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It’s fantasy football Super Bowl time. This week, the majority of leagues across the country will crown a champion who will win bragging rights, trophies, a few dollars, a trip to Vegas, who knows? And while every league is different, there are several key players acquired throughout the season who push a contender over the top, regardless of scoring, league size or any other variable.
With that in mind, here’s a look at this year’s best fantasy stars — with a mix of high-rounders who lived up to expectations, longshots who panned out and undrafted All-Pros who helped make up for a few expensive, high-pick busts.
QB – Peyton Manning, Broncos
After at least four neck surgeries and a wiped out 2011 season, even the biggest Manning fans were worried he might not return to top form. But 4,016 yards and 31 TDs later, no one is doubting No. 18 anymore.
QB – Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Those who took a late-round, backup QB flier on RG3 — hoping he would be the second-coming of Cam Newton — have been rewarded with 2,902 passing yards, 748 rush yards and 24 total TDs from the rookie.
RB – Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Just nine months after suffering a brutal knee injury, “All Day” slipped in fantasy drafts due to health concerns. Enjoy the one-year discount. After 1,812 yards and counting, he’s be a top-three pick again in 2013.
RB – Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
“Beast Mode” has been in full effect all season, as Lynch has produced either 100 yards or one TD in nine games this season.
RB – Alfred Morris, Redskins
Unlike most Week 1 waiver wire pickups, the rookie out of Florida Atlantic has continued to shine — with 1,322 yards and nine TDs.
WR – A.J. Green, Bengals
There was no sophomore slump for the Bengals’ go-to wideout. Green has been unbelievably consistent, scoring TDs in 10 of 14 games.
WR – Brandon Marshall, Bears
The highly anticipated reunion with Jay Cutler has gone even better than most anticipated, as Marshall has 107 catches for 1,398 yards and 11 TDs.
WR – Demaryius Thomas, Broncos
If Thomas could catch passes from Tim Tebow, imagine what he could do with Peyton Manning? The answer is 1,210 yards and eight TDs.
TE – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is going out with 87 catches for 880 yards and eight TDs after being largely overlooked on draft day.
Florida State’s search for a defensive coordinator is over. Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt has been hired as the replacement for Mark Stoops, who left to become Kentucky’s head coach after three seasons in Tallahassee.
Considering Jimbo Fisher’s experience and familiarity with Nick Saban, it’s no surprise he looked at Pruitt as a possible replacement for Stoops. However, this move might be one of the offseason’s most curious coordinator hires.
Before diving into Pruitt’s background, it’s important to note Fisher did a good job of assembling a staff when he took over in Tallahassee, so he may have a good eye for coaching talent.
Examining Pruitt’s Background
Pruitt played his college ball at MTSU and Alabama, helping to lead the Crimson Tide to the 1996 SEC West title. After his college career was finished, Pruitt joined Alabama as a student assistant in 1997, before spending the next three years at Plainview High School (1998 and 2000), then West Alabama in 1999.
After one year at West Alabama, Pruitt accumulated more experience on the high school level, spending 2001-03 as an assistant coach at Fort Payne High School and then as an assistant with Hoover High School in 2004 and worked as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2005-06.
Pruitt was picked by Nick Saban to be Alabama’s director of player development in 2007 and continued in that role until becoming the team’s defensive backs coach in 2010.
How much of a role did Pruitt play in the development of Alabama’s secondary?
This is tough to answer. There’s no doubt Nick Saban is college football’s best coach and is regarded as one of the top defensive minds. Coordinator Kirby Smart also played a role in the development of the defense, so you have to wonder just how much Pruitt factored in the secondary.
Regardless of how much Saban and Smart factored into the secondary, it’s hard to argue with the results. Alabama ranked 13th nationally in pass defense in 2010, first in 2011 and sixth in 2012. Considering the secondary had to replace three starters, including first-round picks Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, finishing sixth nationally in pass defense was an impressive performance from the Crimson Tide.
No coordinator experience
The biggest concern about the Pruitt hire has to be the lack of coordinator experience on the collegiate level. Anytime you hire someone to step into the coordinator role without some experience, it’s always a risk that the defense will suffer a drop in performance.
The good news for Pruitt is Florida State has plenty of talent to work with, even with the likely departure of end Bjoern Werner to the NFL. Mario Edwards, Jr. is ready to breakout in 2013, while the line returns tackles Timmy Jernigan, Demonte McAllister and Jacobbi McDaniel. Linebacker Christian Jones garnered second-team all-conference honors this season, and the secondary is in good shape for next season.
Considering Pruitt’s lack of experience as a coordinator, Florida State needs to surround him with veteran coaches. And it seems the Seminoles will do that with former Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri. Although Sunseri had a horrendous season as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, the veteran coach should be an asset to Florida State in 2013. Sunseri has a wealth of experience and is highly regarded for his work on the recruiting trail.
The Seminoles were a 4-3 team under Stoop,s but it's fair to wonder if Fisher is considering a switch to a 3-4 in the future. Pruitt and Sunseri are both experienced in that scheme, but Florida State would need some time to recruit the necessary talent to switch to a 3-4 approach.
Good hire or Bad hire?
Even though Pruitt isn’t a big name, he is an intriguing risk for Jimbo Fisher and Florida State. Considering his recruiting connections and experience with Nick Saban, Pruitt should fit in well on Fisher’s staff and will bring some new ideas to Tallahassee. The one downside for Fisher is this hire has a lot of risk and could backfire, which would send the program back in the wrong direction. Adding Sunseri as a position coach will be overlooked but is good move to help with Pruitt’s inexperience.
While it’s risky, Pruitt deserves a chance to show he can be a FBS coordinator or whether he is better served as a position coach. There’s no question Pruitt will be under the microscope early and often in 2013. Is he the next Sunseri or the next Will Muschamp? Only time will time. However, considering the success Fisher had of selecting his initial staff, he deserves the benefit of the doubt (for now) with this hire.
Grading Florida State’s hire of Pruitt: B-
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As 2012 comes to a close, Athlon will count down the top individual performances in each major sport from the year, culminating with a full list of the top 50 performances of the year.
It is important to remember that for the NFL, 2012 started with the end of the 2011 regular season and the playoffs, in addition to the first 15 weeks of the current season. That’s why Tom Brady’s record-tying performance against Denver in last season’s AFC Divisional Round comes in at No. 1 on this list, even though the game was played back in January.
A few other players also make this Top 10 for work they did last year, but that doesn’t mean that the current season isn’t well represented. In a year that’s been defined by the rise of the rookie quarterbacks, not to mention some incredible comeback performances, there have been numerous record-setting, jaw-dropping efforts. In fact, the problem wasn’t finding 10 to fill out this list, it was deciding which 10 made the cut.
So without further ado, here is our list for the year’s most impressive single-game efforts.
1. Jan. 14: Tom Brady truly Terrific against Denver in AFC playoffs
Denver came into this AFC Divisional playoff matchup with New England riding a bunch of momentum after shocking Pittsburgh at home in its overtime win the previous Sunday. Brady and the Patriots’ offense made sure the Broncos knew who the best team was in this one, however, as No. 12 tossed five touchdown passes in the first half and added one more in the third quarter to tie the postseason single-game record. Brady broke his own franchise record for most passing yards (363) in a playoff game and climbed up the all-time postseason passing charts with arguably his best playoff performance yet.
2. Oct. 14: Aaron Rodgers torches undefeated Texans in primetime
Green Bay entered the Week 6 Sunday night showdown with Houston at just 2-3, having blown a 21-3 halftime lead to Indianapolis Colts the previous week. The Texans were undefeated, boasted one of the league’s best defenses, and seemingly ready to make a statement on national television by taking down the mighty Packers. The reigning NFL MVP had something else in mind, however, throwing two touchdown passes in the first quarter to help his team jump out to a 14-0 lead. He would add four more in the next three quarters, tying the Green Bay single-game record with six touchdown passes, as the Packers would cruise to a convincing 42-24 victory. Rodgers finished with 338 yards and no turnovers, becoming just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in a game.
3. Nov. 4: Rookie Doug Martin breaks out in Oakland
Martin, the No. 31 overall pick in April’s draft out of Boise State, entered the game in Oakland coming off of his best performance of his rookie season. He piled up 214 total yards and two touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s win in Minnesota the previous Thursday. Little did anyone know he would make that game seem minor, but that’s what happened as he piled up 251 yards on 25 rushing attempts in the Buccaneers’ Week 9 win against the Raiders. Besides posting the third-most rushing yards by a rookie in a game, Martin joined Mike Anderson as the only backs in NFL history with at least 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a single contest. Martin scored on runs of 70, 67, 45 and 1, making him the first back since 1940 to score on three runs of at least 45 yards in one game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Nicely done rook.
4. Nov. 18: Matt Schaub’s record-setting day helps Texans outlast Jaguars
Known for its running game, Houston relied on Schaub and the passing attack in Week 11 against AFC South rival Jacksonville. Thanks to Chad Henne’s impressive performance (354-4-0) off of the bench, the Texans found themselves in a closer-than-expected battle with the Jaguars. Schaub saved the day with his franchise-record 43 completions, 527 passing yards and career-high five touchdown passes. The yards tied Warren Moon for the second-most in a game in NFL history, second only to Norm Van Brocklin’s 554 (set back in 1951). Schaub threw two scoring strikes with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and finally won it with a 48-yarder to wide receiver Andre Johnson (see No. 8) with just 2:10 left in overtime.
5. Dec. 16: Adrian Peterson continues his run for history with season-best effort in St. Louis
At this rate, you could make one impressive list of performances just using Peterson’s 2012 season, but for our purposes, we’ll go with his most recent gem. Less than a year removed from a devastating knee injury, Peterson is redefining the term Comeback Player of the Year, and that’s with all due respect to what Peyton Manning is doing in his first season in Denver. Look no further than Sunday’s 212-yard effort in Minnesota’s win in St. Louis, highlighted by a 82-yard touchdown run. Not only was it All Day’s second 200-yard game of the season, it was the fourth of his career. Only O.J. Simpson (six) and Tiki Barber (five) have more such games in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). What’s more, it was Peterson’s sixth game with at least 150 yards rushing, leaving him one shy of Earl Campbell’s single-season record of seven (set in 1980). Peterson himself has already set a personal-best for yards in a single season with 1,812, which is more rushing yards than 24 teams have. With two games remaining and needing less than 300 yards, no one would be surprised if he made good on his goal of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105 rushing yards.
6. Jan. 1: Matt Flynn makes most of only start of 2011 season
With the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs already secure, Green Bay decided to rest eventual MVP Aaron Rodgers in the season finale against Detroit on New Year’s Day. Enter Flynn, making his first start of the season and only second of his NFL career. Turns out Flynn can do a pretty decent Rodgers impression, as he torched the Lions for 480 yards and six touchdowns, both Packers’ single-game records, in the 45-41 win. Flynn teamed with Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford (see. No. 7) to set some NFL history of their own, as it was the first time opposing quarterbacks each threw for more than 400 yards and at least five touchdowns in a game. It also set the mark for most net passing yards (971) in a single game. Flynn parlayed this big game into a big payday, as the soon-to-be free agent would end up signing a three-year contract with Seattle that could be worth up to $26 million and included $10 million guaranteed. Ironically, an elbow injury in the preseason resulted in Russell Wilson replacing him as the Seahawks’ starter. Wilson, who just missed making this list (see Honorable mention below) , doesn’t appear ready to give the job back to Flynn anytime soon either.
7. Jan. 1: Matthew Stafford caps breakout 2011 season with record-setting day
Prior to the 2011 season, Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, had trouble simply staying on the field. In his first two seasons he missed more games (19) than he played in (13), raising all sorts of questions about his long-term future. He put many of these to rest after passing for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns last season, helping the Lions end a 12-year playoff drought in the process. Stafford saved his best for last, throwing for 520 yards and five touchdowns against Green Bay in a 45-41 loss on New Year’s Day to close out the ’11 regular season. Even though he shared the Lambeau Field spotlight that day with Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn (see No. 6), it was Stafford who finished with the fifth-most yards passing in a single game and the most by a losing quarterback since Dan Marino had 521 back in 1988.
8. Nov. 18: Andre Johnson first declaws Jacksonville’s secondary then breaks Jaguars’ hearts in overtime
While Matt Schaub (see No. 4) rewrote the Houston passing records in the Texans’ Week 11 win over Jacksonville, he would not have done so without a huge assist from Johnson. Schaub found his favorite target 14 times for 273 yards against the Jaguars, including a 48-yard game-winning touchdown with just 2:01 remaining in overtime. It was a career day for Johnson, as the All-Pro wideout set a franchise record for receiving yards and posted the seventh-highest single-game total in NFL history.
9. Jan. 14: Rob Gronkowski sets a new postseason standard for tight ends
Half of Tom Brady’s record-tying six touchdown passes (see No. 1) in last season’s AFC Divisional round victory over Denver went to Rob Gronkowski, his favorite tight end. Gronkowksi finished the game against the Broncos with 10 receptions for 145 yards and the three scores. Not only did the man affectionately known as “Gronk” tie the postseason single-game record for touchdown catches, he posted the most productive game by a tight end in the playoffs in 25 seasons. In fact, Jan. 14 was a big day for tight ends in general as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis also had more than 100 yards receiving and caught two touchdowns in their respective games.
10. Nov. 19: Aldon Smith dominates Bears on “Monday Night Football”
Week 11 was set up to finish with a bang, as San Francisco was hosting Chicago in a matchup of two of the top teams in the NFC and toughest defenses in the NFL. Alas, the “Monday Night Football” showdown never materialized as the 49ers’ defense manhandled the Bears’ offense from the opening snap, highlighted by Smith’s 5.5 sacks. Even though it was backup Jason Campbell under center for the Bears in place of a concussed Jay Cutler, it didn’t matter to Smith and the rest of the 49ers, as the linebacker also chipped in seven total tackles and two forced fumbles in the convincing 32-7 whitewashing. The Bears may be the Monsters of the Midway, but Smith was an absolute beast that night.
Oct. 14: Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III helps the Redskins beat Minnesota 38-26 by doing it with both his arm and his legs. The rookie throws for 182 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 17-of-22 passing, while also running for 138 yards and two scores on 13 carries in the Week 6 home win. His day’s work includes a 76-yard scoring run, the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in 16 years, and he finishes with the fifth-most rushing yards by a signal caller in NFL history.
Dec. 2: Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck saves his best for last, capping the Colts’ 14-point fourth-quarter comeback in Detroit by throwing the game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. The rookie ends the game with 391 yards passing, four touchdowns, three interceptions and, most importantly, the Week 13 victory.
Dec. 9: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has not been near as productive this season compared to his 2011 rookie campaign, but tell that to NFC South rival Atlanta. Newton threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns and posted the first 100-yard rushing game of his career with 116 and a score (72 yards) in leading the Panthers to a 30-20 upset win in Week 14 over the division-leading Falcons.
Dec. 9: New York Giants running back David Wilson set a franchise-record for all-purpose yards when he piled up 327 against New Orleans in Week 14. The rookie first-round pick rushed for 100 yards on 13 carries, including a 52- yard touchdown run, and also returned four kickoffs for 227 yards, one of them 97 for a score, in the Giants’ 52-27 rout of the Saints.Dec. 16: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another in the Seahawks’ 50-17 dismantling of Buffalo in Toronto in Week 15. Wilson became the first quarterback with three rushing touchdowns since Daunte Culpepper did it against Chicago on Dec. 3, 2000. The touchdown pass was his 21st of the season, tying him with Cam Newton (2011) for the second-most by a rookie quarterback.
The merits of recruiting rankings are debated in every sports bar and around every water cooler in the nation. Athlon continues its look at how each All-Conference team ranked as high school recruits with the first-team All-Pac-12 team.
2012 Offensive All-Pac-12 Team as Recruits
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (2011)
The cool Hawaiian played at St. Louis High School in Honolulu before signing with Oregon. His only other scholarship offer was from Memphis. He was a three-star prospect by Rivals who was the No. 12-rated dual-threat quarterback in the nation and the No. 2-rated player in his state. He had interest in other big programs (Notre Dame, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA) but only got the two scholarship offers. Mariota defines the overused phrase "diamond in the rough."
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (2011) National Recruit
The Oro Valley (Ariz.) Canyon Del Oro sophomore was ranked by Athlon Sports as the No. 30 running back in the nation, the No. 5 player in the state of Arizona and the No. 212 overall recruit in the country. He held three Pac-12 offers to play college football from Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado. The coveted tailback was a four-star prospect by Rivals.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon (2008)
Hailing from Riverside (Calif.) Notre Dame, Barner was a middle of the pack recruit back in 2008. Rivals rated him as the No. 38 running back in the nation and the No. 86 player in the state. He was a three-star prospect whose only other offers came from Arizona State and UTEP.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC (2011) AC100
The superstar wide receiver hails from California prep powerhouse Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra. He was the No. 64-rated prospect in the nation, the No. 6-rated player in the state and the No. 10-rated wide receiver in the country. His offer sheet was a who’s who of college superpowers. Lee played on the same team as Athlon Consensus 100 wide receivers George Farmer (2011), Robert Woods (2010) and four-star Paul Richardson (2010). How did anyone stop that passing attack?
Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State (2009)
The Chandler (Ariz.) High prospect was just a three-star recruit back in 2009, but he was far from unknown. The smallish wideout had a huge offer sheet that included both Arizona schools, Cal, Nebraska, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Utah. The Beavers won a big battle for the underrated prospect. Rivals rated him the No. 41 “athlete” in the nation and the No. 7-rated player in the state.
Zack Ertz, TE, Stanford (2009)
The heady tight end was a three-star talent from Danville (Calif.) Monte Vista back in 2009. He was the No. 10-rated tight end in the nation and the No. 46-rated prospect in the state by Rivals. He held only three, albeit quality, offers from Stanford, Cal and UCLA.
Hroniss Grasu, OL, Oregon (2010)
The big blocker from Encino (Calif.) Crespi got three BCS offers out of high school. Oregon, Washington and Washington State gave him a shot as well as smaller schools Wyoming, Nevada and UNLV. He was a three-star recruit ranked as the No. 12 center and No. 58 player in the state of California.
Brian Schwenke, OL, Cal (2009)
From Oceanside (Calif.) High, Schwenke’s offer sheet had three major Pac-12 powers on it in Oregon, Cal and Colorado. Otherwise, New Mexico was his only other FBS offer. Rivals rated the blocker as the No. 44 offensive guard and the No. 60-rated player in the state. He was a three-star recruit.
Xavier Su’a-Filo, OL, UCLA (2009) AC100
Only John Martinez (USC) was rated as a better prospect in the state of Utah in 2009. Su’a-Filo was an AC100 member by Athlon Sports and offers from every major West Coast power as well as Notre Dame and Auburn. He was the No. 87-rated player in the nation and the No. 12-rated offensive lineman in the nation by Athlon Sports. He made a huge impact in his first year back from his two-year Mormon Mission.
Khaled Holmes, OL, USC (2008) National Recruit
From the same high school as Matt Barkley, Holmes signed with USC out of the famed Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei program. He was a four-star top 250 prospect by Rivals who ranked as the No. 3 guard in the nation, the No. 14 player in the state and the No. 103 overall player in the nation. Holmes picked USC over Stanford, Oregon State, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Cal.
David Yankey, OL, Stanford (2010)
Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have done a remarkable job recruiting nationally for the Cardinal. Yankey played his prep ball at Roswell (Ga.) Centennial, and Stanford defeated the Clemsons, Floridas, Georgias and Tennessees in his home region to convince the eventual All-Pac-12 blocker to come to the West Coast. He was a three-star prospect who rated as the No. 47 offensive tackle and No. 53 player in The Peach State by Rivals.
Reggie Dunn, RS, Utah (2010) JUCO
The Los Angeles (Calif.) Verburn Dei athlete was an elite prospect back in 2007 when he signed with Oregon State. He was a four-star prospect by Rivals who had offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington as well. He ended up at Compton Community College for three seasons before signing with Utah in 2010.
Star ranking breakdown of the first-team All-Pac-12 (by Rivals.com):
|Star Ranking||No. of Players|
2012 Defensive All-Pac-12 Team as Recruits
Scott Crichton, DL, Oregon State (2010)
The star defensive lineman was a middling prospect from Tacoma (Wash.) Henry Foss. His only two offers to play football came from Oregon State and Washington State. Crichton was a three-star recruit by Rivals who ranked as the No. 12 player in The Evergreen State and the No. 44-rated strongside defensive end in the nation.
Dion Jordan, DL, Oregon (2008) National Recruit
Oregon’s freakish outside linebacker/defensive end was a big-time recruit back in 2008. The Chandler (Ariz.) High prospect was a four-star recruit who held seven Pac-12 offers as well as a Nebraska scholarship. Rivals ranked him as the No. 15 tight end in the nation and he was the No. 7-rated player in the state.
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (2009)
From Corona (Calif.) Centennial, Sutton came to Arizona State sporting only four BCS offers. They included Arizona, Nebraska and Boise State in addition to the Sun Devils. He was the No. 42-rated defensive tackle and the No. 40-rated player in the state of California in the ’09 class. He was a three-star prospect by Rivals.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah (2007)
The big fella from Bingham (Utah) High originally signed with BYU out of high school. He was the No. 57-rated defensive end and the No. 3-rated player in the state of Utah. He held offers from Utah, UNLV and Weber State as well as the Cougars. He eventually landed at Snow College for two years before heading to Salt Lake City. Miraculously, Lotulelei didn’t even play football in 2009 before signing with Utah in January 2010.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA (2010) AC100
Barr was one of the freakiest athletes to ever play high school football in California. The Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola product was pegged as a linebacker, wide receiver, tight end, running back or defensive end. He was the No. 29-rated player in the nation in the AC100 and was the No. 7-rated player in the state by Athlon Sports. Barr had no true position (even once he got to UCLA) and was rated as the No. 3 “athlete” in the nation behind only college superstars Keenan Allen (No. 2) and Tony Jefferson (No. 1). He held major offers from power programs across the nation, including Oregon, USC, Notre Dame, Stanford, Tennessee, Michigan and Florida State.
Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford (2009)
The star pass rusher came to Palo Alto from Phoenix (Ariz.) Brophy Prep. He was a three-star recruit according to Rivals, was rated as the No. 41 strongside defensive end in the nation and the No. 19 player in the state. Despite his middling ranking, Murphy had a solid offer sheet with Pac-12 programs Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah also offering him a scholarship.
Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford (2008)
The Cardinal have made a living recently recruiting in the state of Georgia. Thomas picked Stanford over Auburn, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia Tech out of Marietta (Ga.) Walton. He was a three-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 27 outside linebacker in the nation and the No. 26-rated player in the state. Thomas makes two Peach State prospects on the All-Pac-12 team (Yankey).
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DB, Oregon (2011) National Recruit
The Ducks' defensive back signed with Oregon from Chino Hills (Calif.) High just two seasons ago. The big-time recruit had offers from Arizona State, Cal, Stanford, Utah and Washington State, along with the Ducks. Ekpre-Olomu was a four-star prospect by Rivals who was the No. 173-rated overall player in the nation. He was the No. 17-rated cornerback in the country and the No. 18-rated player in the state.
Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State (2009)
The Beavers' defensive back and return man was one of the biggest steals of the ’09 class. The Astoria (Ore.) High prospect was a wildly underrated two-star recruit with two FBS offers. Portland State, Eastern Washington, Idaho and Oregon State were the only programs who showed any serious interest in the two-star prospect. Rivals rated him as the No. 8 player in the state of Oregon.
Ed Reynolds, DB, Stanford (2010)
Once again, an all-conference player for Stanford comes from the opposite end of the country. Reynolds played his prep ball at Woodberry Forest (Va.) High. He was a three-star recruit who wasn’t ranked in the state or at his position by Rivals despite a quality offer sheet featuring North Carolina, NC State and Duke to go with Stanford. The credit for growing the Stanford brand image on the East Coast goes directly to former head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Desmond Trufant, DB, Washington (2009)
The younger brother of former Washington State star Marcus Trufant, Desmond picked Washington over Wazzu, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona State. He was a three-star prospect from Tacoma (Wash.) Wilson and was the No. 6-rated player in the state. He was the No. 56-rated cornerback in the nation by Rivals.
The BCS is wrapping up its 15th season of action and Athlon Sports is continuing its series of BCS rankings. We ranked the best performances of each BCS bowl game and we ranked the best teams of each BCS conference. Now, we break down the top defensive units of the BCS era (1998-present).
Statistics, awards, championships and NFL talent were all considered and evaluated in order to label the Top 12 defenses of the BCS era. Teams from 2012 were not eligible, otherwise both Notre Dame or Alabama could land on this list. But until the 2012 National Championship is decided, neither belongs on this list (yet).
1. Miami Hurricanes, 2001 (12-0)
Head Coach: Larry Coker
Rushing Defense: 132.7 ypg (40th)
Passing Defense: 138.2 ypg (2nd)
Total Defense: 270.9 ypg (6th)
Scoring Defense: 9.4 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 45 (1st)
NFL Draft Picks: Phillip Buchanon (1st, 2002), Ed Reed (1st, 2002), Mike Rumph (1st, 2002), James Lewis (6th, 2002), Jerome McDougle (1st, 2003), William Joseph (1st, 2003), Andrew Williams (3rd, 2003), Jamaal Green (4th, 2003), Matt Walters (5th, 2003), Sean Taylor (1st, 2004), Jonathan Vilma (1st, 2004), Vince Wilfork (1st, 2004), D.J. Williams (1st, 2004), Darrell McClover (7th, 2004), Alfonso Marshall (7th, 2004), Antrel Rolle (1st, 2005)
Imagine trying to design a passing attack to beat a secondary that featured Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Phillip Buchanon, Mike Rumph, James Lewis, Alfonoso Marshall and Antrel Rolle. How about a rushing attack to penetrate a D-Line with Jerome McDougle, William Joseph, Vince Wilfork, Matt Walters, Jamaal Green and Andrew Williams? And to top it all off, the linebackering corps running around between the two boasted names like Vilma, Williams and McClover. Simply put, this team is one of the greatest groups ever assembled. They started things off by going to Happy Valley and dominating Penn State 33-7, which tied the record for the Nittany Lions’ worst home loss under Joe Paterno. Later on, the Canes defeated No. 14 Syracuse and No. 12 Washington in consecutive weeks at the Orange Bowl with a combined score of 124-7, which set the NCAA record for largest margin of victory over consecutive ranked opponents. They capped things off by dismantling the No. 4 Nebraska Cornhuskers 37-14 in the Rose Bowl, in a game where they held a 34-0 lead in the first half. Miami pitched three shutouts and held eight opponents to seven points or fewer. Later, the Canes claimed 10 first-round draft picks on defense.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2011 (12-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Rushing Defense: 72.2 ypg (1st)
Passing Defense: 111.5 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 183.6 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 8.2 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 20 (77th)
Sacks: 2.3 spg (29th)
NFL Draft Picks: Mark Barron (1st, 2012), Dre Kirkpatrick (1st, 2012), Dont'a Hightower (1st, 2012), Courtney Upshaw (2nd, 2012), Josh Chapman (5th, 2012), DeQuan Menzie (5th, 2012)
The 2011 Crimson Tide allowed fewer points (8.8) than any other team in the history of the BCS. It led the nation in every major statistical defensive category and completely shutdown the unbeaten LSU Tigers in the BCS title game. LSU totaled five first downs, two turnovers, zero points and an (un) remarkable 92 total yards of offense. This team featured eight NFL draft picks, six of which were starters on the defense. This unit could also feature another half-dozen defensive draft picks in 2013 (Dee Milliner, CJ Mosley, Jesse Williams, Robert Lester, etc). Eight times this team allowed less than 10 points — including its only loss of the year — and it allowed more than 14 points only once (21, Georgia Southern). One could argue this is the best college defense ever.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2009 (13-0)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Rushing Defense: 78.1 ypg (2nd)
Passing Defense: 166.0 ypg (10th)
Total Defense: 244.1 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 11.7 ppg (2nd)
Turnovers Forced: 31 (10th)
Sacks: 2.3 spg (40th)
NFL Draft Picks: Rolando McClain (1st, 2010), Kareem Jackson (1st, 2010), Javier Arenas (2nd, 2010), Terrence Cody (2nd, 2010), Marquis Johnson (7th, 2010), Brandon Deaderick (7th, 2010), Marcell Dareus (1st, 2011)
The undefeated national champions won big in 2009 because of a stacked NFL defense. This outfit was led by Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain and a stellar defensive line headlined by Mount Cody and Marcell Dareus. Do-everything corner Javier Arenas not only covered the opponent's top receiver and snagged five interceptions, but he also was a dyanamic pass-rusher (five sacks) and game-changing return specialist. Despite knocking Colt McCoy out of the National Championship game and claiming the Crystal Ball, the signature performance by this unit came against an unbeaten Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators team in the SEC title game. The Tide held the Gators to only 88 yards rushing, 13 first downs and only 13 points in a title-clinching win. This defense has already seen seven players drafted, and that number will continue to rise this spring as Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron (who led the SEC in INTs in 2009), Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw could all grade out as early round picks.
4. LSU Tigers, 2003 (13-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Rushing Defense: 67.0 ypg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 185.0 ypg (18th)
Total Defense: 252.0 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 11.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 33 (9th)
NFL Draft Picks: Marquise Hill (2nd, 2004), Chad Lavalais (5th, 2004), Marcus Spears (1st, 2005), Corey Webster (2nd, 2005), Travis Daniels (4th, 2005), Kyle Williams (5th, 2006), Melvin Oliver (6th, 2006), LaRon Landry (1st, 2007)
One of the nastiest defensive lines ever assembled featured NFL draft picks Marquise Hill, Chad Lavalais, Marcus Spears, Kyle Williams and Melvin Oliver. At 11.0 points per game, LSU led the nation in scoring defense, allowing only one team (Arkansas, 24) to score more than 19 points in any game. Only Florida (19) scored more than 14 points against this defensive unit. In the biggest game for the Bayou Bengals in 40 years, this defense squared off against Heisman winner Jason White of Oklahoma and flat-out dominated. White averaged 292 yards per game in '03, but mustered only 102 yards on 13-of-37 passing with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions — one of which Spears returned for a touchdown that eventually proved to be the game-winner.
5. Oklahoma Sooners, 2000 (13-0)
Head Coach: Bob Stoops
Rushing Defense: 108.2 ypg (23rd)
Passing Defense: 170.8 ypg (9th)
Total Defense: 278.9 ypg (8th)
Scoring Defense: 16.0 ppg (7th)
Turnovers Forced: 33 (5th)
NFL Draft Picks: Torrance Marshall (3rd, 2001), Roy Williams (1st, 2002), Rocky Calmus (3rd, 2002), Andre Woolfolk (1st, 2003), Jimmy Wilkerson (6th, 2003), Teddy Lehman (2nd, 2004), Derrick Strait (3rd, 2004)
This team was not the most impressive statistically, but featured two Butkus Award winners (Rocky Calmus, Teddy Lehman), two Thorpe Award winners (Roy Williams, Derrick Strait), a Nagurski winner (Williams), and what was probably the best defensive championship performance of all time. The Sooners held the nation's No. 1 overall offense and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke to zero points and only 301 yards of offense (nearly 250 yards below their season average). Linebacker Torrance Marshall led the way with No. 4-rated BCS NCG game performance with six tackles and an interception en route to the Orange Bowl MVP trophy. Safety J.T. Thatcher and linebacker Calmus were All-Americans, while Lehman was a freshman All-American. Williams was one of the most impactful and hardest-hitting college players this writer has ever seen.
6. USC Trojans, 2008 (12-1)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll
Rushing Defense: 87.4 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 134.4 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 221.8 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 9.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 29 (20th)
Sacks: 2.2 spg (40th)
NFL Draft Picks: Clay Matthews (1st, 2009), Brian Cushing (1st, 2009), Rey Maualuga (2nd, 2009), Fili Moala (2nd, 2009), Kaluka Maiava (4th, 2009), Kyle Moore (4th, 2009), Cary Harris (6th, 2009), Kevin Ellison (6th, 2009), Taylor Mays (2nd, 2010), Kevin Thomas (3rd, 2010), Everson Griffin (4th, 2010), Jurrell Casey (3rd, 2011), Shareece Wright (3rd, 2011), Malcolm Smith (7th, 2011)
There were eight NFL draft picks who departed from this defense following the near national championship campaign of 2008. Fourteen total players have found their way to the NFL, and that number is only going to increase next spring. An early road upset at the hands of Oregon State kept the best linebacking corps of the BCS era from claiming a spot in the BCS NCG. This group pitched three shutouts and held the opposition to 10 points or less eight times; only three times did a team score more than 10 points. The 9.0 points per game are a current BCS era scoring record (Alabama could break that this season). Team leader Rey Maualuga claimed the Chuck Bednarik Award.
7. Tennessee Volunteers, 1998 (13-0)
Head Coach: Phil Fulmer
Rushing Defense: 93.9 ypg
Passing Defense: 209.1 ypg
Total Defense: 303.0 ypg
Scoring Defense: 15.3 ppg
Turnovers Forced: 16 INT
NFL Draft Picks: Al Wilson (1st, 1999), Steve Johnson (6th, 1999), Corey Terry (7th, 1999), Shaun Ellis (1st, 2000), Raynoch Thompson (2nd, 2000), Dwayne Goodrich (2nd, 2000), Deon Grant (2nd, 2000), Darwin Walker (3rd, 2000), Eric Westmoreland (3rd, 2001), Will Overstreet (3rd, 2002)
Possibly the most talented Tennessee team in program history finished a dream season by winning the Fiesta Bowl 23-16 over Florida State in the first-ever BCS Championship Game. A front seven that featured eventual draft picks Shaun Ellis, Darwin Walker, Corey Terry, Billy Ratliff and Will Overstreet along the line and Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson and Eric Westmoreland in the linebacking corps held 10 opponents to 18 points or less — including No. 2 Florida, No. 7 Georgia, No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State.
8. LSU Tigers, 2011 (13-1)
Head Coach: Les Miles
Rushing Defense: 90.1 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 171.4 ypg (8th)
Total Defense: 261.5 ypg (2nd)
Scoring Defense: 11.3 ppg (2nd)
Turnovers Forced: 30 (16th)
Sacks: 2.8 spg (14th)
Key Player: Morris Claiborne (1st, 2012), Michael Brockers (1st, 2012), Brandon Taylor (3rd, 2012), Ron Brooks (4th, 2012)
This defense was outstanding, finishing a distant second behind only Alabama in total defense and scoring defense. It ran the regular season table unbeaten but couldn't finish in the national championship game. It claimed the Thorpe Award winner (Morris Claiborne), a Heisman finalist (Tyrann Matheiu), four NFL draft picks and an SEC championship. With a host of future NFL stars — Sam Montgomery, Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Anthony Johnson — the talent on this unit was one of the best in history. But 384 yards allowed to AJ McCarron and Trent Richardson in the biggest game of the season keeps it from being the in the mix with '01 Miami and '11 Bama.
9. Florida Gators, 2006 (13-1)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Rushing Defense: 72.5 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 116.3 ypg (33rd)
Total Defense: 466.9 ypg (6th)
Scoring Defense: 13.5 ppg (6th)
Turnovers Forced: 29 (17th)
Sacks: 2.4 spg (35th)
NFL Draft Picks: Reggie Nelson (1st, 2007), Jarvis Moss (1st, 2007), Ray McDonald (3rd, 2007), Marcus Thomas (4th, 2007), Joe Cohen (4th, 2007), Ryan Smith (6th, 2007), Brandon Siler (7th, 2007), Derrick Harvey (1st, 2008), Jermaine Cunningham (2nd, 2010), Brandon Spikes (2nd, 2010)
The 2006 Gators defense put together one of the greatest BCS Championship game performance against the favored Buckeyes and Heisman winner Troy Smith. Smith threw for 35 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and was sacked five times. An NFL-laden defense held the OSU rushing attack to 47 yards on 23 carries. Ohio State totaled 82 yards of offense in the 41-14 beatdown as the Gators claimed the Crystal Ball. Derrick Harvey led the way with the No. 12-rated BCS Championship Game performance with a BCS NCG record three sacks to go with his four solo stops and a forced fumble. This team featured seven defensive draft picks the following spring in 2007.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes, 2007 (11-2)
Head Coach: Jim Tressel
Rushing Defense: 82.9 ypg (3rd)
Passing Defense: 150.1 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 233.0 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 12.8 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 19 (93rd)
Sacks: 3.3 spg (6th)
NFL Draft Picks: Vernon Gholston (1st, 2008), Larry Grant (7th, 2008), Malcolm Jenkins (1st, 2009), James Laurinaitis (2nd, 2009), Donald Washington (4th, 2009), Marcus Freeman (5th, 2009), Thaddeus Gibson (4th, 2010), Doug Worthington (7th, 2010), Kurt Coleman (7th, 2010), Austin Spitler (7th, 2010), Cam Heyward (1st, 2011), Chimdi Chekwa (4th, 2011), Jermale Hines (5th, 2011), Brian Rolle (6th, 2011), Ross Homan (6th, 2011)
The nation's best defense was one great performance away from being immortalized in Ohio State lore. With a roster loaded with NFL talent, the Buckeyes held LSU to only 326 yards in the BCS National Championship game, but fell short 38-24. Nagurski Trophy (2006) and Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis set a BCS bowl record with 18 tackles in the loss. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock won the Broyles Award and corner Malcolm Jenkins went on to win the Thorpe Award the following year. This defense featured 15 draft picks, including three first-rounders.
The Next in Line
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2009 (10-4)
Head Coach: Bo Pelini
Rushing Defense: 93. 1 ypg (9th)
Passing Defense: 178.9 ypg (18th)
Total Defense: 272.0 ypg (7th)
Scoring Defense: 10.4 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 28 (21st)
Sacks: 3.1 spg (2nd)
NFL Draft Picks: Ndamukong Suh (1st, 2010), Phillip Dillard (4th, 2010), Larry Asante (5th, 2010), Prince Amukamara (1st, 2011), Dejon Gomes (5th, 2011), Eric Hagg (7th, 2011)
You could make the case that the 1999 version of the Black Shirts could be on this list as well. But from a talent perspective, it is tough to argue with the way the 2009 group played, as they finished one second away from defeating National runner-up Texas in the Big 12 title game. The D-line included Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick, Barry Turner and Pierre Allen. The linebacking corps featured Phillip Dillard and Larry Asante, and the secondary featured Eric Hagg, Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard. This team allowed more than 20 points only one time and ten times did Nebraska hold the opposition to 13 or fewer points. Six players have already been drafted off of the 2009 defense. This team led the nation in scoring defense and finished second in sacks.
12. TCU Horned Frogs, 2010 (13-0)
Head Coach: Gary Patterson
Rushing Defense: 99.7 ypg (5th)
Passing Defense: 128.8 ypg (1st)
Total Defense: 228.5 ypg (1st)
Scoring Defense: 12.0 ppg (1st)
Turnovers Forced: 22 (59th)
Sacks: 2.1 spg (54th)
NFL Draft Picks: Colin Jones (6th, 2011), Malcolm Williams (7th, 2011)
You have to throw the "little guy" a bone after one of the best defensive seasons by any team ever. TCU held eight opponents to 10 points or less including four who failed to score a touchdown. Led by Rose Bowl MVP and All-America linebacker Tank Carder, the Frogs topped Big Ten champ Wisconsin in the 21-19 Granddaddy of Them All. By holding Johnny Unitas Award winner Scott Tolzien to 159 yards and no scores, TCU finished the best season in school history unbeaten and ranked first in the nation in scoring and total defense.
Others receiving votes: 1998 Ohio State, 1999 Nebraska, 2000 TCU, 2001 Texas, 2002 Kansas State, 2002 USC, 2004 USC, 2005 Virginia Tech, 2006 LSU, 2007 Virginia Tech, 2008 Florida, 2009 Texas
Change seems like the perfect word to sum up the Big East in 2013. The conference will welcome six new teams next season, while three programs will have new head coaches. Willie Taggart was hired to replace Skip Holtz at South Florida, Tommy Tuberville was brought in to replace Butch Jones at Cincinnati, and Matt Rhule returns to Temple to take over for Steve Addazio. All three coaches were solid hires, but which coach will have the most success in 2013 and beyond?
Willie Taggart, Matt Rhule or Tommy Tuberville: Who is the Big East's Best Hire?
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Tommy Tuberville is the easily the most proven commodity of the bunch. But he slipped out of Lubbock with cloak and dagger in hand. He never really fit at Texas Tech and will have to take a spread offense and convert them back to a pro-style attack, but he should be successful in the watered down Big East. Willie Taggart might have the most upside, however. He should recruit extremely well in Florida and should be able develop talent. He took a struggling program and led to them to their first winning seasons in the FBS and its first-ever bowl game. Matt Rhule is simply an unknown. Not everyone is Bill O'Brien.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think all three schools made solid hires. However, South Florida’s move to hire Willie Taggart is the best out of the trio and could rank as the No. 1 hire in college football once all of dust settles from the 2012 coaching carousel. Considering he played high school ball about an hour outside of Tampa and recruited Florida hard during his time at Western Kentucky, Taggart is a perfect fit at USF. The Bulls struggled to reach expectations over the last few seasons, and Taggart is going to bring some much-needed toughness on both sides of the ball. Taggart inherited a difficult situation at Western Kentucky and led the Hilltoppers to a 14-10 mark over the last two years. It may take some time for South Florida’s new coach to restock the roster, but the Bulls could push for a winning record next year. Tommy Tuberville is an interesting fit at Cincinnati but is a proven winner (130-77) and could help bring some stability to the program after having three head coaches over the last seven seasons. Temple’s hire of Matt Rhule won’t generate much national interest, but the Owls also landed a good fit. The former Penn State linebacker coached at Temple from 2006-2011 and has NFL experience with the Giants. Rhule is a good recruiter, which should help the Owls keep some of the Philadelphia talent at home.
While the Big East may not have generated the same buzz as the SEC did with its recent head coaching changes, the beleaguered conference did pretty well with its three newest hires. As for which school made the best decision, I'll go with South Florida bringing Willie Taggart further south over Tommy Tuberville heading north to take over at Cincinnati. For me, the jury is still out on Matt Rhule, the former Temple assistant coach who left his job with the New York Giants to take over the Owls' program. Rhule's never been a head coach on any level, and he will certainly have his work cut out at Temple, who lost Steve Addazio to Boston College. And as much as I like Tuberville and think Cincinnati is a place where he can make some noise, I can't ignore his sudden departure from Texas Tech and view the Bearcats job as just another stepping stone in hopes of getting back into the SEC in the near future. That's why I'll go with South Florida enticing Taggart to leave Western Kentucky, where he did a fine job rebuilding the Hilltoppers' program and leaving them in a position for more success in the future, to take over a Bulls program in disarray. Despite the recent turmoil and upheaval, the Big East is still a BCS conference, which means the rewards that will come with success at South Florida will be far greater than they would ever have been at Western Kentucky. Couple that with the fact that Taggart now has the fertile recruiting ground of the Sunshine State to assist him in that goal. In the current state that is college football, there's no guarantee any coach will stick around long enough at a so-called "non-major" school to enjoy a period of sustained success. But for the time being, with Taggart leading the way, South Florida seems well-positioned for success in the very near future, and that's what matters most as far as the present is concerned.
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The final two undefeated SEC teams watched their unblemished records fall during their trips out West. Florida lost 65-64 to Arizona while LSU lost 89-70 at Boise State.
Despite the loss, the Gators, who led until the final seconds, appear to be the class of the conference. Unfortunately for the SEC, standing out is not hard to do. Beyond the top four or five teams, the SEC may struggle to fill postseason spots.
As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon will examine the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.
Here’s our look at the scene so far in the SEC.
|Florida coach Billy Donovan|
Surprise team: Florida
Few teams in the SEC have distinguished themselves this season enough to call them a surprise, but the Gators are the clear league favorite at this point despite Saturday night’s 65-64 loss at Arizona. But before that, the Gators had defeated Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State by an average of 25 points. Florida’s rise to the top of the SEC is due to balance across the lineup. The Gators have had standout play at each position this season and have four players averaging at least 10 points per game. They're also one of the most improved defensive teams in the conference.
Disappointing team: Kentucky
Turns out Kentucky can’t just plug in the best freshmen each year and expect similar results. Back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor were stunners, especially as Baylor’s win was sandwiched between the Bears’ losses to Charleston and Northwestern. With Ryan Harrow limited this season, the Wildcats haven’t been able to find steady play at point guard this season, an oddity for a John Calipari-coached team. The Wildcats have won three in a row over lesser competition, but a trip to Louisville on Dec. 29 looms large.
Where did he come from? Laurence Bowers, Missouri
Missouri’s season never derailed when Bowers, the Tigers only real big man, went down with a torn ACL in 2011-12. A year later, Bowers is playing on a new -look Missouri team with Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi joining him in the frontcourt. Bowers, though, has returned from his knee injury as it if it never occurred. He’s leading Missouri with 16.9 points per game and is contributing 6.9 rebounds. In his absence from the court, Bowers bulked up to 230 pounds while improving his 3-point shooting.
Where did he go? Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee
The other half of Tennessee’s frontcourt duo with Jarnell Stokes, Maymon hasn’t played yet this season thanks to a knee injury. The Volunteers may have to get used to playing without him as he’s encountered a setback that may keep him out until January.
Key stat: Florida’s defense
The Gators’ defense has been spotty in recent seasons, but that hasn’t been the case so far in 2012-13. The Gators are second in the SEC in field goal percentage defense (36.1 percent) and 15th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense (41.4), which factors in 3-point attempts. The Gators also lead the SEC in defensive rebound percentage (rate of missed field goals resulting in a defensive rebound) at 72.3 percent.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY
|Kentucky coach John Calipari|
Kentucky’s point guard situation. Ryan Harrow was not the answer early on, missing four games early this season and ceding some of the point guard responsibilities to freshman Archie Goodwin. He’s getting more work now with a 12-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the last three games, though they were games against Samford, Portland and Lipscomb. How or if Kentucky resolves its point guard situation will determine if Kentucky will return to top-10 status or if the Wildcats will have more games like the losses to Notre Dame and Baylor.
Can Mike Rosario and Patric Young continue career years? A major reason Florida is off to a hot start is the improvement of Mike Rosario and Patric Young. Rosario is playing a full-time role after averaging fewer than 15 minutes per game last season. The increased playing time has paid off with 12 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Young is enjoying the best season of his career. He’s playing with more focus and has become a defensive factor with 2.3 blocks per game.
Who will escape this mess at the bottom of the league? We knew the SEC would be top heavy entering this season, but after Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, it’s tough to pinpoint who will be in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee is probably in, but the Volunteers aren’t far removed from failing to crack 40 points against Virginia and Georgetown. Arkansas’ breakout season has hit a snag, and Alabama has lost three in a row to Cincinnati, Dayton and VCU. While records for LSU and Ole Miss look good, neither team has signature wins. The bottom of the SEC -- teams like Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State -- is dreadful.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
Player of the year watch
Phil Pressey, Missouri
Erik Murphy, Florida
Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
Freshman of the year watch
Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Alex Poythress, Kentucky
Coach of the year watch
Billy Donovan, Florida
Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee
Frank Haith, Missouri
1. Florida (7-1)
The Gators appeared on their way to another lopsided win, but a collapse in the final seconds cost Florida a top-10 win. Kenny Boynton, who missed the front end of a critical one-and-one late against the Wildcats, has been in a shooting slump.
2. Missouri (9-1)
Guard Michael Dixon isn’t coming back, but the Tigers added yet another transfer to the mix when former Oregon guard Jabari Brown became eligible.
Jabari Brown back
3. Kentucky (7-3)
After facing Marshall on Saturday, the Wildcats will have a week to prepare for a road trip to Louisville. Will Kentucky’s struggles be in the rearview mirror by then?
4. Tennessee (5-3)
Athlon expected Tennessee to be a NCAA Tournament team. A win over previously undefeated Wichita State restored faith in the Volunteers after back-to-back ugly losses to Georgetown (37-36) and Virginia (46-38).
5. Ole Miss (7-1)
The Rebels boast the SEC’s top scorer (junior college transfer Marshall Henderson) and rebounder (Murphy Holloway), but the Rebels have few major wins on their resume and a loss at Middle Tennessee.
6. Arkansas (5-4)
Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young have been a prolific duo, but they need help. With a struggling defense, the Razorbacks have lost four of their last six to Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan.
7. LSU (6-1)
A loss to Boise State on Friday ended an undefeated start for first-year coach Johnny Jones.
8. Texas A&M (7-2)
There’s no Johnny Basketball, but Elston Turner (16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists) is having a nice year.
9. Alabama (6-3)
The Tide were crushed 73-54 by VCU on Saturday for the Tide’s third consecutive loss.
10. South Carolina (6-3)
Freshman Michael Carrera (11.3 ppg, 8 rpg) has been a pleasant surprise for a team that’s going to struggle to win SEC games.
11. Vanderbilt (5-4)
A win in overtime at Xavier on Dec. 6 is a signal of hope for the rebuilding Commodores.
12. Auburn (4-5)
The Tigers have lost to some of the worst teams in the Big East (DePaul), the ACC (Boston College) and Atlantic 10 (Rhode Island).
13. Mississippi State (4-5)
The rebuilding in Starkville is as tough as we figured it would be. At least all of the Bulldogs’ losses have come either on the road or on a neutral court.
14. Georgia (2-7)
The Bulldogs have played a tough schedule, but how does that explain losses to Youngstown State, Southern Miss and Iona?
The 35-ring circus of bowl season is full of sideshows, freak shows, split stats and split personalities. And the biggest and best bowls have the most exciting high-wire acts, thanks to their award winners, NFL prospects, high-priced coaches, rabid fan bases and big dog endorsement deals. Here’s a look at 15 weird and wild facts, stats and trends from the best bowls this postseason.
BCS National Championship Game
Monday, Jan. 7, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Notre Dame vs. Alabama
1. Third Year’s an Irish Charm
In 2010, Brian Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame to replace Charlie Weis and take the golden-dome throne in South Bend. Now in his third season, the 51-year-old is the national coach of the year after leading Notre Dame to a perfect 12–0 record and a spot opposite Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
If Kelly’s Fighting Irish are able to take down the Crimson Tide in Miami, he will be the fifth coach in Notre Dame history to win his first national title in his third season at ND:
1943 – Frank Leahy (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1966 – Ara Parseghian (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1977 – Dan Devine (3rd season, 1st National Title)
1988 – Lou Holtz (3rd season, 1st National Title)
2012 – Brian Kelly (3rd season, ???)
2. Roll O-line!
Nick Saban does more good for the NFL as a college coach by preparing future pros who graduate from Saturday to Sunday with relative ease. Over the past four seasons, Alabama has had 24 players selected in the NFL Draft, including 11 first-round picks.
This season, the Crimson Tide offensive line has washed away the opposition. All five members have started all 13 games this season. All five will have NFL careers; four have a chance to go in the first round when they are eligible and/or declare for the draft.
LT – Cyrus Kouandjio, 6’6”, 311, Soph.
LG – Chance Warmack, 6’3”, 320, Sr. (All-America 1st Team)
C – Barrett Jones, 6’5”, 302, Sr. (All-America 1st Team)
RG – Anthony Steen, 6’3”, 303, Jr.
RT – D.J. Fluker, 6’6”, 335, Jr. (All-SEC 2nd Team)
Thursday, Jan. 3, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Oregon vs. Kansas State
3. Kelly Spreads His Wings?
The NFL came calling Oregon coach Chip Kelly last offseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wooed the Ducks’ hurry-up spread offensive mastermind but fell short of their target, ultimately settling for another college coach in Rutgers’ Greg Schiano.
“After numerous discussions, I concluded that I have some unfinished business to complete at the University of Oregon,” Kelly said at the time.
Kelly’s business may be finished after this season, however. With a slew of NFL jobs — Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, etc. — expected to be open, Kelly is sure to be on the top of many lists. After posting a 45–7 record, 33–3 mark in the Pac-12 and four straight BCS bowl berths (including a national title game trip after the 2010 season), Kelly may be flying the coop after the Fiesta Bowl.
Should Kelly leave Phil Knight’s neon Nike outfit for one of Roger Goodell’s shield operations, UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich is expected to take over in Eugene. But who cares? What jerseys will the Ducks be wearing in Glendale? That’s what people really care about. According to To The Athletes Who, they’ll be Kelly green blurs for at least one more big game.
4. Tostitos Tickets
Kansas State fans will paint University of Phoenix Stadium purple and silver, with waves of Wildcats turning Glendale into Manhattan West. The K-State faithful devoured their 17,500 ticket allotment, then requested an additional 4,000 tickets. Meanwhile, Oregon still had 2,000 tickets left unsold as of mid-December.
This is the Wildcats’ third trip to the Fiesta Bowl, having defeated Syracuse, 35–18, in 1997 and losing to Ohio State, 35–28, in 2004. With a presumed homefield advantage, Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Collin Klein and legendary coach Bill Snyder will look to pull off an upset of the jaded Ducks.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Florida vs. Louisville
5. Blind Side Booster
Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is a third-team All-America talent with first-round NFL potential when he chooses to go pro. But he won’t have to exit Gainesville early due to financial hardship. The 20-year-old junior was recently adopted by Kevin Lahn, a booster whose improper benefits resulted in a two-game NCAA suspension for Floyd earlier this season. Lahn was also forced to disassociate himself with his alma mater, South Carolina, during a major NCAA investigation.
But in a case similar to Michael Oher’s famed story in The Blind Side (Oher was adopted by Sandra Bullock, right?), Floyd and Lahn have hit the gapped loophole like a dominant 3-technique D-tackle should. As a result, the NCAA can’t say a word about the 2012 Ford Explorer XLT leased to Floyd, or his new apartment, or the birthday party yacht trip in Miami also attended by Gator teammates Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley — all paid for by Lahn.
“It was not something we planned, but it’s been a natural fit,” Lahn said in an email to USA Today. “My wife and I love Sharrif and he feels the same way about us.”
6. Strong Resumé
Louisville coach Charlie Strong is “getting close” to a contract extension to 2020, according to athletic director Tom Jurich. After turning down the Tennessee job and a potential jump to the SEC, Strong appears to be putting down roots at the U of L, where he has gone 24–14 over three years, including a 10–2 record this season.
Judging by Strong’s coaching history, it looks like the 52-year-old should be the coach at Florida, the team he’s facing in the Sugar Bowl. But Strong was passed over by the Gators and Will Muschamp is in charge of the chomping at The Swamp.
Strong coached under both Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer as part of two national championship teams and four SEC title squads. He coached 13 All-Americans and seven first-round picks during his four stints in Gainesville:
1983-84 – Florida graduate assistant
1988-89 – Florida OLB coach
1991-94 – Florida assistant head coach, DT coach
2003-09 – Florida assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, interim head coach
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Florida State vs. Northern Illinois
7. Werner is Coming
Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, before becoming a cult hero in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminoles’ top pass rusher is a 6’4”, 255-pound beast who was named first-team AP All-America this season after recording 18 tackles for 134 lost yards, including 13 sacks for 117 lost yards, along with seven pass beatdowns, one forced fumble and another fumble recovery.
Werner’s relentless effort on the field and international man of mystery style have given him a larger-than-life warrior persona. As a result, an internet meme inspired by the HBO hit series Game of Thrones has gone viral, and the Florida State marching band has made a habit of playing the Game of Thrones theme song in honor of the Seminoles’ chief defender and most popular player.
8. BCS Busters
Northern Illinois has MAC-attacked the BCS this season, crashing the Orange Bowl. Although the Huskies are one of only five schools with 10 or more wins in each of the past three seasons — along with Alabama, LSU, Oregon and Stanford — most casual fans aren’t giving NIU a chance against FSU. History, however, shows that assumption is a flawed one.
Non-Automatic Qualifiers in BCS Bowls:
5–2 record all-time in BCS Bowls
4–1 record vs. Big Six Conferences
Boise State (2–0), Utah (2–0), TCU (1–1) and Hawaii (0–1) have paved the way for Northern Illinois, a team with a superstar of its own in quarterback Jordan Lynch — who passed for 2,962 yards, 24 TDs and five INTs, while rushing for another 1,771 yards and 19 TDs on the ground this season.
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 5:00 p.m.
Stanford vs. Wisconsin
9. Kulabafi in the Backfield
Stanford running Stepfan Taylor has posted three straight 1,000-yard, 10-TD seasons. This year, he rumbled for 1,442 yards and 12 TDs on the ground, with another 270 yards and two scores as a receiver out of the backfield.
The workhorse runner had his biggest games in the biggest games — with 213 total yards and two scores in a 21–14 upset of USC, 200 total yards and a TD in a 21–3 win at Cal in The Big Game, 161 rush yards in a 17–14 overtime victory at Oregon, and a combined 302 total yards and three trips to the end zone in back-to-back wins over UCLA in the season finale and Pac-12 title game.
But it is Taylor’s alter-ego, Kulabafi, who makes the most noise on The Farm.
10. Barry’s Bonus
After Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin to take the same post at Arkansas, many Badgers fans had hopes that UW athletic director and former head football coach Barry Alvarez would return to the sideline in Pasadena for a shot at his fourth win in the Rose Bowl. That wish was granted.
The 65-year-old who coached Heisman Trophy winning runner Ron Dayne and went 3–0 in the Rose Bowl — compared to Bielema’s 0–2 mark in the “Granddaddy of Them All” — is back in charge. And he’s getting a nice pay bump to be coach-slash-AD during the month of December. Alvarez’s $203,500 monthly salary is a $118,500 increase and has a chance to be a cool $168,500 if he can lead the Badgers to victory.
$195,000 – 90 percent of Bielema’s monthly salary as coach
$8,500 – 10 percent of Alvarez’s monthly salary as AD
$50,000 – Rose Bowl winner’s bonus incentive clause
“We weighed the factors involved, including the unique circumstances that developed less than a month before the game, the challenges of the job, the marketplace and his strength as a coach and concluded that this is a reasonable arrangement,” said Wisconsin Board of Regents president Brent Smith.
Friday, Jan. 4, FOX, 8:00 p.m.
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
11. Johnny Football’s House
The Cotton Bowl will be played at Cowboys Stadium, while the Heart of Dallas Bowl will kick off at the Cotton Bowl. Makes sense, right? Either way, Jerry’s House will be Johnny Football’s House when the new SEC powers from Texas A&M take on their old Big 12 rivals from Oklahoma.
The first freshman to win college football’s most prestigious award, Johnny Manziel will be the eighth Heisman Trophy winner to play in the Cotton Bowl. It’s a good group that has combined for a 3–4 record in the game.
1948 – Doak Walker, RB, SMU (W, Cotton Bowl)
1963 – Roger Staubach, QB, Navy (L)
1977 – Earl Campbell, RB, Texas (L)
1984 – Doug Flutie, QB, Boston College (W)
1985 – Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn (L)
1987 – Tim Brown, WR, Notre Dame (L)
1998 – Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (W)
Monday, Dec. 31, ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
LSU vs. Clemson
12. Playing Chicken
Only the Mad Hatter would have a conflict of interest involving fried chicken. LSU coach Les Miles has an endorsement deal with Raising Cane’s, a chicken finger joint that opened in Baton Rouge in 1996 that has since expanded to 17 states nationwide.
As a result of his business partnership, Miles has refused to chow down on any of the Chick-fil-A spread during pre-bowl functions and festivities.
“I have a chicken issue,” said Miles, adding to his surreal reputation.
Capital One Bowl
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ABC, 1:00 p.m.
Georgia vs. Nebraska
13. Plan B Bowl
According to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel, the Capital One Bowl would have preferred to invite Texas A&M and Northwestern to town. But after both the SEC and Big Ten objected, the bowl relented and reached out to the runners-up of both conference’s championship games, Georgia and Nebraska.
“You have to understand that we’ve had a 20-year relationship with the SEC and Big Ten where we’ve had the top (non-BCS) selection from those conferences. That’s an important place to be and we’d like to continue that relationship,” said Steve Hogan, executive director of the Capital One Bowl.
Tuesday, Jan. 1, ESPN, 1:00 p.m.
South Carolina vs. Michigan
14. NFL Scouting Combine
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is currently the clear-cut No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan is jockeying for position as a first-round prospect in this year’s draft. All eyes will be on Lewan as he takes on Clowney in easily the most talented one-on-one matchup of this year’s bowl schedule.
Saturday, Dec. 29, ESPN, 6:45 p.m.
Oregon State vs. Texas
15. Dreaded Vote of Confidence
Texas coach Mack Brown has a 21–16 record over the past three seasons and appears to be losing considerable ground in the Lone Star State — which has produced the past two Heisman Trophy winners in Baylor’s RG3 and Texas A&M’s Johnny Football, neither of whom were offered to wear burnt orange as quarterbacks. Now, the 61-year-old has been given the dreaded vote of confidence from his bosses.
“Now that the Longhorn football team has finished its regular season, there has been an increase in media speculation about Coach Mack Brown’s future,” wrote University of Texas president Bill Powers. “I’d like to state unequivocally that Coach Brown has my full support as well as the support of Men’s Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds. Put succinctly, Mack Brown is and will remain the Longhorns’ head football coach.”
NFL football is the greatest reality TV program of all time. The Giants and Colts made sure of that back in 1958. Each NFL fall weekend is a completely new and original experience for every player, fan and coach alike. New stories, new personalities, new winners and new losers. And new statistics.
Here are the most important, most intriguing and most bizarre statistics from Week 15 of NFL play:
7-1: Aaron Rodgers career record against Jay Cutler
The Packers won their seventh consecutive game against the Bears as Rodgers' continued domination of Cutler gave Green Bay their second consecutive NFC North championship. Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in the road win and is second to only Drew Brees with 32 touchdown passes this year. The Packers are 10-4 and are eyeing the NFC's two-seed without the help of a kicker — Mason Crosby has missed at least one field goal in eight straight games and is nine for his last 18 — or a host of elite playmakers on both sides of the ball. Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Desmond Bishop, Cedric Benson, D.J. Smith and Bryan Bulaga are either out for the year or have missed significant time this year. Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning are deserving MVP candidates, but has anyone done more with less than No. 12 in Green and Gold?
9: Consecutive wins for Peyton Manning over the Ravens
The future Hall of Fame quarterback led his Broncos to a key victory on the road over Baltimore in a game with AFC seeding implications. The 34-17 win over the Ravens gives Manning nine straight wins over the extremely successful AFC North franchise. The Ravens have been a playoff team in each of the last four years (soon to be five) and, after this year, will have made the postseason in six of the last seven seasons. In fact, two of those nine wins have come in the postseason, both in years that the Colts made it to the Super Bowl (2006, 2009). The last time No. 18 lost to Baltimore was December 2001.
108: Points scored by Seattle in its last two games
The Seahawks set all kinds of franchise records in their 58-0 drubbing of the Cardinals last week. The offense, led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, didn't miss a beat again this week in a 50-17 win over Buffalo in Toronto. It marked just the third time in NFL history a team scored 50 points in back-to-back games. Seattle forced 11 turnovers in the two wins while turning the ball over just once. Wilson, who set a franchise record with three rushing touchdowns (by a QB), is putting together one of the best rookie campaigns in history. All while Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are doing the same. The Seahawks' signal caller has thrown 21 scoring strikes, which ties him with Cam Newton for the third highest total by a rookie (Peyton Manning 26 in 1998, Charlie Conerly 22 in 1948). After a four-touchdown performance in the win over the Bills, Wilson trails Luck (20 pass, 5 rush) by one total TD for the rookie lead. He finished 14-of-23 for 205 yards passing to go with 92 yards rushing on nine carries and has his team at 9-5 in his first year.
8,743: New San Francisco franchise rushing record by Frank Gore
In 156 games as a 49er, Joe Perry rushed for a franchise-record 8,689 yards. In 42 fewer games, Gore has supplanted Perry atop the Niners' all-time rushing standings. He rushed for 83 yards and scored a touchdown in the huge statement win over the Patriots on Sunday night in New England. The Niners endured a 28-point comeback and more than 300 yards passing from Tom Brady in the second half, but Colin Kaepernick answered with four touchdown passes of his own in the gut-check win over the defending AFC Champs. Gore, at 29 years old in his eighth NFL season, will become the first Niners player to rush for 10,000 yards with just one more solid season in the Bay Area. He is already the franchise's leader in rushing attempts (1,885) and his 50 rushing touchdowns trail only Perry's record 68.
294: Yards Adrian Peterson needs to set the NFL single-season rushing record
Eric Dickerson set the single-season NFL rushing record (2,105 yards) in 1984 as a 24-year old Los Angeles Ram. With 212 yards, including an 82-yard scoring run, Peterson has 1,812 yards rushing on the year. His quest for 2,000 almost seems secondary, as he needs 188 yards per game in his last two to reach Dickerson's benchmark. The Vikings tailback is less than a year removed from major knee surgery and has carried a 3-13 team to eight wins with two games left to play. Minnesota and its MVP running back will face the Texans and the Packers — who entered the weekend ranked second and 15th respectively against the run. It will be an extremely difficult task, but 146.5 yards per game is well within reach for the most gifted runner on the planet. Setting that record on that team after that injury, it's hard not to think this would be considered the best season by any running back in NFL history.
181: Yards Calvin Johnson needs to set the NFL single-season receiving record
Before 1995, only two receivers in history had ever topped 1,600 yards receiving in a season. Charley Hennigan's extraordinary 1,761 yards in only 14 games in 1961 and Lance Alworth's 1,602 in 1965 were the only such occurrences. Then the craziness of 1995 took place when four of the top 12 receiving seasons of all-time happened in the same year. Jerry Rice set the single-season mark with 1,848 yards, but the No. 2 (Isaac Bruce, 1,781), No. 6 (Herman Moore, 1,686) and No. 12 (Michael Irvin, 1,603) top receiving seasons also took place. At the time, they ranked No. 1, 2, 4 and 5 all-time. In total, only 15 times has a player topped 1,600 yards receiving in a single NFL campaign. With 121 yards on Sunday, Calvin Johnson (1,667) joined Marvin Harrison as the only two players to have accomplished the feat twice. He needs only 90.5 yards per game over the next two weeks against Atlanta and Chicago to knock Rice from one of the most prestigious pedestals in NFL history.
27: Number of 10,000-yard rushers in NFL history
Steven Jackson rushed for 73 yards in the loss to Minnesota this Sunday, but he became just the 27th player in NFL history to reach the 10,000-yard mark. Jackson is constantly underrated by most fans, particularly because the fantasy community doesn't appreciate his relatively low yearly touchdown totals. But with 91 more rushing yards over the final two weeks, Jackson will top the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth consecutive season. He also caught eight passes in the loss, giving him 399 catches for his career. He is one away from 400 and two away from passing Tom Fears for fifth all-time in Rams' history. Jackson is one of the most consistent producers in the NFL over the last nine seasons and has been doing it for bad football teams with little support from the quarterback position.
17: Number of times Drew Brees has passed at least 300 yards with 4 TDs in a game
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees passed for 307 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 41-0 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday. Brees has recorded at least 300 passing yards and four touchdowns in a game 17 times and passed Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino (16) for the most such games in NFL history.
EDITOR'S NOTE: While we all sit with our friends and families watching football this holiday season, there will be 26 gaping voids in 26 different living rooms in Newtown, Conn., following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I went to an elementary school not 15 miles down the road and I can assure the small Northeastern town that an entire nation is mourning your loss. There is no explanation and there are no words. But celebrating the lives and heroics of the teachers and principle who lost their lives protecting children — and appreciating every moment you get with your loved ones — feels like a good place to start rebuilding.
The NFL’s early entry deadline into the draft always plays a huge role in ranking teams for the next season. There’s a handful of key players that could depart college football for the NFL after this season, which could force a lot of changes in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2013. It’s never too early to think about next season, so it’s time to examine some of the key players that could depart for the NFL Draft, which will also play a huge role in determining the top 25.
15 Key Underclassmen Who Will Impact the 2013 Draft and College Football's Top 25
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Boyd has been the perfect fit in Chad Morris’ spread attack at Clemson, leading the Tigers to back-to-back 10-win seasons. Over the last two years, he has thrown for 7,378 yards and 67 touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, Boyd doesn’t have ideal size for the NFL. However, he has been one of college football’s most productive quarterbacks the last two seasons and won ACC Player of the Year honors for 2012.
Impact on Clemson: Boyd is expected to file his papers with the NFL Draft advisory board and make a decision after the bowl game against LSU. The junior could benefit from another year at the college level and throwing to Sammy Watkins certainly can’t hurt his stock. As long as Boyd returns, Clemson is the heavy favorite to win the ACC. Without him? The Tigers remain a likely top-25 team, but the race to win the ACC is wide open.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
In his first season carrying the full workload for Michigan State, Bell rushed for 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns on 350 attempts. The Ohio native had three 200-yard efforts this season, including 210 in the 17-13 win over Boise State. Bell has 3,201 rushing yards in his career and has 76 receptions for 518 yards. He doesn’t have elite speed but is workhorse that can handle 25-30 carries every game.
Impact on Michigan State: Although quarterback Andrew Maxwell had some bright spots in 2012, Bell carried the Spartans’ offense. If he chooses to go to the NFL, Michigan State would have a hard time replacing Bell’s production with one player. If the junior does return, he should be in the mix for All-America honors.
D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
As most expected coming into this season, Fluker took the next step in his development into one of college football’s best offensive linemen. The Alabama native started every game over the last two years and earned first-team All-SEC honors this season. Fluker was picked as a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports for his performance in 2012. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, the junior has the size to be a force in clearing the way for running backs in the NFL.
Impact on Alabama: With Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack departing for the NFL, Alabama’s offensive line is already shorthanded going into 2013. Fluker is projected as a top 50 pick and is unlikely to return to Tuscaloosa for next season. Assuming he does leave for the NFL, Alabama’s offensive line will have three new starters and will be the team’s biggest weakness going into 2013.
Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
After dominating defensive lines in the Big 12, the jump in competition to the SEC didn’t bother Joeckel in 2012. The Arlington native has made 38 consecutive starts and was a first-team All-SEC selection this season. Joeckel is a sure-fire first-round pick and would likely be selected among the top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Impact on Texas A&M: If Joeckel and fellow tackle Jake Matthews leave for the NFL, it’s not out of the question Texas A&M’s offense will take a step back next season. Add in coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s departure, and the Aggies have some significant question marks to address in spring practice. It’s early to talk about 2013 rankings, but losing Joeckel would make it difficult for Texas A&M to surpass Alabama and LSU in the SEC West standings.
Related Content: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2013
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
Jones has been one of the nation’s top defensive playmakers over the last two years and is a back-to-back first-team All-SEC selection. The Georgia native started his career at USC but transferred after suffering a neck injury in 2009. Jones is a key presence in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme, as his speed and athletic ability is a perfect fit for coordinator Todd Grantham to attack opposing offenses.
Impact on Georgia: The Bulldogs have significant question marks on defense next year, and this unit could get even worse if Jones decides to enter the NFL Draft. Considering he is listed among the top 25 prospects and his injury history, the junior linebacker is likely headed to the NFL. Georgia has five senior starters on the defensive depth chart and could lose Jones and fellow linebacker Alec Ogletree to the draft. Without Jones in the lineup, the Bulldogs pass rush will suffer in 2013.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan has been a stalwart on Michigan’s offensive line for the last three seasons. The Arizona native started all 13 games at left tackle in 2011 and matched that feat in 2012, along with earning the Big Ten’s award for the best offensive lineman in the conference.
Impact on Michigan: Lewan will have a chance to improve his draft stock in the bowl, as he blocks South Carolina defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Depnding on the other early entries, the junior could be the second offensive lineman off the board. The Wolverines are already losing guard Ricky Barnum, center Elliott Mealer and guard Patrick Omameh, so if Lewan departs, this unit will have four new starters in 2013.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Matthews wasn’t as decorated as teammate Luke Joeckel was in 2012, but the junior still had an outstanding season. The Texas native earned third-team All-America honors and was a first-team selection on the All-SEC squad. Matthews enters the bowl game with 32 consecutive starts.
Impact on Texas A&M: If Joeckel and Matthews decide to return, Texas A&M will have the best set of offensive tackles in college football. However, both players are considered first-round talents, so it’s hard to envision either returning to College Station. Matthews has excellent bloodlines in the family, as he is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. If the Aggies lose their top two tackles, the offense will take a step back in 2013.
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Milliner came to Alabama as one of the top prospects in the nation and has easily lived up to expectations. As a freshman, he played in all 13 games and was a freshman All-SEC selection. Milliner saw extensive snaps as Alabama’s third cornerback in 2011 and was a unanimous All-America selection in 2012.
Impact on Alabama: Milliner is projected as the draft’s top corner and a likely top-10 pick. The Crimson Tide has depth in the secondary, especially as freshmen Geno Smith and safety Landon Collins get more comfortable in the defense. Although Smith, John Fulton and Deion Belue are a solid trio of corners to build around in 2013, Milliner’s ability to shut down one side of the field will be missed.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
With Mingo and Sam Montgomery coming off the edge, LSU had no trouble generating a pass rush in 2012. The Tigers averaged 2.5 sacks a game and held opponents to only 101.8 rushing yards per contest. Mingo’s numbers dipped slightly from 2011, as he had only four sacks and 33 tackles. Last year, the Louisiana native registered eight sacks, 15 tackles for a loss and 46 tackles.
Impact on LSU: Although he had a down year on the stat sheet, Mingo is still regarded as a first-round talent for the NFL Draft. The junior is quick off the line of scrimmage, which has translated into back-to-back years of at least 10 quarterback hurries. Losing Mingo would be a blow to LSU’s pass rush, but the Tigers have a track record of developing defensive ends under coach Les Miles and coordinator John Chavis.
Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
The Tigers always seem to produce elite defensive linemen and 2012 is no different. Montgomery and teammate Barkevious Mingo are projected top-25 selections for the 2013 NFL Draft. Montgomery suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2010 but bounced back with nine sacks in 2011 and seven in 2012. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, the South Carolina native has the size to be an every-down lineman in the NFL.
Impact on LSU: The LSU coaching staff always does a good job of identifying the next standout defensive lineman, so even if Montgomery and Mingo leaves, the Tigers should be fine up front. However, there will be a dropoff early in 2013. If both ends return, LSU could make a run at the preseason No. 1 spot.
Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Moore played in a 3-4 rush end position during his first two years in College Station and had no trouble adapting to the defensive line this season. The Texas native had 14 sacks in 2010-11 and nearly matched that total with 12.5 in 2012. Moore also recorded one forced fumble, 80 tackles and 20 tackles for a loss this year.
Impact on Texas A&M: Coach Kevin Sumlin is on a roll on the recruiting trail, but his biggest challenge will be keeping Moore, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews on campus next season. Moore is projected as a first-round pick and could be the second defensive end off the board. The Aggies showed improvement on defense under new coordinator Mark Snyder this year and losing Moore would put a lot of pressure on underclassmen Julien Obioha and Tyrell Taylor next season. Texas A&M has a chance to win the SEC West in 2013 but losing Joeckel, Matthews and Moore would likely keep it from getting to 10 wins.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Although Mosley technically doesn’t start every week, there’s little doubt he is one of the best linebackers in the nation. The Alabama native led the team in 2012 with 99 tackles, recorded four sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble. Mosley was picked to the All-SEC freshman team in 2010 and was a key cog in Alabama’s national championship season in 2011.
Impact on Alabama: Building an elite defense is never a problem for coach Nick Saban, but the Crimson Tide is losing linebacker Nico Johnson and could have Mosley depart for the NFL. Johnson and Mosley are key leaders in the linebacking corps and help get the rest of the defense on the same page. Even if Mosley leaves, the cupboard is far from bare. Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are rising stars in the SEC.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Murray has been a solid three-year starter for the Bulldogs, tossing 90 touchdowns and 9,664 yards during that span. The Florida native recorded a career-best 3,466 passing yards in 2012 and tossed only three interceptions. Murray was a second-team All-SEC selection last year and finished second nationally in pass efficiency. The junior has all of the intangibles needed to succeed in the NFL but checks in at only 6-foot-1.
Impact on Georgia: The Bulldogs should be one of the favorites to win the national championship in 2013 – if Murray returns to Athens. Geno Smith, Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley are expected to be the first three quarterbacks off the board in the NFL Draft, so Murray is a fringe first-round selection. If the junior quarterback returns, he will be in the mix for All-America honors, especially with all five starters coming back on the offensive line. If Murray decides to leave, Hutson Mason and Christian LeMay will compete for the starting job.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Werner has taken one of the nation’s most interesting paths to All-America honors in 2012. The Germany native played only two years of high school football in the United States and got better each season at Florida State. Werner recorded 23 sacks and 35 tackles for a loss through the first three years in his Seminole career. He was selected as the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 2012 season.
Impact on Florida State: Werner is projected as top-15 pick, so it would be a surprise if he returned to Florida State. The Seminoles are also losing ends Brandon Jenkins and Tank Carradine, which will place a lot of pressure on Mario Edwards and Giorgio Newberry to step into a starting role next year. Florida State also has a new defensive coordinator in 2013, so there will be a transition period for this unit.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
A season with 73 catches is usually a pretty good year for any receiver. For Woods, that’s not exactly the case. After catching 111 passes in 2011, the junior’s numbers dropped to only 73 catches and he had just one 100-yard effort. Woods had ankle surgery after the 2011 season, which may have played a part in his drop in production.
Impact on USC: With Matt Barkley expiring his eligibility after the Sun Bowl, the Trojans have a lot of work to do on offense before next season. Even if Woods leaves, USC could have one of the Pac-12’s best receiving corps, as wideouts Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor return, along with tight end Randall Telfer.
5 Other Potential Departures to Watch for 2013
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Eifert led Notre Dame with 44 receptions and 624 receiving yards this season and if he declares, is projected to be the first tight end off the board in the 2013 draft.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Floyd’s numbers aren’t huge on the stat sheet (41 tackles), but his presence on the interior changes a game from beyond the box score. Floyd is considered a fringe first-round pick by most experts but could rise on the draft board with a strong combine. If Floyd returns, he will help anchor one of the SEC’s best defenses.
Louis Nix III, NG, Notre Dame
Although Manti Te’o is a major factor in Notre Dame’s run defense, the emergence of Nix has been huge. Literally. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix clogs the middle, which allows Te’o and the other Fighting Irish linebackers plenty of room to patrol. Brian Kelly announced in mid-December he expects Nix to return in 2013.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already lost one player to the NFL Draft (Johnathan Hankins) and could see another depart. Roby was one of the Big Ten’s top corners in 2012, recording 63 tackles, two interceptions and 17 pass breakups. Roby is a third-year sophomore but could benefit from another year at Ohio State.
Matt Elam, S, Florida
If he declares, Elam could be the first safety picked in the draft. The Florida native ranked second on the team with 65 stops and recorded four picks in 2012. Elam was a first-team All-SEC selection this season.
Others to Watch:
David Amerson, CB, NC State
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia (declared for NFL Draft)
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA (expected to return)
Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (declared for NFL Draft)
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Silas Redd, RB, USC
Eric Reid, S, LSU
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame
Related NFL Draft Rankings By Position:
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Running Backs
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Tight Ends
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Safeties
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Defensive Tackles
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Wide Receivers
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Offensive Tackles
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Inside Linebackers
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Cornerbacks
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Guards and Centers
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Outside Linebackers
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Quarterbacks
2013 NFL Draft Rankings: Defensive Ends
|Butler coach Brad Stevens|
The Hoosier State doesn’t belong to the Hoosiers, at least not entirely.
When Butler defeated Indiana 88-86 in overtime Saturday, the Bulldogs signaled they’re back in contention for a deep run in the Atlantic 10 and in the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps we should have took Brad Stevens’ team more seriously back in the Maui Invitational.
Butler’s not alone among the usual powers outside of the major conference power structure who is playing at an elite level. The Mountain West still boasts more frontline teams than the Pac-12 at this point. Success is nothing new at Gonzaga, but this may be one of Mark Few’s better crews in recent seasons.
As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon will examine the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.
Here’s our look at the scene so far in the non-Big Six conferences.
EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: NON-BIG SIX
Other conferences: ACC | Big 12 | Big East
Surprise team: Illinois-Chicago
What team is going to lead the post-Butler Horizon League. How about UIC? The Flames are 9-1 with the lone loss to New Mexico 66-59 in the Virgin Islands. UIC held four consecutive opponents to 50 or fewer points, including a 50-44 win at Northwestern. Other surprise teams are out there -- an undefeated Wyoming, for example, but UIC already has exceeded its best win total from each of the last three years.
Disappointing team: Delaware.
With three double-digit scorers returning to a team that went 12-6 in the Colonial last season, Delaware was expected to make some noise. The perception didn’t change as the Blue Hens defeated Penn and Virginia in the NIT tip-off. Since then, the Blue Hens have gone into a tailspin, losing five in a row since reaching the NIT semifinals. Some of those losses have been to good teams -- Duke, Pittsburgh, Kansas State and Temple -- but an overtime loss to Delaware State on Dec. 8 may show the Blue Hens aren’t ready to compete for a CAA title.
Where’d he come from? Jalen Jones, SMU.
The sophomore Jones was one of a handful of holdovers on Larry Brown’s first team in Dallas. He’s been one of the keys in the Mustangs’ 8-2 start this season with 15.6 points per game. The 6-foot-6 guard also leads SMU with 8.4 rebounds per game. The hot start may be a bit of a mirage, signaled by double-digit losses to UALR and Rhode Island. But even wins over major-conference patsies Utah and TCU are steps in the right direction.
Where’d he go? Tony Mitchell, North Texas
Mitchell entered the season as an NBA prospect who could help North Texas take a rare step into the college basketball spotlight. His overall numbers aren’t all that different from last season, but it’s been an inconsistent ride. In a recent four-game losing streak, Mitchell went 4 of 8 against Virginia, 3 of 13 against UT-Arlington, 1 of 1 against Louisiana-Lafayette in which he fouled out and 7 of 12 against Saint Louis.
Key stat: Butler’s improvement from 3-point range.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham have transformed the Butler offense turning one of the Bulldogs’ biggest weaknesses last season into one of its greatest strengths. In 2011-12, Butler on average went 4.8 for 17.6 from 3-point range. Now, Butler is averaging 7.7 of 21.8 attempts from 3-point range. Even with more shots from beyond the arc, Butler has improved from shooting 28.1 percent to 35.3. In wins over North Carolina and Indiana alone, Butler was 23 of 49 from 3-point range.
THREE CONFERENCE RACES TO WATCH
Mountain West. Entering the season, we knew UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico would be competitive on a national level. All of those teams have lived up to their billing so far, but the league has shown impressive depth elsewhere. Wyoming is 10-0, propelled by a 76-69 win over Pac-12 contender Colorado on Dec. 1. Boise State is 7-2 and upset Creighton 83-70 on the road at the end of November. And Colorado State, expected to contend for the postseason, has lost two in a row, but defeated Washington earlier this year. Mountain West teams are 9-9 against major conference programs with three of those losses coming from Fresno State.
Atlantic 10. Welcome to the A-10, Butler and VCU. Both league newcomers may be the favorites to win the conference, but it won’t be easy. The league appears as deep as ever. Butler lost early to Xavier 62-47, but that game has proven to be an aberration as the Bulldogs have gone on to defeat Marquette, North Carolina and No. 1 Indiana. Besides Xavier, the only other loss for Butler was to undefeated Illinois in the Maui Invitational final. VCU’s three losses came to two undefeated teams (Duke and Wichita State) and Missouri. Despite changes in personnel, Temple is going to remain in contention. If there’s any drawback, teams like Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s and UMass have been uneven in a season in which they were expected to challenge for the postseason.
Missouri Valley. Whereas the previous two feature teams loaded with potential NCAA Tournament teams, the Missouri Valley may be a two-team race between Creighton and Wichita State. Creighton can play up-and-down offense, and Wichita State can defend. Could a regular season-finale between the two in Omaha be for a conference title?
NON-BIG SIX POWER RANKINGS
|Gonzaga coach Mark Few|
1. Gonzaga (10-1)
Despite an 85-74 loss at home to Illinois, there’s a lot to like about this balanced and deep Gonzaga team. The Bulldogs have defeated West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, Washington State and Kansas State. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk has learned how to throw his weight around the basket.
2. UNLV (8-1)
Rebels got good news on the Mike Moser injury front, though it hasn’t mattered. Freshman Anthony Bennett is carrying this team. With Moser playing only five minutes in the last three games, Bennett has averaged 23.3 points and 11 rebounds.
3. Butler (8-2)
We've seen this before: an Indiana team defeats the No. 1 team in a game coming down to the final minutes. Last year it was Indiana upsetting Kentucky. This year it’s Butler over the Hoosiers. With wins over IU, North Carolina and Marquette, Butler’s no fluke.
4. Creighton (9-1)
The home loss to Boise State seems to be an aberration. After a slow start in the first two weeks of the season, Doug McDermott has heated up. He scored 34 points Saturday in a 74-64 win at Cal.
5. New Mexico (11-0)
No true signature win yet for the Lobos, but Steve Alford’s best team has defeated some quality mid-majors plus UConn.
6. San Diego State (8-1)
The best team in California will have a tougher time being crowned the best team in the Mountain West. Jamaal Franklin is having an All-America type year.
7. Wichita State (9-1)
A 69-60 loss at Tennessee ended an undefeated start, but the Shockers have nice wins over VCU (on the road) and Iowa (on a neutral court).
8. VCU (7-3)
The Rams are still going to win a lot of games in the A-10. No shame in losses to Duke, Missouri and Wichita State. On Saturday, VCU coach Shaka Smart defeated his predecessor, Anthony Grant, with a 73-54 win over Alabama.
9. Murray State (7-1)
The Racers are more than Isaiah Canaan: Ed Daniel has come from nowhere to average 17.1 points and 12.1 rebounds (he averaged 6.8 and 5.5 in just six fewer minutes per game a year ago).
10. Bucknell (9-1)
A wild race in the Patriot League is on deck between Bucknell and Lehigh. Not to mention a race for the top player in the league between Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (24.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.1 apg) and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala (18.7 ppg, 11 rpg, 2.5 apg).
The New York Jets will try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive when they take on the Tennessee Titans tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Even though the Jets are just 6-7, they still have a shot at getting into the postseason, although it most likely will require them to win out and get some help along the way. The Titans (4-9) have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but are looking to finish the season strong and build some momentum headed into an offseason that could feature a fair amount of changes within the organization.
When the New York Jets have the ball:
The story of the New York Jets’ season has been its struggles on offense. They are 30th in the NFL in total offense, gaining less than 306 yards per game, and likewise have had trouble scoring, currently ranking 26th in that category with less than 19 points per contest. The running game has been somewhat productive, as they rank 11th in rushing yards with 119.1 per game, but they have just four runs of 20 or more yards on the season and are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry as a team. Running back Shonn Greene has had his moments this season, but he is basically splitting carries with Bilal Powell at this point and the duo has combined for 1,239 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. The majority of the attention and criticism, however, has fallen to quarterback Mark Sanchez and the lack of production from the passing game. The Jets are 30th in the league in passing (186.8 ypg) and Sanchez is the league’s 34th-rated passer. He has thrown more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) thus far, and as a team the Jets have turned it over 28 times, which is the second-most giveaways in the AFC.
Tennessee’s defense has not put up a great deal of resistance all season. The Titans are second-to-last in scoring defense at 29.7 points per game and 27th in total defense at 377.8 yards per game. They are giving up 127 yards rushing and more than 250 yards passing per contest and only three times have held an opponent to less than 300 yards of offense. The Titans have 27 sacks on the season, but only have generated 16 turnovers, 12 of those being interceptions.
When the Tennessee Titans have the ball:
Tennessee’s offense has endured its share of growing pains with Jake Locker in his first year as the starting quarterback, a struggle that’s been marked by Locker missing five games with a shoulder injury and the recent dismissal of offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. The Titans are 23rd in the league in total offense with 331.9 yards per game and 22nd in scoring at 20.8 points per game. After a slow start to the season, running back Chris Johnson got it going and he’s already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth straight season. Johnson has been stymied somewhat over his last three games with a total of 175 yards rushing and has just four rushing touchdowns. Locker has had some quality performances, but he’s struggled with turnovers too, tossing seven interceptions and losing two fumbles in his last three games combined. Wide receiver Kenny Britt struggled initially in his return from last season’s knee injury, but has been more productive and explosive recently. He is coming off of a season-best eight catches for 143 yards last week against Indianapolis and when he’s on his game, he is one of the league’s most dangerous vertical threats. Rookie wide receiver Kendall Wright also has been a pleasant surprise for the team, but on the whole, turnovers, costly penalties and breakdowns in communication and execution have plagued this offense. As a team, the Titans have turned it over 26 times, including 12 fumbles, four of those belonging to Johnson.
For the most part, the New York Jets’ defense has done its job this season, as it ranks eighth in the NFL in total defense at 332.5 yards per game. The offense’s ineptness and propensity to turn the ball over, however, has left the Jets’ defense on its heels far too often, which is one of the reasons why it ranks 19th in scoring defense at 23.5 points per game. The clear weakness with this defense is when it comes to stopping the run, as evidenced by the 136.5 yards rushing per game (29th) the unit is surrendering. On six different occasions, the Jets have yielded 150 yards or more on the ground, including 247 to San Francisco in a Week 4 home loss. Even without All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, the Jets’ passing defense has held up remarkably well. They rank third in the league in passing defense (196 ypg), as Tom Brady and the Patriots are the only team to throw for more than 300 yards against them. The Jets’ defense has produced the same amount of sacks as turnovers, 22 each, although the sack number is nothing to brag about. That’s the third-fewest quarterback takedowns in the AFC.
If not for the New York Jets’ slim playoff hopes, this game wouldn’t have any significant storyline attached to it, other than the perceived temperature of the two head coaches – Rex Ryan and Mike Munchak – respective hot seats. These are two teams that have visible flaws and plenty of questions how these flaws, not to mention other issues, will be addressed in the offseason. It appears that Tennessee is more settled when it comes to quarterback, but Jake Locker has yet to show he can be a consistent, reliable field general on a week in, week out basis. Given the struggles and inconsistent play of both offenses, I’m not expecting a lot of points scored by either team, unless the defenses are able to generate some, and in the end I think the Jets’ defense is a little more disciplined, talented and dependable compared to a young and still learning Titans’ unit.
Jets 20, Titans 17
The merits of recruiting rankings are debated in every sports bar and around every water cooler in the nation. Athlon continues its look at how each All-Conference team ranked as high school recruits with the first-team All-Big 12 team.
2012 Offensive All-Big 12 Team as Recruits
Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (2008)
Hailing from Loveland (Colo.) High School, Klein was incorrectly tabbed as a pro-style passer and only a three-star prospect. He was the No. 21 pro passer in the nation and the No. 8-rated player in the state by Rivals. He had one FBS offer and that was from the Wildcats.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State (2010) National Recruit
The Wichita (Kan.) Southeast product came out of the same city as Bryce Brown one year later. It turns out the four-star tailback had the much better college career. He was the No. 20-rated running back in the nation and the No. 195-rated prospect overall by the Athlon Consensus 100. Everyone on his list offered him a scholarship except for Oklahoma. In two games as the starter against OU, Randle rushed for 264 yards, caught six passes and scored six touchdowns. People don’t forget.
John Hubert, RB, Kansas State (2009)
The smallish running back played at Midway High School in Waco, Texas, before signing with KSU. He was unranked in the state, nationally or at his position and got three FBS offers. He picked the Wildcats over North Texas and Louisiana Tech and has played with a chip on his shoulder ever since.
Trey Millard, FB, Oklahoma (2010) National Recruit
The do-everything player for the Sooners could probably qualify as a tight end, H-back, running back, fullback and special teams tackler for Oklahoma. Coming out of Columbia (Mo.) Rock Bridge, however, he was ranked as a four-star tight end prospect. Rivals listed him as the No. 15 player at his position and the No. 5-rated player in the state. He picked OU over offers from Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, South Carolina, Stanford and Tennessee.
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia (2009) National Recruit
The record-setting receiver played with quarterback Geno Smith at Miramar (Fla.) High School. He was a four-star prospect who was ranked as the No. 61 player in the state of Florida and the No. 48-rated wide receiver in the nation. South Carolina, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Iowa and Ole Miss are the biggest names on his offer sheet outside of the Mountaineers. Once Smith picked WVU, however, the battle for Bailey was likely over.
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor (2008)
The electric playmaker hails from Dallas (Texas) W.T. White and held only one other offer to play college football aside from Baylor. Colorado State is the only other program to give Williams a chance out of high school. He was a two-star athlete prospect who was unranked by anyone in anyway. He has clearly proven the scouts wrong as one of the top wideout prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Tavon Austin, AP, West Virginia (2009) National Recruit
The dynamic athlete signed with West Virginia out of Baltimore (Md.) Dunbar and was ranked behind only Jelani Jenkins (Florida) and Darrell Givens (Penn State) in his state. He was the No. 19-rated running back prospect in the nation and the No. 164-overall player in the class. He held offers from Pitt and Rutgers from the Big East, Michigan and Illinois from the Big Ten as well as Maryland, North Carolina and Boston College in the ACC. He ended his career, ironically, in the Big 12.
Travis Tannahill, TE, Kansas State (2008)
The in-state tight end was a two-star recruit from Olathe (Kan.) East High School. He was the No. 11-rated prospect in the state by Rivals and had no other schools of interest on his list. He was headed to the Little Apple all along.
Cyril Richardson, OL, Baylor (2009)
The big blocker from Crowley (Texas) North was interested in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas Tech as well as Baylor. The Bears, however, were the only school smart enough to offer the three-star prospect. He was the No. 90-rated offensive tackle recruit in the nation by Rivals and every coaching staff in the region whiffed on this potential NFL Draft pick.
Cornelius Lucas, OL, Kansas State (2009)
Lucas got one BCS offer coming out of New Orleans (La.) Edna Karr and that was from KSU. His other FBS scholarships came from Louisiana Tech, UL Monroe and Tulane. The two-star prospect by Rivals was considered the No. 52 player in the state in 2009.
Gabe Ikard, OL, Oklahoma (2009)
The Oklahoma City (Okla.) Bishop McGuinness recruit was a three-star tight end prospect who was listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds by Rivals. He was the No. 15-rated tight end in the nation and the No. 14-rated player in the state. Despite his middling ranking, Ikard had an impressive offer sheet that included Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
Lane Taylor, OL, Oklahoma State (2008)
Taylor continues the trend of underrated Big 12 blocking recruits. He was a two-star guard prospect from Arlington (Texas) Martin and he held just one other BCS offer other than Oklahoma State (Kansas). He also got looks from SMU, Utah, UNLV, North Texas, New Mexico and Colorado State. He wasn’t ranked in the state rankings or any position lists either.
LaAdrian Waddle, OL, Texas Tech (2009)
Only two BCS programs offered the blocker from Columbus (Texas) High with Ole Miss the only other big program to give Waddle a chance. Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulane and TCU each offered as well. He was a three-star prospect and was considered the No. 74-rated offensive guard in the nation by Rivals.
Related: The Athlon Consensus 100
2012 Defensive All-Big 12 Team as Recruits
Jake McDonough, DL, Iowa State (2008)
The Iowa State blocker held two offers coming out of West Des Moines (Iowa) Valley High back in 2008. Iowa State and Kansas were the only schools interested in 6-foot-6, 238-pound prospect. Rivals ranked him as a three-star defensive end recruit — the 47th end in the nation and the No. 4-rated player in the state of Iowa.
Meshak Williams, DL, Kansas State (2011) JUCO
Originally from Sylvester (Ga.) Worth County, Williams landed at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. A few years later, he was a three-star prospect who picked Kansas State over UAB. He was the No. 37-rated junior college recruit in the nation.
Calvin Barnett, DL, Oklahoma State (2012) JUCO
Barnett was originally a four-star national recruit from Tulsa (Okla.) Booker T. Washington in 2010. He was the No. 20-rated defensive lineman and the No. 221-rated overall player by Athlon Sports. He signed with Arkansas over major powers like LSU, Oklahoma, UCLA and Oklahoma State. But he played two seasons at Navarro J.C. in Corsicana, Texas, before ending up in Stillwater, Okla. Barnett was then ranked as the No. 35-rated JUCO prospect in the nation (a three-star) and picked Okie State over Arkansas, Baylor, USF, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
Devonte Fields, DL, TCU (2012) National Recruit
Fields is one of the highest-rated prospects to ever sign with TCU. He just missed landing in the AC100 as the No. 122-rated player in the nation. From Arlington (Texas) Martin, he was the No. 27-rated defensive lineman in the nation and had offers from major powers like Oklahoma, Michigan, Missouri and Texas A&M as well as Baylor, Kansas State and Arizona.
Stansly Maponga, DL, TCU (2009)
Widely overlooked by the BCS conferences, Maponga's best offers were from Boise State, Iowa State and TCU. The Lewisville (Texas) Hebron prospect was a three-star recruit who ranked as the 29th best strongside defensive end by Rivals. Needless to say, the scouts missed on the productive Horned Frogs defensive end,
Alex Okafor, DL, Texas (2009) AC100
Okafor is arguably the most touted prospect on the 2012 All-Big 12 team. He was the No. 40-rated player in the nation in 2009 and was considered the No. 3-rated defensive end in the nation. The Pflugerville (Texas) High prospect was No. 8-rated player in the state of Texas by Athlon Sports. Rivals gave him the coveted fifth star.
Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State (2009)
The tackling machine was interested in five schools as a recruit: Iowa State, Missouri, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. But the Cyclones were the only school of the five to offer him a scholarship. Wyoming, Northern Illinois and Army were the only other FBS programs to offer the two-star linebacker a scholarship. Rivals ranked him as the No. 9 player in the state of Iowa out of Waukee High School.
Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State (2008) AC100
The star linebacker from Wichita (Kan.) East was the best prospect at his position in the nation back in 2008. He was obviously the top player in the state and was No. 7 in the AC100. Brown could have played anywhere he wanted, but signed with Miami out of high school. After transferring home to Kansas State, Brown blossomed into one of the nation’s top linebackers.
AJ Klein, LB, Iowa State (2009)
The Kimberly (Wisc.) High prospect was a three-star recruit by Rivals. He was ranked as the No. 86 linebacker in the nation and the No. 6-best player in the state of Wisconsin. He picked the Cyclones over Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Wyoming.
Ty Zimmerman, DB, Kansas State (2009)
The star safety was unranked by Rivals at his position or within his state by all other recruiting services. He was a two-star prospect from Junction City (Kan.) High who held offers only from Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois as well as Kansas State.
Kenny Vaccaro, DB, Texas (2009)
The talented safety hails from Brownwood (Texas) Early and was a big-time prospect that nearly every school wanted. He was the No. 33-rated defensive back in the nation and the No. 215-rated overall prospect in the nation by Athlon Sports. He was a four-star recruit who had his pick of school: Florida, Oklahoma, Stanford, TCU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor.
Tony Jefferson, DB, Oklahoma (2010) AC100
The Chula Vista (Calif.) Eastlake prospect was the No. 1-rated “athlete” in the nation by Athlon Sports. He was the No. 25-rated player in the entire nation and had his pick of scholarship offers. Every major power program in the nation wanted the No. 5-rated player in the state of California.
Jason Verrett, DB, TCU (2011) JUCO
Originally from Fairfield (Calif.) Rodriguez, the TCU safety played at Santa Rosa junior college before signing with TCU. He was a three-star prospect who ranked as the No. 6 junior college defensive back and was the No. 35-rated overall JUCO prospect by Rivals. Verrett was offered by Boise State, UTEP and San Jose State as well as TCU in 2011.
Aaron Colvin, DB, Oklahoma (2010)
The Owasso (Okla.) High cornerback was a three-star prospect by Rivals. He was rated as the No. 12 player in the state and the No. 31 defensive back in the nation. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Missouri were by far his best offers to play college football as North Texas, Tulsa and UNLV offered Colvin scholarships as well.
With 347 Division I teams, following college basketball can be overwhelming. Let Athlon Sports start your college hoops week each Monday with a look at some of the most intriguing, most important and most interesting stats from around the sport:
0: Second-half baskets by Cody Zeller against Butler
The big superstar center for the unbeaten No. 1 team in the nation was virtually invincible in the second half against Butler on Saturday. He went 0-of-2 from the floor in the second half and Indiana needed a 7-2 run the in final 32 seconds to simply force the game into overtime. Zeller knocked down two buckets and two free throws in overtime but it was too little too late for the candy stripers. Brad Stevens did a miraculous job juggling a frontcourt lineup that watched Roosevelt Jones (16 pts, 12 rebs), Andrew Smith (12 pts, 9 rebs) and Erik Fromm (10 pts, 5 rebs) foul out.
21: Combined NCAA appearances by 7 schools departing the Big East since 2005
Marquette (seven NCAA appearances since 2005-06), Georgetown (six), Villanova (six), Seton Hall (one), St. John's (one), Providence and DePaul voted to unanimously leave the Big East this weekend. Since the Big East expanded in 2005-06, these seven programs have been to the NCAA tournament 21 times and made two Final Four runs. The group will "create a new identity" on their own and could look to add other basketball-focsued schools to their seven-team spin-off.
32.5: Average margin of victory for Kansas in its last two games
The Jayhawks played two tournament bound teams in a seven-day period of time last week. Colorado and Belmont aren't college hoops superpowers by any means, but both are quality teams this year with a good shot of landing in the Big Dance come March. The Buffaloes were 7-1 when Kansas pummeled them by 36 points (90-54). Belmont was 7-2 when they headed to Allen Fieldhouse this Saturday only to leave with a 29-point loss to Rock Chalk. Bill Self's team made a bold statement last week and will be a team to watch this week. Kansas will face Richmond (9-2) on Tuesday and then a top-10 Ohio State (8-1) team Saturday in what could be the best game of next weekend. Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks' top two scorers, have combined to shoot 52.5-percent from the floor thus far in 2012-2013. The duo was 11-of-17 in the win over the Bruins.
61: Points allowed in the second half by North Carolina to East Carolina
The Tar Heels led the Pirates 42-26 at halftime of their weekend contest. East Carolina then scored 61 second-half points turning what should have been an easy win into a six-point nail-bitter. The Heels won the game and moved to 8-2 overall, but that is a staggering lack of defense to a much less talented opponent. North Carolina allowed 83 points and lost by 24 to Indiana and allowed 82 points in an 11-point loss to Butler. Yahoo! RPI has North Carolina ranked No. 42 and Roy Williams team has yet to defeat an RPI top-50 program (0-2) and has one win over an RPI top-100 program.
2-of-20: Kenny Boyton's 3-point shooting in the last three games
After losing to the unbeaten Wildcats Saturday night, the Gators wrapped-up a nasty three-game set against Marquette, Florida State and Arizona with a 7-1 record. No thanks to Boynton's three-point prowess, however. He was 1-of-7 from behind the arc and 2-of-10 from the floor in the one-point road loss to the Wildcats. The senior shooting guard finished with five points, five rebounds, two assists and three turnovers. This performance comes on the heels of a 1-of-8 showing from three against the Seminoles and an 0-of-5 night from deep against the Golden Eagles. He is 8-of-33 (24.2 percent) overall in the last three games after shooting 44 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from 3-point range last season.
College football’s 2012 bowl season kicked off in thrilling fashion. Arizona used a furious late fourth-quarter rally to knock off Nevada 49-48, finishing the first season under Rich Rodriguez at 8-5.
Although there were plenty of fireworks on the field, the most interesting moment came in the first half, as two Arizona defenders – linebacker Cody Ippolito and defensive tackle Tevin Hood – traded punches on the sideline. The Wildcats’ defense got off to a slow start, so frustration was running high in the early going.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys will each be looking to stay above .500 and in the thick of the playoff hunt when they face off this afternoon at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. The Steelers (7-6) are currently holding onto the final wild-card spot in the AFC, while the Cowboys (7-6) need to keep winning to have any hopes of securing a postseason berth in the NFC bracket.
The Steelers and Cowboys have played each other 30 times over the years, with the series tied at 15 victories apiece. Three of these meetings were Super Bowl matchups, with Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 edge, although Dallas won the last one, a 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XXX in 1996. The Steelers have won the last two regular-season meetings, the most recent being a 20-13 home victory on Dec. 7, 2008.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Pittsburgh’s offense has been somewhat one-dimensional this season, as injuries and a lack of production from the backfield have put much of the burden on the passing game. The Steelers are 19th in the NFL in total offense with 341.8 yards per game and 21st in scoring with 21.4 points per contest. The running game is generating less than 100 yards on the ground per game, as Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have all taken their turns as lead back. Dwyer is the current starter and he leads the team with 510 yards, but has just one rushing touchdown. As a team, the Steelers have just seven rushing scores with Redman and little-used rookie Chris Rainey sharing the team lead with two apiece. As a result, the offense has leaned more on the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the aerial attack, and for the most part, Big Ben has responded. He’s the league’s sixth-rated passer with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. However, he’s only 22nd in passing yards with 2,572 although he did miss Weeks 11-13 because of injury. Vertical threat Mike Wallace has been inconsistent at best for most of the season, as he’s averaging a mere 12.3 yards per reception. He is coming off his best game, an 11-catch, two-touchdown effort against San Diego, so perhaps he has turned the corner. The most reliable weapons in the passing game this season have been tight end Heath Miller, who leads the team with 61 catches and has seven touchdowns, and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Turnovers have been a bit of an issue as well, especially when Roethlisbeger has not been under center. Backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich have combined to throw five interceptions during their time on the field and the Steelers as a team have fumbled the ball away 14 times.
Dallas’ defense is 11th in the league in terms of yards allowed at 372.1 per game, but only 22nd in points allowed at 24.2 per contest. The Cowboys have fared much better against the pass, where they are ranked eighth (217.8 ypg), compared to slowing down the run. They are 16th against the run, surrendering an average of 118.8 yards on the ground per game, and have seen that total rise to nearly 150 over their last four. Even with DeMarcus Ware (11 sacks) getting pressure from wherever he lines up, the Cowboys have not been able to collect a large number of sacks. They have just 29 on the season and also have been unable to create many turnovers. The Cowboys have only six interceptions so far, the fewest of any team, and have produced a total of 14 turnovers.
When the Dallas Cowboys have the ball:
Dallas’ offense is right up there among the league’s leaders when it comes to yards gained as the Cowboys are averaging 372 per game. The same cannot be said for the damage done on the scoreboard, however, as they are tied for 15th in scoring offense at 23.1 points per game. The ground game has certainly not carried its share of the load, as a foot injury to running back DeMarco Murray caused him to miss six games and is a big reason why the team ranks second-to-last in the league in rushing offense at less than 80 yards per game. This means the Cowboys are averaging close to 300 yards passing per game, which is also why quarterback Tony Romo is second in the NFL with 349 completions, fourth in passing yards with 3,928 and fifth in attempts with 526. However, with all of those passes comes a degree of risk, as evidenced by Romo’s 16 interceptions, which are the third-most in the league. To be fair, 11 of Romo’s picks have come in two games and he has just three total over his last five outings. Pass protection issues (31 sacks allowed, tied for 10th ) and untimely penalties also have contributed to the offense’s struggles, as Romo has shown what he’s capable of doing when given the time. Wide receiver Dez Bryant has been red hot lately, with seven touchdown receptions over his last five games, but his status for this afternoon is somewhat in doubt as he suffered a broken finger last week against Cincinnati. He has said he will put off surgery for now and play with the fractured digit, but even if he doesn’t miss any time, teammates Miles Austin and Jason Witten will each need to step up to take some of the load off of him. Regardless of who makes the plays for the Cowboys, they need to make sure they hold onto the ball when they get it. Besides the interceptions, they have lost eight fumbles, giving them the third-most turnovers in the NFC.
Pittsburgh’s defense leads the NFL in both total (262.4 ypg) and passing (169.2 ypg) defense, and also is among the top seven in rushing (93.2 ypg, 5th) and scoring (20.3 ppg, 7th) defense. These numbers are even more impressive considering the fact that the Steelers have dealt with numerous injuries to key personnel, notably in the secondary, and haven’t produced that many sacks or turnovers. The defense has had to play a good part of the season without All-Pro Troy Polamalu at safety, and although Polamalu has since returned, the secondary is now without the services of cornerback Ike Taylor, who isn’t likely to return until Week 17 at the earliest. There also have been injuries to linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, one of the reasons why the defense has only 26 sacks, to go along with a total of 12 takeaways. Still, this is an experienced, veteran unit well versed in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex schemes that has been able to get the job done for the most part.
The NFL has presented its fans with quite the early Christmas present as they get to see Pittsburgh and Dallas, two of the sport’s most recognizable and successful franchises, get together for a game that’s equally important for both teams. The Steelers and Cowboys are tied for the most postseason wins (33) and Super Bowl appearances (8) in NFL history and collectively have won 11 league championships. However, if either team has any hopes of adding to these numbers this season they need to win out, starting with this afternoon’s game. Pittsburgh is coming off of a disappointing showing at home to San Diego, but the offense got its field general back and this is a veteran team that’s been down this road before. Dallas appears to be riding some momentum after last week’s comeback win in Cincinnati, but more often than not the Cowboys have been their own worst enemy with turnovers, costly penalties and inopportune breakdowns in execution, and face a tougher hill to climb than the Steelers when it comes to making the playoffs. Dallas also caught another bad break, if you will, with the news of Dez Bryant’s fractured finger, as he’s been the team’s most explosive and productive player over the last month or so. Even if Bryant makes good on his promise of playing in this game, I think the injury and the Steelers’ defense will keep the Cowboys’ offense in check, setting the stage for Ben Roethlisberger to engineer another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, this one coming in the house that Jerry (Jones) built.
Steelers 23, Cowboys 20
The San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots face off tonight at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC in what could potentially be a preview of Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers (9-3-1) are trying to hold Seattle off for the top spot in the NFC West, while the Patriots (10-3) could potentially knock Houston from the top of the standings in the AFC. This also is a matchup of one of the league’s top defenses in San Francisco trying to slow down a New England offense that’s been lighting up the scoreboard most of the season.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
San Francisco’s offense relies heavily on the run, as the 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing offense at 161.5 yards per game. Running back Frank Gore is the workhorse out of the backfield and he’s already surpassed 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his eight seasons with the team. Gore also leads the way with seven rushing touchdowns, but he’s not alone in finding paydirt as the 49ers have a total of 16 ground scores, tied for the third-most in the league. Second on the team with five rushing touchdowns is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took over the starting job after Alex Smith went down with a concussion and has yet to relinquish it. Kaepernick has made plays with both his legs and his arm, but he’s also not called on to throw the ball a lot in this offense, averaging less than 26 pass attempts over the four games he has started. The 49ers are 26th in passing offense at less than 200 yards through the air per game, but do have a reliable weapon in wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree leads the team in receptions (66), yards (761) and is tied with tight end Vernon Davis in touchdown catches with five. Besides using the ground game to chew up the clock and wear down defenses, the 49ers also pride themselves on taking care of the football. San Francisco has turned it over just 12 times so far.
New England’s defense has given up a lot of yards, especially through the air, but it has done a good job of mitigating the damage on the scoreboard as well as scoring some points of its own. The Patriots rank just 26th in total defense, surrendering more than 376 yards per game, but are 11th in scoring defense, holding opponents to 21.1 points per contest. The strength of this defense has been stopping the run, as the unit ranks eighth in rushing defense (100.8 ypg), but some of this can be attributed to the success teams have throwing the ball against the Patriots, not to mention the fact that often times teams are forced to pass. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed (275.5 ypg), but that’s what happens when your offense jumps out to leads early and keep pouring it on. New England’s defense also excels at creating turnovers, a tally that currently stands at 34, including 19 forced fumbles. What’s more, the unit has scored five touchdowns of its own on fumble and interception returns. The Patriots are in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks (28), but pass rush could be an important aspect to watch in this game as the 49ers have allowed 38 quarterback takedowns, the fifth-most in the league.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
Simply put, New England’s offense is the most productive and potent attack in the NFL, and is head and shoulders above the rest of the league right now. The Patriots lead the way in both yards (425.7) and points (36.3) per game, and currently are averaging nearly eight more points per contest than the No. 2 team, Denver at 28.8. They are scoring more than 40 points per game during their current seven-game winning streak, including the 42 they hung on Houston, the current top seed in the AFC, last Monday night. While quarterback Tom Brady and company are doing their usual damage through the air, the Patriots also boast the seventh-ranked rushing attack, one that is averaging nearly 140 yards on the ground. Running back Stevan Ridley has established himself as the team’s lead back and already has gained 1,082 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns. In fact, the Patriots lead the league in rushing scores with 20. So couple that ground game with the weapons that Brady has to throw to, including wide receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez, and you get an idea of what is keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night. The Patriots’ offensive line has done a very good job of giving Brady the time to throw (only 20 sacks allowed), and the team has committed a league-low 10 turnovers.
San Francisco’s defense is either first or second when it comes to the four major defensive categories. The 49ers are No. 1 in scoring defense (14.2 ppg) and second in total (275.5 ypg), rushing (90.8 ypg) and passing (184.7 ypg) defense. They have allowed a grand total of 16 offensive touchdowns, with only three of those coming on the ground, the fewest of any team. The unit has collected 32 sacks, which ties them for 10th, but more than half of those have come courtesy of one man, Aldon Smith. Smith leads the league with 19.5 sacks, and the Defensive Player of the Year contender is just three sacks away from tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5. Smith is anything but a one-man wrecking crew, however, as the 49ers’ defense also has standouts in fellow linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and defensive lineman Justin Smith, along with a solid secondary. There’s little question the Patriots’ offense will be this unit’s toughest test yet, and one of the things to watch will be if the 49ers are able to generate any takeaways. The defense has forced 18 turnovers so far, including 10 interceptions, but remember this is an offense that’s only turned it over 10 times on the season.
How’s this for a Week 15 pairing: the league’s best offense against arguably the best defense. The NFL couldn’t have set up a better, more attractive late-season non-conference game than this, right? While I do think San Francisco’s defense will hold its own against New England’s offense, I can’t ignore how impressive the Patriots have looked over the last two months. Last week alone, they made Houston, the AFC’s current top team, look rather ordinary and at times downright silly in coasting to a 42-14 victory. Let’s also not forget that this game, just like last week’s, is being played in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. In his career, Tom Brady is 74-13 at home during the regular season and the Patriots have won their last 20 December home games. Their last loss in December at home came back in 2002 and with as well as the Patriots have been playing lately, I don’t see this streak ending tonight.
Patriots 27, 49ers 21
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) on Sunday and Monday in Week 15.
Locks of the Week
Rematches of heated rivalries, a neutral site home game in Canada and a nine-game losing streak all look good to go this week.
Packers (-2.5) at Bears
Green Bay took down arch-rival Chicago 23–10 in Week 2. The Bears have lost four of their last five contests.
Raiders (-3) vs. Chiefs
Oakland handed Kansas City a 26–16 loss at Arrowhead in Week 8. Things have only gotten worse for K.C. since that.
Seahawks (-6) vs. Bills (at Toronto)
Buffalo is 1–3 all-time at “home” in the Rogers Centre in Ontario, Canada. The Hawks are soaring after a 58–0 win last week.
Lions (-6.5) at Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald’s dad is right; Arizona has given up. If Detroit can’t win by more than a TD, Jim Schwartz may join Ken Whisenhunt on the open market this offseason.
These games may or may not be straight up upsets, but they should be closer than the numbers they’re up against.
Panthers (+3) at Chargers
The Cats have won two of their last three games, with Cam Newton accounting for a combined 10 TDs by land and air.
Jaguars (+7.5) at Dolphins
Chad Henne returns to Miami, where he was once the starter. Since Henne took over in J-Ville, the Jags have lost by eight or more just once in four games.
Colts (+9) at Texans
Houston may clinch its second straight AFC South title, but it won’t come easy against Indianapolis, whose only loss in its last eight games was at New England.
Unless you’re a compulsive degenerate or a hometown homer, stay away from these games completely.
Falcons (-1) vs. Giants
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew stomped out the Dirty Birds 24–2 in the playoffs last year, but Atlanta owns the Georgia Dome.
Steelers (-1.5) at Cowboys
Big Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo could throw the ball back and forth to the wrong team all afternoon.
Rams (-3) vs. Vikings
Minnesota is 1–5 on the road this season, but St. Louis plays tight games, with four 3-pointers and another tie.
Broncos (-3) at Ravens
Peyton Manning takes on his old Indy coach, Jim Caldwell, who replaces the recently fired Cam Cameron as OC in Baltimore.
Saints (-4) vs. Buccaneers
New Orleans marched to a 35–28 win at Tampa Bay in Week 7, but Drew Brees has thrown nine INTs in the last three weeks.
Patriots (-6) vs. 49ers
A potential Super Bowl preview. Wait until the actual Super Bowl to bet on a matchup between these two powerhouses.
Monday Night Money
The last game of Week 15 is the time to get back or let it ride, depending on how the weekend went.
Titans (-1.5) vs. Jets
The Monday night party is in Hank Williams Jr. and his rowdy friends’ hometown, expect CJ2K to go honky tonkin’ against the Jets.
Off the Board
With RG3’s sore knee in play, Las Vegas doesn’t want this Skins game on the Big Board until as late as possible. Still, let’s guess the line.
Redskins (N/A) at Browns
Robert Griffin III will redefine the term “cornball brother” by taking a bite out of the Dawg Pound. Take the Redskins (-6)?
When Robert Griffin III limped off the field last Sunday, it figured to be a devastating injury for the Washington Redskins. He’s their most dynamic player and the reason they’ve made a race out of the NFC East. His loss would’ve changed the outlook of the entire division.
College football's bowl season begins on Saturday with the New Mexico Bowl and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Here are predictions on the first 14 bowl games.
New Mexico Bowl – Arizona vs. Nevada
Defensive stops will be at a premium in Albuquerque, which plays host to one of only two bowls in which both teams are averaging over 500 yards of offense. Nevada won seven of its first eight games but slumped late to finish with a 7–5 record. Arizona’s regular season ended on a down note — a loss at home to rival Arizona State — but Rich Rodriguez’s first year in Tucson has to be considered a success. The Wildcats are 7–5, highlighted by wins over Oklahoma State, Washington and USC.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — Toledo vs. Utah State
Utah State is one of the best-kept secrets in the nation. The Aggies went 10–2 overall (with a two-point loss at Wisconsin and a three-point loss at BYU) and swept through the WAC with a 6–0 record. Gary Andersen’s club is potent on offense, but the Aggies’ strength is on defense, where they only give up 15.4 points per game. Utah State will be tested by a Toledo team that went 9–3 with all three losses coming by seven points. Utah State 37–30
Poinsettia Bowl — San Diego State vs. BYU
Rocky Long has done an outstanding job maintaining what Brady Hoke built at San Diego State. The Aztecs, 17–8 in two seasons under Long, won a share of the Mountain West championship (their first title since 1986) with a 7–1 record in their final season in the league. BYU completed its second season as an Independent with a 7–5 record. The Cougars are strong defensively but really struggle to score points against quality competition.
San Diego State 28–14
Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl – Ball State vs. UCF
The coaching carousel hasn’t come to a complete stop, but it appears Ball State will hold on to Pete Lembo for at least one more season. Lembo built a winner at Lehigh and Elon before jumping to the FBS ranks, where he has compiled a 15–9 record in two seasons at Ball State. His counterpart in this game, UCF’s George O’Leary, is on the tail end of a career that has seen him win 111 games in 17 seasons as a head coach (eight at Georgia Tech, nine at UCF).
Ball State 30-24
New Orleans Bowl – East Carolina vs. UL Lafayette
UL Lafayette will make the short trip to down I-10 to play in the New Orleans Bowl for the second straight season. The Ragin’ Cajuns played their best football in the latter half of the season, highlighted by wins over ULM and Western Kentucky and a seven-point loss at Florida. East Carolina won a share of its first C-USA East title since 2009 by recording a 7–1 record in league play.
East Carolina 27-20
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas – Boise State vs. Washington
It was a rebuilding year for Boise State, but the Broncos still went 10–2 overall with a four-point loss at Michigan State and a two-point loss vs. San Diego State. Not bad for a team that only returned seven starters. Washington completed its third-straight 5–4 conference season under fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies had some big wins (Stanford, Oregon State) but ended the season with an inexplicable loss to Washington State. Boise State 23–20
Hawaii Bowl – Fresno State vs. SMU
Tim DeRuyter’s first season as a head coach went quite well. Fresno State went 9–3 overall and won a share of the Mountain West title with a 7–1 record in league play. The Bulldogs boast two of the top skill players on the West Coast — quarterback Derek Carr and tailback Robbie Rouse. SMU is back in a bowl game for the fourth straight season under coach Junes Jones. The Mustangs’ quarterback is Garrett Gilbert, the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year who began his collegiate career at Texas.
Fresno State 37–23
Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl — Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
The good news: Western Kentucky is playing in its first bowl game. The bad news: The Hilltoppers’ coach, Willie Taggart, is now the boss at South Florida and will not coach his team in the bowl game. Lance Guidry, WKU’s defensive coordinator, will serve as the interim coach through the bowl season. The Topper’s opponent, Central Michigan, is arguably the weakest team to be invited to a bowl games in 2012. The Chippewas are 6–6 and rank seventh in the MAC in both total offense and total defense.
Western Kentucky 30–20
Military Bowl – Bowling Green vs. San Jose State
Mike MacIntyre has worked a minor miracle in his short time at San Jose State. The Spartans went 1–12 in 2010, his first season as the head coach, improved to 5–7 last year and then broke through with a 10–2 mark this fall. SJSU features one of the nation’s most efficient passing attacks and a defense that specializes in stopping the run. Bowling Green struggles to score, but the Falcons lead the MAC in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass defense.
San Jose State 27–17
Belk Bowl – Cincinnati vs. Duke
Duke is playing in a bowl game for the first time since 1994, but the Blue Devils limped to the finish line after picking up their sixth win on Oct. 20. Duke lost five of its last six games and gave up an average of 47.8 points in the five losses. Cincinnati won a share of the Big East title for the fourth time in the past five seasons, but the Bearcats lost their head coach Butch Jones, who is now at Tennessee.
Holiday Bowl – UCLA vs. Baylor
This should be one of the most exciting games of the pre-New Year’s Day bowl slate. Baylor, ranked No. 1 in the nation in total offense, ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak, beating Kansas State (ranked No. 1 at the time), Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. UCLA, the champs of the Pac-12 South, went 9–4 under first-year coach Jim L. Mora and feature an explosive offense led by quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin.
Independence Bowl – Ohio vs. ULM
These two mid-majors stole national headlines in September, but neither program was able to sustain its strong play throughout the entire 2012 season. Ohio beat Penn State in Week 1 and won its first seven games but finished 8–4 overall and 4–4 in the MAC. ULM, which won at Arkansas in overtime in Week 1, missed a chance to win its first Sun Belt title since 2005 by losing to UL Lafayette and Arkansas State on consecutive weeks in early November.
Russell Athletic Bowl – Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech
Rutgers had two chances to secure its first trip to a BCS bowl but lost at Pittsburgh and at home vs. Louisville in the final two weeks of the season. The Scarlet Knights will have to “settle” for a Big East co-championship and an invite from the Russell Athletic Bowl. Virginia Tech’s 2012 season has been a struggle. The Hokies have won only six games and need to beat Rutgers to avoid the program’s first losing record since 1992. Rutgers 20–10
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas – Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
Texas Tech’s ego was bruised when head coach Tommy Tuberville made the surprising decision to leave Lubbock to take over for Butch Jones at Cincinnati. Tuberville left behind a team that lost four of its last five games after starting the season with a 6–1 mark. Minnesota sneaks into postseason play as the only bowl team that was four games under .500 in its league. The Golden Gophers went 2–6 in the Big Ten but won all four of its non-conference games to get to the six-win mark.
Texas Tech 33–21
Final regular-season record: 92–48 (76–48 ATS)
Wisconsin’s coaching search has been relatively quiet, with no clear frontrunner emerging to replace Bret Bielema since his departure to Arkansas. Some reports indicated athletic director Barry Alvarez made a run at Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads and Miami’s Al Golden but neither appeared to be interested in leaving their current position. Alvarez will coach the bowl game but finding a head coach soon is crucial, especially since a staff needs to be hired, and Wisconsin needs to keep its recruiting class intact.
10 Coaches to Replace Bret Bielema at Wisconsin
Mark Banker, defensive coordinator, Oregon State – There’s a lot of speculation surrounding Oregon State head coach Mike Riley and the Wisconsin position. However, what if Banker is the real candidate from Corvallis? The Massachusetts native has never been a head coach but has a wealth of experience in the assistant ranks. Banker has made stops at Hawaii, USC, Stanford and in the NFL with the Chargers. If Banker is indeed the candidate Wisconsin flew to Corvallis to meet with, it would be a curious move for the Badgers.
Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks – Bevell has no head coaching experience but has to be on the radar for Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. The former Badger quarterback has been an assistant coach since 1996, starting his career at Westmar University. He worked at Iowa State and Connecticut, before jumping to the NFL to serve as an offensive assistant with the Packers, Vikings and Seahawks. Bevell has been Seattle’s offensive coordinator for the last two years and has played a key role in developing rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. The only downside to hiring Bevell is the timetable for his arrival. The Seahawks are poised to make the NFL playoffs, so Bevell may not be available until mid-January.
Bob Bostad, offensive line coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Bostad is regarded as one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches, developing top units at Wisconsin and in the NFL with the Buccaneers. He also has experience during stops as an assistant at San Jose State and New Mexico from 1997-2005 but has never served as a head coach. Bostad worked under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, so there’s some natural ties to the program. Although Bostad’s performance as an offensive line coach is outstanding, Alvarez is probably looking for someone with head coaching experience.
Matt Campbell, head coach, Toledo – At 32 years old, Campbell is college football’s youngest coach. The Ohio native has been on a fast track through the coaching ranks, as he started his career as a graduate assistant with Bowling Green in 2003 and has made stops at Mount Union and as an offensive assistant under Tim Beckman at Toledo. Campbell is 10-3 in his career as the Rockets’ head coach. Although Campbell is young, he is ready to lead a BCS program. Considering he played at the very successful Mount Union program and has done well in a short amount of time at Toledo, Campbell would be a solid hire for Wisconsin.
Dave Clawson, head coach, Bowling Green – Clawson took a lot of heat for Tennessee’s struggles on offense in 2008, but he is a proven head coach at three different stops. The New York native went 29-29 in five seasons at Fordham (1999-2003), which also included a trip to the FCS playoffs in 2002. Clawson jumped to Richmond in 2004 and led the Spiders to two playoff appearances, including an 11-3 mark in 2007. After the failed season at Tennessee, Clawson landed at Bowling Green and went 7-6 in his debut year and 8-4 in 2012. The Falcons accepted a bid to the Military Bowl, which is their first postseason trip since the Humanitarian Bowl in 2009.
Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame – If Wisconsin chooses to look in the assistant ranks, Diaco should be in the mix to replace Bielema. The New Jersey native played at Iowa, so he’s certainly familiar with life in the Big Ten. Diaco has spent time as an assistant at Eastern Michigan, Western Illinois, Central Michigan, Virginia, Cincinnati and for the last three years at Notre Dame. Diaco has no head coaching experience but has helped to lead the Fighting Irish to a rank of No. 1 overall in points allowed (10.3 ppg). Diaco won the Broyles Award for 2012, which goes to the nation’s No. 1 assistant coach.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State – Lembo is a proven winner at three different stops during his coaching career and is ready to move up the coaching ladder after two years at Ball State. He recorded a 44-14 mark in five years at Lehigh and a 35-22 record in five seasons with Elon, which included an appearance in the FCS playoffs. Lembo is 15-9 in two years with the Cardinals and improved his win total by three games from 2011 to 2012. The New York native would bring a different approach on offense, as Lembo’s spread attack would be a switch from Wisconsin’s run-first mentality.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State – Narduzzi doesn’t have any head coaching experience but is regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top assistant coaches. The Connecticut native started his coaching career at Rhode Island in 1993 and stayed until 2000 when he left to go to Northern Illinois. After three seasons with the Huskies, Narduzzi spent one year at Miami (Ohio) and joined Mark Dantonio’s staff at Cincinnati in 2004. Narduzzi followed Dantonio to Michigan State in 2007 and has helped to build one of the Big Ten’s best defenses over the last few years. The Spartans ranked fourth nationally in total defense this season.
Jay Norvell, co-offensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Norvell has been an assistant coach in the NFL and college ranks since 1986. The Madison native hasn’t been a head coach but has worked at top programs like Nebraska, UCLA and Oklahoma. Norvell currently shares the Sooners’ co-offensive coordinator duties with Josh Heupel and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. Desipte the lack of head coaching experience, Norvell has to be on the radar for Wisconsin, especially since he’s a Madison native and worked as an assistant with Barry Alvarez from 1990-94.
Joe Rudolph, offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh – Even though Paul Chryst appears unlikely to leave, Wisconsin could target a Pittsburgh coach to replace Bielema. Rudolph played under Alvarez at Wisconsin and earned All-Big Ten honors in two seasons. The Pennsylvania native spent time as an assistant at Ohio State and Nebraska before coming to Wisconsin in 2008. After four seasons with the Badgers, Rudolph followed Chryst to Pittsburgh. Rudolph doesn’t have any head coaching experience but his background at Wisconsin figures to have him on the shortlist of Alvarez’s possible candidates.
Related College Football Content
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for December 13.
• An ex-Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader named Rachel Wray is giving MMA a try. We endorse the effort. At least, we endorse the photo at right.
• Today in year-end countdowns: The folks at Awful Announcing have culled through the worst of the worst to come up with their Bottom 10 announcer moments of 2012.
• It's been a pretty spectacular year in college football. My friends at Athlon have compiled the video evidence.
• Ah, fans. God love 'em. One Indiana fan spent $10,000 and enriched his local power company by crafting this elaborate tribute in Christmas lights to Christian Watford's 2011 buzzer-beater against top-ranked Kentucky.
• What a shocker — Johnny Football's dating a model.
• No surprise here, either: The eternally optimistic Tim Tebow is less upset about his lack of playing time than his fans are.
• Last night's atrocity of a football game featured one gem: Philly's Marvin McNutt blocked his own punter's punt, and then roughed him for good measure. The GIF is mesmerizing, as all good GIFs are.
• The vultures are picking over the carcass of the once-mighty Big East.
• They might as well go ahead and shut down boxing for good. Larry Merchant's retiring.
• I'm reluctant to wade into the Robert Griffin III-Rob Parker racial controversy, so I'll let RG3's dad speak for me. Here's what Parker had to say in the aftermath of his comments, before assuming radio silence.
• I'm late to this Hanukkah party, but in today's video, members of the Houston Rockets attempted to sing the dreidel song, with hilarious results.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• Today in year-end countdowns: Ask Men's Top 99 of 2013 included an impressive array of athletes and WAGs, including comely tennis player Ana Ivanovic.
• Your 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain: Tom Watson. As Jack Nicklaus said, if they want somebody who knows how to win in Scotland, they've got their man. Watson was also the last winning U.S. Ryder Cup captain on foreign soil. In 1993.
• Kevin Youkilis is a Yankee, to the chagrin of the fans in Bah-ston. But Youk's not the first to rub salt in Red Sox Nation's wounds by joining the Evil Empire. The top 10 Yankees-turned-Red Sox.
• There's a one-armed Division I basketball prospect. I'm not worthy to breathe the same air as this kid.
• From a national title to pills, paranoia and prison: The cautionary tale of Maurice Clarett.
• Mississippi State and Loyola are meeting up this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game that changed college basketball for the better.
• Rajon Rondo would like to have this game-winning shot attempt back. Needed a little more air under it.
• Like any good leader, Vince McMahon has evolved and grown into his job.
• I told you recently that Kim Jong Un was leading the Time Magazine readers poll for person of the year. Dude closed it out like Mariano Rivera. The people have spoken.
• There are some great Christmas movies. And then there are these movies.
• Today's video: Even at 50, Michael Jordan is still a better player than he is an executive.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• Our tribute to the best team in football right now: a slideshow of lovely Patriots cheerleaders.
• In honor of today's date (12/12/12): the best athletes to wear No. 12.
• Watch out, Eric Dickerson. Adrian Peterson's coming for you and your 1984-era jheri curls.
• In other NFL news, Paul Tagliabue emerged from retirement to issue a public smackdown to Roger Goodell.
• Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer? My take: His regular season stats fall a little short, but one more Super Bowl seals the deal.
• A realization has hit the mainstream sports media: Tim Tebow is the backup quarterback on a bad football team. Nothing more.
• Today in hilariously ungraceful exits: Tommy Tuberville got up from a dinner with recruits to go to the can and never came back. The next day, he was head coach at Cincinnati.
• That didn't take long. Tennessee's Butch Jones is now the fourth-most followed college football coach on Twitter. Who's No. 1, you ask? Here's a hint: "When you're challenged, and if you enjoy challenge, well, you enjoy it."
• The football program's in decline, but the revenues aren't: Texas tops the money earners among BCS schools.
• This is depressing and terrifying: A first-person account from a repeated concussion sufferer.
• This isn't sports-related, but it's personal to me. Rush is finally in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. About bleepin' time.
• Today's video: A 5-11 NAIA guard throws down a monster slam. Gotta love the reaction of the tubby assistant coach.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• College football's regular season is over, so it's time to turn pro. The best in NFL cheerleaders so far this season.
• Body's not even cold on the 2012 college football season, and my colleagues here at Athlon are already projecting a top 25 for 2013. They just can't help themselves.
• Speaking of top 25s, here's the current top 25, rearranged by academic performance. Nice job, Florida State.
• College football attendance dipped in 2012. This article includes attendance figures for every FBS program. Boy, those fans in San Jose are hard to please; they won 10 games, and their attendance dipped 41 percent. No wonder Mike MacIntyre got out of there.
• Attendance at Sunday's Bengals-Cowboys game at Paul Brown Stadium was 63,590, plus one sly, hungry rodent.
• "They look cute. They look like a high school swim team." Ouch. The Patriots sure enjoyed last night's statement tail-whipping.
• This valet has seen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" one too many times.
• Sports Business Journal is rolling out its 50 most influential people in sports business. Here's 11-20. My name hasn't appeared yet, so I must be in the top 10. Nice.
• Selena Robert analyzes the decline of Tiger Woods, with help from Athlon contributor Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel. Looks like Tiger's glory days are behind him; he might have to settle for just being insanely wealthy.
• Rob Neyer thinks the Baseball Hall of Fame could learn a thing or two from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here in Nashville, we endorse this line of thinking.
• It's never too early to start thinking about spring. The NCAA has named its 35 greatest March Madness Moments.
• Today's video features Johnny Football doing the Letterman Top 10 list. Don't go Hollywood on us, kid.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
• Tis the season for year-end countdowns. The folks at Mandatory bring you the year in great photos, including this one of Angelina Jolie on the red carpet at the Oscars.
• In that same vein, here's the Year in Kate Upton. 2012 will be hard for her to top.
• Hate to pile on this kid, but I have no choice. I present: The single worst free throw attempt in the history of terrible free throw attempts.
• Deadspin's weekend roundup includes a chilling GIF of Manny Pacquiao getting absolutely destroyed by a single punch.
• Sure, it's got problems, but it's still America's game, and it can still bring us enjoyment. 14 smile-inducing moments from Week 14 in the NFL.
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--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Big East suffered another setback in realignment, as seven basketball schools – Providence, DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova and Seton Hall have decided to break away from the conference. While this is a much bigger problem for the Big East’s basketball product, it could also present some issues for the football side. After losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12 last year, the Big East was attempting to rebrand itself as a national conference. However, Louisville accepted a spot in the ACC, and Rutgers is joining the Big Ten, likely in 2014.
Here’s the divisional format that the Big East planned to go with for 2013:
|Cincinnati||San Diego State|
Navy is scheduled to join the conference in 2015, while East Carolina and Tulane are expected to become members in 2014.
With the news that the basketball schools are breaking away from the conference, what does this do to the football product?
Although there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Big East, all of the additions seem to be on track to join in time for 2013. Boise State is the key cog in the new membership, and the Broncos, at least publically, are full steam ahead to leave the Mountain West for the Big East. Assuming Boise State does join, it would be a huge boost to the future of the conference. And as long as the Broncos are coming along, San Diego State will be joining as well. While losing the basketball schools will hurt the television contract, the Big East doesn’t seem to be in any danger of dissolving altogether.
What about the television contract?
This is the million-dollar question. The Big East is banking on landing a good television deal, which will help keep Boise State and San Diego State in the mix. If the Broncos can make more money on this television contract than in the Mountain West, it’s a good bet they remain in the Big East. There have been a handful of estimates thrown around but none have been as large as the conference was hoping for. Losing the seven basketball-only schools is going to hurt on the television contract, but football can still generate plenty of value.
Biggest winner in this move: None
The Big East as a football conference isn’t going to go away. However, the decision by the basketball schools to leave is a big setback for the Big East, especially as it appeared the conference was ready for a national rebranding and a new image. Will the basketball schools land a better television deal than the one they had in the Big East? Probably not.
Biggest loser in this move: Connecticut and Cincinnati
Both schools lobbied hard to get into the ACC, but Louisville was chosen as the conference’s replacement for Maryland. Connecticut has a good television market and has been one of college basketball’s top 25 programs over the last 10 years. However, the Huskies are left in a watered down Big East and won’t have their usual Northeast foes on the schedule. Cincinnati should be one of the top football programs in the new format, but after missing out on the ACC, the Bearcats have to be disappointed about no longer being in a conference with Louisville and the seven basketball-only schools.
What will happen next?
Even though the Big East may not be able to land a huge television contract, there’s still an opportunity to piece together a decent football conference. Considering the Big East can earn a chunk of money by having a team make a BCS bowl in the new postseason format in 2014, there is plenty of incentive to be the “best of the rest” conference. It’s certainly a possibility that the Big East’s new football format could eventually break apart, but if Boise State, Cincinnati and Connecticut are on board, other schools will want to join.
The Big East could benefit by expanding to 14 or 16 teams, which would help soften the blow if Connecticut and Cincinnati get ACC invites. If the conference does decide to expand, Western schools such as Fresno State and Air Force will be on the radar for the conference. The Big East could also look at Tulsa from Conference USA or make another run at BYU.
The departure of the basketball-only schools is a significant setback, but the Big East as a football conference isn’t going anywhere. So while this week’s news is a blow to commissioner Mike Aresco, as long as he keeps Boise State in the mix and can prevent any other losses for now, the conference will survive to 2013 and 2014. However, if the Big East loses Boise State, the conference isn’t going to break apart, but it will lose its premier football program.
The new Big East isn’t a football juggernaut, but programs like Houston, Memphis and Temple are better off in this new format, as opposed to returning and playing in a revamped Conference USA.
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Even though the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl doesn’t have the star power of a BCS game or the Cotton Bowl, this year’s game could be one of the best pre-New Year’s Day matchups. Utah State finished the regular season at 10-2 and unbeaten in WAC play. The Aggies were just a couple of plays away from a 12-0 record, losing to Wisconsin by two points and to BYU by a field goal. Toledo knocked off Cincinnati and fell to Arizona in overtime, while losing two games in MAC play by a touchdown.
The Aggies return to the blue turf in Boise looking for revenge. Utah State fell just short of a bowl win in this game last season, losing a 24-23 heartbreaker to Ohio in the final seconds. Toledo is making its first appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but this will be the Rockets’ third consecutive postseason trip. Toledo knocked off Air Force 42-41 in the Military Bowl last year.
This will be the first meeting between these two teams, and this game also features two of the nation’s top rising stars in the coaching ranks – Toledo’s Matt Campbell and Utah State’s Gary Andersen.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Toledo (9-3) vs. Utah State (10-2)
Date/Time: Dec. 15 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: Boise, Idaho
When the Utah State Aggies have the ball:
In terms of national rankings, Utah State is as balanced as they come. The Aggies rank 37th nationally in rushing and passing offense, while averaging 34.4 points a game. The catalyst for the offense is quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The sophomore recorded 3,671 yards of total offense and 34 overall scores in 2012. Keeton finished the regular season on a high note, throwing for at least 300 yards in three out of the final four games, including a huge 340-yard performance against Louisiana Tech to decide the WAC title.
Although Keeton is one of the nation’s top non-BCS quarterbacks, he doesn't have to carry the offense just on his shoulders. Running back Kerwynn Williams averaged 163 all-purpose yards per game and led the team with 663 receiving yards. The senior averaged 6.4 yards per carry and recorded an 86-yard touchdown scamper against San Jose State.
Williams will catch his share of passes out of the backfield, but the Aggies also have dependable receivers in Chuck Jacobs, Matt Austin, Cameron Webb and tight end Kellen Bartlett. Austin is the team’s top big-play threat, averaging 15.5 yards per reception.
Stopping Utah State’s offense is going to be a big challenge for Toledo. The Rockets allowed 464.1 yards per game and ranked near the bottom of the nation in pass defense. If there is any good news in the defensive statistics, Toledo gave up a lot of yards but held opponents to just 27.3 points a game. The Rockets forced 25 turnovers this season and they will need a couple on Saturday afternoon to knock off Utah State.
When the Toledo Rockets have the ball:
The Rockets averaged 32.9 points a game this season but will have their hands full trying to move the ball against Utah State’s defense. The Aggies ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed (322.7 ypg) and points allowed (15.4 ppg). In addition to holding opponents to less than 330 yards a contest, Utah State was active around the line of scrimmage, recording 3.3 sacks per game.
Although Utah State has been stingy on defense, Toledo is getting some reinforcements back for the bowl game. Quarterback Terrance Owens and running back David Fluellen both missed the season finale due to injuries but are expected to play on Saturday afternoon.
Fluellen was a first-team All-MAC selection in 2011 and rushed for 1,460 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. The junior is expected to be close to 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury late in the year but faces a tough test against an active Utah State front seven. The Aggies allowed only six rushing scores all season and rank 12th nationally against the run.
Considering how tough it has been to run against Utah State this year, Toledo needs a big game from its passing attack. Owens is ready to return to the lineup, but senior Austin Dantin may see some snaps in this game. Regardless of whether Owens or Dantin is under center, the Rockets’ receiving corps will test Utah State’s secondary. Bernard Reedy is the No. 1 target for Toledo, catching 82 passes for 1,051 yards and six scores this year. Freshman Alonzo Russell didn’t match Reedy’s catch total (54) but led the team with an average of 17.1 yards per reception.
Reedy and Russell will be a good challenge for Utah State’s secondary, which features three All-WAC performers. Cornerback Will Davis was a first-team all-conference selection, picking off five passes and recording 16 pass breakups.
Three out of the last four meetings in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl have been decided by a touchdown or less. Barring a complete collapse by one team, another tight game should be expected. The Aggies have already set a school record with 10 victories and expect to have a large contingent of fans make the trip from Logan. Toledo is capable of pulling off the upset, but Utah State is better on both sides of the ball and has plenty of motivation as it tries to erase last season’s disappointing loss in this bowl game.
Prediction: Utah State 34, Toledo 27
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College football’s bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, N.M. with what should be a high-scoring affair between Nevada and Arizona. The Wolf Pack averaged 37 points a game this year and ranked seventh nationally in rushing offense. The Wildcats finished the regular season by scoring at least 30 or more points in seven out of their final eight games.
Although its final record was just 7-5, Arizona has to be thrilled to return to a bowl game in coach Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Tucson. The Wildcats knocked off Oklahoma State, Washington and USC this year and had narrow losses to Oregon State and Stanford. Nevada is making its eighth consecutive trip to a bowl game but is just 1-5 in the last six postseason trips. The Wolf Pack started the year with an upset win over California but finished with losses in four out of their final five games.
These two teams have not met since 1941, with the overall series tied at 1-1-1.
New Mexico Bowl – Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Date and Time: Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
When the Nevada Wolf Pack has the ball:
The Wolf Pack quietly has one of college football’s top backfields. Quarterback Cody Fajardo threw for 2,530 yards and 17 scores, while adding 981 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Running back Stefphon Jefferson was a workhorse for the Nevada offense in 2012, recording 341 carries and rushing for 1,703 yards and 22 scores. Jefferson ranked second nationally with an average of 141.9 yards per game.
Stopping Fajardo and Jefferson won’t be an easy task for an Arizona defense that allowed 20 or more points in eight out of nine Pac-12 games. The Wildcats rank 100th nationally in scoring defense and 116th in yards allowed per contest (485.7). This unit struggled to generate pressure (1.3 sacks per game) but forced 23 turnovers this year.
Although Fajardo has nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, the Wildcats also have to respect the Nevada passing attack. Receiver Brandon Wimberly leads the team with 63 catches and 788 yards, while tight end Zach Sudfeld recorded 43 receptions for 553 yards and six scores.
In a matchup where both teams are going to score, Arizona’s best plan on defense should be a bend-but-don’t-break strategy. Nevada is going to get its yards and points, but the Wildcats need to force the Wolf Pack to kick field goals instead of touchdowns. Winning the turnover battle is crucial, which slightly favors Arizona.
When the Arizona Wildcats have the ball:
As expected, the Wildcats emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top offenses under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez. Arizona averaged 521.8 yards per game this season and was held under 20 points only twice in 2012.
In addition to Rodriguez’s arrival, Matt Scott’s emergence helped to transition from a pass-first offense to a spread attack. Scott redshirted last season, preserving one year of eligibility for 2012. Despite missing one game due to injury, the senior recorded 3,723 yards and 29 scores this season. Turnovers were a problem for Scott at times, as he tossed three picks against Arizona State and Oregon and two in the 38-35 loss to Oregon State.
Scott isn’t a one-man show on offense, as Arizona has a strong supporting cast. Receiver Austin Hill had a breakout season, catching 73 passes for 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns. He was joined by Dan Buckner (59 receptions) and David Richards (24 catches) as other key targets in the passing game.
While Scott can do some damage on the ground, running back Ka’Deem Carey was one of the top breakout players in college football this season, rushing for 1,757 yards and 20 scores on 275 attempts. The sophomore caught 33 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown and was a first-team selection on Athlon Sports’ postseason 2012 All-America team.
Considering Nevada never held an opponent under 20 points this season and Arizona is the best offense it will face in terms of yards per game, the Wolf Pack defense is facing an uphill battle on Saturday afternoon. Nevada is allowing 213.2 rushing yards per game, which is bad news against Carey and the Wildcats’ offensive line.
Expect bowl season to get started off on a high note when these two teams kick off on Saturday afternoon. Both offenses should have plenty of success moving the ball, with turnovers and timely stops likely to decide this game. Nevada has struggled in bowl games under Chris Ault, while the Wildcats hope to snap a two-game losing streak in postseason appearances. Considering the Wolf Pack’s struggles to stop the run, look for Carey to approach 200 rushing yards, while Matt Scott also has a big day through the air. This matchup should go back and forth, but Arizona picks up a bowl win and finishes its first season under Rich Rodriguez at 8-5.
Prediction: Arizona 41, Nevada 34
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