ers have no proven candidates to start opposite Brock or at nickel cornerback, a role that Rogers owned. Chris Culliver appears to be the leading candidate to win a starting job at corner despite missing last season with a knee injury. He also raised red flags when he was arrested after a hit-and-run incident involving a bicyclist during the offseason. Safety Jimmie Ward, the team’s top draft pick, will likely fill the nickel role, covering receivers in the slot.
Willis, Smith and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, anchor a defense that ranked fourth against the run last season. But inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a gruesome left knee injury during the NFC title game. Bowman will start the season on the PUP list, meaning he will miss at least the first six games, and it's still unclear whether he’ll return as the dominant force he’s been the past three seasons. Michael Wilhoite is expected to fill in until Bowman recovers. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had a combined 33.5 sacks in 2011 and 2012, could face NFL suspension after two arrests for DUIs as well as a felony weapons charge stemming from a wild party at his home in June 2012. He was also arrested this offseason at Los Angeles International Airport when he allegedly became belligerent and told a TSA officer that he had a bomb. Last year Smith entered a facility for substance abuse and missed five games.
San Francisco also will be without the services of tackle Glenn Dorsey, who tore his biceps during training camp, for an extended period of time. Dorsey has already had surgery to repair the damage and the team is hopeful he will be able to return at some point this season. A free-agent addition prior to last season, the 49ers have been so pleased with what Dorsey has already brought that they signed him to a two-year contract extension after he suffered the biceps injury.
In placekicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s strongest kicking tandems. Dawson, a former Brown, had a stellar first campaign as a 49er, earning a two-year contract extension. He made 32-of-36 field goals, including a team-record 27 straight. Lee averaged 48.2 yards per punt, third best in the NFL, with a net of 41.7, which ranked fourth. Running back LaMichael James averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return last season. The question is whether James will be on the roster when the season begins. He’s unhappy over his lack of playing time, reportedly wants to be traded and was sidelined early on in training camp by a dislocated elbow.
The 49ers still have enough talent to make another Super Bowl run, but they have plenty of reasons to be concerned. If the 49ers don’t unseat reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFC West, they’ll have to battle again for a wild card spot. Last year’s wild card run included three road games, ending with the heartbreaking loss at Seattle.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC West
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 27:
• Get to know this year's crop of NFL WAGs, including Essential 11 favorite Lindsey Duke, better half to Blake Bortles.
• Bruce Feldman picks LSU freshman Leonard Fournette to win the Heisman among nine other preposterous prognostications.
• Drunk History is a genius show on Comedy Central that is both hilarious and educational. Enjoy the clip on golfer Babe Didrikson featuring Emily Deschanel. And start DVR'ing the show.
• What's with the college football media's obsession with food? This story confirms my suspicion that media types are in the business just to abuse their expense accounts.
• A cute Astros fan added to this year's blooper reel of horrendous first pitches. This one might actually be the worst.
• Ranking the best moments of the college football offseason, now that it's mercifully over.
• Watch a Korean ballplayer launch a baseball over the massive center field scoreboard.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Eddie Lacy led all rookies in fantasy points (Athlon Sports scoring) in 2013. He wasn't the only first-year player to shine either, as Keenan Allen topped all wide receivers and running backs Zac Stacy, Giovani Bernard and Le'Veon Bell each posted solid numbers for their respective teams. While these and others enjoyed strong debuts, here are 15 other members of the 2013 draft class that could break out in their second season in the NFL. And if that does happen, it could lead to good results for your fantasy team.
1. Montee Ball, RB, Denver
The Broncos’ rookie overcame fumble issues to develop into a solid contributor. Ball posted his three best yardage totals, including his lone 100-yard effort, in the final five weeks of the season. With Knowshon Moreno now in Miami, Ball should be an every-week fantasy starter.
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota
Few can match his freakish triple-threat athletic ability, so there should be little doubt about his enormous upside. Should he continue to polish his route-running skills and understanding of the position, Patterson should flourish in his second year — especially with a more stable quarterback situation.
3. Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona
Very quietly, the Cardinals’ rookie topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage a year ago on just 157 offensive touches for an impressive 6.5 yards-per-touch. With improved offensive line play and a full season to gain regular touches, Ellington could develop into a must-start option.
4. Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas
Williams was hugely productive at Baylor and proved his NFL staying power as a rookie. His 736 receiving yards were third among all first-year players. He’s on a solid offense with a quality quarterback; all Williams needs to develop into a weekly fantasy starter is more consistency.
5. Jordan Reed, TE, Washington
Reed led all rookie tight ends a year ago in both receptions (45) and yards (499) despite missing seven games due to concussion problems. Reed could easily become a No. 1 fantasy tight end.
6. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston
There are quarterback concerns, but Hopkins is the heir apparent to Andre Johnson. The Texans’ second-year receiver should be able to improve on his impressive 52-catch, 802-yard rookie campaign.
7. EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo
Both Geno Smith and Mike Glennon got more experience a year ago, but Manuel has the most upside and stability of all the second-year quarterbacks, and Buffalo has stockpiled weapons for him.
8. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
Kenny Britt is gone, and Kendall Wright is in the slot, so that leaves Hunter to excel in new coach Ken Whisenhunt's vertical passing game. The deep threat should have a healthy quarterback and a much better grasp of the offense.
9. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia
Ertz was No. 2 to Reed in rookie receiving yards by a tight end (469) and tied for the rookie lead among tight ends with four touchdown grabs. There is plenty of action to go around in Chip Kelly’s offense.
10. Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo
The net difference between losing Stevie Johnson and gaining Sammy Watkins should be a positive for Woods. He should be in line to earn starter snaps and may even be the Bills’ top pass-catcher in 2014.
11. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis
He’s not a big receiver, but he will always have big-play ability — as his 98-yard punt return touchdown proved a year ago. He is an all-purpose dynamo who can be used all over the field.
12. Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh
There is plenty of room on the Steelers’ depth chart for Wheaton to become a starter in his second year. He can do a little bit of everything, and he will have the first shot to replace Emmanuel Sanders.
13. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati
As the unquestioned starter on a team loaded with offensive weapons, Eifert has a chance to develop into a viable fantasy option in year No. 2.
14. Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans
He finished tied for second among rookie WRs in TDs (five). With Drew Brees running the show, there should be plenty to go around.
15. Aaron Dobson, WR, New England
He has to deal with a crowded (yet uncertain) receiving corps and get over a foot injury that impacted his rookie season, but Dobson's 6'3", 210-pound frame may may make him an inviting target for Tom Brady.
Nebraska and Florida may have let down fans in recent years, but at least give the Cornhuskers and Gators credit for making them wait until Week 2 to complain.
In all likelihood, the two longest active season-opening win streaks will continue Saturday when Nebraska goes for its 29th consecutive season-opening win against FAU and Florida goes for No. 25 against Idaho.
Nebraska has won 28 season openers in a row since the Cornhuskers last Game 1 loss to Florida State in 1985. Florida isn’t far behind, winning 24 consecutive season openers starting with Steve Spurrier’s first win at Florida in 1990. The Gators haven’t started 0-1 since a 24-19 loss to Ole Miss in 1989.
After Nebraska and Florida, no other team has won more than 16 season openers in a row.
The key in recent years has been regular games against the likes of FAU, Western Kentucky, San Jose State and FCS programs — and certainly both schools have been guilty of warm-up games.
Nebraska’s last 28 opponents in season openers finished a combined 149-182-2 while Florida’s last 24 have gone 134-147-2.
That said, Nebraska hasn’t gone 28-0 on cupcakes alone.
Nebraska’s streak in season openers includes two appearances in the old Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1988 (Texas A&M) and 1994 (West Virginia).
Since 1986, the Cornhuskers have opened against Florida State (avenging the 1985 loss), opened twice on the road against major opponents (Iowa in 1999, Oklahoma State in 1995) and four times faced a team ranked in the preseason top 25. It’s worth noting, though, none of those four preseason top 25 teams finished the season ranked.
Florida’s season-opening schedule during the win streak has been, ahem, less ambitious.
The Gators haven’t faced a ranked team in during its 24-game season-opener stretch — even if 1997 Southern Miss finished 19th after starting the season with a 21-6 loss to the Gators.
Florida hasn’t played a season opener outside of Gainesville since a 31-4 loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl, the final game in the regular series with the Hurricanes. The Gators have also played only two major conference teams during its win streak and none in more than 20 years. Both teams — 1992 Kentucky and 1990 Oklahoma State — finished 4-7.
So when could either of these win streaks end? Nebraska’s next two season openers would figure to be more difficult than FAU, even if both are in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers open 2015 against BYU and 2016 against Fresno State.
Meanwhile, Florida may not be tested until 2017 when the Gators play their first season opener outside of Gainesville in 30 years. Florida will open 2017 against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, for Florida’s first regular season non-conference game outside of the Sunshine State since a 1991 loss at Syracuse. The Gators open the next two seasons with New Mexico State and UMass.
Bad News Broncos
As Nebraska and Florida are good bets to continue the two longest season-opening winning streaks, Western Michigan may soon stand alone with the longest active losing streak.
Memphis and Western Michigan are tied with the most consecutive 0-1 starts with nine in a row. Memphis, though, opens against Austin Peay, a team that went 0-12 last season. Western Michigan opens at Purdue.
Worth the Wait?
Think you’re having a long offseason? Take it up with Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville.
The Bearcats won’t start the season until Sept. 12 against Toledo due to a scheduling mishap that will leave Cincinnati with a schedule odd enough to make MAC teams blush.
Cincinnati canceled its Saturday opener against Stony Brook to add a road trip to Miami to the schedule Oct. 11, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Attempts by former athletic director Whit Babcock, now at Virginia Tech, to move a game into the first two weeks of the season failed.
This doesn’t mean Cincinnati has any extra practice before facing the Rockets in two weeks. NCAA rules limit teams to 29 preseason practices, so Cincinnati will actually have two fewer weeks of practice than Toledo.
“I’ve never been through a situation like this where we had so long off,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “It is what it is. We’ll take it and get ready to run with it on Sept. 12. ... If there is (and advantage), I haven’t figured it out. The only advantage is that we won’t have as long a season as everyone else.”
Besides starting the season with two bye weeks, Cincinnati will play all of its home games at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium while Nippert Stadium on campus undergoes renovations. After opening the season on a Friday, Cincinnati will go four weeks from Oct. 24-Nov. 13 without playing on Saturday, including two Friday games, a bye week and a Thursday game.
Quick question: Which team has the longest FBS winning streak?
Florida State is an easy call at 15 consecutive wins against FBS competition, not including last year’s win over Bethune-Cookman in September. Michigan State may be an intuitive answer with the second-longest win streak with 10 in a row since a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21.
But who is tied for the ninth-longest win streak against FBS teams? The answer is defending FCS champion North Dakota State.
Granted, the win streak spans four seasons, but it’s a win streak nonetheless. North Dakota State has defeated an FBS team in each of the last four seasons and will look to extend that stretch Saturday against Iowa State.
Only eight of the 128 teams in the FBS have an active streak of five wins in a row against FBS competition: Florida State (15), Michigan State (10), UCF (nine), Louisville (six) and South Carolina, Navy, Vanderbilt and UTSA (five each).
North Dakota State’s four-game FBS win streak includes Kansas State (2013), Colorado State (2012), Minnesota (2011) and Kansas (2010). The Bison are 43-2 with three FCS titles in the last three seasons.
North Dakota State is No. 1 in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll, but the Bison are without 24 seniors from last season and coach Craig Bohl, who took the Wyoming job during the offseason.
If the Indianapolis Colts are guilty of anything the past two seasons, it’s that they’ve won too fast since being resurrected. Eleven wins in each regular season and a playoff victory over Kansas City in January erased memories of the 2–14 implosion in 2011. And so, familiar expectations from the Peyton Manning era have quickly returned — it’s Super Bowl or bust for quarterback Andrew Luck and company. The rest of the AFC South has been mired in mediocrity or worse, which leaves the Colts as the team to beat once again. But division titles aren’t enough. General manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano enter their third season with the understanding that nobody remembers playoff qualifiers who exit in January. It’s about getting to February.
Luck has passed for more yards in his first two seasons (8,196) than any quarterback in NFL history, thriving despite a shaky offensive line and sputtering run game. Grigson, a former O-lineman, didn’t need to be reminded that the line is still a No. 1 priority, considering that Luck has been sacked 73 times.
An obvious question is: Who will play center? Samson Satele was jettisoned with one year remaining on his contract, too expensive and underwhelming. Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick last year, couldn’t get on the field. Grigson insists the Colts will start with Holmes. They drafted Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort presumably to play guard. An addition that's even more important considering the season-ending quadriceps injury suffered by fellow guard and potential center candidate Donald Thomas. Mewhort and second-year right guard Hugh Thornton will both need to perform right away.
Inquiring minds wonder if this is running back Trent Richardson’s last chance to prove he was worth the 2014 first-round pick Grigson sent to Cleveland last year. The former No. 3 overall selection — after Luck and Robert Griffin III — averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was a step slow. The Colts considered the alternatives and re-signed veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, lost after three games to a neck injury. The team was hopeful to get Vick Ballard, steady as a rookie in 2012, back after he missed last season with a knee injury, but he tore his Achilles early in training camp. It’s hard to believe Richardson will suddenly blossom, but Ballard's already out for the season and Bradshaw has had trouble staying healthy. It's possible someone else emerges, but don’t be surprised if Bradshaw gets most of the workload.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has been a leader, but he’s coming off knee surgery that shortened last season to seven games. At 35 and entering the final year of his contract, Wayne has to return to some semblance of his six-time Pro Bowl form. He’s looked strong in rehab. Hakeem Nicks has something to prove after the Colts took a one-year chance on the ex-Giants target. T.Y. Hilton emerged as a go-to player, but the idea is to share the wealth and not be forced to rely on an undersized speedster. Tight end Dwayne Allen is back after missing almost all of last season with a hip injury. He scraped the surface of his talent as a rookie and could have a breakout year. Third-year pro Coby Fleener is a decent tight end, not flashy but reliable.
While the Colts were ninth in points allowed at 21 per game, coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit had issues getting stops. Expect inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) and defensive end Arthur Jones (Baltimore) to shore up the 26th-ranked run defense. Jackson is a tackling machine in the mold of Colts’ top tackler Jerrell Freeman. Jones is versatile and can play anywhere on the line.
The Colts paid big bucks to bring back cornerback Vontae Davis, who excels at the press coverage this 3-4 scheme requires. While effective as a shutdown corner, he’s also been inconsistent. The Colts are paying him $39 million over four years to be one of the NFL’s best cover guys. On the other side, injury-prone Greg Toler lived up to his reputation with just seven starts. When Davis and Toler were on the field together, the 13th-ranked pass defense was effective. But depth is an issue with Josh Gordy and Darius Butler vying for playing time at nickel. They’ve made plays, but they’ve been burned, too.
Robert Mathis, at 33, is still one of the game’s elite pass-rushers. But the Colts will be without the league’s reigning sack champion (19.5) for the first four games of the season due to a league-mandated suspension. With or without Mathis, the Colts need more help rushing the quarterback. Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the 2013 first-round pick, got hurt early and struggled. He’ll get every opportunity to rack up sacks, considering that outside linebacker Erik Walden is more suited to stopping the run. Mindful of a lack of pass-rush depth, Grigson used a fifth-round pick on Ball State outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, who had 16.5 sacks in 23 games for the Cardinals. At best, he’s a situational pass-rusher.
The Colts didn’t keep safety Antoine Bethea, so there’s a hole next to hard-hitting LaRon Landry. Expect Delano Howell, undrafted in 2012, to get the first crack at free safety, provided the neck injury he sustained during training camp doesn't turn out to be too serious. Howell was reliable in six games last season before injuring his foot. Special teams ace Sergio Brown might also get a look and veteran Mike Adams has been added to the mix as well.
Pagano was a defensive coordinator in Baltimore, so nothing less than marked improvement is the expectation. But if the Colts struggle again against the run and don’t have a consistent pass rush, the scheme unravels.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee were re-signed. While Vinatieri is 41, he was given a two-year contract after showing he still has the leg for long kicks (4-of-6 from 50-plus) and is accurate (35-of-40 overall). McAfee has a strong leg and is excellent on kickoffs and as a holder. Long-snapper Matt Overton is back after going to his first Pro Bowl.
The Colts have struggled to find successful returners — not so much on punts where Hilton has excelled, but on kickoffs. It’s been a revolving door for years. Reserve running back Daniel Herron, wide receiver Griff Whalen and undrafted rookie Loucheiz Purifoy are among the candidates to likely get the first opportunities this season, especially if the coaching staff decides to lessen Hilton's workload.
So many “ifs” suggest that the Colts aren’t quite there yet for a Super Bowl run. But don’t count them out. Despite past injuries and ineffectiveness at key spots, they’re a resilient bunch that rallies around Pagano and often overachieves. The simplified synopsis is this team will go as far as Luck can take them if he gets help. Luck pressed in the playoffs, hence his seven interceptions, but he took better care of the ball in his second season and improved his completion percentage. The run game has to be better and his pass-catchers only need to be reliable for the Colts to field one of the best offenses. That takes some of the pressure off the defense, but this team won’t get to the AFC title game or Super Bowl without stops. It can’t be a carbon copy of so many Manning teams that just tried to outscore opponents.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC South
Utah won just five games last season but somehow managed to topple mighty Stanford on a fourth quarter, goal-line stand in the waning minutes. It nearly cost the Cardinal a Pac-12 title and did cost Stanford a chance at a national title.
Tennessee has lost seven games four straight seasons but figured out a way to stop Connor Shaw and beat an 11-win South Carolina team last fall. That loss kept the Gamecocks from playing for an SEC title.
A five-loss Arizona team beat Oregon with a Pac-12 title on the line, knocking the Ducks out of the conference championship game.
Notre Dame, a middle-of-the-pack team that lost to Pitt and Michigan, was the only team capable of knocking off Michigan State a year ago. It cost Sparty a chance at a BCS title.
Monumental, championship-altering upsets are a part of college football as much as marching bands and tailgates. It’s part of what makes the game great. The 2014 season won’t be any different.
Here’s a tip: Look for well-coached teams at home against higher-ranked opponents.
Washington over UCLA (Nov. 8)
Many are on board the Bruins train because of all the key home games. Well, UCLA has to travel to the Pacific Northwest to face the physical Huskies in Seattle late in the year. Chris Petersen has all the talent and physicality to pull off the home upset with UCLA looking ahead to USC.
Texas Tech or TCU over Oklahoma
Part of why the Sooners have me doubting my College Football Playoff predictions is that this team wasn’t nearly as good as its 11-win, Big 12-title winning resume indicated from last year. The Sooners topped TCU and Texas Tech in Norman by a total of 11 points last year. Both games are on the road this fall and both the Frogs and Red Raiders could be better.
Missouri over Georgia (Oct. 11)
The Dawgs have averaged 4.6 losses per season over the last five years and a mid-season trip to Missouri could end their SEC East title hopes. The Tigers won in Athens last year with Maty Mauk playing quarterback and now they get Georgia at home. The Tigers will upset someone and odds are it’s UGA.
Maryland over Michigan State (Nov. 15)
The Spartans have more than one tough road trip this fall but only one will happen six days after beating (that’s right) Ohio State. A late-season road trip after toppling the mighty Buckeyes is prime “letdown alert” territory. If the Terps can stay healthy, they have the weapons on offense and the coaching to match up with Michigan State in a one-game showdown.
Florida over South Carolina (Nov. 15)
It may not be a big upset by the time the game rolls around (because the Gators will be markedly improved by that time) but Florida beating South Carolina could knock the Gamecocks out of the SEC title game. This was a 44-11 beatdown for Florida two years ago and was almost a Gators' win in Columbia last year (19-14).
Utah over Oregon (Nov. 8)
The more obvious upset picks for the Ducks are trips to Washington State and Oregon State — since both the Beavers and Cougars figure to be better than the Utes. But Utah plays extremely well at home, upsetting Stanford last year and nearly beating UCLA and Arizona State as well. Oregon will be coming off a home game with Stanford the week before and will be physically exhausted when it heads to Salt Lake City.
LSU over Alabama (Nov. 8)
I don’t see Alabama going undefeated and I don’t see Alabama losing to any school from the state of Mississippi. So where does Bama lose? Baton Rouge is the best bet. LSU could be out of the SEC West race by the time this game comes along and a win over Alabama would cast an entirely different light on the season.
Northwestern over Wisconsin (Oct. 4)
The Wildcats have foiled a Badger season many times before and 2014 could be more of the same for Big Red faithful. A trip to Evanston to start Big Ten play is a dangerous way to begin for Wisconsin. Northwestern figures to be much improved and fired up to get B1G play underway.
Ole Miss or Mississippi State over Auburn
The Tigers' road schedule is arguably the worst in the nation and trips to Oxford and Starkville aren’t even the toughest trips facing Auburn (at Alabama). The trip to face Mississippi State is especially poorly placed between home games with LSU and South Carolina. The Ole Miss bout will come immediately after the home tilt with the Gamecocks. One of these trips to the Magnolia State will be costly.
Pitt over Virginia Tech (Oct. 16)
There are many believe the Panthers to be a sleeper pick to win the Coastal Division. While, I cannot go that far (yet), I will agree that Paul Chryst’s club is a dangerous one that will pull an upset (or two) this fall. Pitt could beat Iowa, both Virginia and Georgia Tech and Duke before it’s all said and done this fall.
The trick to keeping your composure — and your lunch — on those mid-summer stair runs is a sturdy meal.
Weeks before camp, Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein watched as many of teammates ran the stairs at Camp Randall. Many gave out and ran to a garbage can. Not Melvin Gordon.
“It depends on what you eat,” Gordon said. “There are different things that play a factor. I try to hold it together.”
Havenstein says Gordon is just being modest. He’s watched Wisconsin’s star running back push himself to the brink in more places than just the stadium steps.
“You felt like he wasn’t satisfied,” Havenstein said.
Gordon isn’t satisfied with what his role can be for Wisconsin. For the last two seasons, he’s been a piece in Badgers’ ground game machine but not the complete focal point.
That will change Saturday against LSU.
A running back leading the way for Wisconsin isn’t a new development, but the Badgers will lean on Gordon in ways they haven’t in recent years.
When Gordon was a freshman, he was the third-leading rusher behind Montee Ball and James White. Last season, Gordon and White split carries essentially half and half. Gordon has only had to carry the ball 20 times in a game twice during the last two seasons. But now White is gone, and Gordon’s new running mate is sophomore Corey Clement, who carried 57 times for 547 yards last season.
At the same time, Wisconsin has a questionable situation in the passing game where former defensive back Tanner McEvoy is set to take over for incumbent drop-back passer Joel Stave. Either way, the Wisconsin quarterback does not have a returning receiver who caught more than 10 passes last season.
In other words, the Wisconsin offense may begin and end with Gordon.
“He’s said it many times: he wants to be a feature back on a great Wisconsin team,” second-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s the feature back, and let’s see if we’re a great team.”
Andersen will find out where Wisconsin stands in a hurry. The Badgers are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the Big Ten West, but their clout on the national stage will be determined by Saturday’s opener in Houston against LSU.
Though the Tigers generally have a stout defense, LSU’s front seven has been decimated by early entries to the NFL Draft in recent years. The Tigers replaced both defensive tackles and shuffled a linebacker corps that underachieved last season.
Even if the LSU defense is rebuilding, Gordon intends to be ready.
He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries last season and has been among the national leaders in yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. With fresh legs, Gordon has averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his career.
Without Ball, White or a consistent passing game, Gordon may need to retain that explosiveness even if he’s regularly hitting the 20-carry mark, something that’s never been required of him. He also hopes to be a more consistent presence on third down.
As a redshirt sophomore, Gordon could have left for the NFL in a draft that didn’t see a running back selected until the 54th pick. Even if Gordon would have left school early and been the first back selected, he had no guarantee of being a coveted first-round pick. That may have to wait.
“Melvin had a laundry list of what he wanted to get better at, and I completely agreed,” Andersen said. “A couple things are important him — grasping of pre-snap awareness, what’s out there on the defensive side of the football. And No. 2 Melvin wants to be a very good pass protector. He’s worked hard at that and he wants to be more involved in the throw game.”
While Andersen says he’s watched Gordon work with the passing machine after practice, he had to put a stop to Gordon’s work in the weight room.
The 510-pound squat was where he drew the line.
“Who cares how much more he can squat?” Andersen said.
Gordon, it seems, agreed.
“I have a problem sometimes,” Gordon said. “I worked really hard last year and every year I feel like I’m not working as hard as I worked last year. Sometimes it probably hurts me more than it helps. My strength coaches talked to me about it because you don’t want your body to fail you during camp.”
Gordon will be far too important to Wisconsin’s hopes in 2014 beyond just the opener against LSU. The Badgers will need Gordon fresh for a November stretch that could determine the division. Wisconsin’s final three regular season games will be against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
At least Andersen knows he won’t need to be a taskmaster for his key player before then.
“Some kids they walk out of the facility, you wonder how much do they really care about football,” Andersen said. “With that one you don’t have to worry about it.”
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
With two races remaining in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, two rookies in this year’s crop have realistic, albeit uneasy, chances of making the Chase. Kyle Larson sits 26 points behind bubble driver Greg Biffle, while Austin Dillon is a more daunting 40 points behind. They head to an intermediate track this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, which has quietly hosted a pair of entertaining events the past two years.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
A crash disrupted Larson’s Michigan outing and a qualifying accident halted what was evolving into a grand weekend on the high banks of Bristol. That’s a shame, because now the rookie will have to press a bit more in the next two weeks in order to become the first rookie since Denny Hamlin to clinch a Chase spot. Atlanta, a quad-oval track that offers a competitive high groove under nighttime skies seems up Larson’s ally, especially considering he is a) as efficient of a passer at fast intermediate tracks (52.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency) as he is at all normal tracks (a season-long 52.81 percent) and b) he is a more efficient passer at night (54.84 percent) than he is in the day (51.87 percent).
Twenty-six points is not an easy discrepancy to make up in two weeks, but he has proved, this season especially, that he’s capable of pulling off the improbable. A great run at Atlanta could conceivably ignite a playoff-making run.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
The bad news is that Dillon was a non-factor at Bristol, which didn’t help his long-shot Chase chance. The good news is that Dillon embarks on a fast intermediate track this weekend, a track type at which he hasn’t finished in the bottom half of a field all season. Coupled with his recent surge, mentioned in this space two weeks ago, the No. 3 team likely approaches the Peach State this weekend with a big appetite. Crew chief Gil Martin, who jumped Dillon a net total of 19 positions through green-flag pit cycles the last four races, should prepare to employ the strategy that proved successful because Dillon isn’t an above-passer passer on intermediate tracks, sporting a 49.04 percent pass efficiency this year in events at similar facilities.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Omit the crash and corresponding 42nd-place finish at Michigan and Allgaier finished 16th, 17th and 19th in his last three clean races. It’s a move in the right direction for the rookie who, despite some above-value passing, suffered through rough outings even when displaying flashes near the front of the field. This weekend’s race at Atlanta could serve as a true test of whether Allgaier has improved. Why? Because Allgaier is plus passer everywhere but at fast intermediate tracks like Atlanta. In races at similar facilities — Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte — he holds a negative adjusted pass differential (minus-23).
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
Outside of the enigmatic Greg Biffle, Whitt might be the most difficult driver to evaluate in all of the Cup Series. Despite finishing 30th at Bristol, his passing during the event was admirable; his plus-7.69 percent surplus passing value ranked sixth in the race among all 43 drivers. That performance broke up a three-race skid of below-par passing, though he scored finishes of 21st at Pocono and 25th at Michigan during that time frame. Somehow, there seems to be a silver lining in every Cole Whitt performance.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)
Annett’s last two outings were brutal and both ended prematurely, resulting in finishes of 40th at Michigan, due to the effects of an early crash kick-started by Danica Patrick, and 38th at Bristol. Amazingly, his passing efforts, after improving from the first quarter of the season to the second, have continued to blossom; in all circle track races dating back to the second New Hampshire race, he is an above-par passer, amassing an efficiency of 50.88 percent.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Speed can cure a lot of what ails a race a team and Bowman’s No. 23 at horsepower-hungry Michigan was a terrific example of this. Bowman passed below value (48.53 percent efficiency, 2.67 percent below his average running position’s expected efficiency) and crew chief Dave Winston gave up seven positions across two green-flag pit cycles. But Bowman’s car ranked 27th in average green-flag speed for the race, a whole 10 spots higher than his season-long rank, and he capitalized on it by finishing 26th despite the other poor peripheral numbers.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
Truex, 0.105 points above replacement-level in MotorsportsAnalytics.com’s most recent Production in Equal Equipment Ratings, took a massive hit — literally — in a practice crash at Michigan. He suffered a concussion and sat out the race two weeks ago, replaced by the immortal J.J. Yeley. Truex returned to the BK Racing seat at Bristol, but was registered with a 37th-place finish after blowing an engine.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
College football season is finally here and the guys preview the opening weekend of the season. Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan make picks, talk upsets, discuss Braxton Miller's injury and argue about fall weddings.
Tiger Woods is the one golfer who can make news without picking up a club, earning headlines recently when he had parted ways with swing coach Sean Foley. And Tiger's knack for eliciting strong opinions is not limited to fans and media. Over the weekend at the Barclays, we persuaded many of his peers on the PGA Tour to share their anonymous opinions of Tiger, who may be currently out of sight but is never out of mind.
Will Tiger ever get back to where he was?
"There is no chance Tiger gets back to being at his absolute dominant best from 2000 and times like that. He was as close to unbeatable as you can get in golf back in some of those stretches. But he can certainly get back to a point where he wins more than once in a season."
"I always say, never write off a champion, and Tiger Woods is a champion."
"It depends on the definition. Tiger early 2000 is probably unattainable ever again for anyone. But Tiger 2013 with five wins … I could see that potentially happening once more if he can truly get his body right."
"Tiger Woods will never be as dominant as he was. He will never strike fear into people the way he once did. He used to beat players with his B and even C game because he had them between the ears, but not anymore."
"Back to his best? No. Back to being number one in the game? He could easily do that if healthy."
"I am not prepared to say no. I am probably leaning towards no, but he’s the type that proves people wrong. It is easier for the rest of us if he isn’t at his dominant best!"
"I think age catches up with all of us. And while Tiger can be successful again, I don’t think he can ever be as good as he was at his absolute best. That doesn’t mean he can’t be awesome, just not as good as he was."
Will Tiger challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?
"I don’t think so. If he can win one next season, he has a small chance, but if he doesn’t then I think it will be a bridge too far."
"Yes. He will win a major or two in 2015, if he really truly can get fit again and then it will be on. You can see the determination in his eyes at majors. All he needs is to be fit and get a little bit of luck and once he gets number 15, over that hump, I think old Tiger will be back."
"I would love to see him get to 18 near the end of his career and then be a great side story at some majors while he’s heading towards retirement. It would be great if he had a Tom Watson Open Championship moment at the Masters."
"Probably not. I think golf fans and even some players would like to see it. There was a time you thought he could get 25 but now it seems the number 15 is a hurdle he can’t get over."
"Won’t even sniff it. There is just too much talent out here now and his body is not up to the challenge."
"Can’t really see it happening any more. But he’s closer than any of the rest of us, and if he did it would be very impressive."
"Sadly, I think his chance at that might have gone."
Should Tiger change teachers (maybe go back to Butch Harmon)?
Note: We posed this question before the news broke that Woods had parted ways with swing coach Sean Foley.
"A coach is a personal choice and you do what feels right for you so for me to suggest who he should go to would be kind of pointless."
"I can’t see Tiger going back to someone he has had before. Maybe he might make another change at some point but he won plenty of times since taking on Sean (Foley)."
"Yes, he should go back to his 2000 swing with Butch. But he won’t."
"Butch is probably one of the game’s best coaches but I’m not sure Tiger is the type to go back. The only person who probably knows what fit is best is Tiger himself."
"At this point I don’t think it would matter who Tiger had coaching him. Probably someone with experience in minimizing strain on the back."
"I would not be surprised if he changes again very soon. But he won’t got to Butch."
Are Tiger’s problems purely physical?
"Not purely but it is a big part. Back surgery, or any surgery in golf is hard to overcome. It is one thing to be healthy again but the difference out here is so close between players anything slightly off can be magnified."
"Almost. He still seems very determined to win."
"I haven’t seen his doctor's notes, nor am I a doctor, so I cannot judge how much of it is physical and what isn’t. I am sure there are some mental scars, because when you have injuries it is very hard not to be thinking about them."
"When you have physical problems it is almost always followed by mental issues as you worry about the injuries and other things instead of just playing golf."
Will Tiger be missed on the Ryder Cup team?
"No doubt. Of course his presence will be missed. You can’t tell me at least half the European side would not be a little afraid if it came down to a singles match against Tiger on Sunday."
"Is that a trick question? The guy is a 14-time major winner with tons of team play experience. Even half fit he would be missed."
"Of course. It is impossible to replace his experience and determination and will to win."
"A little bit, yeah, but the team will be better off not having to try to carry an unfit Tiger. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to sit out at all so it could have been a difficult situation for Tom Watson."
"A fit Tiger would have been a big weapon for the U.S. team, but unfit, he may have just been a passenger and could have actually provided the Europeans with more confidence."
"Yes. You can’t buy experience like his."
"Not in the shape he was in. The European team will be full of stars, and any unfit golfer would have trouble earning points against them."
Can golf thrive without Tiger at the top?
"Yes. Maybe not at the same level, at least for a while, but there is always new talent coming. Rory (McIlroy) and Rickie (Fowler) and guys like this can carry the torch of new viewers."
"Not like it did when he was at his best. But with some careful planning and the right moves the transition, whenever it comes, could be smoother."
"It survived and thrived in times before Tiger and it will do the same again."
"I think so. It is up to all of us to provide quality golf, quality contests and relate to the fans as best we can."
"It will take golf a long time to get back to the massive popularity it had when he was dominant. Plus things like cost to play, time to play and other issues need to be sorted to help the sport grow."
"Yes, but it needs young guys to keep playing well. People like dominance in sports. Guys like Rory, Rickie, Jason Day and the like need to take the torch."
"The game was around well before Tiger and will be around 300 years after him. All sports have their ups and downs."
Can Rory McIlroy fill the post-Tiger void?
"If he gets on and stays on these dominant runs he can. But doing that will be one almighty task. It might fall on Rory and a few other guys with him."
"It doesn’t need to just be Rory. But maybe a few guys in a so-called rivalry with him. If a handful of guys like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama or even guys a little older like Adam Scott and Bubba Watson could consistently go toe to toe with him it could get really exciting."
"The fans certainly seem to have warmed to him and he’s playing great, so why not?"
"Yes he can. But so can at least 10 other guys should they get on similar runs."
"Golf could really move into an era now where a handful of guys are in the mix in the big events creating great Sunday finishes over and over again."
"Sure. He showed at the British Open he can play the dominant golfer and then at the PGA Championship the way he made the turn when it looked he was being beaten and stepped it up to win shows he is more than the real deal."
Compiled by Ben Everill
Follow him on Twitter @beneverill
Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury may end up having the most impact of any departure all season, but it won’t be the only one. The Ohio State quarterback and Heisman contender is one of a handful of key players who saw their seasons end before it even started.
Every year, injuries, suspensions and departures put teams in a bind in the final weeks and days before the season. These are the top players who will be absent in 2014.
We’ve dubbed this the “All-Gone” team for 2014, though no player wants to find his name on this list. All the players listed will be out of action for the entire 2014 season. All have sustained their injuries or suspensions since the end of spring practice.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Reason: Shoulder injury
The Buckeyes’ Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes were thrown into question after Miller re-injured his shoulder. Ohio State instead turns the quarterback position to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
RB Venric Mark, Northwestern
Reason: Transfer to Division II West Texas A&M
The exact circumstances of Mark’s departure remain a mystery, but he would have been a key player in Northwestern’s bid to bounce back from a 5-7 season. Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last full season in 2012.
RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Oklahoma hoped Mixon, a five-star prospect, would become the kind of dynamic running back OU has lacked since DeMarco Murray in 2010. Instead, he’ll serve a season-long suspension after an alleged assault of a female Oklahoma student.
WR Christian Jones, Northwestern
Reason: Knee injury
After a cursed 2013, Northwestern got an early start to bad news in 2014. Jones, who led the Wildcats at 668 receiving yards last season, had his season-ending injury announced on the same day as Mark’s departure.
WR DaVaris Daniels, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removal” from team
Daniels is one of four casualties stemming from an investigation of academic fraud at Notre Dame (the school hasn’t gone so far as to say the players are suspended or dismissed). Daniels was the top returning receiver for the Irish after catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
TE Braxton Deaver, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Deaver was second on the Blue Devils last season in receptions (46) and yards (600). Jamison Crowder will be the only returning receiver with more than 30 catches and 300 yards.
OL Tyler Johnstone, Oregon
Reason: Torn ACL
Johnstone’s knee injury is the only thing preventing the Ducks from returning all five offensive line starters. His injury is also the second major setback for the offense after the Ducks lost receiver Bralon Addison in the spring.
OL Damien Robinson, Mississippi State
Reason: Torn ACL
The 6-8, 325-pound lineman was projected to start at tackle after Mississippi State lost standouts Gabe Jackson and Charles Siddoway.
OL Alex Kozan, Auburn
Reason: Back injury
Auburn hoped to go into 2014 with its interior offensive line intact. That won’t happen with back surgery for Kozan, the returning left guard who was an SEC all-freshman performer last season.
OL Moise Larose, Maryland
Offensive line has not been immune to Maryland’s rash of injuries and departures in recent years. Larose himself moved into a starting role at left tackle in the final four games last season when Mike Madaras left the program. Larose was suspended for a violation of the athletic department’s code of conduct
OL Drew Carroll, Rice
Reason: Kidney disease
Carroll had made 25 career starts for the defending Conference USA champions before a kidney condition ended his career. Carroll could face a kidney transplant or dialysis treatment.
DL Devonte Fields, TCU
Reason: Transfer to Stephen F. Austin
Fields earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 after recording 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss. Fields missed all but three games last season due to injury and ended his career at TCU after an arrest for misdemeanor assault stemming from an incident with his ex-girlfriend.
DL Carl Lawson, Auburn
Reason: Torn ACL
Lawson was expected to be a major cog in a pass rush that lost Dee Ford. Lawson had four sacks as an SEC all-freshman performer.
DL Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech
Reason: Academic ineligibility
Hunt-Days was declared academically ineligible after spring practice and headed to Georgia Military College. He was expected to start at defensive end in the new nickel defense after picking up 7.5 tackles for a loss as a linebacker last year.
LB Frank Shannon, Oklahoma
Shannon’s status has not been cemented yet, but Oklahoma’s leading tackler is appealing the university’s decision to suspend him for a year. Shannon is facing a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Brown returned from two ACL surgeries on his right knee to become an All-ACC performer for the Coastal Division champs. Now, he’ll miss the season after sustaining a torn ACL in his left knee.
LB Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska
Reason: Knee injury
Rose-Ivey would have entered 2014 with plenty of momentum after racking up 49 tackles in the final five games of last season. The middle linebacker’s 66 total tackles was a freshman record for the Huskers.
LB Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
Claiborne was one of two defensive starters dismissed in June along with nose guard Isaiah Golden. Linebacker may have been a weak spot a year ago, but Claiborne’s departure dwindles the numbers.
DB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removed” from team
Russell was arguably the biggest loss among the four players Notre Dame removed from the roster. He was a rising star at cornerback who could have challenged for All-America honors. Projected starting defensive end Ishaq Williams also was lost due to the investigation.
DB Shaq Wiggins, Georgia
Georgia’s troubled secondary took another hit when Wiggins, who started eight games as a freshman, elected to transfer at the end of spring practice.
DB Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami
Reason: Back injury
One of the strengths of the Miami defense took a hit when Jenkins, a returning starter at strong safety, was lost for the season to a chronic back injury. He recorded 46 tackles and three interceptions last year.
DB Jered Bell, Colorado
Reason: Torn ACL
A fifth-year senior who already missed a year due to a torn ACL won’t have a chance to follow up his breakout season. Bell is a returning starter who had 71 tackles last year.
K Ross Krautman, Syracuse
Reason: Hip injury
Krautman, who hadn’t played since the second game of 2013, will end his career due to a chronic hip injury. Krautman was 49-of-63 on field goals in his career.
P Sean Covington, UCLA
Reason: Academically ineligible
Covington left the program due to eligibility concerns. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt last season
Expectations are high in San Diego after the Chargers rallied to return to the playoffs following a three-year absence. Fans mostly like what they see in coach Mike McCoy and GM Tom Telesco, who took over after Norv Turner and A.J. Smith were fired following the 2012 season. Of course, the road to the Super Bowl goes through division rival Denver, which beat the Chargers in the divisional round. San Diego didn’t exactly charge into the playoffs, but its four-game December winning streak was the difference as Miami and Baltimore faltered. Although McCoy made some glaring mistakes as a rookie coach, he and Telesco have changed the mindset at Chargers Park.
McCoy was right. Philip Rivers didn’t need to be fixed. Everyone else around him needed to get better. That’s why the Chargers remain Rivers’ team, whether he’s throwing to Keenan Allen or Antonio Gates or handing off to Ryan Mathews. Rivers will turn 33 in December, when he hopes to again be leading a late-season run that will get the Bolts into the postseason. After two rough seasons, the franchise quarterback adjusted to McCoy’s quicker-tempo offense and had one of the best statistical seasons of his 10-year NFL career. He completed a team-record, career-best and NFL-leading 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. Frank Reich has been promoted to offensive coordinator after Ken Whisenhunt was hired as head coach at Tennessee, and Reich is expected to continue to run the offense that has Rivers dropping back only three steps before throwing. The Chargers also sometimes run a no-huddle.
Besides Rivers’ resurgence, the most pleasant surprise for the Chargers was Allen’s emergence. The third-round draft pick didn’t even play in the season opener but was a starter by the third game. Showing a remarkable knack for getting separation from defenders, he went on to catch 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He goes into this season holding down one starting spot. The Chargers are waiting to find out if Malcom Floyd will return after he sustained a scary, season-ending neck injury in the season’s second game. Gates remains motivated, in part because some outsiders have written him off as being over the hill. He’ll be 34 by opening day, yet he’s coming off a 77-catch season that led the Bolts. The Chargers are excited about his backup, third-year pro Ladarius Green.
Mathews heads into the final year of his rookie contract. If this season is like last year, when he ran for a career-best 1,255 yards and scored six touchdowns, the Chargers will be trying to figure out a way to keep him. Mathews played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time and avoided the kind of major injuries that sidelined him in previous years. Little Danny Woodhead will once again provide a nice change of pace and he signed a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp.
The Chargers didn’t have a bruiser to replace Mathews when he went out of the playoff game at Denver, so they signed free agent Donald Brown, who was Indianapolis’ first-round draft pick in 2009, and used their sixth-round draft pick on Arizona State’s Marion Grice.
The offensive line isn’t nearly the mystery it was last offseason. Coach Joe D’Alessandris has his players ready to move around if needed. King Dunlap has settled in at left tackle, and the unit is anchored by center Nick Hardwick, who’s entering his 11th season. D.J. Fluker settled in at right tackle during his rookie season, though he also made three starts at left tackle.
Only three NFL teams had pass defenses more porous than San Diego’s, which is why Telesco used his first two draft picks and three of the first four on defensive players. First-round pick Jason Verrett is expected to start at cornerback opposite Shareece Wright. Second-round pick, outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu, and fourth-round pick, nose tackle Ryan Carrethers, will at the very least be in the rotation if they don’t earn a starting job.
The focus is on competing with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver won two of the three games between the teams last year, including in the divisional round of the playoffs.
If anything, the Chargers will have fresh legs in the secondary. Verrett is only 5'10" but is tough and confident, and cornerback Steve Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is ready to go after missing last year with a training camp injury. San Diego also signed Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers after he was released by Kansas City in June as a salary cap casualty.
The Chargers certainly have the makings of a tough defense. One of their first offseason moves was to re-sign one of their own, inside linebacker Donald Butler, before he could hit the free-agent market. Butler is a thumper who helps set the tone and wanted to stay in San Diego rather than try to collect a big paycheck elsewhere. Butler plays next to Manti Te’o, who will be looking to build on a solid rookie season. There were times early last season when Te’o always seemed to be a step behind, but he came on late and was sixth on the team in tackles. He’s still waiting to make a big signature play, be it an interception, sack or fumble recovery.
The Chargers will find out if outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has anything left. He returns for the final year of a two-year contract after missing most of 2013 with a quadriceps injury. The Chargers are looking to Freeney to help tutor Attaochu, a rookie linebacker who is expected to add speed on the edge of San Diego’s 3-4 defense. Attaochu set Georgia Tech’s career sacks record with 31.5. San Diego’s defense came on late in the year, coinciding with the return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram from injuries.
Carrethers could be the nose tackle the Chargers have been looking for since Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Carrethers was San Diego’s fifth-round pick, cited by Telesco for his “uncommon production” in 2013 at Arkansas State, when he had 93 tackles, including eight for a loss.
The Chargers remain in good hands with kicker Nick Novak, punter Mike Scifres and long-snapper Mike Windt. Novak set a team record with a 91.9 percent conversion rate, 34-of-37. He was 11-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. Scifres had the highest percentage in the NFL of punts inside the 20, 53.6 (30-of-56). Seventh-round draft pick Tevin Reese wasn’t part of Baylor’s return game, but he’ll be given the chance with the Chargers.
The Chargers certainly are capable of returning to the playoffs, but they’re going to have their hands full. With a killer schedule, they don’t have room for the kind of mystifying losses they had last year. The Chargers did win at Kansas City and Denver, both in the season’s second half. Yet they needed about four miracles down the stretch, not to mention having to go overtime at home to beat the Chiefs’ backups in the season finale in order to make the playoffs. The Chargers spent most of December scoreboard-watching because of a midseason slump. They can’t push their luck like that this year, or they’ll be staying home in January.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC West
The Cardinals’ goal this year is simple but also extraordinary: Become the first team in NFL history to turn the Super Bowl into a home game. Super Bowl XLIX will be played Feb. 1 in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and the Cardinals believe they’ve put together a team that can topple the pecking order in the NFC.
That’s a tough task given that they’re in the same division as the two best teams in the conference, Seattle and San Francisco. But there’s no question that Arizona is trending in the right direction under second-year coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
Keim has proven to be an astute judge of talent both in the draft and free agency, and Arians, who likes to think of himself as the “cool uncle,” has the players’ trust and respect.
It was the Cardinals’ bad luck last season to finish 10–6 and not make the playoffs while Green Bay finished 8–7–1 and hosted a playoff game. Maybe the football gods owe Arizona one this season. Like, say, a home game in February.
It all begins, or ends, with quarterback Carson Palmer. There are times when Palmer looks like he’s color-blind — he threw 22 interceptions in 2013 — but he’s tough, and he throws a great deep ball, a prerequisite in Arians’ offense. It’s too late for Palmer, 34, to again be an elite quarterback in the league, but he can be effective. The key is to avoid too many games like he had against Seattle last year, when he completed just 13-of-25 passes and was intercepted four times. The Cardinals accept that Palmer is going to have an off Sunday or two — he has so much confidence in his arm that he sometimes forces throws, leading to picks. But as long as the good outweighs the bad, the team can live with the inconsistency.
Palmer should have a cleaner pocket from which to operate — he was sacked 41 times last season — because the Cardinals have dramatically upgraded their offensive line, particularly on the left side. Left tackle has been a problem spot for years, but the Cardinals signed free agent Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal after the Raiders inexplicably didn’t franchise tag the 27-year-old. Jonathan Cooper, the team’s top pick last year and the seventh overall selection, will be plugged into the left guard spot after missing all of last season with a broken leg. He has Pro Bowl potential. If there’s a question mark up front, it’s at right tackle, where the Cardinals don’t have a ready replacement for Eric Winston.
Like many teams, the Cardinals have gone to a committee at running back, and they have an ideal combo in second-year pros Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor. Ellington was a revelation as a rookie. He’s a home-run hitter — the best comparison is a younger version of Darren Sproles — who averaged 5.5 yards per rush and has the potential to wow you every time he touches the ball. But, at 5'9" and 199 pounds, Ellington can’t handle a heavy workload. That’s where Taylor comes in. The Stanford product is a more effective inside rusher, and he’ll allow the Cardinals to limit Ellington’s carries to 15 or so per game.
The running game will serve as an appetizer to Arians’ love for the deep passing game. Don’t be surprised if this is the year Michael Floyd supplants Larry Fitzgerald as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Floyd had more receiving yards (1,041) than Fitzgerald (954) last year. Fitzgerald, who will turn 31 in late August, is simply not as dominant as he once was. The Cardinals needed a third receiver after losing Andre Roberts to Washington, and they filled the void by signing Ted Ginn, who had 36 catches and five touchdowns last year with Carolina.
When at full strength, the Cardinals have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They ranked sixth in total defense last year, first in rushing defense and allowed just 20.3 points per game. Unfortunately, injuries and other circumstances have already significantly impacted this unit's depth chart.
The biggest blow came on Aug. 18 when veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee during a training camp practice. Dockett enjoyed a bounce-back year under coordinator Todd Bowles last season. Now even more of the burden will fall on fellow end Calais Campbell, who plays at a Pro Bowl level, even if he is snubbed by the voters every year. Nose tackle Dan Williams likely will never live up to his draft position (26th pick overall in 2010), but he’s become an effective player who can disrupt the inside running game. The team also added veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on a one-year deal to take Dockett's roster spot.
If there’s a concern defensively, it’s at linebacker. Karlos Dansby was the team’s best player last year, but he left for bigger dollars in Cleveland. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington was expected to anchor the defense in Dansby's absence, but he has been suspended for all of 2014 for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Additionally, fellow veteran John Abraham, who led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013, could be facing league discipline stemming from a DUI incident in June. Arizona does have 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter waiting in the wings, but he's dealing with a strained pectoral muscle. The bottom line is that more than one player will have to step up in order for this group to be effective.
If there is a silver lining for this defense, it's in the secondary. Arizona has two shutdown corners in Patrick Peterson and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie and a dynamic playmaking free safety in Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu likely will miss most of training camp as he recovers from knee surgery, but Arizona expects him back early in the season. Peterson, a first-team All-Pro last season, signed a five-year, $70 million ($48 million guaranteed) contract extension in late July that made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
The Cardinals addressed their glaring need for a big, physical strong safety with the first-round selection of Deone Bucannon. Tight ends killed the team last year, but Arizona believes the 6'1", 208-pound Bucannon can limit that damage and, over time, become the reincarnation of Adrian Wilson.
The Cardinals should have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The only question mark enterting the season is at placekicker. Despite connecting on 30 of 36 field goal attempts last season, Arizona cut veteran Jay Feely near the end of training camp. That leaves the kicking duties to undrafted rookie Chandler Cantanzaro, who was one of college football's most productive kicker during his tenure at Clemson. Punter Dave Zastudil is one of the best in the business at placing the ball inside the 20, and gunner Justin Bethel made the Pro Bowl last year for his coverage skills. The big offseason addition was Ginn, who will replace Peterson on punt returns and give Arizona some much-needed explosiveness on kick returns. Ginn averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 23.8 yards per kick return in 2013.
If they were in any other division and they were completely healthy, the Cardinals would be considered a sure-fire playoff team. At full strength, they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, their offense should benefit from the upgraded offensive line, and Palmer should be more effective now that he’s had a season to digest Arians’ offensive system. But, of course, the Cardinals reside in the NFC West, home of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and much-improved St. Louis Rams. That combined with the personnel losses on defense have made what was already a tough road to the postseason that much more difficult. It’s hard to imagine these Cardinals being able to take that next step and supplant both the Seahawks and 49ers — unless both those teams suffer an important long-term injury of their own. Arizona's best option would be to earn one of the Wild Card berths, but remember the Cardinals went 10-6 last season and didn't get in.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC West
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 26:
• We may not care about tennis, but I think we can all agree that it boasts some of sports' loveliest ladies, like Maria Sharapova.
• The Yankees haven't lost since Shawn Kelley bought a rubber horse head. If they lose, that head will wind up in someone's bed.
• According to Mike Schmidt, Bud Selig had a plan in place to reinstate Pete Rose before Charlie Hustle screwed it up.
• Tennessee is getting pretty creative with its recruiting, although I bet this kid's never read Rolling Stone, since he's under 50.
• Master photobomber Chris Bosh struck last night at the Emmys. His victim: Matthew McConaughey.
• This is alarming: Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen had his truck torched. Imagine what will happen when the season goes south.
• Watch a solitary bee disrupt the proceedings at the U.S. Open.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Penske Racing has been a multi-car team since the beginning of 1998. Despite making over 1,000 starts in the first 15 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it had only a single 1-2 finish — and that in itself was rolling snake eyes on a craps table: mastering plate-racing luck in the 2008 Daytona 500.
You’d think with its extensive experience in IndyCar, Penske would take the teamwork approach and run with it. But while other organizations like Hendrick Motorsports prided themselves on sharing information, the Penske shops operated like a modern-day Cold War. For Penske, a good week was when Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman carried out their arguments in private, scuffling at each other’s personalities, instead of dropping passive-aggressive hints through the press. Sharing setups? They were lucky to share the same space on the racetrack without hitting each other.
That was the way racing used to be. But NASCAR evolved and Penske needed to keep up. Over time, a new philosophy was put in place, but the right personnel were not there to execute. Newman was paired with the tempestuous Kurt Busch, then open-wheel convert Sam Hornish Jr., who contributed in the equivalent of a foreign language. Next up was Brad Keselowski, a man of immense talents and ideas but without the cache of consistent success to carry them out. It took Busch’s temper, combined with Keselowski’s rise to prominence, to finally put the latter, a Michigan man with Hendrick-based training, a true place at the operation’s table.
Success led to trust from the hierarchy, as the brass realized a single-car success story within a multi-car team would be short-lived. The only thing needed next was the right teammate. Hornish, banished to the Nationwide Series, never quite fit Keselowski’s unique, outgoing personality. Busch? A mentor and a cancer all in one. His high-energy replacement, AJ Allmendinger, quickly failed a drug test and suddenly there was an opening with a long list of resumes to fill it. Keselowski, despite heading straight toward a title without a real “sidekick,” became heavily involved, knowing NASCAR’s evolution and the impossibility of a two-car team competing without full cohesion going forward. Whatever selection was made had to be someone he could mold — a younger version of himself with the raw talent to match him inch-for-inch on the track.
Enter Joey Logano. In the span of two seasons, the Joe Gibbs Racing cast off has sliced through his career win total, tripling it from two to six. A pledge to follow Keselowski, become his accomplice and learn the racing world from his eyes has been fulfilled. The 25-year-old, once socially awkward and meek, comes to every media session brimming with the confidence a second chance provides. After his third win of the season at Bristol on Saturday night, he triumphantly proclaimed his team was championship material … and he’s right. Part of a 1-2 finish — the second of Penske’s tenure on the Cup circuit — it’s clear this dynamic duo is in-step both on and off the racetrack.
“Joey and I and we’ve developed a pretty good friendship,” Keselowski said about balancing both drivers’ success heading toward the Chase. “Certainly, we’re both hungry to be winners and there’s a balancing act. (But) I think we’re both legitimate threats to win the championship this year and I’m proud of that.”
Across the garage, Hendrick looms, clearly the best team over the course of the season. Penske is the underdog. But in a sense, that plays right into this team’s hands, the exact role Keselowski likes. And now, he’s got the right guy to play along.
Can they challenge? It’s a tough, uphill climb — at least for this upcoming 10-race playoff. But one thing is for certain: it won’t be 15 years before another 1-2 finish for Penske. I’m not even sure it’ll be another 15 races.
“Through the Gears,” post-Bristol we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske makes its mark
Penske’s Bristol performance was impressive, with Logano on top of his game after a late-race caution left him sixth with 63 laps left. Armed with fresh rubber on the final restart, recent history said the jig was up: in the spring, Carl Edwards won by using old tires and one less pit stop for track position. In the past, that would have been the kiss of death for a driver that struggled to find the mental focus on-track.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” said Logano. “I didn’t really think about it. I made sure I had a good start there, pass as many cars off the get go as we can, then settling in and start working on the 20 (Matt Kenseth).”
Within 10 laps, Logano was second and then he blew by Kenseth like he was stopped. Leading the final 45 laps, his third win capped off a trifecta sweep for Penske Racing drivers at Bristol: Ryan Blaney won the Nationwide race Friday night while Keselowski triumphed in the Truck Series three days earlier.
“We all contribute,” said Walt Czarnecki, Penske’s Executive Vice President. “We all have the same access to information, the same access to resources, and I think it's really demonstrated that in the performance of the team this year.”
Logano’s victory leaves Penske with six wins, three apiece for him and teammate Keselowski. Only HMS can match it, with the trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson creating a logjam atop the Sprint Cup leaderboard. HMS still seems a step above the rest but if there’s one team that can make a run, at this point it appears to be this two-car tandem.
SECOND GEAR: JGR frustration boils over
Bristol’s dragstrip is called “Thunder Valley,” but the moniker fits the half-mile oval, as well, as it’s a place where tempers routinely boil over. Typically, that frustration is aimed at a competitor, not members of one’s own team. But at Joe Gibbs Racing, a season of frustration has reached its peak. Even Kenseth, the third-place finisher, when questioned after the race acted like he had a 20th-place car and just got lucky. Ignoring crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s order to pit, old tires helped him but also didn’t create warm and fuzzy feelings with his team.
“I just had such a hard time,” Kenseth claimed. “I knew clean air would cover up a lot of problems.”
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin looked despondent after Kevin Harvick sent his No. 11 spinning while fighting for the lead. Hamlin, whose car wound up getting pinged by Earnhardt Jr., watched a potential momentum-building run evaporate. It was the second straight year Hamlin and Harvick have tangled at Bristol, leaving the latter scratching his head on how to fix the problem.
“(Harvick) just thinks he knows everything and probably thought he knew everything again,” Hamlin said in frustration. “I just wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back.”
Hamlin then complained about the new Bristol track surface, which has narrowed the groove but gotten rave reviews from fans for producing more “old school” racing. It’s a familiar refrain for the veteran; instead of moving on, push those ugly feelings onto somebody else to place the blame.
But the worst of the three scenarios that played out at BMS was that of Kyle Busch, who chalked up his fourth straight finish of 36th or worse. Involved in someone else’s mess early, the No. 18 was a shell of itself most of the evening as the tension between Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers never eased. Parking his damaged car, Busch’s sarcasm got to Rogers on the radio, yelling at his driver to “drive his whiny ass back to the truck.” Communication between the two has been suffering for several weeks, as several mistakes by Busch on track have dropped him to 17th in series points. On Saturday, a pit road speeding penalty left Busch mired in traffic, and that’s when he found himself in someone else’s melee.
The sad thing is while Busch is at fault, it’s he and sponsor M&M’s, who have secure, long-term contracts with JGR’s No. 18. With Edwards coming into the fold in the offseason, don’t be surprised to see a crew chief shakeup with Busch, although at least one rival thinks the organization can get it together by November.
“I think we’ve all got our eyes on all the Gibbs cars,” said Keselowski on Saturday night. “I just don’t see a whole season going by without them having a dominant race car in one section of time. I think we’re all fearful that will happen in the Chase when it counts the most.”
THIRD GEAR: Jamie McMurray’s lost opportunity
For awhile, it looked like Bristol would become another summer Chase Cinderella story in the form of Jamie McMurray. The emotional, well-liked driver already has a win this season but it doesn’t make him Chase-eligible, as NASCAR’s All-Star Race is just an exhibition. But after leading a career-high 148 laps, it looked like Chip Ganassi Racing might shock the grid and put pressure on bubble drivers like Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and in-house rookie Kyle Larson by stealing a spot in the Chase.
However, it wasn’t to be, as the last caution doomed McMurray. Sneaking in for fresh tires, it left him back in traffic for the final restart and the car seemed to change for for the worse from that point on.
“I don’t know what happened,” McMurray said. “Our car got really tight with about 100 laps to go. We freed it up on the last pit stop and it didn’t really help.”
That left him eighth, a whiff for a team that must win in order to get in. But that should leave McMurray on your radar for Richmond, a track he ran well at last fall in nearly pulling a major upset. Teammate Larson won the pole there in the spring and with McMurray’s penchant to pop up at random moments, he can’t be fully counted out.
FOURTH GEAR: Kasey Kahne lost in space
Typically, Kasey Kahne is one of the most mild-mannered drivers on tour. But after showing strength early at a track where he ran second last August, the Hendrick Motorsports pilot went ballistic after poor adjustments left his Chevy a handful to handle. Add in a loose wheel, twisting right-front suspension parts and a promising run quickly fizzled into an extended trip behind the wall.
A 35th-place result — Kahne’s worst since Pocono in June — leaves him 33 points behind Biffle for the final Chase spot. It’s a Grand Canyon-like dip in performance compared to his three teammates, and begs the question, with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings, whether Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis already feel like they’re a “lame duck” effort before Elliott’s ascension to Cup is even announced. While contracts are signed through 2015, it’s clear the Nationwide Series title contender with the famous last name has the bigger upside at this point. Can Kahne regain confidence without the promise of long-term security at Hendrick?
Danica Patrick had a rough weekend at Bristol, qualifying 24th and getting spun by Alex Bowman in-race. But while the rookie driver got paranoid, concerned “Danica Nation” and her occasional temper would get the best of him, it looks like hard feelings won’t carry over. “I think we’re fine,'' she told Motor Racing Network’s Dustin Long. "He's just got to know that when you do that and you don't leave room for error and you hit me and take me out, I'm right there. As soon as I find you again I'm going to let you know I'm not happy. We're fine. If he does it again, worse things will happen.” … A planned lap 14 tribute for Tony Stewart, along with a lap 13 standup to honor the tragic loss of Kevin Ward Jr. by fans went as planned at Bristol. However, ESPN didn’t show the fan-organized effort, choosing just to briefly mention it later in the race through play-by-play man Allen Bestwick. It is still unclear if New York authorities will charge Stewart for his involvement in Ward’s death, as the investigation now stretches into its third week. It’s hard to imagine the three-time champion returning to the track in any form or fashion until that concludes. … Kyle Larson (right) pulled another Herculean effort, coming from the back of the field in a back-up car after wrecking in practice, then hitting the wall in-race to finish 12th. Pulling together a lead-lap effort with a car in pieces is admirable but his Chase bid will probably fall short based on a common rookie problem: one too many crashes.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Louisville’s offense suffered a significant setback on Monday, as top receiver DeVante Parker suffered a foot injury in fall camp and will miss 6-8 weeks.
Parker was expected to be the Cardinals’ top receiving threat after recording 55 catches for 885 yards and 12 scores last season. Parker was limited some by injury in the middle of the year but averaged 16.1 yards per reception in 2013.
The timetable for Parker’s return is uncertain, but if the 6-8 week span holds true, the senior could miss key ACC contests against Florida State and Clemson.
There’s no doubt Parker’s absence will be a huge loss for Louisville. However, coach Bobby Petrino is one of the best in the nation at maximizing the X’s and O’s. Expect to see more of sophomore James Quick and seniors Eli Rogers and Kai De La Cruz targeted in the passing game. And senior tight end Gerald Christian should be an even bigger part of the offense and should push for All-ACC honors in 2014.
Parker’s injury is a definite setback for Louisville, but the Cardinals could still be favored to win their first six games.
With the start of the 2014 NFL season quickly approaching, what better time to present the “final” version of Athlon Sports’ Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280), right? If anything, the goal in the preseason as far as established superstars go is to emerge healthy. Unfortunately that has not been the case, and is a reason why there’s a new No. 1 atop our list.
Adrian Peterson, the last man to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and the league’s best running back, has fittingly claimed the top spot. Everyone is eager to see how new Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner will utilize Peterson, especially in the passing game, but it’s more the fact that both LeSean McCoy (bruised thumb) and Jamaal Charles (bruised foot) were unable to make it out of the preseason unscathed. Honestly, there’s not much separation between these three backs, or even Matt Forté for that matter, but someone has to be No. 1 and we decided to go with the guy who appears to be the healthiest at this point.
Others around the league have not been as fortunate, however. Sam Bradford tore his ACL again, presenting an opportunity for Shaun Hill to start in St. Louis, while Cam Newton (fractured rib) and Wes Welker (concussion) are among those whose conditions should be monitored closely, whether your league has held its draft already or not. Injuries aren’t the only factor at play here either, as suspensions and pending suspensions could impact draft- and roster-related decisions. For example, while everyone is eagerly waiting to hear what ends up happening with Josh Gordon’s appeal, don’t look past the news that Denver kicker Matt Prater has been suspended the first four games of the season. After all, that’s why you won’t see Gordon or Prater’s name listed below. Kickers count too!
2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
|1||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||Potential in new O puts him on top for now.|
|2||LeSean McCoy||PHI||RB||Will bruised thumb be an issue?|
|3||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||Hopefully he won't be moving again soon.|
|8||Peyton Manning||DEN||QB||Already getting chippy with opposing defenses.|
|11||Doug Martin||TB||RB||Charles Sims' injury could mean more work.|
|13||Drew Brees||NO||QB||Looked pretty good in preseason debut vs. Colts.|
|16||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Suspension coming?|
|21||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Foot looks healed so far.|
|24||Montee Ball||DEN||RB||Back to practice after appendectomy.|
|32||Reggie Bush||DET||RB||Broke off 86-yard TD run vs. Jags on Friday.|
|35||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||Week 1 status still uncertain. Be wary.|
|42||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Too soon to write "old" man off?|
|46||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||His potential is tied to the touches he gets.|
|49||Torrey Smith||BAL||WR||Expecting more versatile role on offense.|
|55||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Colts continue to show patience w/ T-Rich.|
|56||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||Bruised shoulder be OK after suspension.|
|57||Rashad Jennings||NYG||RB||If anything he should get plenty of touches.|
|58||Nick Foles||PHI||QB||Has more INTs (3) this preseason than all of '13 (2).|
|59||Cam Newton||CAR||QB||Fractured rib cause for concern?|
|60||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||Has not looked good in new offense.|
|62||Jeremy Maclin||PHI||WR||Appears to have survived injury scare Thursday.|
|66||Shane Vereen||NE||RB||Most active Patriot back in last preseason game.|
|67||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Looking good in return from ACL injury.|
|69||Kendall Wright||TEN||WR||Expect Titans to stretch field more this season.|
|70||Wes Welker||DEN||WR||Preseason concussion not a good start.|
|72||Stevan Ridley||NE||RB||Ball security already an issue once more.|
|73||Bishop Sankey||TEN||RB||Rookie off to somewhat of a slow start.|
|74||Pierre Thomas||NO||RB||Could lead RBs in receptions.|
|78||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||Bruised ribs kept him out of last preseason game.|
|79||Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||WR||Role could increase depending on Welker's status.|
|80||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Seems to be better fit for new offense.|
|81||Eric Decker||NYJ||WR||Settling in as Jets' new No. 1 WR.|
|86||Khiry Robinson||NO||RB||Competing more with Ingram than Thomas.|
|94||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||Suffered concussion, but should be good to go Week 1.|
|98||Matt Ryan||ATL||QB||Falcons' offense has looked good in preseason.|
|105||Justin Hunter||TEN||WR||Everyone is expecting a breakout from tall, athletic target.|
|106||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Suspended for Week 1.|
|110||Mark Ingram||NO||RB||Could be interesting sleeper if he's effective early on.|
|116||Tavon Austin||STL||WR||Will QB change help or hinder Austin?|
|117||Rueben Randle||NYG||WR||Could be Eli's favorite target in red zone.|
|118||Tony Romo||DAL||QB||Early hits not welcome sign for recovering Romo.|
|122||LeGarrette Blount||PIT||RB||Suspension coming?|
|123||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Should be factor even if Gore remains starter.|
|125||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Seems to be only a matter of "when" and not "if."|
|134||Andrew Hawkins||CLE||WR||Josh Gordon's status still up in the air.|
|135||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Could emerge as Newton's No. 1 target quickly.|
|140||49ers||SF||DST||Will injuries lead to issues early on?|
|143||Eli Manning||NYG||QB||Slowly getting comfortable in new offense.|
|150||Zach Ertz||PHI||TE||Popular breakout candidate this season.|
|160||Ryan Tannehill||MIA||QB||Accuracy has not been an issue during preseason.|
|167||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||Hoyer the starter, for now.|
|174||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Early signs in new offense are promising.|
|186||Antonio Gates||SD||TE||Enough targets for two relevant TEs in SD?|
Did enough to hold off Bridgewater, but for how long?
|201||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||How far behind is he b/c of hamstring issue?|
|204||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||He gets the starting nod, but for how long?|
|205||Teddy Bridgewater||MIN||QB||Has lived up to his "pro-ready" label thus far.|
|210||Shaun Hill||STL||QB||Bradford's injury opens door for Hill to shine.|
|216||Dexter McCluster||TEN||RB||Could end up being a PPR sleeper.|
|224||Kirk Cousins||WAS||QB||Has outperformed RG3 in preseason, but does it matter?|
|225||Blake Bortles||JAC||QB||Jags' future appears in good hands w/ Bortles.|
|227||Travis Kece||KC||TE||Could end up being Chiefs' No. 1 target by season's end.|
|229||Jonathan Grimes||HOU||RB||He or Alfred Blue could be a factor this season.|
|245||Marvin Jones||CIN||WR||Broken foot will keep him out until at least Week 5.|
|254||Mohamed Sanu||CIN||WR||Will get his chance while Jones (foot) is sidelined.|
|255||Santonio Holmes||CHI||WR||Late addition could emerge as reliable No. 3 WR.|
|259||Bobby Rainey||TB||RB||Sims' injury presents opportunity for Rainey and James.|
|262||Ronnie Hillman||DEN||RB||If Ball falters, Hillman or Anderson could emerge.|
|267||James White||NE||RB||Rookie looking to overtake Ridley in pecking order.|
|273||Mark Sanchez||PHI||QB||Has looked very comfortable in Chip Kelly's system.|
|279||Charles Sims||TB||RB||Out 12-14 weeks (ankle). Stash for later?|
|280||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||Will he see the field this season?|
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Three straight trips to the playoffs have produced nothing but disappointment, topped by last January’s 27–10 loss at home against San Diego. The Bengals have improved their record each of the last three regular seasons, going from 9–7 in 2011 to 10–6 in 2012 and then 11–5 while winning the AFC North title last season, but that’s little consolation to an organization that hasn’t won a postseason game in 23 years. The core remains intact, but the Bengals did little in the offseason outside of the draft when it came to adding frontline players. That sends the message that head coach Marvin Lewis and the front office believe the pieces are in place to get over that playoff barricade. The question remains how much longer the Bengals can stay with a cast that has repeatedly stumbled when the calendar turns to January.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been good enough to win Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, and he’s been bad enough to lose in the playoffs. Hue Jackson is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Jay Gruden, who left to take over as Washington’s head coach, and it’s Jackson’s job to get more out of Dalton. Jackson hopes to do so by asking less of Dalton. His 586 passing attempts equaled a franchise record, but his 61.9 completion percentage is lower than the team needs. While he set franchise records for yards (4,296) and touchdowns (33), Dalton also threw a career-high 20 interceptions. He had at least one pass picked off in 12 of the team’s 17 games, including the playoffs, and threw multiple interceptions in six games. Despite his postseason struggles, the team signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million contract extension in early August, seemingly cementing his status as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback.
As the Bengals ask Dalton to do less, they must simultaneously improve the efficiency of their run game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a workmanlike back, but Giovani Bernard is going to get the ball more in his second season. Second-round draft choice Jeremy Hill is going to play sooner than later; he’s a younger, more explosive version of Green-Ellis.
The backs will get the focus, but the offensive line needs to improve its push. Andrew Whitworth will slide back out to play left tackle after the loss of Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay in free agency. Center is up for grabs after the Bengals released Kyle Cook in the offseason. Fourth-round pick Russell Bodine will push veteran Mike Pollak for the job. With left guard Clint Boling recovering from a torn ACL, Pollak could wind up starting in his place while Bodine takes over at center. Boling is a good candidate to start the season on IR and then be brought back after Week 8. The Bengals lack depth should Whitworth or right tackle Andre Smith go out.
Marvin Jones has become a dangerous No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green, who is the focus of attention for every defense the Bengals face. Like Dalton, Green is guilty of not playing his best in the postseason. He’s added about 10 pounds of muscle in his upper body this offseason with the hopes of taking his considerable production (260 catches for 3,833 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons) to a higher level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Green has had 21 dropped passes the last two seasons after dropping just five passes as a rookie in 2011. A hot start from Green may be needed even more since Jones will likely miss the first month of the regular season after breaking a bone in his foot during training camp. Jones' absensce presents an opportunity for Mohamed Sanu or Brandon Tate to step up or perhaps tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham to become more of a factor in the passing game.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season. The secondary has six players who entered the league as first-round draft picks. But it’s the defensive line that drives everything the Bengals do on this side of the ball. Paul Guenther moves from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, taking over for Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota. The philosophy and system won’t change much. The Bengals still want to stop the run first and get after the passer with their front four as much as possible without having to blitz. There will be as many as eight players rotating throughout the game without much drop-off.
The return of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins from a torn ACL is the most significant upgrade from a season ago. The Bengals still finished ranked No. 3 in yards allowed and tied for fifth in points allowed without Atkins for the final two months of the season. Brandon Thompson played well in his absence but doesn’t command double teams the way Atkins does. Carlos Dunlap has always had a combination of size, arm length and speed that made one take notice, and now he’s playing every down with greater consistency and a higher motor. Michael Johnson isn’t on the other side of him now after signing with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. Wallace Gilberry tied with Dunlap for the team lead in sacks (7.5) and will start at the right end spot, with second-year player Margus Hunt seeing increased playing time.
Burfict has gone from draft castoff to Pro Bowler in two seasons and he was rewarded by the team with a four-year, $20 million contract extension. He gets to the ball fast and is a sure tackler when he gets there. He stays on the field in nickel packages, which is vital these days as teams increasingly utilize multiple-receiver sets. Vinny Rey proved he belonged on the field last season when he stepped in for an injured Rey Maualuga and produced, including a three-sack game at Baltimore. He’s a little undersized but holds up well against the run. Maualuga is better against the run than he is in coverage. Emmanuel Lamur missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. His return should help in the nickel.
The secondary added another talented piece with the first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. It was a pick with an eye toward the future, but Dennard has the ability to play right away. Leon Hall is coming back from a second Achilles tear in two years. This one is his left leg as opposed to the right one he injured in 2011. Hall turns 30 in December. Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson will each be 31 in the first month of the season, while Terence Newman will turn 36. Dre Kirkpatrick, the team’s first pick in 2012, has shown some flashes of ability but is far too inconsistent. The Bengals are still waiting for him to take playing time away from one of the veteran corners. Safety George Iloka will start next to Nelson in the back end.
Punter Kevin Huber returns from suffering a broken jaw and a hairline fracture of cervical vertebrae on a hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Terence Garvin. His ability to pin opponents inside the 20 without touchbacks (24-to-4 ratio in 2013) is his biggest attribute. Kicker Mike Nugent made 18-of-22 field goals last season, including 3-of-4 from 50-plus yards. Brandon Tate hasn’t always been a fan favorite, but all he’s done in three seasons is become the franchise leader in kickoff return average and second in punt return average.
The Bengals can win the division again, and it won’t be a shock if they do, but at some point their best players have to show up when the calendar turns to January. The talent is present to make a deep run in the postseason and challenge for a conference title. It falls heavily upon the shoulders of Dalton, Green and the defense to make that happen.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC North
The goal for the New Orleans Saints is a straightforward albeit difficult one: Secure home-field advantage in the postseason. Easier said than done in the brutally competitive NFC, which has produced four of the past five Super Bowl champions. Still, it’s imperative for the schizophrenic Saints, who were 8–0 at the Superdome in the 2013 regular season and 3–5 on the road. In the postseason during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, they are 4–0 at home and 1–4 on the road. It’s no coincidence that the Saints’ lone Super Bowl title came in 2009 when they played host to the NFC Championship Game. Since then, three of the Saints’ four seasons have ended on the West Coast with playoff losses at Seattle and San Francisco. Somehow, the Saints need to win enough games in the regular season to secure home-field edge in the playoffs and force their competition to visit them in January rather than vice versa.
As long as the crafty Brees is under center and the aggressive Payton is on the sideline, the Saints are going to gain yards and score points at a high rate. Brees will turn 36 in January, making him the third-oldest quarterback in the NFL, but he remains as prolific as ever. Only Peyton Manning passed for more than Brees’ 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013.
While Brees remains one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the game, there are legitimate concerns about the rest of the offense. The line yielded 37 sacks last season, the most in the Brees/Payton era. The staff believes the late-season promotion of athletic Terron Armstead to left tackle will be a big part of the solution. The Saints are counting on Armstead to blossom after a full offseason in the club’s strength and conditioning program. Right tackle Zach Strief was re-signed to protect Brees’ other flank. He engulfs opponents with his massive 6'7" frame, but speed rushers can sometimes give him trouble for the same reason. The strength of the unit is inside, where Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs form a powerful tandem to anchor the pass protection. The Saints will open the season with a new center. The staff is high on Tim Lelito, a former undrafted free agent who will try to make the switch from guard. Depth is a concern up front.
Depth isn’t the problem in the Saints’ receiving corps — production is. Backs and tight ends caught 63 percent of Brees’ passes last season, mainly because his receivers struggled to get open. Then again, when you have a freakishly talented tight end like Jimmy Graham, it’s hard not to look his way. Graham has usurped Marques Colston as Brees’ go-to man in the red zone and should again rank among the league leaders in catches and touchdowns. The steady Colston remains a reliable target on third down, but injuries have taken their toll on the ninth-year veteran. The Saints hope speedy rookie Brandin Cooks can add some much-needed explosiveness to the receiving corps. He led FBS schools with 32 catches of 20 or more yards as a junior. He will compete with second-year receiver Kenny Stills for the starting spot opposite Colston and play a featured role in Payton’s nickel packages. Stills should build on his surprisingly productive rookie season (32 catches with a team-high 20.0 yards per catch).
The Saints’ backfield will continue to employ a running back-by-committee approach, partly by strategic design and partly out of necessity. It’s make-or-break year for Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner showed signs of promise down the stretch in 2013 and led the club with a 4.9-yards-per-carry average, but the Saints tellingly did not pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, rendering him a free agent after this season. He should be motivated for a big season and needs it. If Ingram slips, look for Khiry Robinson to assume his carries. The former free agent from West Texas A&M has a rare combination of power and shiftiness. Pierre Thomas is the top option in Payton’s nickel and two-minute offense.
Injuries forced coordinator Rob Ryan to scrap his 3-4 scheme for a 4-2-5 alignment, and the Saints responded with one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league. A year removed from allowing the most yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints ranked fourth in total defense, primarily because of their imposing young line. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker/end hybrid Junior Galette form one of the best pass-rush tandems in the league. Both are quick and explosive off the edge. The unit’s unsung hero is towering end/tackle Akiem Hicks, who collapses the pocket with his powerful bull rushes. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins anchor against the run at nose tackle. Their dirty work allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne the freedom to roam and make tackles sideline to sideline.
The overhauled secondary is led by cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Lewis thrived in Ryan’s bump-and-run system and emerged as a shutdown corner in his first season in New Orleans. More often than not, teams choose to throw away from his side of the field. The Saints paid big money to lure Byrd to New Orleans in free agency. The hope is that he’ll produce more takeaways with his instincts and playmaking ability in center field. Vaccaro lacks Byrd’s ball skills but is the perfect complement with versatility and physical intimidation.
Veteran Champ Bailey has the inside track for the starting spot opposite Lewis. The Saints are hoping to squeeze a final productive season or two out of the future Hall of Famer. Former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, Corey White and second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste will compete for the nickel and dime spots. All have the rangy size Ryan loves.
The Saints are a mixed bag here. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the league. His powerful right leg accounts for scores of hidden yards each game. Veteran kicker Shayne Graham is solid if not spectacular as he enters his 14th season. The return units are dying for a spark. Cooks and Travaris Cadet will get the first crack at punt and kickoff return duties, respectively.
The Saints are the class of the NFC South. Their young defense should only improve in its second season under Ryan, and the offense remains the most prolific in the division. A fifth playoff berth in six seasons looks certain, but the Saints must find a way to overcome NFC kingpins Seattle and San Francisco out West. The Saints hold one major advantage in the potential competition for home-field advantage: The NFC South is a cupcake festival compared to the NFC West gauntlet. If the Saints can win enough games to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, they’ll be a threat to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX. But that’s a big “if.” Otherwise, the 49ers and Seahawks remain a slight cut above the Saints in the NFC.