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Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David analyzes the transaction that brings future Cup Series rookie Ryan Blaney to one of the sport’s most storied teams.
It’s not in a driver’s mindset to root for other drivers, but a slew of young racers owe a debt of gratitude to Kyle Larson, this year’s likely runaway Rookie of the Year, who is also within sniffing distance of a spot on the Chase grid. In a copycat sport (is there any other kind?), once one young driver succeeds, other organizations want young drivers to call their own. That’s what is happening right now, as two major organizations — Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske — have been integral in this year’s transaction season, promoting youth to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Roush Fenway announced in May that Trevor Bayne, a development driver for the organization since 2010, would be promoted to the Cup Series next season, acting as the de-facto replacement, for the departing Carl Edwards. Bayne’s promotion left a driver-shaped hole in the Wood Brothers Racing roster.
Last week, the Woods announced that Ryan Blaney would take the wheel of the famed No. 21 for a partial schedule in 2015. In signing Blaney, they didn’t just land a potential upgrade, they upgraded their race program by entering into a technical alliance with Team Penske, the organization for which Blaney has been a development driver since 2012. It’s a win for all parties involved.
Breaking down Blaney
Grab a hot dog and sit in the bleachers at any short track in America and it’s almost certain that you’ll see a fast kid. What you likely won’t see is a kid that has smarts in addition to speed. Most young drivers appear young in this regard, mashing the gas from the onset of limited-lap dash races. Blaney is one of the rare few that packed a veteran punch at an early age. He picked his spots wisely when, at age 15 and 16, he was competing in the veteran-heavy Pro All-Stars Series (PASS), a regional-touring Super Late Model division in which he claimed the series title in 2011. He won at Phoenix in his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West start by biding his time until the second half of the race, during which he tallied all of his 44 laps led. That high Race IQ has played a big factor in his early success in NASCAR’s rough-and-tumble Truck division.
In 2012, he scored a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Iowa and amassed a 2.611 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) through nine races, which ranked ninth out of 56 drivers. He produced a similar production rating, 2.386, in a full 22-race slate in the Truck Series last year, again ranking ninth and scoring one win (Pocono). This year, wins have eluded him; however, he ranked fourth in PEER prior to this week’s Michigan-Bristol jaunt, sports a career-best average finish (8.5) and ranks second in average green-flag speed for a Brad Keselowski Racing team that has traditionally lacked the lights-out speed that organizations like Kyle Busch Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing showcased in recent years.
Blaney also scored his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory last season at Kentucky behind the wheel of Penske’s No. 22 car. In June, I ranked him the second-best Cup Series prospect in America.
The Woods upgrade everything
“Ryan Blaney is better than Trevor Bayne” is arguably true, though it may not lead to better immediate results. It’s tough sledding for any rookie in the Cup Series after all, so anticipate that Blaney will experience a turbulent transition while assimilating to a field consisting of 42 other Cup-level talents. Bayne, outside of his 2011 Daytona 500 win, never broached serviceable production, ample passing (his 48.99 percent adjusted pass efficiency this year sits below the 50 percent par, though it does bring a positive surplus value) or finishing efficiency (his minus-20.8 percent top 15 efficiency ranks dead last in the series this season) in his four years driving partial seasons for the Woods.
Blaney, neither a plus-passer (48.21 percent efficiency), nor an efficient finisher (minus-12.3 percent T15E) in the Nationwide Series this season, doesn’t evoke a notion of an immediate upgrade, but he has demonstrated an ability to improve. His trouble with closing out races — in 2013, he retained his red zone position 57.14 percent of the time in Truck Series races — has changed after a crew chief switch from Doug Randolph to late-race setup specialist Chad Kendrick. Currently, Blaney is retaining red zone spots 70 percent of the time (a 13 percent enhancement) and is no longer dropping positions, evident by a position retention difference of zero percent, up from minus-18.9.
His maturation will likely take time, which the Wood Brothers team will happily provide thanks to the transaction kicker offered by Penske.
After years of hitching their wagon to Roush Fenway for engineering assistance, the Wood Brothers will enter into a technical alliance with Penske, which, in the last few years, is the fastest-growing organization, in terms of personnel and innovation, in NASCAR. This is a coup for the Woods who, despite not having Paul Wolfe on its roster will receive Wolfe’s spec setups and a peek at his notes — likely for a relatively palatable rate. In helping develop Blaney at Penske’s behest, their entire organization receives a jolt in engineering, something that Roush Fenway has been failing to maintain, evident in average speed and baseline results.
Penske fills partial-season void and, potentially, nabs a customer
If you’re at all privy to the NASCAR social media scene, you’ve likely seen Brad Keselowski get blasted by fans for competing in too many Nationwide Series races for Penske. The Tweeters feel that Ryan Blaney should get more races in NASCAR’s top training ground. It’s a fine sentiment, but its underlying logic is false considering that a) Blaney’s eight races in the No. 22 car, which includes this weekend’s start at Bristol, are equal to that of Keselowski’s total (8) and two more than Joey Logano’s (6) in that entry — and once the two Cup regulars tackle the Chase, it will likely free up more opportunities for Blaney, and b) those eight races, tacked on to a scheduled 22 Truck Series starts and two Cup Series attempts, equal 32 total races this year, which is the same amount Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and other Nationwide-only youngsters will get. With additional Nationwide starts, Blaney will take on a bigger workload this season than most Cup Series prospects across NASCAR’s three premier divisions.
Penske, it seems, values repetition.
Next year, his schedule might change, but right off the bat Blaney will get a dozen or so races at NASCAR’s highest level, attaining valuable experience without Penske forcing its efficient shop to take on a third, part-time team acting as a 10-race distraction. As they did with Keselowski, who ran partial schedules for Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing in 2009, Penske will be happy to tap Blaney for a full-time Cup Series ride under their banner once they and the driver are good and ready.
But this equivalent to a player loan in European football nets Penske something in addition to additional seat time for Blaney. In a grand hypothetical, let’s say Penske, with an engine shop at the ready having supplied Dodge motors until their switch to Ford in 2013, decides to either buy Roush/Yates Engines or produce their own version of a Ford engine. If that were to happen, it seems as if they have a team, in Wood Brothers Racing, eager to become a customer.
In a world of ownership alliances and a shallow sponsor pool, finding alternative sources of revenue have become increasingly important. RCR landed a reported $20 million this year from technical alliances alone. With the Penske machine churning out a large quantity of fast cars this season for Keselowski and Logano — the latter of which will be due a pay raise in the coming years (Keselowski got his late last season) — their coffers will need to be replenished. Though sponsorship acquisition hasn’t been a biting issue with the organization, as Penske’s business-to-business leverage is an enticing carrot, they also aren’t ones to turn down lucrative opportunities. The engine leasing business pays well, and whether it is resuscitated at Penske or not, a customer waiting list isn’t a bad asset to have.
Blaney’s promotion, albeit a subtle one amid bigger announcements, is a shrewd business move by Penske that warrants a no-brainer reaction from one of NASCAR’s longest-running operations. Blaney benefits, Penske benefits and the Wood Brothers, who lost a driver they covet three short months ago, benefit.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The NFL season is two weeks away. The college football season is a week away.
That means this week high school football has the spotlight to itself. ESPN will air a handful of featured national games this weekend as a kickoff to the Friday Night Lights.
Among the national top-25 teams in action this weekend on national TV include Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern against in-state foe Byrnes, Hoover (Ala.) against Miami Central and Buford (Ga.) against Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian.
Beyond those three teams, here are the top 25 teams you should keep an eye on for 2014:
Rankings and game breakdowns for every state are available in the Athlon Sports' High School Football Preview.
1. Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas
Last season: 10-3
St. Thomas is a private school that draws from the talent-rich populations of Broward and North Dade counties, two of the top football-producing counties in the country. The influx of star power this year is greater than ever. Top players like running back Jordan Scarlett, cornerback Rashard Causey and defensive end Brandon Boyce, all seniors, and junior wide receiver Sam Bruce all transferred from cross-town University School and dropped a surplus of wealth in coach Rocco Casullo’s lap.
2. Hoover (Ala.)
Last season: 15-0
The Bucs ended their time at the 6A level with two straight state titles and will hope to carry that momentum into the newly formed 7A division this fall. Despite losing Alabama signee Marlon Humphrey on defense, the Bucs may have their most talented senior class in years this fall, including pass-rushing demons Christian Bell and Darrell Williams on defense and running back Bradrick Shaw on offense.
3. Allen (Texas)
Last season: 16-0
Allen rolled to its second consecutive state championship in convincing fashion a year ago behind all-everything quarterback Kyler Murray. He’s back for a third season along with most of the Allen offense, which could put up record-breaking numbers in 2014. If there is a concern, it’s on defense, where graduation hit the Eagles hard. Allen has won 27 consecutive games heading into the 2014 season.
4. Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage
Last season: 15-1
The top two teams in the state will open the season in a big-time battle of Broward County’s best at the Miami Dolphins’ home stadium. Gifted do-everything quarterback Torrance Gibson leads the way for Heritage, and last year no team could corral the athletic playmaker, who led the Patriots to the Class 5A crown.
5. Cedar Hill (Texas)
Last season: 14-2
Cedar Hill avenged its 2012 loss to Katy in the Div. II title game with a win over the Tigers in the 2013 title matchup. Senior wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge will look to lead a repeat charge in 2014.
6. Katy (Texas)
Last season: 15-1
Katy fell just short of a second straight title last year, losing to Cedar Hill in the 5A Division II title game. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2013 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. With a talented defense and running back Rodney Anderson — an Oklahoma commit — returning, the Tigers appear to be loaded.
7. Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward
Last season: 11-2
Coach Rick Finotti has made this program the envy of the state. After coming up a field goal shy of the D-I state final in 2013, the Eagles are loaded and poised to navigate the season unscathed as they did in 2010. The key will be the play of a fresh-faced O-line.
8. Bellevue (Wash.)
Last season: 14-0
No longer just one of the top programs in the West, this national power will be gunning for its 12th state title since 2001. Junior quarterback Justus Rogers is a dual threat and will had the ball to Sam Richmond behind an always-stout offensive line.
9. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle
Last season: 14-1
The Spartans of the Bay Area have been a dominant program since 1979 when Bob Ladouceur took over as coach. Ladouceur stepped down following the 2012 season but is back as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh. De La Salle has gone 413–26–3 over the past 35 years with 22 consecutive North Coast Section titles and eight state title game appearances in the eight years it’s been held, with five titles. The Spartans are again dominant on both lines of scrimmage, led by Kahlil McKenzie, Drew Sullivan and Boss Tagaloa. How new QB Anthony Sweeney adjusts will be the key.
10. Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco
Last season: 16-0
The Braves in 2013 capped their finest season as the best team in the history of Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times, with a State Open Division title win over storied De La Salle, 20–14. Bosco returns UCLA-commit QB Josh Rosen (3,200 yards, 39 TDs) and 2,000-yard rusher Sean McGrew to run behind D-I prospects Matthew Katnik and Zach Robertson. Ten D-I signees have graduated, but scores of newcomers are ready.
11. Clifton (Va.) Centreville
Last season: 15-0
The Wildcats are expected to welcome back 15 starters from a dominating team that last season won the program’s first state championship since 2000. A pair of two-way standouts — running back/defensive back A.J. Turner and wide receiver/defensive back Charles Tutt — return after helping Centreville win the Group 6A state title. The Wildcats went 15–0 and finished with a average margin of victory of 34 points per game.
12. Gardena (Calif.) Juniperro Serra
Last season: 13-1
Players come, they graduate and new ones come in, including new QB prospects in Khalil Tate and Caleb Wilson, a 6-5 transfer from Georgia. Running back Malik Roberson returns for a program that has become a scholarship factory.
13. Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern
Last season: 11-3
A Cobb County school hasn’t won a state championship in the highest classification since Marietta in 1967. The Indians have a shot after losing in the state semifinals in 2013, but the non-region schedule — featuring North Gwinnett, Buford, Lovejoy and Peachtree Ridge — is brutal. Running back Taj Griffin is an all-state candidate, and Chuma Edoga is one of the best lineman prospects in America. A dominant defensive lineman was a hallmark of the championship runs by Grayson and Norcross over the past three years. The Indians have one in Julian Rochester, one of the top junior recruits in Georgia.
14. Lafayette (La.) Acadiana
Last season: 14-1
Any team that rushed for 634 yards and scored 77 points in the state championship game should probably start the ensuing season at No. 1 regardless, but the Wreckin’ Rams deserve to be here anyway. The Wreckin’ Rams have five players on the Athlon Sports preseason all-state and could easily have more. Coach Ted Davidson’s squad is favored to make it back to the Class 5A championship game in 2014. The Rams have an intriguing early out-of-state test against Shades Valley (Ala.).
15. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman
Last season: 13-2
Head coach Tony Sanchez has built a national power and distanced the Gaels from the rest of the state, with no losses to a Nevada team since 2008. The passing game gets a boost from transfer wide receiver Cordell Broadus.
16. Anaheim (Calif.) Servite
Last season: 6-6
A.J. Gass takes over as head coach at his alma mater for one of the power programs on the West Coast. The Friars will score with duel-threat QB Travis Waller, who will work behind linemen Tommy Garcia and Clayton Johnston, and the defense returns seven starters.
17. Buford (Ga.)
Last season: 15-0
Buford went undefeated in 2013 and won a ninth state championship since 2001. The state’s winningest program, however, moves up to Class AAAA, a two-classification jump from where it competed in 2011.
18. Bentonville (Ark.)
Last season: 11-2
The defending Class 7A state champions return a solid nucleus, led by gifted junior quarterback Kasey Ford and senior defensive lineman Javier Carbonell. Senior placekicker Bennett Moehring is a weapon as well.
19. Philadelphia St. Joseph’s Prep
Last season: 12-3
The defending state champions bring back a large number of starters on both sides of the ball. Skill players Olamide Zaccheaus, D’Andre Swift and John Reid anchor the team along with linemen Jon Runyan and Jake Strain.
20. Miramar (Fla.)
Last season: 12-1
The Patriots could be deeper than the 2011 state runner-up squad. Tyrek Cole (a Florida State commit) provides leadership for new coach Mat Strout, who takes over for Damon Cogdell, now at West Virginia. The Patriots could face Apopka for the 8A title.
21. South Jordan (Utah) Bingham
Last season: 14-0
One of the state’s most consistent powers, this program looks poised to repeat as 5A state champion. While the offensive line needs a facelift, the Miners tend to reload there. Quarterback Kyle Gearig is a dual threat, and the defense should be strong again behind linebacker Daniel Langi.
22. DeSoto (Texas)
Last season: 14-1
DeSoto is 28–2 the past two seasons, with both losses coming in the semifinals to Allen. As always, the Eagles will have plenty of speed to bring to the table on both sides of the ball.
23. Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep
Last season: 10-2
St. Peter’s Prep looks set to make a push toward its first No. 1 statewide ranking in 20 years. The Marauders have the best player in New Jersey in five-star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, an Alabama commit, and arguably the state’s best quarterback in Penn State commit Brandon Wimbush, along with receiver/defensive back Corey Caddle, linebacker Jordan Fox and defensive tackle David Tolentino.
24. Folsom (Calif.)
Last season: 14-1
The Bulldogs have emerged as the second best team in Northern California behind De La Salle, the only team to defeat them in each of the past two seasons. Few teams in the country score like Folsom, led by QB Jake Browning, who is closing in on 11,000 career yards and 200 touchdowns. Lineman leaders include Cody Creason and Sam Whitney.
25. Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern
Last season: 15-0
The defending State 4A Division II Champions will have a new quarterback for the season after graduating South Carolina Varsity’s Mr. Football, Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State). But coach Kyle Richardson’s proven system is in place and the Trojans return the state’s most exciting skills player in wide receiver Dupree Hart. A tough non-region schedule will prepare the Trojans for the playoffs, and they should be the favorite again in 2014.
The AFC South was the only division in the NFL last season with three teams that finished with a losing record. Reigning division champion Indianapolis went 11-5, while Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee combined for a 13-35 mark. With the Texans and Titans under new leadership and the Jaguars still rebuilding, there’s little debate, if any, that the Colts are heavy favorites to repeat as AFC South champs. So if the Colts are No. 1, which team is best positioned to challenge them or, at the very least, produce better results on the field in 2014?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“No way this organization should have only won two games last year, but it just goes to show how quarterback play and turnovers override everything else.” …
“Gary Kubiak did not survive, so Bill O’Brien was brought in to fix the QB situation over the long haul and that’s why they chose Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall in the draft.” …
“When healthy, the Texans have enough skill with Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster to pose some matchup problems, however, the right side of the offensive line and tight end positions need upgrades for them to compete at a high level again.” …
“O’Brien and GM Rick Smith signed Ryan Fitzpatrick for this year and drafted Tom Savage (Pittsburgh) in the fourth round, but the success of the QB spot will dictate how long this team stays down.” …
“The defense stays in the 3-4 and shifts from Wade Phillips to Romeo Crennel, both old-school pros that believe the players should be self-motivated, which makes for an interesting watch on Clowney.” …
“J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the entire league and has no trouble competing on a down-to-down basis.” …
“The Texans signed Jerrell Powe from KC to help at NT and drafted Louis Nix III (Notre Dame) as a reinforcement.” …
“Brian Cushing is a great player when healthy, but has missed 20 games over the past two years. Whitney Mercilus must step up opposite of Clowney and Brooks Reed may become the third LB on the outside and inside.” ...
“The secondary has been an Achilles heel since the Texans entered the league, maybe Kareem Jackson can improve, but he’s average and Johnathan Joseph wasn’t the same guy here as he was in Cincinnati.” …
“They drafted D.J. Swearinger as a strong safety and added Kendrick Lewis, who has never been able to run, so they are speed deficient in the back end.” …
“The biggest questions surrounding the Texans are the idea of a franchise QB and O’Brien’s ability to change the mentality of this team that some around the league questioned in terms of persistent toughness.” …
“Most around the league are envious of GM Ryan Grigson who had the good fortune of being able to pick QB Andrew Luck in his first draft, but he also picked a quality coach in Chuck Pagano and this organization has a chance to be competitive for a long time.” …
“The true test for Grigson and Pagano will be putting enough pieces in place around Luck and strengthening their defense in order to be in the Super Bowl conversation.” …
“Luck is legitimately a generational-level QB, look at what he has done in his first two seasons without a full complement of players around him and a defense that has been hit-and-miss.” …
“The offense should get a boost with the return of Reggie Wayne, TE Dwayne Allen and Ahmad Bradshaw from season-ending injuries, and the club is very hopeful that a full offseason with Trent Richardson will unlock the abilities he showed as an All-American talent at Alabama.” …
“In truth, the offensive line is average at best with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus being middle-tier performers at the tackle positions. Indy let Samson Satele go, so there is a ton of pressure on center Khalid Holmes who was a fourth-round pick in 2013.” …
“Defensively, DE Arthur Jones and LB D’Qwell Jackson are the two significant pieces added during free agency. Jones is a favorite of Pagano and Jackson was a consistent performer in bad circumstances at Cleveland.” …
“Bjoern Werner, their first-round pick from a year ago, needs to come through in a big way in order to provide some pass rush opposite of Robert Mathis. Mathis has had an amazing career and actually had his best year in 2013 with 19.5 sacks.” …
“Up front, keep an eye on Montori Hughes, he has the needed size/athleticism to potentially breakout in 2014.” …
“They lost FS Antwuan Bethea to the 49ers and the safety spot appears to be the weakest position on the roster.” …
“Vontae Davis re-signed, Greg Toler returns and Darius Butler has always had cover ability, but this is a thin group, too.” …
“Again, as long is Luck is healthy and they get positive play out of the players that are returning from injury, this team should contend for the Super Bowl on an annual basis.” …
“Head coach Gus Bradley’s enthusiasm and leadership was put to the test in 2013 because the Jaguars had the least-talented team in the entire NFL. They have the right ownership and front office (Shad Khan and GM Dave Caldwell) in place to steer the ship through this reclamation project.” …
“Offensively, Chad Henne is in place as the bridge QB, which will allow them to sit No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles as a rookie. He will be developed the old-fashioned way and this should really pay dividends for the Jags in the end.” …
“Prior to the draft, this offense was very short on talent, but Luke Joeckel should become a legit left tackle, Marcedes Lewis still has something left and Cecil Shorts is as competitive as any WR in the league.” …
“I loved the selection of USC WR Marquise Lee and Penn State WR Allen Robinson, both should become future starters.” …
“They signed OG Zane Beadles from Denver and RB Toby Gerhart from Minnesota to provide more stability along the OL and in the backfield.” …
“Jacksonville should be able to compete more quickly on the defensive side of the football. They added Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to the front, to go along with incumbents Tyson Alualu and Sen’Derrick Marks.” …
“Paul Posluszny is very steady on the inside, but this LB group lacks a real difference-maker.” …
“Two 2013 rookies, corner Dwayne Gratz and safety Johnathan Cyprien have pro futures, but again, this is another area of this team that needs to be upgraded.” …
“Owner Khan is taking the correct approach in letting Bradley and Caldwell reshape this roster, and with six wins or so in 2014, the momentum should build for the future. This division is not all that great, so they can make a move as soon as this year.” …
“After 31 years as a player and coach, the Titans’ organization made the difficult decision to move away from Mike Munchak as head coach. GM Ruston Webster recruited offensive-minded Ken Whisenhunt really hard, because everyone’s fate is tied to the play of Jake Locker.” …
“On paper and in a snapshot, Locker has everything a team would want in a legitimate NFL signal-caller. However, on the field, his accuracy is inconsistent and his injury history has kept him from becoming their present and long-term answer at the position.” …
“Tennessee grew weary of RB Chris Johnson and parted ways with him in early April. Washington RB Bishop Sankey was their second-round choice and with Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle and Leon Washington, they have enough talent and depth there to make this work.” …
“Delanie Walker and Craig Stevens form a nice complementary duo at tight end and Kendall Wright has emerged as the best of an adequate group of receivers.” …
“Justin Hunter is a young prospect that could breakout in 2014 with more passes directed his way.” …
“They added Dexter McCluster and it will be interesting to see how he is utilized in this offense.” …
“The offensive line has always been a focus for the Titans and they drafted Michigan OT Taylor Lewan in the first round, despite there not being a pressing need with Michael Roos being a long-time veteran. Brian Schwenke, Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack form one of the best interior line units in the AFC, but newly signed Michael Oher could be the weakest link up front as the right tackle replacement for David Stewart.” …
“Ray Horton takes over as the defensive coordinator, so the Titans will shift from their traditional 4-3 and move to the 3-4. Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard were both signed from Denver and should pair off well with Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy [Editor’s note: McCarthy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second preseason game] .”…
“This scheme may hurt Derrick Morgan, but could help Kamerion Wimbley who re-structured his deal, so there are always unintended consequences when changing defensive philosophies.” …
“They did not retain Alterraun Verner and that puts big pressure on Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jason McCourty. The back end seems secure with Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin.” …
“Barring injuries, if Whisenhunt can make a huge difference with Locker, this team is ahead of Houston and Jacksonville and could challenge for a playoff berth. Otherwise, the Titans will be in search of a franchise QB in 2015 or potentially turning the reins over to sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger from LSU.” …
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Big Ten’s best.
Every time Illinois and a Big Ten opponent traded possessions, the Illini basically gave up 8.4 yards. The Illini had by far the worst field position margin in conference play; their average possession started at their 24.8 while opponents started at the 33.3, a margin of minus-8.4 yards. It’s hard to win when the field is constantly tilted in your opponent’s favor.
Indiana’s defense gave up by far the most yards per play in Big Ten games in 2013 (7.4), but if it’s possible, the Hoosiers’ defense actually got even worse near the goal line. They allowed 5.3 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, easily 12th in the conference. The offense ranked second at 4.8 points per trip, but the defense was far too much of a sieve and did the offense no favors.
Iowa was able to raise its scoring output by a touchdown per game (from 19.3 points to 26.3) in 2013, in part because the Hawkeyes were great at creating third-and-manageable situations. The average Iowa third down required only 5.9 yards to go, fifth-lowest in the country. It’s not a coincidence that Iowa’s third-down conversion rate also improved, from 36.4 percent to 43.8.
Big plays are important, and Maryland’s offense generated quite a few of them – the Terrapins gained 20 or more yards 73 times last fall. But you still have to gain 10 yards every four plays, and efficiency was a problem. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Maryland’s success rate was just 38.9 percent, 96th in the country.
With such a shaky running game, it felt like every pass quarterback Devin Gardner attempted came on third-and-8. That actually wasn’t far from the truth: the average Michigan third down required 8.0 yards to go, 121st in the country. That makes the Wolverines’ 39.2 percent third-down conversion rate (75th in the country) actually seem rather impressive.
Michigan State: 3.8
Against the first three FBS opponents on the schedule, the Spartan offense averaged only 3.8 yards per play; for a full season, that average would have ranked 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. But State committed to Connor Cook at quarterback, and eventually it paid off. In their final 10 games, the Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per play and 29.6 points per game, more than enough for the MSU defense.
Minnesota quarterbacks took a few too many sacks in 2013. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner were sacked on 9.3 percent of their pass attempts; only two FBS teams had worse rates (Kentucky and Pittsburgh). You can get away with negative plays if you’re getting the ball downfield, and Nelson and Leidner did average 14.1 yards per completion, but this was still far too high.
Nebraska’s defense made a lot of aggressive plays in 2013; the Huskers recorded 93 tackles for a loss (17th in the country) and defended 54 passes (66th) and came up big on third downs by holding opponents to a 31.0 percent conversion rate (sixth-lowest). This level of successful aggression is impressive considering the Huskers allowed 6.3 yards per play on first down, 97th in the country.
Northwestern went 1–4 in games decided by one possession in 2013, a 0.200 win percentage. From 2007-12, the Wildcats win percentage in such games was 0.676 (25–12). Be it sudden regression to the mean in the luck department, total randomness, or something else, fortunes changed drastically for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.
Ohio State: 4.5
Ohio State allowed an average of 4.5 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in conference play. That ranked the Buckeyes ninth in the Big Ten. The Ohio State offense was predictably great at cashing in on scoring opportunities — its 5.2 points per trip led the conference — but the defense gave away a lot of those gains. It was the story of the Buckeyes’ season.
Penn State: 48
Penn State managed only 48 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage in 2013, 95th in the country. This was down from 53 in 2012. The Nittany Lions were reasonably efficient considering the youth at quarterback, but there weren’t enough big plays to create easy scores, and if you have to sustain drives, you are likely to make a mistake at some point.
Purdue was perhaps the worst third-down team in the country. The offense ranked 119th in third-down conversions, and the defense ranked 124th. But the damage was done mostly on first and second downs: the offense averaged 7.9 yards to go on third downs (119th) while the defense averaged 5.7 (dead last in FBS). On third down, the Boilermakers simply performed as dictated by first and second.
When you’ve got shaky quarterback play — and to be sure, a 55 percent completion rate with 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions could certainly be considered shaky — the last thing you want to do is put them in uncomfortable down-and-distance situations. But Rutgers couldn’t avoid third-and-long; the Scarlet Knights averaged 8.0 yards to go on third down, 123rd in the country.
Almost nobody controlled the ground like Wisconsin. S&P+ is a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent, and in Rushing S&P+, the Badgers ranked fifth on offense and ninth on defense. Alabama was the only other team to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.
The SEC is still the nation’s best conference. No conference in the nation can match the week-in, week-out grind that the SEC offers from Aug. 28 through Championship Saturday on Dec. 6.
The round robin in both divisions should be superb to watch every single week. Top that off with marquee non-conference showdowns with the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Kansas State), the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and ACC (Florida State, Clemson) and there are no breathers in this conference.
It makes for an extremely lengthy list of must-see games this fall.
1. Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 29)
Not only are in-state and conference bragging rights on the line for 364 days in the nation’s biggest event this year, but the winner of this one game also played in each of the final five BCS National Championship Games. And after the way last year’s clash ended, fans can bet the intensity will reach a fevered pitch by Rivalry Week — especially, if there is as much on the line in 2014 as there was last fall.
2. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 8)
The Tigers aren’t picked to finish first, second or third in the SEC West but that doesn’t take much away from what is a yearly battle between these two powerhouses. Bama doesn’t have too many tests this fall and a trip to Baton Rouge might be its toughest test (until the Iron Bowl). Nick Saban has won three straight overall in this series and has won two of the last three trips to the Bayou.
3. Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 13)
The SEC East title could be on the line in Week 3 when these two tangle in Columbia. South Carolina lost narrowly in Athens last year after three straight relatively easy wins over the Dawgs from 2010-12. Georgia last won at South Carolina in 2008.
4. LSU at Auburn (Oct. 4)
The battle of Tigers from Auburn and LSU is one of the yearly treats for SEC fans. Last fall, LSU was the only team to beat Auburn in the regular season and it wasn’t really competitive. Revenge will certainly be on the minds of Gus Malzahn and his squad. The right to challenge Alabama likely also hangs in the balance for this early October meeting as well.
5. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)
As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be one the biggest non-conference games of the year. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes.
6. Auburn at Ole Miss (Nov. 1)
With the recent influx of talent, Ole Miss finds itself closer to the top of the West Division than the bottom. That means home tests against conference front-runners become marquee showdowns. The Tigers have won eight of the last 10 against the Rebels but Ole Miss dominated Auburn the last time they visited (41-20 in 2012) and has won two out of three in Oxford.
7. Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 15)
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry offered fans one of the most remarkable games in SEC history last fall. While the 2014 edition will be hard pressed to match last year’s drama, the gravity of this year’s showdown could be much greater as both teams eye a College Football Playoff berth. Auburn hasn’t won in Athens since 2005.
8. South Carolina at Auburn (Oct. 25)
Auburn got no favors this fall by having to face the top two contenders in the East in crossover play. The difference is the lack of history between these two SEC title contenders. The duo has played just 11 times and Auburn holds a commanding 9-1-1 lead in the series. The Gamecocks would have won the East had it not lost the last meeting in Columbia in 2011. South Carolina’s lone win over Auburn came way back in 1933.
9. Florida vs. Georgia (Nov. 1, Jacksonville)
This game is massive for both teams, but especially Gators head coach Will Muschamp. He’s 0-3 against UGA and will need a win in Jacksonville to stay in East contention. Despite winning three straight, Mark Richt’s squad was anything but dominating as it has won those three contests by a combined 15 points.
10. LSU at Florida (Oct. 11)
Looking for a midseason signature win for Florida to prove it's back in the SEC mix? This is the one Les Miles better be circling. The home team has won the Muschamp-Miles bout in each of the three years, including a 14-6 suffocating home win for the Gators in 2012. Miles is 1-3 in The Swamp.
11. Florida at Alabama (Sept. 20)
Don’t expect Florida to win the game but any time these two marquee southern brands step onto the same field, it’s must-see theatre. Should Florida acquit itself well early in the season — even in defeat — it could be a sign of much bigger things to come for both. Like a possible rematch in Atlanta where these two have staged monumental national title bouts in recent years.
12. Ole Miss at LSU (Oct. 25)
Ole Miss has won just three of the last 12 meetings between these two. But that includes last year’s 27-24 thriller in Oxford and an even 3-3 split in the last six bouts. Yet, Ole Miss has played surprisingly well in Baton Rouge. In their last nine trips to the Bayou, the Rebels have won four times. LSU needs to be on high alert when Colonel Reb comes to town for Halloween weekend.
13. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston)
From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the one to watch in '14. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective conferences. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.
14. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)
Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses in the first week of the season — which could be equally as entertaining.
15. South Carolina at Florida (Nov. 15)
It may not be the prettiest game that is played in the SEC, but the East Division could hang in the balance when these two physical programs get together late in November. The Steve Spurrier Bowl is always quirky and the last time the Head Ball Coach visited the Swamp his team was smoked 44-11.
16. Alabama at Ole Miss (Oct. 4)
Much like Auburn, a division front-runner from the state of Alabama will have to win in Oxford if it wants to earn a trip to Atlanta. The Crimson Tide has won 10 straight over the Rebels and has outscored Ole Miss 155-34 over the last five. Nick Saban has never lost in Oxford going 5-0 with both Bama and LSU.
17. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)
This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved and the historic Sunshine State rivalry could hold national championship implications for the Seminoles. Florida may have the best roster of any team Florida State will face in the regular season so fans should expect a much closer bout this time around — as long as the Gators' coaching staff is still intact by season's end.
18. Mississippi State at Ole Miss (Nov. 29)
Last season's Egg Bowl was one for the ages and the 2014 edition could be even better. Both programs are surging entering this season with eyes on finally contending in the West Division. Both have proven quarterbacks and respected coaches as well as defenses that are deeper and more talented than possibly ever before. MSU head coach Dan Mullen is 4-1 against Ole Miss.
19. Georgia at Missouri (Oct. 11)
If the Dawgs are the front-runner in the East then the trips to both Columbias might be the biggest games of the year in the division. Georgia knocked James Franklin out of this game last year and still couldn’t beat the Tigers at home. Now, UGA must head up to the Show Me State and show the SEC it is the top Dawg in the East.
20. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.
Best of the Rest:
21. Auburn at Mississippi State (Oct. 11)
22. Mississippi State at Alabama (Nov. 15)
23. Mississippi State at LSU (Sept. 20)
24. Texas A&M at Alabama (Oct. 18)
25. Missouri at South Carolina (Sept. 27)
26. Texas A&M at Auburn (Nov. 8)
27. Missouri at Florida (Oct. 18)
28. Missouri at Texas A&M (Nov. 15)
29. Texas A&M at Mississippi State
30. Texas A&M at South Carolina (Aug. 28)
31. LSU at Arkansas (Nov. 15)
32. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Aug. 6)
33. Florida at Vanderbilt (Nov. 8)
34. Tennessee at Vanderbilt (Nov. 29)
35. Florida at Tennessee (Oct. 4)
Notre Dame’s uniforms haven’t changed much in its program history, but the Fighting Irish break out an alternate look for the Shamrock Series every year.
On Tuesday, the program unveiled its 2014 Shamrock Series uniforms for its Sept. 13 date against Purdue.
The special edition uniforms feature a helmet with the “ND” logo and alterations to the jersey and pants.
Here’s a look at Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series uniforms:
Notre Dame will wear interlocking "ND" on helmet for 1st time in its history on 9/13 pic.twitter.com/wGHgQ8XgGL— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) August 19, 2014
The Tennessee Titans are turning the page to a new chapter in franchise history. The 2014 season marks the first year since the Houston Oilers franchise was founded in 1960 that K.S. “Bud” Adams will not be calling the shots. The longest-tenured owner in NFL history died at age 90 in October. While ownership of the team remains in the hands of Adams’ immediate family, Tennessee has gone outside the Oilers-Titans family tree to hire the 17th head coach in franchise history — and only the second coaching change since the franchise planted roots in Nashville and became the Titans in 1999, the year of the “Music City Miracle” run to Super Bowl XXXIV.
Unlike predecessors Jeff Fisher (1994-2010) and Mike Munchak (2011-13), new coach Ken Whisenhunt was not promoted from within. The 52-year-old Whisenhunt was arguably the top free-agent coach on the market after coordinating the San Diego Chargers’ fifth-ranked offense (compared to the Titans’ 22nd-ranked unit) last season. Prior to that, the former tight end — who played seven seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and New York Jets — served as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, leading the Redbirds to a Super Bowl XLIII loss against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before six seasons in the desert from 2007-12, Whisenhunt coached in Pittsburgh from 2001-06 and was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl XL champions.
Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl with a 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and lost the big game with a 37-year-old Kurt Warner. Now fans in Nashville hope their new quarterback guru can just make the playoffs with 26-year-old Jake Locker, who enters the final year of his rookie deal after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Locker has not lived up to his “face of the franchise” expectations — throwing for a combined 3,432 yards, 18 TDs and 15 INTs with a 58.0 completion percentage, along with 446 rushing yards, three rushing TDs and five lost fumbles over a total of 18 starts in 2012-13. Locker’s 2013 season was cut short after seven games due to a Lisfranc injury in his foot. In 2012, the Washington product missed five games with a non-throwing shoulder injury.
Keeping Locker upright and on the field is priority No. 1. And after years of subpar line play under Hall of Fame O-lineman Munchak, the Titans have invested heavily in the front five during the past two offseasons. It was too little, too late to save Munchak, who is now the offensive line coach in Pittsburgh. But this year’s line should be among the best in the game, as the team’s past two first-round draft picks, guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall pick in 2013) and rookie tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 in 2014), join former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and guard Andy Levitre (80 consecutive starts), giving Tennessee legitimate star power up front.
Chris Johnson, the third-leading rusher (7,965 yards) in Oilers-Titans franchise history — behind Eddie George and Earl Campbell — was allowed to leave as a free agent and signed with the Jets. The runner once known as CJ2K will be replaced by second-round pick Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards and 20 TDs at Washington in ’13) and Shonn Greene, who had two 1,000-yard seasons before managing just 295 yards in his first year in Tennessee.
Offensive coordinator Jason Michael and game-day play-caller Whisenhunt will have a variety of options in the passing game — with Nate Washington and Justin Hunter providing vertical threats downfield while Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker work the middle. Triple-threat Dexter McCluster will be a wild card as a receiver-runner-returner jack of all trades.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is transforming the Titans from a base 4-3 defense to a hybrid 3-4 scheme. Horton played 10 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL and coached alongside Whisenhunt in both Pittsburgh and Arizona, including 2011-12 as the defensive coordinator. Last season, Horton coordinated the ninth-ranked Cleveland Browns’ stop-unit. The 54-year-old defensive boss inherits plenty of talent in Tennessee. But even the powers that be aren’t exactly sure where all of the pieces to the puzzle will fit just yet.
Jurrell Casey was one of the worst Pro Bowl snubs from last season. But there were few players on the big island of Oahu better than the Titans’ 305-pound big man, who had 10.5 sacks and commanded constant double teams in his third season out of USC. Health permitting, the 24-year-old Casey will make plenty of Pro Bowl trips in the future. He will anchor the defense. And although much has been made of Tennessee’s switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Horton, the new coach’s scheme will allow Casey to remain a disruptive 3-technique tackle. Former Steeler Al Woods and 6'4", 328-pound Sammie Hill should man the all-important nose tackle position. Rookie DaQuan Jones, 6'8" Ropati Pitoitua and overachiever Karl Klug bring versatility and depth to the D-line rotation.
Derrick Morgan appears to be the odd man out. A traditional 4-3 end, Morgan — a former first-round pick with 16.5 sacks in four seasons — does not have an obvious fit in the new hybrid 3-4 defense.
There’s upside off the edge at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Shaun Phillips, Kamerion Wimbley and possibly Morgan will pin their ears back to rush the passer. Inside, Zach Brown, Wesley Woodyard will look to stuff the run and shoot the gaps. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Colin McCarthy once again, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game. He underwent surgery and is out for the season.
The secondary will miss cornerback Alterraun Verner, who had five INTs and a pick-six in his final season in Tennessee before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Jason McCourty is a proven corner, but Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh must step up. Center fielder Michael Griffin and sledgehammer Bernard Pollard bring stability to the safety spots.
“M-M-M-My Bironas!” will no longer be played over the speakers at LP Field following the departure of Rob Bironas. The kicking game will be uncertain for the first time since 2005. Punter Brett Kern returns for his sixth season in Tennessee. Game-breaking return specialist Leon Washington is one of the best in the business, with a record-tying eight career kick return touchdowns.
Munchak posted a 6–12 division record in three seasons against a relatively weak AFC South. Whisenhunt must reverse that trend if the Titans are to return to relevance. All eyes will be on Locker, who is in a make-or-break season. If Locker can stay healthy and the new-look defense gels early, the Titans could earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. If not, Whisenhunt could be looking for a new QB to mentor heading into 2015.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC South
Jim Caldwell believes he was brought to Detroit, replacing the fired Jim Schwartz last winter, to win a championship. And not two or three years down the road, either. “I believe the time is now,” the Lions’ new head coach announced at his introductory press conference. Time ran out on his predecessor, though, as the Lions coughed up a division lead and a shot at Detroit’s first home playoff date in 20 years by losing six of their last seven games in confounding fashion. Now the pressure’s on Caldwell and his revamped staff — particularly offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — to harness Matthew Stafford’s potential at quarterback and demand accountability from a talented roster that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way in 2013.
The Lions doubled down on their investment in Stafford last summer, signing the former No. 1 overall pick to a three-year, $53 million extension that runs through 2017. But after his erratic play down the stretch helped turn a 6–3 start into a 7–9 finish, essentially giving away the NFC North title, much of the team’s offseason decision-making seemed to revolve around the franchise quarterback.
Stafford, entering his sixth NFL season, already owns most of the Lions’ franchise passing records. And after some questioned his durability early in his career, he has started 49 consecutive games, including the Lions’ lone playoff berth in 2011. But Stafford’s 14 turnovers and a 54.4 percent completion rate in the final seven games last season raised new concerns about both his decision-making and his mechanics. “The good news is that he’s not broken,” Lombardi says. “That much is clear.”
What’s also clear is the Lions are intent on helping him succeed. A year after signing all-purpose back Reggie Bush to bolster the offense, they went out and added receiver Golden Tate, a free agent coming off a career-best season with Seattle.
Then the Lions spent the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on an athletic, pass-catching tight end. Lombardi envisions the same role for Eric Ebron in Detroit as the one Jimmy Graham fills in the Saints’ offense, while former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew returns as more of an in-line blocker and safety valve. The Lions brought back Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree, and still are hoping Ryan Broyles can return from a third ACL surgery in three years. Sixth-round pick T.J. Jones, a sure-handed route technician, has a real chance to be the slot receiver.
All of them, of course, are complementary pieces to Calvin Johnson, who had another hugely productive season despite playing much of 2013 with knee and finger injuries that required offseason surgery. Ideally, more receiving help will mean less punishment for Megatron, too.
Bush will continue to work in tandem with Joique Bell. The pair became the first teammates in NFL history to top 500 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. And a young offensive line that was one of last year’s bright spots returns intact. Guard Larry Warford showed Pro Bowl potential in his first season, while 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff held his own at left tackle. The Lions believe they’ve solidified the right tackle spot with long-levered LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games last year as an undrafted rookie. Dominic Raiola is back for a 14th season at center, but the Lions drafted his likely successor in Travis Swanson.
The Lions made strides on defense in 2013, ranking first in the NFL in both third-down and red-zone defense. But they were 28th in sacks and 21st in forced turnovers, and with few changes in personnel, they’re counting on marked improvement.
A suspect secondary remains exactly that, especially after the front office balked at adding a potential starter there on the first two days of the draft. One projected starter at cornerback was expected to be Chris Houston, who endured a confidence-sapping finish to last season marred by a toe injury that required surgery in May. The team, however, decided to cut its losses and released Houston in June, a little more than a year after signing him to a five-year, $25 million contract. The other starting corner, Darius Slay, will try to rebound from an up-and-down rookie effort. No surprise, then, the Lions brought back aging vet Rashean Mathis, who played better than Houston and Slay last season and ended up making 13 starts. Bill Bentley proved himself a capable nickel back but has yet to prove he can stay healthy enough to be counted on. Rookie Nevin Lawson is a scrappy, tough candidate to play inside as well, while Jonté Green and Chris Greenwood are 2012 draft projects entering make-or-break years in Detroit.
The Lions did add one new piece to the secondary in free-agent strong safety James Ihedigbo, who played for new coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore. He’s a solid run-stopper to complement versatile Glover Quin, but depth behind them might be a concern.
Austin’s new scheme will feature a different look from the front seven. The wide-nine technique is gone, though one defensive end still will be asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer from the open side opposite the tight end. Presumably, that’ll be Ziggy Ansah, who had eight sacks in 12 starts as a rookie. Devin Taylor, a rangy 6'7" athlete, also fits into the plans after making big strides as a rookie. Jason Jones, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, is penciled in as the other starting end. But inside is where the strength of this defensive line is, with All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and former first-round pick Nick Fairley.
One way to improve the sack total is with blitzing linebackers, and that’s one reason the Lions traded up to snare BYU’s Kyle Van Noy in the second round of the draft. A big-play machine in college, Van Noy should win the starting strong-side job over Ashlee Palmer, who’s better suited as a backup and special teams ace. Sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch holds down the middle, while DeAndre Levy — coming off a breakout season (six INTs) — handles the weak-side duties.
Detroit used its final draft pick in May on Boston College’s Nate Freese, who went 20-for-20 on field-goal attempts as a senior. That completes an overhaul in the kicking game, as the Lions spent a fifth-round pick in 2013 on punter Sam Martin, who ranked 10th in the NFL in net punting as a rookie. Tate excelled as a punt returner in Seattle, but the Lions finally found a game-breaking special teams threat last season in Jeremy Ross. He took over the job at midseason and was one of the NFL’s best return men in the second half, highlighted by his two-TD effort — one kickoff, one punt — in a snowstorm in Philadelphia.
Most coaching changes come with a grace period. And Caldwell’s quiet leadership and even-keeled approach will be welcomed. But in Detroit, there’s an urgency to win now. And with so much salary cap space tied up in a handful of stars, the roster is largely set. The onus is on Stafford and the new staff to make this an elite offense, and a playoff team.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC North
A man for all seasons — if all of those seasons happen to be football — Jon Gruden is a Super Bowl-winning coach, the lead analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecasts and the source material for comedian Frank Caliendo’s hilarious over-the-top impression, which is highlighted by fake play-calls like “tarantula” and “albacore 3 Y quesadilla.”
Athlon Sports caught up with Coach Gruden, who hasn’t coached since 2008 but remains the hottest free-agent visor on the market. The soon-to-be 51-year-old brought his trademark intensity, laser-beam death stare and plenty of sizzling takes to preview the upcoming 2014 NFL season.
Was Super Bowl XLVIII the beginning of a Seahawk dynasty?
JG: “I think they’re still a great team. The way they finished the season put an exclamation point on that. I mean, they buried Denver. They met every challenge presented to them. Their defense showed they can stop any offensive attack in football. They got better and better. And their quarterback is electrifying. He is a difference-maker, and they are blessed to have one of the most unique quarterbacks in football right now.”
Can the Broncos bounce back from being buried and make another Super Bowl run?
JG: “Oh, no question. They added some interesting pieces. And a lot of people forget the amount of injuries Denver had heading into the Super Bowl. If Von Miller and Ryan Clady can come back, if DeMarcus Ware can play like he once did in Dallas a few years ago, if Aqib Talib is healthy, they can be much better than a year ago. We all know that Peyton Manning and that offensive attack is going to score points, but they have to get those injured guys back to playing status.”
Will the Cowboys and Tony Romo ever live up to their promise?
JG: “One thing I like about Dallas is they have an outstanding offensive line. From left tackle to right tackle it’s a very good offensive line. So they’re able to run it and they’re able to pass protect. If Romo is healthy I think Dallas will be a team that can possess the ball, keep their defense off the field and win a few games. But they’ve got to play much better on defense. They were a far cry from Cowboys defenses of the past. They’ve got to find a way to stop some people. They’re going to struggle on defense.”
How will your brother’s first season as the head coach of the Washington Redskins go?
JG: “If (Robert) Griffin can fit into that scheme, and with the arrival of DeSean Jackson, they have some really good skill players. I don’t think their offensive line is as deep or proven as Dallas’ or Philadelphia’s, but they do have some firepower at the skill positions. But their defense has got to play better, particularly in the secondary. They gave up way too many big plays.”
Who are some sleeper teams to watch this year?
JG: “It’s so hard to predict from year to year. You’d like to say Cincinnati could jump into the mix this year. Chicago is a team that is on the cusp. Green Bay with Julius Peppers playing opposite Clay Matthews, that’s exciting.”
What can we expect from Johnny Football in Cleveland?
JG: “I think it depends on a couple of things. You’ve got to remember he’s a blank slate. He still has two years of college eligibility left. So hopefully he doesn’t get rushed into it too quickly. But they don’t have a lot of marquee players at the skill positions. They have an unknown as their feature back. With the Josh Gordon situation they have some obscure receivers. They don’t have a great supporting cast at this time. And I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan wants to do with that offense. What will he be able to run if Johnny Manziel is at quarterback?”
What rookie is most likely to have a major impact this season?
JG: “I really like the kid the Saints drafted, Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. I think when you get Sean Payton and Drew Brees involved and they’re committed to making a young player successful, I think good things are going to be in store. I’m going to be surprised if he doesn’t have 1,000 yards receiving. That’s saying a lot for a young receiver. Most rookies don’t gain 1,000 yards their first year in the league. I really like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a chance to make a huge splash on the scene.”
What can we expect from Megatron, Calvin Johnson?
JG: "I think he's got a chance to have four or five more great years. I saw Jerry Rice do it. Jerry took great care of himself. These receivers, if they take care of themselves off the field throughout the years, they can sustain it. And I've seen him do it. It's just going to be a matter of how does Calvin Johnson respond to a new offense? Remember, he's had Linehan down there for some time. He's got to react to new formations and new audibles and things of that nature. Hopefully Golden Tate can take some pressure off of him. But I don't think the best way to judge Calvin Johnson is just through the statistics. I think it's time for Detroit to take a step forward and start winning some crunch time games in December."
What teams do you have your eye on to make a serious run at Super Bowl XLVIX?
JG: “I like where we finished the season last year. Seattle, they’ve lost some good players, but they’ve mostly kept it intact. I like where they are at the top of the NFC, there’s no question about it. And in the AFC I like Denver and I like the New England Patriots. I’m anxious to see Darrelle Revis and Bill Belichick on the same team. With Brandon Browner, after his suspension is over, they have the ability to challenge some receivers on the outside, to play like they did when they had Asante Samuel and Ty Law. I think the acquisition of those two corners could put New England right back into the Super Bowl. That’s a good way to go. Instead of making a bunch of crazy predictions, I’m going to stay with some really good, hot stock. How’s that?”
Ohio State’s playoff and Big Ten title hopes suffered a significant blow on Tuesday, as quarterback Braxton Miller was ruled out for the 2014 season as a result of a shoulder injury suffered at practice on Monday, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy.
Miller reportedly suffered the shoulder injury in a non-contact drill Monday. The senior had shoulder surgery during the spring and was slow to return to full work in Ohio State’s offense due to his recovery. Prior to his injury, Miller was being eased into a full workload for the opener against Navy.
The Buckeyes were projected to finish No. 3 by Athlon in the 2014 preseason magazine, but Miller’s injury will have a profound effect on the upcoming year.
Here’s a look at how Miller’s injury impacts the Big Ten, Ohio State, college football playoff and who is up next under center in Columbus.
What’s Next for Ohio State
The No. 1 priority for coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman over the next 10 days is to get J.T. Barrett ready to play. The redshirt freshman recently passed Cardale Jones for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart and spent some time with the No. 1 offense due to Miller’s limited workload.
Barrett brings a similar skill set to the offense that Meyer and Herman were able to use with Miller. The Texas native is a dangerous runner and is regarded for his quick release in the passing game.
While Miller’s impact — one of the best quarterbacks in the nation — will be felt, Barrett is a talented option, and Ohio State isn’t short on skill talent. Barrett ranked as the No. 137 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in the 2013 signing class and spent 2013 learning under Miller and Kenny Guiton.
With Barrett likely to suffer a few growing pains in his first season under center, expect the Buckeyes to lean more on their defense and running backs. The back seven on defense needs to take a step forward under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, but the defensive line could be the best in the nation. And even though Carlos Hyde is no longer at running back, Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn are capable options on the ground.
Barrett’s mobility will be valuable with an offensive line that must replace four starters. Left tackle Taylor Decker is an All-Big Ten candidate, and guard Pat Elflein is a rising star after playing well against Michigan State in the conference title game.
Ohio State Can Still Contend
Yes, losing Miller is a huge loss. However, Ohio State’s Big Ten title hopes aren’t over. The Buckeyes own the Big Ten’s No. 1 roster (according to recruiting rankings), and coach Urban Meyer ranks as Athlon’s No. 2 coach. The two toughest games on Ohio State’s schedule — at Michigan State and at Penn State — are both past the midway point of the 2014 season.
With time for Barrett to develop until the showdown against Michigan State, along with an elite defensive line and crop of skill players, Ohio State is still slated to be a factor in the Big Ten. Prior to Miller’s injury, the Buckeyes were considered by most to be the favorites. But with Miller sidelined, the expectation only drops the No. 2 spot in the East Division and 10-11 wins is still a realistic goal.
Impact on Big Ten East
Michigan State is now the favorite in the East. The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship last year and return 10 starters from a team that finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll. An offense that features quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford is set to improve after finishing No. 7 in the Big Ten in scoring last season. The defense allowed only 13.2 points per game in 2013 and returns a standout at each level.
While Miller’s injury would seem to benefit Michigan State the most in preseason predictions, this should allow Michigan and Penn State to close the gap in the division.
Impact on CFB Playoff
Ohio State was a popular pick for the college football playoff, but Miller’s injury adds another element of uncertainty to the new format. Florida State is a heavy favorite to claim one of the four spots, and the SEC champion — projected by Athlon to be Alabama — is expected to be a lock for the playoff. But what happens outside of those two spots? Can a 12-1 Michigan State team with a loss to Oregon rank in the top four? Assuming the Spartans beat Ohio State, how does Miller’s injury impact how the committee views the Buckeyes? Regardless of how much talent is still in Columbus, this is not the same team. How the committee will determine and view strength of schedule is up for debate, but Michigan State’s playoff hopes could take a hit without a win over a top-five (and Braxton Miller-led) Ohio State team.
If the Big Ten doesn’t have a playoff contender, this would help the odds of a two-loss Pac-12 team (with a strong schedule) or a second SEC team making it into the new four-team format.
What Happens Next for Braxton Miller?
With a redshirt year available, Miller could spend this season rehabbing his shoulder in Columbus for a chance to lead Ohio State into the playoff in 2015. However, Miller could choose to forego one more year in college and enter the 2015 draft.
Considering the slow recovery from shoulder surgery and the significant injury this fall, the odds of a return to Ohio State seem likely for the Ohio native.
If Miller returns in 2015, the Buckeyes would be one of the favorites once again for a spot in the playoffs. Ohio State could start only three seniors on defense and five on offense this year. A good chunk of the roster talent is in the sophomore and junior ranks in 2014, including skill talent at receiver and in the back seven on defense.
Even if Miller doesn’t return, Ohio State would be in good shape in 2015 with Barrett having a full year of starting experience.
While this injury is a significant setback to the Buckeyes’ national title hopes in 2014, whether it’s Miller or Barrett under center next year, Ohio State will be a factor for the top spot in 2015.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 isn’t far behind. With playoff contenders in Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, the league has a deep group of teams pushing for a spot among the top 10 this year. And the depth of the Pac-12 is strong, highlighted by Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona. Strong quarterback play highlights the Pac-12, including Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.
In order to rank the top 15 players in the Pac-12 for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Steven Lassan, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonSteven)
Tyler Lockman, FoxSportsArizona.com, (@TylerLockman)
Braden Gall, AthlonSports.com, (@BradenGall)
Kyle Kensing, CFBHuddle.com, (@kensing45)
Mitch Light, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMitch)
Andrew Greif, The Oregonian, (@AndrewGreif)
Ryan Kartje, OCRegister.com, (@Ryan_Kartje)
Jeremy Mauss, MWCConnection.com, (@JeremyMauss)
Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMarkR)
Avinash Kunnath, PacificTakes.com, (@PacificTakes)
Ryan Abraham, USCFootball.com, (@InsideTroy)
Nick Krueger, HouseofSparky.com, (@NickPKrueger)
Jon Woods, RalphieReport.com, (@RalphieReport)
Jeff Nusser, CougCenter.com, (@NussCoug)
Jack Follman, PacificTakes.com, (@JackFollman)
Chris Huston, HeismanPundit.com, (@HeismanPundit)
David Fox, AthlonSports.com, (@DavidFox615)
Ranking Pac-12's Best Players for 2014
|1||Marcus Mariota, QB||14||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||252|
|2||Leonard Williams, DE||1||7||4||4||0||0||1||0||0||0||222|
|3||Brett Hundley, QB||0||6||4||3||3||0||1||0||0||0||214|
|4||Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB||1||0||4||1||6||3||1||0||1||0||191|
|5||Andrus Peat, OT||0||1||2||3||1||2||0||2||2||0||147|
|6||Myles Jack, LB||1||0||1||3||1||1||2||1||0||1||143|
|7||Taylor Kelly, QB||0||0||1||2||3||1||2||1||0||0||113|
|8||Sean Mannion, QB||0||0||0||1||2||2||1||2||0||2||98|
|9||Hroniss Grasu, C||0||0||0||0||0||3||2||2||2||2||97|
|10||Jaelen Strong, WR||0||0||0||0||0||2||3||0||1||2||89|
|11||Ty Montgomery, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||2||4||2||87|
|12||Nelson Agholor, WR||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||2||3||1||80|
|13||Shaq Thompson, LB||0||0||0||0||0||1||2||2||2||1||77|
|14||Henry Anderson, DE||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||26|
|15||Eric Kendricks, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||25|
|16||Byron Marshall, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||23|
|17||Hayes Pullard, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||22|
|18||Hau'oli Kikaha, DE||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||21|
|19||Marcus Peters, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||13|
|20||A.J. Tarpley, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||13|
|21||Danny Shelton, DT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||11|
|22||Jordan Richards, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||11|
|23||Su'a Cravens, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|24||D.J. Foster, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|25||Alex Carter, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|26||Darryl Monroe, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|27||Thomas Tyner, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|28||Jamil Douglas, OL||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|29||Cyler Miles, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|30||Isaac Seumalo, OL||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|31||Bryce Treggs, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|32||Buck Allen, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|33||Dres Anderson, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|34||Connor Halliday, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|35||Greg Henderson, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|36||Addison Gillam, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|37||Fabian Moreau, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
A Few Observations:
* Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota recorded 14 of the 17 first-place votes. Mariota did not rank lower than second on any ballot.
* Three of the top nine players in this experts poll are from Oregon: Mariota, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and center Hroniss Grasu.
* The top 10 players in this experts poll are split evenly: Five from the North, five from the South.
* Arizona is the only team to not have a player represented in this poll.
* Four of the top 10 players are quarterbacks: Mariota, Mannion, Kelly and Hundley.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 19:
• Enjoy the cheerleaders of the AP Top 25, starting with the top-ranked Noles.
• Leave it to Johnny Football to enliven an otherwise dreadful Browns-Skins preseason snoozer. He'll see your casually racist nickname and raise you a middle finger. To his credit, Manziel was visibly embarrassed when he was informed that the brass was aware of what he'd done. Brian Orakpo, who had Manziel running for his life, was amused by the gesture.
• Colin Cowherd blamed racer Kevin Ward Jr.'s death on "Southern culture." Mike Huckabee (about whom I have mixed feelings) told Cowherd to shut his pie hole (which I endorse).
• David Letterman paid tribute to Robin Williams, his friend for almost four decades.
• The Rhode Island Little League coach gave a great post-game speech after his team's loss.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Winners of 10 of the last 11 division titles, the AFC East has been dominated by New England ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001. This is not expected to change in 2014 either, not with Darrelle Revis joining the secondary and Rob Gronkowski back to jumpstart the passing attack. So if the Patriots are the heavy favorite to finish first, how will the rest of this division shake out? Will Buffalo or New York take a step forward behind their second-year quarterbacks or did Miami make the right moves in free agency to be a threat this fall?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC East shapes up entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“With the passing of owner Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ future will be discussed endlessly outside the football part of the organization. Regardless of what people say, this circumstance is always a distraction to a degree.” …
“Doug Marrone quietly did a solid job as a first-year NFL head coach in 2013 and Buffalo has more talent than meets the eye.” …
“Offensively, everything begins and ends with their QB play. EJ Manuel was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft and flashed the ability to be a long-term answer, but showed enough negatives to leave the question open at this point.” …
“Buffalo was 29th in the league in third down conversions (34.0 percent) and that is an area of much-needed improvement.” …
“There is enough skill around the QB to make for an effective offense. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson work well together and Anthony Dixon was signed from the 49ers.” …
“TE Scott Chandler was brought back and he is a dependable target. Buffalo traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up in the draft to get Sammy Watkins. With his addition, this is a nice mix of wide receiver styles in the form of Robert Woods, T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin.” …
“The offensive line does not have a superstar, but LT Cordy Glenn, OC Eric Wood and RG Kraig Urbik are functional starters. Chris Williams was lured from St. Louis to plug in at left guard.” …
“Nathanial Hackett is the offensive coordinator and is a coach worth tracking in the future, especially if he can coax the best out of Manuel.” …
“Jim Schwartz, the former head coach of the Lions, takes over as defensive coordinator and he is expected to stay as aggressive as his predecessor, Mike Pettine.” …
“Defensively, Marcell Dareus had a breakout year and Kyle Williams is one of the most underrated players in the league.” …
“Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes combined for 27 sacks and should provide the outside pass rush for this team.” …
“The Bills lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to New Orleans, however, Aaron Williams was retained, Da’Norris Searcy has extensive experience and the coaches have high hopes for Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.” …
“This team has enough ability to legitimately get into the fight with Miami and the NY Jets for second place in the AFC East, but almost everything will hinge on the play of the quarterback.” …
“And make no mistake about it, this current administration took a big swing in the draft to either save their jobs with a new owner or slash-and-burn their way out the door.” …
“The Dolphins demonstrated their dysfunction on and off the field in 2013. While the locker room fiasco unfolded in front of the nation, Richie Incognito became the ‘face’ of the franchise and Jonathan Martin left the building.” …
“Upstairs, former GM Jeff Ireland and VP Dawn Aponte had their own turf battles going and owner Stephen Ross ultimately sided with her, leading Ireland to step down.” …
“Meanwhile, somehow head coach Joe Philbin survived despite two late-season losses and the Wells report that spotlighted his lack of awareness and his staff’s poor judgment in diffusing the Incognito/Martin situation.” …
“Ultimately, Dennis Hickey, who was likely to be fired from the Bucs by their new GM Jason Licht, emerged as the Miami GM after a protracted interviewing process led by Ross and Aponte.” …
“Now to the football, Ryan Tannehill did not get much help last year. Miami’s OL composed of bullies and tough guys allowed 58 sacks and never generated much room for an ordinary set of running backs. Center Mike Pouncey is the only returning starter in 2014.” …
“Hickey made a splash in free agency by signing Branden Albert and Shelley Smith for the line and probably over-drafted Ja’Wuan James in the first round, but to completely repair an entire OL is nearly impossible with other pressing needs, too.” …
“After Dustin Keller went down with a knee injury during the preseason, the tight end position was essentially handled by H-back Charles Clay. Clay is an underrated performer and maybe the most reliable teammate Tannehill has had over the past two seasons.” …
“The Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno from Denver and he should help in a big way primarily through his pass protection skills. With an entirely new OL, he can serve as Tannehill’s personal protector and that should be a major help in 2014.” …
“Mike Wallace will probably never live up to the contract he received last year because he is a vertical, one-trick pony. He can really run, but most of his effectiveness comes on take-off routes and WR screens. He thrived in Pittsburgh because of the culture there and the people around him. Without that same kind of structure, he does not have the discipline needed to be a legit No. 1 receiver.” …
“On the defensive line, Randy Starks returns and they signed Earl Mitchell from Houston. They have to figure out how to get more production from 2013 No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan.” …
“The linebackers were over-paid, under-produced and have now been re-shuffled into different roles under DC Kevin Coyle.” …
“Brent Grimes stayed off the market, but one of their young corners has to come through opposite of him, because Cortland Finnegan is not a long-term answer.” …
“The safeties are ordinary, so the pass rush is vital for them to hold up.” …
“Rebuilding both the OL and DL is tough to do in one offseason.” …
“This team can be competitive again, but I just don’t see enough blue-chip talent across the board to think they make the playoffs in 2014.” …
New England Patriots
“As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are paired together, the Patriots will always be the front-runners of the AFC East. Through the Patriots’ most savvy draft picks to their worst personnel choices, this duo seems to be able to overcome most any set of circumstances.” …
“As long as Brady can get ample time and avoid too many pocket hits, he can still carve people up from the pocket. No QB in the league plays with as much poise and confidence as Brady.” …
“There were growing pains with rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but both made key plays in 2013, and Julian Edelman emerged to catch 100-plus passes after stepping in for the departed Wes Welker.” …
“Danny Amendola is quite capable, however, his injury history showed up again in ’13, when he missed four games.” ...
“New England thinks that newly acquired WR Brandon LaFell (from the Panthers) has yet to reach his potential and can do so in their system.” …
“The one-two punch of Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen gives them great versatility on offense because both players can do multiple jobs. Brandon Bolden is likely to be the inside run replacement for LaGarrette Blount who ended up in Pittsburgh.” …
“The Pats need a counterpart to Rob Gronkowski at tight end and would love to see D.J. Williams come through as a potential pass-catcher. In the meantime, Michael Hoomanawanui is consistent and gives NE a viable end-of-line blocker.” …
“Barring injury, the OL can get the job done with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (coming back from injury) manning the tackle spots and Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connelly on the inside.” …
“On defense, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run a hybrid scheme that allows them to exploit the rush/drop skills of Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich.” …
“New England should get a big boost up the middle of their D with the return of Vince Wilfork (coming back from Achilles rupture) and Jerod Mayo, a team leader and their most productive defender.” …
“It remains to be seen what they can get out of first-round choice Dominique Easley who suffered torn ACLs in both knees at Florida.” …
“They made a huge splash in free agency with the addition of Darrelle Revis. Because of his man-to-man skills, expect more pressure calls up front and more safety help to Alfonzo Dennard in the back end.” …
“Their offense will carry the load again in 2014, but with Revis on board and Mayo and Collins maximizing their talents at the linebacker level, there is a confidence in Foxboro that the Pats have enough pieces in place to go win the Super Bowl.” …
New York Jets
“The media is way off when it comes to the relationship between GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan. They have quietly found compromise on a number of issues and actually work well together. Now, that doesn’t mean that there is no pressure on Rex, but this team finished 8-8 after many pundits felt they were one of the worst outfits in the entire league during preseason.” …
“Everyone with the Jets has a ton riding on Geno Smith, but he really needs a lot of help when it comes to their tight ends and receivers.” …
“Michael Vick was signed to push Smith and even take over if he struggles again in camp or down the stretch, but he has played 16 games one time in his career.” …
“Eric Decker was signed from Denver and he will be an upgrade, but he is only a No. 2 in reality. Stephen Hill is one-dimensional and will never be a complete receiver, while Jeremy Kerley will flash a play, but he is difficult for a QB to find in traffic.” …
“The offensive line is a strength and, if they can stay healthy, maybe this team will be able to run the football better in 2014. Breno Giacomini comes from Seattle and replaces Austin Howard at RT with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold still being in the top third of the league at their positions.” ...
“Chris Johnson was cut from the Titans and the Jets are hoping he has something left in the tank to go along with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.” …
“The defensive line may be the most dominant in the NFL with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson being legit forces in their front seven. NT Damon Harrison is one of the most underrated defensive lineman in the AFC.” …
“The biggest issue is the Jets’ lack of pressure from the outside. Quinton Coples is out of position as a hybrid OLB/DE and Calvin Pace is a middle-of-the-pack edge rusher.” …
“David Harris has been a consummate pro during his career, but Demario Davis has emerged as the best LB on the roster, he is fast to the football and explosive when he gets there.” …
“The Jets have lost Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie over the past two offseasons, so they are banking heavily on Dee Milliner to live up to his No. 9 overall draft status from 2013. Dimitri Patterson was inked from Miami because Kyle Wilson has been so disappointing in his career.” …
“They added hard-hitting Calvin Pryor from Louisville in the draft, but in some ways, they now have four strong safety-types in the back end and that’s not good in this era of ‘space’ football. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen are better coming up than going back and Jaiquawn Jarrett is the same way.” …
“Rex Ryan didn’t get enough credit for getting this group to 8-8, because it is truly amazing they won that many games.” …
“If Geno Smith responds in his second year with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and some new additions, expect the Jets to battle for second in the division and a playoff berth.” …
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of 50 breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
50 College Football Breakout Players for 2014
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Had Alexander not suffered a groin injury in fall camp, it’s likely he would have played a major role in Clemson’s secondary last season. Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was widely considered one of the nation’s top freshmen on the defensive side. Although the groin injury prevented Alexander from getting involved last year, it allowed him extra time to learn the defense. The redshirt freshman is slated to crack the starting lineup for the opener against Georgia.
Devon Allen, WR, Oregon
With a knee injury expected to sideline Bralon Addison for the 2014 season, the Ducks need new targets to emerge for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Addison isn’t the only loss at receiver in Eugene, as Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins (85 receptions in 2013) have expired their eligibility. Allen closed out a breakout spring with two catches for 94 yards and two scores in the spring game. And the gridiron isn’t the only place Allen is making news this offseason. He won the U.S. track title in 110 hurdles in late June and won USA Track & Field athlete of the week honors in early July. Allen has the speed and athleticism to become one of the Ducks’ top playmakers in 2014.
Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks earned the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s No. 1 receiver last season, so Bolden and the other Oregon State receivers have big shoes to fill in 2014. Despite the loss of Cooks, the Beavers still have options in the passing game. Junior Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes last season, and tight end Connor Hamlett is back after grabbing 40 catches in 2013. Bolden caught only six passes for 62 yards, but he averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return. The sophomore is projected for a bigger role in the passing game in 2014, and his explosiveness will help quarterback Sean Mannion stretch the field this year.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
Regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Hurricanes, expect to see more of Coley in Miami’s gameplan this year. As a true freshman in 2013, Coley caught 33 passes for 591 yards and seven scores. And Coley showed plenty of big-play ability, averaging 17.9 yards per reception. The freshman seemed to get stronger as the year progressed, catching 11 passes over the final three weeks, including five receptions for 81 yards against Virginia. The ACC has a handful of talented receivers, but Coley will be one of the ACC’s best in 2014.
Maliek Collins/Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line is young, but there’s no question the coaching staff has to be excited about the talent in place. End Randy Gregory is one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the combination of Collins and Valentine is a promising duo for coordinator John Papuchis. Valentine got better as the season progressed in 2013, capped by recording a sack and two tackles for a loss against Iowa. He finished 2013 with 21 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack. Collins wasn’t as active on the stat sheet last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. However, Collins and Valentine both will see a larger role in the defense in 2014. And with both players checking in over 300 pounds, opposing offenses won’t have much room to run on the interior against Nebraska.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens was one of the top defensive players in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. And as a true freshman, Cravens certainly didn’t disappoint last year. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after recording 52 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens should benefit from the addition of coordinator Justin Wilcox, as well as another year to participate in offseason practices. Expect Cravens to push for All-America honors this year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was the first back to top 1,000 yards under coach Urban Meyer, and his departure to the NFL is a big loss for Ohio State’s offense. Hyde’s tough running will be missed, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Elliott is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, with Dontre Wilson, Warren Ball, Curtis Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn all expected to contribute to the rotation in 2014. Elliott impressed in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 carries (8.7 ypc). He may not handle 250 carries, but Elliott will headline a deep and talented Ohio State backfield.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors and earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Will Gardner, QB, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater is gone, but with Bobby Petrino at the controls, Louisville’s offense is expected to be one of the best in the ACC. Gardner is the frontrunner to replace Bridgewater under center and this will be the Georgia native’s first taste of extended snaps. In six appearances last year, Gardner threw for 112 yards and two touchdowns on eight completions. Gardner will have a few growing pains in his first season as the starter, but Petrino’s track record suggests quarterback play won’t be a problem at Louisville in 2014.
Joshua Garnett/Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Four starters depart from a Stanford offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. However, there’s not much concern from coach David Shaw about the protection for quarterback Kevin Hogan. Left tackle Andrus Peat is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2014, and the line has breakout players like Garnett and Murphy ready to emerge. Murphy played in 13 contests last year, while Garnett made an appearance in 14 and started against Washington State. Both Garnett and Murphy should push for All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Some may not consider Goff a breakout player after he threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. However, with California expected to improve overall in the second year under coach Sonny Dykes, along with the return of a talented receiving corps, Goff could approach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. As expected with any freshman quarterback, Goff had his share of ups and downs last season. He threw for 336 yards and one touchdown against Washington and completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards against Washington State. Goff finished the year by throwing for less than 200 yards in back-to-back games against Colorado and Stanford. With another offseason under his belt, look for Goff to take a step forward in his development and show a better overall command of the offense.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
Darian Hicks, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans no longer have Darqueze Dennard manning the “No Fly Zone” in East Lansing. But coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t too worried about his secondary in 2014, as junior Trae Waynes is a likely All-American and Hicks is ready to step up and replace Dennard at the other cornerback spot. Hicks played in all 14 games and recorded only two tackles, but the sophomore is primed for a bigger role in Michigan State’s defense this year.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
For any first-year starting quarterback, a potential All-American at tight end is a nice security blanket to have. That’s the case for junior quarterback Jacob Coker in his first season in Tuscaloosa, as Howard should be one of the top tight ends in the nation after a solid freshman campaign. Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores last year, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. Expect Howard to be an even bigger part of the Crimson Tide offense this season, likely doubling his catches under new coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
There’s no clear favorite in the MAC West this year, and the Rockets have a chance to unseat Northern Illinois as the division champ in 2014. Toledo has a new quarterback under center, but the rushing attack should be the strength of this offense. The line is one of the best – if not No. 1 – in the MAC this year, and Hunt is ready for a breakout year after rushing for 866 yards on 137 attempts last year. Hunt recorded five 100-yard efforts over the final six games in 2013.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones ranked as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman. Jones recorded 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. He was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones should build off a promising finish to 2014 and challenge for All-America honors.
Denver Kirkland/Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Bret Bielema wants to establish a run-first, smashmouth mentality at Arkansas, and the second-year coach has two budding stars in the offensive line in sophomores Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Both players started eight games last year and earned all-freshman honors by Athlon Sports. Considering Bielema’s track record from Wisconsin on recruiting and establishing offensive lines, look for Skipper and Kirkland to develop into future stars for the Razorbacks.
Ben Koyack, TE, Notre Dame
With DaVaris Daniels’ status in doubt due to academic issues, Notre Dame is searching for new weapons in the passing game for quarterback Everett Golson. Koyack is slated to replace Troy Niklas at tight end in 2014, and the senior is poised to build off a promising junior campaign. In 13 games, Koyack caught 10 passes for 171 yards (17.1 ypc) and three scores. A tight end has caught at least 30 passes in three consecutive years for the Fighting Irish. Expect Koyack to increase that number to four in 2014.
Geno Lewis, WR, Penn State
Allen Robinson accounted for 97 of Penn State’s 241 receptions last season, leaving little in the way of proven options for quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2014. While there’s not much in the way of proven receivers, the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent. Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman headline a deep group of tight ends, while Lewis is a rising star on the outside at receiver. After redshirting in 2012, Lewis caught 18 passes for 234 yards and three scores in his first season of action with Penn State. The Pennsylvania native closed out 2013 on a high note, grabbing three receptions for 91 yards and two scores against Wisconsin. Freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saaed Blacknall and De’Andre Thompkins are names to watch in the fall, but Lewis should be the top receiving target for Hackenberg.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury allowed Mason to gain valuable experience in 2013, and the senior heads into 2014 with two starts under his belt. Mason threw for 189 yards and one score in relief of Murray against Kentucky, threw 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws for 320 yards and one score in the Gator Bowl versus Nebraska. Mason has waited his turn by sitting four years behind Aaron Murray. Expect the senior to deliver a big season in his first chance at the full-time starting job in Athens.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Most around the SEC are probably familiar with Mauk after his short stint as Missouri’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, but the sophomore is poised for bigger and better things in 2014. Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while recording 229 rushing yards. The Ohio native needs to improve his completion percentage (51.1), but he should continue Missouri’s run of successful quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel.
Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State
With quarterback Connor Halliday and one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps returning, the Cougars’ offense will be tough to stop in 2014. Washington State led the nation with 756 pass attempts last year, so there’s plenty of opportunities for players like Mayle to catch passes. Gabe Marks led the team with 74 receptions last season, but Mayle is a name to remember after finishing his first season in Pullman with 42 catches for 539 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot-3 target slimmed down during the offseason, and all signs point to Mayle becoming a more prominent target for Halliday.
Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
Melifonwu started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season and finished with 70 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Massachusetts native is one of just five returning starters on defense for the Huskies this year and helps senior Byron Jones anchor a secondary that could be one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Melifonwu should be one of the key pieces in new coach Bob Diaco’s rebuilding effort at UConn in 2014.
Cyler Miles, QB, Washington
Miles was suspended for spring practice due to an off-the-field incident but was reinstated to the team in May. The sophomore is behind Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams in learning Washington’s new offense, but Miles is expected to claim the starting job for 2014. The Colorado native ranked as the No. 105 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and worked as the backup to Keith Price in 2013. Price missed time against UCLA due to injury, and Miles completed 15 of 22 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in relief. A week later, Miles threw for 162 yards and one score in a 69-27 victory over Oregon State. The sophomore has plenty of upside, and with an ability to hurt defenses through the air or on the ground with his legs, Miles is a quarterback to watch in 2014.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
With the departure of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with tackle Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks may use more 3-4 looks in 2014. The linebacking corps should be the strength of Lorenzo Ward’s defense, as Moore led the team with 56 tackles as a true freshman last year. Moore also intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 tackle for a loss in 2013. Expect Moore to challenge for All-SEC honors this season.
DaVonte’ Neal, WR, Arizona
After a one-year stint at Notre Dame, Neal transferred to Arizona and sat out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Neal didn’t make a huge impact in his one year with the Fighting Irish, but he’s poised to emerge as a key contributor for the Wildcats. Arizona is loaded with talent at receiver, including senior Austin Hill who returns after missing all of last season due to a torn ACL. In addition to Hill, the Wildcats return Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Trey Griffey in the receiving corps. With a crowded receiving corps, expect Arizona coaches to use Neal some in the backfield to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
In a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, the one constant among the contenders is Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies have finished first or second in scoring defense (conference-only games) in the ACC for six consecutive seasons. With one of the conference’s top defensive backfields and lines in 2014, expect much of the same from the Hokies. Nicolas appears to be the next star on the front line for Virginia Tech, recording 32 tackles and four sacks in 13 games last year. The Florida native should easily shatter those totals in a full-time role in 2014.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche as a breakout player. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Speedy Noil/Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart departing, the Aggies will be young (and very talented) at receiver in 2014. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones ranked as the No. 25 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and caught three passes for 84 yards and one score before suffering a season-ending injury last year. Noil – a Louisiana native – ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and could see touches in a variety of ways – special teams, catches or handoffs – for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is an imposing figure off the edge for Phil Bennett’s defense. The Pennsylvania native started his career at Penn State but transferred after a redshirt year. Oakman’s first game experience in college occurred last season, as he played in all 13 games, recorded 33 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Most of Oakman’s production came early in the year, including 3.5 tackles for a loss against Wofford and two against Iowa State. He only recorded 0.5 tackles for a loss over the final six games, but the experience gained by Oakman through his first extended playing time should be valuable in 2014. Expect the junior to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 this year.
Chikwe Obasih, DE, Wisconsin
The Badgers are breaking in several new faces on defense in 2014, as only three starters return from a unit that held opponents to 16.3 points per game last year. Obasih redshirted in his first season in Madison and was one of the spring standouts for coordinator Dave Aranda. Obasih ranked as the No. 343 player in the 247Sports Composite and recorded two tackles in the spring game. At 245 pounds, Obasih is undersized against traditional power offenses, but he has the speed and quickness off the edge to be a disruptive force in the backfield.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
We could list a couple of Michigan defenders here, but Peppers is just too talented to leave off the list. Peppers ranked as the No. 3 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is slated to push for a starting job in the fall. The New Jersey native could play a number of roles in the Michigan secondary in 2014, as he might start at cornerback or safety or play in the nickel role for coordinator Greg Mattison. Regardless of where he lines up, Peppers is too valuable for the Wolverines to keep on the sidelines. The true freshman could be a difference maker in Michigan’s secondary and also could see time on special teams this year.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
A number of LSU defenders could earn a mention in this space, but Robinson is Athlon’s pick to have a breakout year on defense for coordinator John Chavis. The 6-foot-3 corner has the size to matchup against the bigger receivers in the conference, along with the speed to prevent big plays in the passing game. Robinson was a late arrival to preseason camp last year but finished with 16 tackles and broke up three passes in 12 games. The emergence of Robinson and sophomore Tre’Davious White should give LSU one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
The Ducks have a few holes to fill in the secondary, but this unit is headlined by All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Three starting spots were up for grabs this spring, with Robinson in the mix at the safety position. The California native ranked as the No. 150 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year in his first season on campus. At 6-foot-4, Robinson has the size and athleticism to be a future star in Oregon’s secondary.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
With Aaron Colvin departing, Oklahoma is counting on Sanchez to be the top cornerback on a defense that should be one of the nation’s best. Most Sooner fans are familiar with Sanchez after a standout freshman season, but the Texas native is poised to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Sanchez started all 13 games, recorded 46 tackles and intercepted two passes. With Colvin on the other side last year, it was no surprise Sanchez was frequently targeted. However, he responded by defending 15 passes. Opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will likely stay away from Sanchez this season.
Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
There’s a significant amount of roster turnover for Oklahoma State in 2014. The Cowboys return only eight starters and lost 28 seniors from last season’s team. Despite the turnover, Mike Gundy’s team can still push for eight wins. For Oklahoma State to push for a spot among the top four teams in the Big 12, quarterback J.W. Walsh has to play with more consistency after an up-and-down stint in 2013. But Walsh should have plenty of help at the skill positions, as running back Desmond Roland rushed for 811 yards last year, and Seales is primed for a breakout year at receiver. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Seales grabbed 39 receptions for 571 yards and three scores. The Texas native is a physical presence on the outside but also has the speed to be a big-play threat for Walsh.
William Stanback, RB, UCF
Storm Johnson bolted early for the NFL, but UCF’s backfield is set with Stanback returning after a solid freshman season. In 13 games, Stanback rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns on 105 attempts. His best performance came against Houston (74 yards), while also rushing for 65 yards against Louisville. UCF must replace quarterback Blake Bortles, but the Knights can lean on Stanback until Justin Holman is settled under center.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Running back is a position of strength for new coordinator Kurt Roper, as the Gators return three running backs that recorded at least 330 yards last year. Mack Brown led the team with 543 yards, but Taylor turned plenty of heads as a true freshman. In 10 games, Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four scores, including 90 or more yards in two out of his last three outings. If the offensive line is improved, Taylor could push for 1,000 yards.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief’s big-play ability will be missed in Oxford, but quarterback Bo Wallace won’t have to look far for his replacement. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year and is slated to move from the slot to the outside in 2014. Treadwell averaged only 8.4 yards per catch in 2013, but that number could easily double in 2014.
Chad Voytik, QB, Pittsburgh
Paul Chryst got a glimpse of the future when Tom Savage suffered an injury in the bowl win over Bowling Green. Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t miss a beat with Voytik at the controls, as the Panthers posted 13 points in the second half and punted only once on five drives. Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards against the Falcons and rushed for 24 yards on two attempts. The Tennessee native threw only 11 passes last season, but there’s no question about his talent, ranking as the No. 16 quarterback recruit in the 2012 signing class. As evidenced by his work at Wisconsin, Chryst knows how to develop quarterbacks and make the most out of his talent. Voytik has the talent and intangibles and should flourish under Chryst’s tutelage this season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Voytik’s development that he will be throwing to standout receiver Tyler Boyd and protected by a line that returns four starters.
P.J. Walker, QB, Temple
Temple started 0-6 last year but rallied to win two out of their final six games, including a 41-21 road contest at Memphis in the season finale. A key reason for the turnaround was Walker’s emergence as the team’s starting quarterback. The New Jersey native started the final seven contests and finished the season with 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns, while tossing only eight picks on 250 attempts. Walker also added 332 yards and three scores on the ground. Another positive sign for Temple was Walker’s completion percentage (60.8), as well as a solid 13.7 yards per completion. Even though top receiver Robby Anderson won’t return, Walker is poised to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
With Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield transferring, Webb is the clear starter in Lubbock this year. With a clear path to the starting job, along with a standout performance in the Holiday Bowl, Webb appears to be on his way to emerging as Texas Tech’s next star quarterback. As a true freshman last year, the Texas native threw for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns on 361 attempts, while tossing only nine picks. Webb completed 62.6 percent of his throws and threw for at least 385 yards in five out of his last six games. The Red Raiders need to replace standout receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro, but Kliff Kingsbury should have this offense performing at a high level once again.
D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers may look to throw more in 2014, as running back Tre Mason departed for the NFL, and quarterback Nick Marshall should be more comfortable in his second year under center in the SEC. Auburn’s receiving corps is also deeper in 2014, largely due to the emergence of junior Sammie Coates and the arrival of Williams in the spring. Williams ranked as the top junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite and caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State
Williams was a five-star talent out of high school and spent the first two years of his career on defense. But shortly after the win over Pittsburgh on Labor Day, the Florida State coaching staff moved Williams to offense, a move some believed should have taken place earlier in his career. As expected, Williams showcased his athleticism and speed in limited duty at running back in 2013, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 attempts. The Florida native averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per carry and is expected to open spring practice as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back. Williams won’t have to carry the entire workload for coach Jimbo Fisher, as top recruit Dalvin Cook will contribute right away, and Ryan Green and Mario Pender will be in the mix for snaps. Even if Williams doesn’t top 200 carries, it’s clear his athleticism and speed will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Look for Williams to have a huge breakout season as the top back in Tallahassee.
Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State
It seems Urban Meyer has been looking for the next Percy Harvin for a couple of years now, but Wilson could finally be the right fit as a hybrid receiver/running back. Wilson rushed for 250 yards and one score last season and caught 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Wilson to be more involved in the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014, as the departure of Carlos Hyde will open up more carries on the ground, while the receiving corps is searching for more playmakers.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
Worley has generated plenty of buzz this offseason in Morgantown. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and recorded 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. And the Mountaineers’ defense may have to shoulder more of the load in 2014, as the offense – especially the quarterback spot – is a work in progress. With another year to develop, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Good luck figuring out the Pac-12 this fall.
At the top, many believe this league is college football’s best. And what separates it from every other league in the nation — including the mighty SEC — isn’t just the fact that two teams will play 10 conference games but that all of the preseason powers will face each other this fall.
While other leagues play eight-game schedules and only two crossovers, the Pac-12 plays four crossovers and nine conference games. It’s made for a long list of must-see matchups out West in 2014.
1. Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
The Pac-12 South has gotten much better and has its own elite battles but the top ticket in the Pac-12 this fall is still the Ducks and Cardinal. The winner of this game has won the last four Pac-12 titles and that is likely the case again this fall. A knee injury hampered Marcus Mariota last year and a fully healthy QB for Oregon could finally give the Ducks a win over the Cardinal with No. 8 under center.
2. Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)
There is no better quarterback matchup in the nation than when Mariota and the Ducks fly south to battle Brett Hundley and the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. This is likely a preview of the Pac-12 title game and could have divisional, conference and national championship implications. Loosen up the scoreboard operator for this one.
3. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch.
4. USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)
This crosstown rivalry is getting some extra juice, as both programs appear to be surging in the right direction. Both teams are ranked in the preseason top 20 and both have elite starting rosters. Depth could be a big issue for the Trojans come late November but if they can stay healthy, USC could find itself in a winner-take-all South Division title match against one of its biggest rivals.
5. Stanford at UCLA (Nov. 28)
The Cardinal are the two-time defending champs but have to play all of its toughest games on the road, including a trip to UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season. These two played in back-to-back weeks two years ago and the Bruins haven’t forgotten. It could happen again this fall. Whether both divisions are already locked up or not, this game should be supremely entertaining.
6. UCLA at Arizona State (Sept. 25)
These two have posted back-to-back high-scoring shootouts with the road team winning both matchups between coaches Jim Mora and Todd Graham. Arizona State won 38-33 last year in the Rose Bowl while UCLA won 45-43 in the desert two years ago. This is the first of a group of critical round-robin games in the Pac-12’s South Division.
7. Stanford at Washington (Sept. 27)
The last time Stanford visited Seattle, the Huskies pulled off a signature upset in primetime in physical and nail-biting fashion. With a new sheriff patrolling the Washington sidelines, this game figures to be a fascinating schematic chess match. The Huskies are more talented than they’ve been since 2000 and toppling Stanford early in the year could make UW the top challenger to Oregon.
8. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot in the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
9. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three years. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.
10. USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)
Ever since Jim Harbaugh upset Pete Carroll in shocking fashion back in the mid-2000s, this USC-Stanford crossover battle has been a must-see matchup. Both programs have their sights set on a Pac-12 title game in the Bay Area and there is some added juice between these two now that Steve Sarkisian — who upset David Shaw two years ago at Washington — is coaching in Los Angeles. This will be a battle.
11. UCLA at Washington (Nov. 8)
The Bruins will get upset somewhere along the way, most likely on the road. And a trip way up north to Seattle is a prime upset alert situation. Other than quarterback, these two rosters are extremely comparable and the Huskies will give Jim Mora’s team all it can handle late in the year.
12. Stanford at Arizona State (Oct. 18)
A rematch of last year’s title game will take place in mid-October. In fact, these two played twice last year with Stanford winning both games with relative ease. Todd Graham’s squad will be out for revenge in this preseason top 20 matchup.
13. Arizona State at USC (Oct. 4)
The round robin in the South features two early games for Arizona State, one of which will come in Los Angeles against the Men of Troy. This game cost Lane Kiffin his job last year when ASU blitzed the Trojans' defense. USC went on to win seven out of nine after getting smoked by the Sun Devils.
14. Washington at Oregon (Oct. 18)
The Ducks are the pick in the North but Washington could become the top challenger by the time Oct. 18 rolls around. The talent gap might be too great for UW to overcome on the road but don’t tell that to Chris Petersen and his Dawgs.
15. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will take place for the 86th time in 2014 with both teams eyeing a trip to the postseason. The Irish lead the series 45-35-5 — including the vacated 2005 USC victory — and Notre Dame has won two straight and three out of four overall. Both teams enter the season ranked in the top 15 and by season’s end, each could be positioned to play for a national championship.
Best of the Rest:
16. Arizona State at Washington (Oct. 25)
17. Arizona State at Arizona (Nov. 28)
18. Oregon at Oregon State (Nov. 29)
19. Washington at Washington State (Nov. 29)
20. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
21. USC at Arizona (Oct. 11)
22. Arizona at UCLA (Nov. 1)
23. Oregon at Washington State (Sept. 20)
24. Oregon State at Washington (Nov. 22)
25. Washington at Arizona (Nov. 15)
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the 2014 season due to a shoulder injury suffered in practice on Monday. The news of Miller’s injury was reported by the Columbus Dispatch’s Tim May.
Eleven Warriors has more details on Miller’s injury, which will keep the senior out for the 2014 season. Miller is eligible for a redshirt season and could return in 2015.
Miller suffered a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss against Clemson and did not participate in contact drills during spring practice.
The senior appeared to be on track to return after shoulder surgery in February, but he was limited by soreness in his throwing arm this fall.
With Miller out for the season, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the No. 1 job. Barrett recently moved ahead of Jones on the depth chart and would be the favorite to start the opener against Navy.
With Miller ruled out for 2014, Michigan State is the favorite in the Big Ten. The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes in the conference title game last season and is a contender for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff format.
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the ACC’s best.
Boston College: 26
Despite his stature, running back Andre Williams’ strength was in big plays. He gained at least 20 yards on a carry 26 times in 2013, easily the best in the nation. But efficiency was an issue; the Eagles managed just a 38.0 percent success rate — an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure; that ranked 105th in the country.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Clemson’s defense allowed a 34.0 percent success rate in 2013, fifth-lowest in the country. But the breakdowns that did occur were significant: Clemson allowed 11 plays of more than 50 yards (107th in the country) and 28 of more than 30 (81st).
Duke reached the ACC title game in 2013 despite a bend-don’t-break defense that bent a bit too much. The Blue Devils allowed 6.8 yards per play on first down, 110th in the country. They also allowed 210 plays of at least 10 yards (116th). When they leveraged opponents into passing downs, they got more successfully aggressive, but passing downs were few and far between.
Florida State: 39.5
Florida State’s scoring margin was an incredible plus-39.5 in 2013. Granted, playing Bethune-Cookman and Idaho in non-conference (combined score: 134–20) helped, but the Seminoles’ scoring margin in ACC games was still plus-39.0. Against teams that finished with winning records? Plus-33.3. No matter how you slice it, Florida State dominated in 2013 like few teams ever have.
Georgia Tech: 4.9
One benefit to an option offense is that you really don’t have to change your play-calling when you get near the goal line. Georgia Tech averaged 4.9 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, 15th in the country. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets were also solid at shutting drives down — they allowed 3.9 points per trip inside their 40, 38th in the country.
Louisville’s defense improved dramatically in 2013, as evidenced most clearly by the Cardinals’ ability to close drives before the end zone. They allowed only 3.0 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, second in the country and first among major-conference teams. Meanwhile, the offense averaged a healthy 4.8 points per trip, 20th.
Miami averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per play against ACC opponents, second in the conference behind Florida State. The problem was that the defense gave back most of those gains, allowing 6.2 per play, 13th. Big plays were the culprit: the Hurricanes allowed 211 gains of 10-plus yards overall, 117th in the country.
NC State: 3.3
The average FBS team averaged 4.2 points per trip inside its opponent’s 40-yard line in 2013. NC State, however, averaged only 3.3 points per trip, 116th in the country. It got even worse in conference play; the Wolfpack averaged 3.0 points per trip, worst in the ACC.
North Carolina: 7.6
North Carolina’s offense was exciting despite youth in 2013; however, when things went wrong, they went wrong quickly. Despite ranking a solid 48th in yards per play, the Tar Heels averaged 7.6 yards to go on third downs, 108th in the country.
Of the 33 fumbles that took place in Pittsburgh games (11 by the Panthers, 22 by opponents), Pitt recovered only 11 of them, 33.3 percent. Fumble recovery rates are mostly random, and only one team (Akron at 31.4 percent) recovered a lower percentage. With an average recovery rate, Pittsburgh would have fallen on six to seven more loose balls in a season that saw them lose two games by a touchdown or less.
Led by Marquise Spruill’s 14.5, Orange linebackers recorded 41 tackles for a loss in 2013, even more than the 39 they recorded in 2012. The defense as a whole improved from allowing 5.7 yards per play in 2012 to 5.3 in 2013; unfortunately, the offense regressed from 6.0 to 5.1 in that same span.
Virginia was in no way efficient, averaging just 4.9 yards per play on first down (109th in the country) with a 38.0 percent third-down conversion rate (85th). But the Cavaliers’ biggest problem was a total lack of big-play ability. The offense gained 20 or more yards in a play just 34 times in 2013, 121st in the country. Virginia averaged better than 4.8 yards per play in just four of 12 games.
Virginia Tech: 8.3
Nobody leveraged opponents into passing downs more effectively than Virginia Tech did. Opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down against the Hokies’ defense, the highest average in the country.
Wake Forest: -6.4
An offense prone to three-and-outs and a shaky return game produced the worst field position averages in the ACC. In conference play, Wake Forest’s average starting field position was its 26.6, and its opponents’ average was the 33.0. The minus-6.4 margin was easily 14th of 14 teams; only Virginia (minus-5.4) and NC State (minus-4.6) came within 3.5 yards of that average.
College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took our annual look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.
Times and technology change, and these tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).
Get to know the new college football playoff and who is in the mix for the title. This is the official account, so be sure to follow on Tuesday evenings when the official rankings are released.
@ESPNCFB (2) and @CollegeGameDay (3)
We probably don’t need to tell you why to follow ESPN’s college football channels, but these are good places to start if you’re a Twitter newbie.
Whoa Nelly, just the news and only the news. No retweets or interaction, just links to all the roster moves and important nuggets from around the country.
@cbfowler (4) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (5)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day. Take a moment to welcome Fowler to his spot on ABC’s game of the week on Saturday night.
“Sources” McMurphy is in his second season with the Mothership as a leader in breaking news.
The veteran ESPNer is a must-follow for features on the Dot Com and his guests on the aptly named ESPN College Football Podcast.
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.
10 days until full slate of CFB games; Alabama has won 10 national titles during the poll era (since 1936), most of any FBS team— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2014
ESPN Conference Bloggers (10)
It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC, @ESPN_BigTen, @ESPN_Big12, @ESPN_Pac12Blog and @ESPN_SEC. Go for a deeper dive with all 29(!) of ESPN’s blog contributors.
@DennisDoddCBS (11) remains the veteran columnist of the staff that has added newshounds @JFowlerCBS (12) and @JonSolomonCBS (13) in recent years. After a tumultuous summer covering union efforts, autonomy and Ed O’Bannon, we’re sure they’re glad to get back to covering games.
News, notes and a little sarcasm from @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen
Staples can break down the difference between a cookout and a BBQ and talk offensive line play. @LindsayRaeSI (16) and @BrianHamiltonSI (17) are recent arrivals.
Campus Union (16)
@ZacEllis and @martinrickman maintain SI’s news and notes blog. Follow rickman if you have an aversion to capital letters.
in @finebaum interview musburger has discussed: -katherine webb -betting lines -eminem -the musburger drinking game sec network is amazing— martin rickman (@martinrickman) August 15, 2014
Bill Simmons isn’t a lover of college football, but he’s stocked his longform site some quality folks including @HollyAnderson (17) and @MattRHinton (18).
College football Twitter is full of sarcasm and hot takes. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Grantland keeps us all in line with his Xs and Os-heavy feed.
Fox Sports has become a player in college football coverage online with two ace hires of @BFeldmanCFB (20) and @slmandel (21). And for an — ahem, edgier take — there’s @ClayTravisBGID (22).
I can't wait until SEC fans start calling the network "biast." Probably already happening.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) August 14, 2014
The newspaper is more than infographics and that ubiquitous dot. USA Today hits all spots with old-school reporting and column-writing with @GeorgeSchroeder (23) and @DanWolken (24) and new-school #viral and #social content with @ForTheWin (25).
By now, @PaulMyerberg (26) has wrapped up his exhaustive team-by-team previews, but he’s still a must-follow during the year.
Other National Voices
@MattHayes_SN (27) is a long-time Sporting News columnist. Beware: He may or may not be sold on the Playoff. On the other hand, there’s Death to the BCS author @DanWetzel (28), who takes a victory lap this season. He’s still an ace columnist and key figure on Yahoo’s investigative wing.
If you want to see whose style we borrowed for this column, make sure you give @YahooForde (29) a read every week for his Forde-Yard Dash.
@RalphDRussoAP (30) is a student of the history of the game but also the ace on current events you’d expect from the Associated Press.
Miss anything during the college football Saturday? @MattBrownCFB’s (31) “The Professor” wrap-up is mandatory on Sunday morning.
The folks at Crystal Ball Run don’t have a BCS crystal ball trophy to chase in the playoff era, so they’ve moved their independent college football blog to @TheStudentSect (32).
@KevinOnCFB (34) and the staff at College Football Talk gather all the news of the day so you don’t have to.
Spencer Hall live tweeting “Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football” is only part of the fun.
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.
SB Nation’s longform/investigative reporter Steven Godfrey also describes himself as a “white trash sommelier.” So there’s that.
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom, ‘90s trivia and food. Especially food.
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will have another year of public discomfort watching Notre Dame football.
We’re glad to know that going public hasn’t diminished Ryan Nanni’s sophisticated brand of heckling.
Prolific Tweeter gets to watch his beloved Louisville Cardinals go for Round 2 with Bobby Petrino. This time, without a Big East Coast Bias to defend.
Arizona State changes uniforms every so often to give Todd Graham the sensation of coaching somewhere new (I realize I'm in a glass house).— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 18, 2014
No list of SB Nation contributors would be complete with mentioning extensive local coverage from the West Coast with @PacificTakes (42), the MAC with @HustleBelt (43), the non-Power 5 leagues with @UnderdogDynasty (44) and Texas A&M/GIFs with @GBHunting and @CuppyCup (45).
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Tomfoolery, indeed.
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.
Follow for updates from Bleacher Report’s video guru. Stay for his views on TV.
NFL.com has recently entered the college football media sphere with a bit of a draft focus. Follow @BryanDFischer (49), @ChaseGoodbread (50) and @MikeHuguenin (51) for knowledge galore.
Bo Pelini’s doppelganger is all legit now that the real Bo has acknowledged his presence. Hasn’t dulled Faux Pelini’s act, though.
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.
If you’re going to follow a fake coach and a fake former Big 12 commissioner, might as well follow a real person Tweeting on behalf of an anthropomorphic duck.
Speaking of Oregon, Paul Lukas is a must-follow to keep up with the changing looks, not just from Eugene, but all over.
Not ready to delve completely in the Reddit world? Dip a toe in by following their college football subreddit on Twitter. Highlights are #MSPaintMonday and #MSExcelThursday.
@awfulannouncing and @myoder84 (57)
Did someone say something stupid on TV? Want to know those SEC Network assignments? Hate preseason polls? Awful Announcing is the place.
@bubbaprog and @cjzero (58)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke and the independent C.J. Fogler are masters of locating and creating all those videos of great plays or images of sideline moments. You won’t miss a thing following these two.
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.
Bringing the Knowledge
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow Connelly, an Athlon contributor in the 2014 annuals, for statistical insight like no other.
No one knows Heisman trends quite like Chris Huston. Think your favorite player has a chance at the award? Ask Huston first.
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.
Coaches and Players
Good to know that a move to Penn State hasn’t diminished the best coach, assistant or otherwise, to follow on Twitter.
Most coaches’ Twitter accounts are pretty standard — inspirational quotes, excitement for the season and so forth. Les, of course, does things a little differently.
Watch closely and a DM intended for a Florida recruit may end up in your timeline. Number sign oops.
Tickets for free tweet lessons?#???????— Will Muschamp (@CoachWMuschamp) July 30, 2014
Georgia wide receiver and Star Wars fan-filmmaker Chris Conley is one of the brightest and most insightful players in the game.
Big Picture Topics
You only need to follow Hruby for 10 minutes to learn the former Sports on Earth columnist (and Georgetown professor) won’t be working for the NCAA anytime soon.
I always laugh at debates and surveys - "should college athletes be paid?" We don't have those debates about dentists or college janitors.— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) June 11, 2014
Kristi Dosh handles all the business news from college athletics. Want to follow the money? Follow Dosh.
College football will have its first gay active player less than a year after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player taken in the draft. Zeigler is the leading voice for LGBT issues in sports, and as a result, gets first dibs on coverage.
Around the SEC
One word. One long syllable: PAAAAAWWWWWWL.
Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football himself, returns to his home at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but you can also find him on the SEC Network.
@CecilHurt and @MattScalici (74)
Two generations and two outlets on the Alabama beat. Hurt from the Tuscaloosa News can turn a phrase with the best of the old-school columnists. Scalici is a multimedia workhorse in the AL DOT COM network.
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.
Around the ACC
Patrick Stevens has his finger on the pulse of the ACC but knows his way around the national scene, too.
Stay in tune with the defending national champions with the long-time Rivals site.
Teel graduated from James Madison and has worked for the Daily Press in Virginia for more than 30 years. No one has seen more change in the league than Teel ... and maybe Mike Krzyzewski.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Network (81)
@BTNDaveRevsine, @BTNTomDienhart and @BTNBrentYarina are as entrenched in Big Ten knowledge as anyone.
Greenstein brings a bit of a Northwestern bent as a Chicago Tribune writer, but he covers the whole league.
Callahan is as entrenched as anyone with the Nebraska program from top to bottom.
“Consigliere” of the Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com, Ramzy Nasrallah might need a kind word or two following the Braxton Miller news.
Buckeye fans, relax. It's going to be fine. Joe Bauserman has looked great in practice.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) August 19, 2014
Around the Big 12
Columnist and analyst from Fox Sports Southwest has an informed view on every team around the Big 12. Even Kansas
His last name is finger. His avatar is a finger. He covers Texas.
Players Texas can least afford to lose, factoring in depth behind them: 1. David Ash; 2. Quandre Diggs; 3. Kent Perkins; 4. Marcus Johnson.— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) August 10, 2014
At least Allen Kenney, an Oklahoma fan, is honest with his audience.
Around the Pac-12
The Los Angeles Times writer covers everyone in the Pac-12, of course with a focus on UCLA and USC.
Another venerable voice from Pac-12 land with views and news from Stanford and Cal.
Opinions on the Oregon schools from the never-shy Oregonian columnist.
Shane Dale’s Twitter handle and book are named after the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, so you’ll know what you’re going to get.
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West.
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.
Scout has made a renewed push in the recruiting market, and Brandon Huffman is their lead guy.
Last but not least...
The College Football Playoff executive in charge of developing one of the key tools for his selection committee found his solution from a Tweet.
As the Playoff administrators assembled their group of 13 selectors during the last year-and-a-half, chief operating officer Michael Kelly knew he had to find a tool to keep the assemblage of college football luminaries informed.
The BCS computers were out. The polls would be of no use. No one wanted the rigid tools similar to the ones used by the basketball committee — RPI, strength of schedule and so on.
The Playoff executives wanted the selection committee to be the last word, and handing the selection committee opponent records or total offense and total defense wouldn’t suffice.
Lucky for Kelly, a Twitter follower stepped up.
Ex-college baseball players, brothers Stephen and Scott Prather and a third partner Drew Borland, once had aspirations of starting a data-driven coach search firm that leaned heavily on an extensive database they developed as a side project. (Stephen Prather and Borland both played at Vanderbilt from 1998-2000; Scott Prather played at Georgia Tech from 1996-98 and spent five years in the minor leagues for the Cardinals.)
They had trouble catching on in the search firm market, but athletic departments and coaches liked their database, dubbed Coaches By The Numbers. They went forward with an analytic platform called SportSource Analytics, culling play-by-play and season data from college football games going back to 2001.
A year-and-a-half ago, with the Coaches By The Numbers consulting business in full swing, Stephen Prather noticed Kelly’s conundrum, and he thought SportSource Analytics might be the solution.
"Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part. That's the way it should be."
The Playoff executive committee and SportSource Analytics team (which also came to include Marty Couvillon, proprietor of cfbstats.com) met several times over the course of 18 months, including at CFP headquarters in Dallas with the selection committee.
“That Twitter (interaction) led to an online demo of our product,” Prather said. “Over the next year-and-a-half it went from ‘this is pretty cool’ to ‘can we build something specifically for the committee.’”
Kelly and the selection committee needed a tool that would provide the committee a wealth of comparative data, from surface-level statistics to more in-depth metrics. The interface had to be simple enough for even the more tech-adverse members of the committee. And the committee members had to be able to access it at anytime, anywhere.
“We found this to be the most user-friendly and what we needed for our committee,” Kelly said. “What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams. They even have great ways to go deeper.”
The College Football Playoff signed SportSource Analytics to a two-year contract to provide an exclusive platform for the selection committee. The team will be available through the selection process to provide tech support and answer questions about the tool, but both parties are clear that SportSource Analytics will not influence the committee on selection.
The platform will contain raw data on a per-play, per-possession, per-game and season-long basis but not a stand-alone metric similar to an RPI or Sagarin rating.
Prather and Kelly both said avoiding a “magic bullet” statistic was key. If the committee members can’t explain their reasoning, the data wouldn’t be useful, Prather said.
“We have nothing to do with the decision,” said Stephen Prather, who is a vice president for a commercial real estate company in Nashville. “We are building tools for them to look at data. ... We’re trying to give you ways of looking at data. We’re not trying to tell you what to look at.”
So what will the selection committee be able to access through the SportSource Analytics tool? That depends on the committee member.
The tool will allow committee members to compare teams in more than 60 statistical categories from the basic statistics — total offense and defense, turnover margin — but also more advanced metrics including yards per play, points per possession and detailed red zone success metrics.
The platform also will allow for detailed strength-of-schedule breakdowns including combined record of opponents, record of opponents’ opponents, record of conference opponents, records against ranked teams and teams with winning records.
Committee members also will be able to compare team performance in certain games, i.e. statistical data in games against winning teams. The platform will provide team sheets with data on all 128 teams, including detailed schedule analysis, statistical ranks and how they compare to the nationwide average.
The platform will allow committee members to dive as deep as they’d like, allowing them to customize more than 100 different rankings: How many points per possession did a team score against conference teams with winning records? That’s available.
How often are defenses holding top-25 opponents to three-and-outs? That’s available.
Which team has played the teams with the best cumulative conference record? That is available, too.
The tool also will be adaptive by request of selection committee members, so SportSource Analytics can add or create stat categories on demand.
“What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams,” Kelly said.
Of course, there’s the possibility committee members won’t take a deep statistical stat dive, either.
That’s not going to hurt Prather’s feelings. For him, maybe the playoff spots shouldn’t be determined exclusively by red zone defense.
“Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part,” Prather said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Once upon a time, 24-year-old Jeff Gordon set the NASCAR world on fire. In his third full season in the Cup Series, he won seven times, collected 23 top-10 finishes and intimidated The Intimidator himself en route to his first series title. It was a watershed moment, one that set the stage for other young, aspiring drivers to walk in Gordon’s path rather than spend 15 years “working their way up the ranks” in middling equipment before earning a primo shot.
We were reminded of that history on Sunday, as Gordon, now age 43, spent much of the Pure Michigan 400 battling with a version of his former self, 24-year-old Joey Logano. Combined, the duo led 154 of the race’s 200 laps, and staged a frantic final restart that ultimately leaned Gordon’s way. But while it was the veteran who won his third race of the year, earning the points lead while reversing historic roles, it was the upstart youngster who appeared to exit the race with a boost in confidence.
“We can win a championship,” Logano stated when asked what he could take from Sunday. “I really feel like we can do that. That is the message I want to put out there and I want to put it out there for my team, that we are strong enough to do it this year.”
It’s a confidence people have been searching for out of Logano since the much-hyped leader of NASCAR’s “next generation” rose to the Cup circuit full-time at the ripe old age of 18. People thought then his trajectory should match Gordon’s: a rocket-like launch to the top that included wins, championships and millions in endorsements by age 21 (what would have been his third full Cup season on tour). But perhaps, when looking back at the mountains of criticism this kid received, it’s apparent there is a limit to how much such a young driver can do. Take a look at where some of NASCAR’s other great drivers stood at age 24:
Dale Earnhardt Sr.: Made first Cup Series start (22nd).
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Five Cup starts, one top-10 finish.
Kevin Harvick: No Cup starts.
Jimmie Johnson: No Cup starts.
Matt Kenseth: No Cup starts.
Brad Keselowski: Made first two Cup Series starts (19th, 23rd).
Kurt Busch: Eight Cup wins, best finish of third in points.
Kyle Busch: Sixteen Cup wins, best finish of fifth in points.
As you can see, it takes a rare breed to cross the threshold of not just competing at the Cup level, but actually challenging for a championship. Gordon, at age 24, was mature enough to turn the tables, but no one since has come close to winning the title that young as he did in ‘95. Will the patience for Logano, who’s lasted six years and two different teams, have a chance of paying off?
NASCAR, whose evolution has been slowed significantly over the past several years, could use this simple case of history repeating itself. But the fact Logano’s finally coming close, armed with the confidence to put him over the top and become a new face carrying the sport, is one small beacon of hope in what’s been a troubling, tragic last few weeks.
“Through the Gears” after Michigan we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick horsepower takes the cake
Of course, for Logano to get over the hump there’s a formidable obstacle for the Penske Racing driver: Hendrick Motorsports. And not just Gordon, who was agitated but ultimately able to overcome some gamesmanship on the final series of restarts. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting second in points and versatile on all tracks this season, his final with crew chief Steve Letarte. Add in defending series champ Jimmie Johnson, whose top-10 finish Sunday was the perfect antidote for a summer slump and you’ve got a trio whose overall strength this season is hard to top.
“Frustration,” said Denny Hamlin when asked about battling HMS this season. “I’m trying to fight — do everything I can — to keep up with Hendrick engines.”
“Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now?” third-place Logano was asked in the midst of his “championship push.” “Yes, I do.”
That’s important, especially in an upcoming Chase where intermediates make up five of the 10 postseason tracks. With rule restrictions on those ovals keeping crew chiefs from radical changes, the best way to get better handling with NASCAR’s 2014 rules package is simple: find more speed down the straightaways. It leads to a greater ability to use the draft to your advantage, now active at places like Michigan, Charlotte and Texas because of track-record speeds.
Add in the ability for HMS to promote teamwork across the board, sharing information so that all teams can be successful, and it’s easy to see why Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson have won eight of the last 13 Cup races. By comparison, no other driver/organization has won more than two (Brad Keselowski/Penske).
One car, Kasey Kahne, continues to be a step behind the curve at HMS and in danger of missing the Chase and perhaps putting Kahne’s 2015 employment in peril. But even that could lead to a bonus for the three remaining HMS drivers, as the No. 5 turning into a test vehicle during the Chase and utilizing experimental setups could help the collective.
Logano, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick could each make a case to be joining the Hendrick cars inside that season finale Final Four. But don’t be surprised if it’s just one fighting the HMS trio that’s been head and shoulders above the competition all year.
SECOND GEAR: A new reality at Stewart-Haas Racing
While HMS exited Michigan on a high, Stewart-Haas Racing left with a different goal in mind: survival. Although Harvick ran second, the high watermark for the organization’s four cars, the weekend was marked by frustration and constant media questions surrounding the future of the team and its leader, Tony Stewart, who’s accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park remains under investigation.
“I’ve known Tony Stewart for a long time,” Harvick said Sunday. “I still don't believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that’s on a racetrack. I don’t think there's anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over. You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.”
Yet, while that’s the mantra inside SHR – pull together amidst unfair chaos that can’t be controlled – there remains a high degree of uncertainty. There’s no guarantee at all criminal charges won’t be pressed against Stewart with the investigation’s conclusion not expected for at least another week. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see Stewart at a racetrack or inside a car until the results are made public.
That leaves the shadow of what happened over everyone at the track, making quality performance that much more difficult without their leader. Jeff Burton performed admirably in Stewart’s place, climbing inside the top 15 but ultimately sent behind the wall with electrical problems. Danica Patrick, whose weekend started well in practice, made contact with her substitute teammate causing the race’s big multi-car wreck on Lap 25 that took out Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and a host of others. Kurt Busch, whose car was a top-5 contender, went over the edge in the closing laps, wrecking hard into the outside wall.
That’s three of four cars in need of a little TLC this week — the type of strong direction Stewart provides as co-owner. You can only pull so many others together for so long before that type of absence starts to wear.
THIRD GEAR: Larson’s lost opportunity?
One of the big stories of the summer has been rookie Kyle Larson pushing to make the Chase with a series of strong performances. But bad luck has dogged that effort, including a scary wreck at Michigan Sunday where a blown right-front tire may have ruined his chances. It’s the fourth major wreck for Larson this year (his third DNF) and it came with a last-place finish that could be the difference between making the Chase and missing it.
“I thought we had a car capable of winning the race for sure,” he said, despite early pit road contact with Earnhardt Jr. that messed up the toe of his No. 42 Chevy. “Those right-front’s blowing do not feel good.”
The wreck leaves Larson 24 points behind Greg Biffle with three races remaining to try and make the Chase on points. Of course, the rookie could also win his way in, which could make upcoming races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond that much more fun. Keep in mind Larson was fast at Richmond in the spring, winning the pole only to get spun on the first turn of the first lap by Clint Bowyer.
But if not, any bid for the postseason has now become a bit of a longshot. That’s a shame for a first-year driver that has clearly driven strong enough to deserve one.
FOURTH GEAR: Roush Fenway still flailing
Roush Fenway Racing entered Michigan with high hopes and looking for a rebound after a disastrous June on what historically has been one of its best tracks. A test a few weeks ago, along with Mark Martin’s return as driver consultant, instilled confidence that the three-car outfit had things pointed in the right direction. But Sunday? Even 10th-place Biffle, the highest running of the RFR outfit, was clearly a step behind from the drop of the green. Penske Racing’s two cars of Logano and Keselowski ran circles around Ford’s former top outfit, putting their rivals in place as second-class citizens. Heck, Keselowski ran eighth, two spots ahead of RFR despite slamming the outside wall with a blown tire late in the race.
“We were so loose, I just couldn’t drive it,” said Carl Edwards, who endured two pit road penalties en route to a disappointing 23rd. “We were just too loose today to be able to do anything.”
It’s been a rough month, with an expected Edwards announcement of his departure to Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday while Biffle lost sponsor 3M for 2015 (the team claims it has a replacement to be announced in the next few weeks). Then Friday, the Wood Brothers announced it was shifting its partnership to Penske for 2015, putting rookie Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 for a limited schedule while getting chassis built by Roush’s rival. It’s another small but subtle sign the balance of power has shifted in Blue Oval land for good.
Roush needs to find a way to turn the tables.
It was another rough day for Joe Gibbs Racing, as Kenseth got caught up in the Danica incident and Kyle Busch wrecked himself within the first five laps. “Struggling for speed,” was how Hamlin put it, having to scratch and claw his way into the top 10. After 12 wins in 36 races last year, JGR has just two through 23 races this year. … NASCAR’s new rule instituting drivers should stay in their cars didn’t change the racing, although it rarely had to be used on Sunday. No one criticized Larson for exiting his vehicle early with the car on fire and the wide, multi-groove Michigan track leaving him far away from potential danger. The real test will come at the rough-and-tumble Bristol short track Saturday night. … With a pole speed of 206.558 mph, it’ll be interesting to see what NASCAR does at Michigan going forward. Ryan Truex had a hard hit in practice, one that put him out with a concussion and several hard wrecks gave the garage area pause. You‘ve got to believe Monday’s Michigan test, used for 2015 rule changes, will be designed to slow the cars down dramatically.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Arizona State already has a variety of uniform and helmet choices to sport in 2014, but the program unveiled a new copper-themed look on Monday.
The uniform helps to honor the state’s history of copper producing and could be worn at some point during the 2014 season.
Check out Arizona State’s new copper-themed uniform for this season:
Giants management is nothing if not patient. Sweeping changes have almost never been encouraged or forced. Longtime and popular players could always count on loyalty from the team.
But after missing the playoffs four times in the last five seasons — a streak made worse by last season’s 0–6 start — everyone’s patience is out the window. Most of the offensive coaching staff was fired or reassigned to help fix what co-owner John Mara called a “broken” offense. Defensive captain Justin Tuck was allowed to leave without a fight, despite coming off one of his finest seasons. And the Giants spent more than $116 million on free agents in an uncharacteristic spending spree. A sign of desperation? In a way, yes.
“We want to take notice that we haven’t made the playoffs in the (few) years, and we don’t want that to be our trend,” GM Jerry Reese says. “That bothers me. I’m sure it bothers our ownership as well.”
Who knows what ownership will do — and who will be safe — if the trend continues. But the Giants sure did get aggressive to try to ensure that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to completely blame Eli Manning for the disaster that was the Giants’ offense last season, though it’s hard to absolve him, too. His career-high 27 interceptions were absurd, but a lot of it could be traced to the pounding he took behind the terrible offensive line and some questionable efforts and performances by his receivers. That’s why the Giants’ top priority this offseason was getting Manning some reliable help.
Did they? That’s debatable. They did sign guard Geoff Schwartz, one of the top linemen on the free-agent market, but the rest of their line is a question mark. They have a center who hasn’t played in two seasons (J.D. Walton), a left tackle coming off a bad leg and knee injury (Will Beatty) and will have a new starting right guard following Chris Snee's retirement prior to the start of training camp.
At least they got Manning some weapons. Free agent Rashad Jennings is a powerful and underrated runner. The team is hoping that either veteran Peyton Hillis or fourth-round pick Andre Williams can serve as a complement to Jennings now that David Wilson has been advised to retire from football due to concerns about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. Rueben Randle moves to the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the departed Hakeem Nicks, who played like he had one injured leg out the door last season. And the Giants’ top pick of the draft, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, could be the steal of the first round.
But the biggest change is the one that should help the most. Gone is offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his complicated — and some would say stale — offensive scheme. He’s been replaced by the younger Ben McAdoo, a disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, who is installing what is believed to be a West Coast-style, up-tempo attack. The early reviews from players were raves, especially from Manning, who admits to being “energized” by learning a new offense for the first time in his career. Assuming Manning is fully recovered from April surgery on his left ankle, the hope is that it will make him play better, too.
Was it a mirage or a miracle? Despite an 0–6 start last season and a disastrous offense and special teams, the Giants’ defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And they did it without much of a pass rush and with questions in their secondary. How? In large part because of the leadership of Jon Beason, they said.
Things seemed to change when Beason came over from Carolina in October in a steal of a deal for a seventh-round pick. The defense suddenly had a leader. The communication improved. They no longer looked like they were playing multiple schemes on the same play. That’s why the Giants made re-signing Beason their offseason defensive priority.
But they didn’t stop there. Knowing they had some bad coverage breakdowns, they spent wildly on their secondary, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walt Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps, producing what Thurmond believes can be “one of the best secondaries in the league.” They even got Beason some help in the linebacking corps with the addition of Jameel McClain.
The whole key to how good this defense can be, though, is the health of Jason Pierre-Paul, who played through a recovery from back surgery last season as well as an injured shoulder. He says he’s healthy now and looking to regain his 2011 form (when he had 16.5 sacks). And the Giants will need that since they let Tuck go after an 11-sack season.
If the Giants can generate a pass rush with all the back-end help, this could be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Without a pass rush, though, they may have nothing but problems.
It feels like it’s been years since the Giants had a dominant kick returner. The truth is it’s been years since they had even a decent one. Now it seems their cupboard is overflowing with players who can do special things with kickoffs and punts.
First they signed Demps, who figures to be the best punt returner they’ve had in years. But then they trumped that by bringing in the dangerous and speedy Trindon Holliday, who likely is the best kickoff returner they’ve had since Ron Dixon in the early 2000s. And then they drafted Beckham, a speedy and elusive receiver known to do special things on special teams, too.
It was interesting that the Giants didn’t fire their special teams coordinator, Tom Quinn, during the offseason purge, as many suspected they would. Instead they gave him tools to work with. As for the rest of his special teams, the Giants’ unit is as solid as they come. Punter Steve Weatherford didn’t have his finest season, but he’s only 31 and in phenomenal shape and has been mostly reliable. Kicker Josh Brown is 35, but he’s still accurate and reliable (nailing 88.5 percent of his kicks last year) and strong enough to nail a 52-yarder. And Zak DeOssie remains one of the finest long-snappers in the league.
The 7–9 season may have been miserable, but the silver lining was the 7–3 finish after the horrific start. And that came despite all the team’s issues.
If Manning is better, the Giants can’t help but be improved, and he should have the tools and the time to make that happen. There are still questions along the offensive line, but it’s stocked now with depth and NFL-quality players. And despite a glaring hole at tight end, Manning should have more weapons at his disposal than he had last year.
Pair that with a defense that should be much better, and this has all the makings of a bounce-back year for the Giants. The NFC East is no longer loaded, so it’s not hard to see the Giants win 10 games and the division. And if Manning regains his form and Pierre-Paul regains his health — admittedly two big ifs — the Giants have the potential to be real contenders.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC East
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC East
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 18:
• Jessica Alba threw out the first pitch for the Dodgers and didn't shame her family. That's all we ask out of our ceremonial first pitchers.
• This guy's punishment for coming in last in his fantasy baseball league — an embarrassingly revealing calendar that includes Body Issue and Constanza spoofs — is no doubt giving sadistic commissioners across the land evil ideas.
• The Rams have invited several Ferguson-area high school football players to their preseason game this Sunday as a respite from the chaos. Haven't those kids suffered enough?
• No Nadal at the U.S. Open. My interest in that event is waning fast.
• Worried that Peyton Manning has been underexposed, Gatorade is releasing a slew of new Manning commercials.
• Asdrubal Cabrera made a nifty behind-the-back flip to start a double play.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Rankings are a big part of any college football season, and even in the playoff format, the polls and projections are still an interesting exercise. For example: The AP Poll came out over the weekend, while the USA Today Coaches Poll came out a few weeks ago. And the Athlon Sports Top 25 has been out since May.
With a few small exceptions — Florida ranked in Athlon Sports, Texas being ranked by the Coaches and Nebraska by the AP — all three polls are extremely similar.
This doesn’t mean that all three are correct, however. It doesn’t mean that someone in the top 15 could end up missing a bowl game or that one team ranked No. 43 in the preseason couldn’t sneak into the top 10.
In fact, both are likely. With that in mind, which teams in college football need to lower their expectations in 2014?
Most preseason polls have the Bruins are ranked in the top 10. And Jim Mora's team is a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South. While UCLA should win the division, the concept that the Bruins are deep enough and talented enough to go unbeaten or 11-1 in the regular season seems farfetched. The schedule is nasty and there is little to no support around Brett Hundley on offense. The defense could be excellent, and I’m still picking UCLA to win the South. However, they will head to Levi’s Stadium with two or three losses already in hand.
Before the academic scandal, the Fighting Irish was a preseason top-15 caliber team. One that had an outside shot at pushing for a playoff spot and landing a top 10 ranking. With three starters and another key reserve not practicing or playing (mostly likely all season), the upside for the Irish takes a serious hit. This is now a fringe top 25 team that will struggle to win eight games this year.
The schedule, like most in the Pac-12, is downright nasty. But this team is extremely talented and is buoyed by a new coaching staff. The issues for USC are still about depth. Key defenders Jabari Ruffin and Kenny Bigelow have already been lost for the season and the lack of scholarships is bound to hurt the Trojans once again this fall. There's no question the starting 22 is talented. However, three or four losses is a definite possibility.
This one is sort of a no-brainer since the Cowboys aren’t ranked anywhere on the internet. But this is a program accustomed to competing for Big 12 titles and it won’t be anywhere near the title race this fall. Mike Gundy is eyeing a return to prominence in 2015.
The Aggies are going to be much better at the end of the year than they will be at the beginning. Or in the middle. But preseason Top 20 is way too high for this squad. This team is extremely talented on both sides of the ball, but the defense is still a major work in progress and a brutal final two months should drop TAMU to sixth in the West.
Are the Tar Heels ready to have a breakthrough season? Maybe so. Or it could be a year early for UNC to reach the ACC Championship. Larry Fedora has some serious talent to work with but it is mostly inexperienced and very young. I asked former OC (and current Arkansas State coach) Blake Anderson if this is the year UNC breaks through and wins the Coastal, and he quickly shot that down, pointing to 2015 as the breakout season in Chapel Hill.
The Tigers have an elite collection of players and are accustomed to competing for national championships. But LSU is missing important veteran pieces. There is no experience or proven talent at quarterback or wide receiver on offense and a true freshman (albeit a great one) is the talk of the running game. And LSU has major holes to fill on defense as well. This is still a great roster, but the SEC schedule is downright nasty with games against Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Charlie Strong is going to be just fine in Austin, but he has a lot of work to do in making over the Texas program from the inside out. David Ash is healthy, for now, and there is still plenty of talent on the roster. But a brutal schedule and very competitive middle portion of the Big 12 makes Texas a fringe Big 12 contender at best. Best case is probably eight wins.
The Cornhuskers are in better shape on defense than they’ve been in years, while the offense has a star in Ameer Abdullah to build around. Despite the optimism about the personnel, expectations need to be lowered in Lincoln due to a tough schedule. Wisconsin and Iowa miss Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, while Nebraska must face Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Fresno State on the road. The schedule is why Nebraska won’t win the West.
The Badgers have an elite offensive line, superstar tailback and excellent head coach. But the entire defensive front is being reworked, the quarterback position is far from settled and it starts the season facing LSU in Houston. This is a team who could easily win the Big Ten West but it’s not a team that should consider itself a playoff contender (or even someone who could win the Big Ten title).