Articles By All
Quarterbacks are falling left and right, some are struggling and some have tough matchups in Week 13. This is not what you want to see when your fantasy football playoffs are right around the corner.
If you find yourself in a QB quandary this week, maybe Miami Dolphins signal caller Matt Moore could help you out.
Moore and the Dolphins welcome the Oakland Raiders in Week 13 after about as long a road trip you can make in the NFL. And Miami will get a Raiders team that is 29th best against fantasy quarterbacks this season, 31st the last five weeks and 27th the last three weeks.
Caleb Hanie made his 2011 starting debut for the Bears in Oakland last week and threw for 254 yards, two scores and three picks. A week earlier, Minnesota rookie QB threw for 211 yards, two scores and three picks. The Raiders have picked off seven passes in the last four games but have also given up two TDs a game in the same time. All told, the four QBs have all scored above 20 fantasy points.
The Dolphins defense has certainly improved and present a tough matchup for Raiders QB Carson Palmer and his injured receiving corps and RB Michael Bush as the lead back.
Moore is coming off his fourth double-digit fantasy day in the last five games after scoring 13.82 points against Dallas on Thanksgiving. Prior to the Dallas game, he scored 18.6 against Buffalo, 6.8 against Washington, 22.1 against Kansas City and 13.6 against the Giants. His No. 1 receiver, Brandon Marshall, has been up and down, but in three of the last four games he has at least 98 yards receiving and two touchdowns after going above 98 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the first eight games.
The consistency is not there for Moore but given the current QB situation around the NFL, I will take my chance with Moore against a team that has been ridiculously friendly to opposing quarterbacks over the last month both at home and on the road.
Ten days rest and the Oakland Raiders makes for a good recipe today.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
I’m going with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as a confident start in Week 13 at Houston.
It’s a tough matchup. Ryan’s got injuries on his side of the ball; the Texans are tough on the defensive side of the ball. But Ryan will come through for you this week as a starting fantasy QB in 12-team leagues.
Here’s what we’re looking at with the matchup.
Atlanta sees running back Michael Turner questionable as he battles a groin injury. Pass-catching backs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers could step in and be a help to Ryan’s fantasy numbers. If Turner tries to play through the injury, that takes away more opportunities for passes out of the backfield, though. Julio Jones (hamstring) could also miss basically his third straight game (came back last week with no targets). So Ryan would be left to get it done with a platoon backfield, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez.
Ryan has been a solid fantasy QB the last four games, only one of which Julio ones was a factor. Ryan has thrown for 262-plus yards in each game, nine total TDs and two interceptions. Ryan’s average line over those last four games is 301 yards on 23 completions, 2.3 TDs and .5 interceptions for three 22-point fantasy days.
The Texans are the No. 2 pass defense (175.8 YPG), have not given up more than 14 points in the last five games but have also not faced a stiff challenge in quite a while. The Falcons have not been held below 23 points since Week 6. Also, Houston rolls out rookie QB T.J. Yates for his first start and should give Atlanta’s ninth-ranked defense plenty of chances to get the ball back to Ryan and Co.
The Texans have not faced an every week fantasy QB starter this season since Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in Week 3. On that day, Big Ben completed 16-of-30 passes for 206 yards, no scores and an interception.
Since then, the Texans have seen Jason Campbell, Joe Flacco, Matt Hasselbeck, Blaine Gabbert twice, Colt McCoy and Josh Freeman. None are the who’s who of fantasy QBs, and collectively they were held to an average of 164 yards on 14 completions per game with five touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Since Week 6, Ryan has not dipped below 16 fantasy points — which is quite a feat considering some of the fringe QBs out there this season — and that is about what you could expect from him on Sunday. The Falcons have played five road games thus far and Ryan averages 16.04 points away from the Georgia Dome.
Yes, it’s a bad matchup for Ryan, and injuries to his weapons will hurt, but what are your other options?
Ryan is currently the seventh-best QB in fantasy points per game (17.3), ahead of Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow, Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Josh Freeman, Matt Hasselbeck, Joe Flacco, Colt McCoy, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith and Matt Moore.
Off that list, there’s only one I am thinking of starting ahead of Ryan. Roethlisberger played the Bengals in Week 10 and produced 12.6 points, but the Cincy defense is a lot more banged up just three weeks later. And you never know what you’re going to get from the others. Give me the guaranteed 16 with a good chance at more and I’m starting Ryan.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Sit St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson this week at San Francisco. There’s nothing that leans in Jackson’s favor in Week 13 — he’s going up against the NFL’s best rush defense and is doing so having not rushed for over 64 yards the last two weeks or having scored in the last month.
The 49ers are the best team against fantasy running backs this season — by almost a full three points per game average ahead of Atlanta. San Francisco has allowed just one touchdown to a running back this season and that came out of the passing game. The 49ers have given up just 674 rushing yards on 198 carries (3.4 YPC).
And in more recent weeks, the 49ers are a top-six team against fantasy running backs the last five weeks, and only two more teams ahead of them have seen more rushing attempts in that time. San Francisco has been run against 91 times for 337 yards (3.7 YPC) and of course no TDs.
The one saving grace for Jackson would be what San Francisco allows in the passing game. The 49ers have allowed 34 catches to running backs — the most of any team — over the last five weeks for 244 yards. Overall this season, San Francisco entered Week 13 allowing the fourth-most receptions to backs (62) for the 10th most yards (474).
The problem is: Us PPR folks still waiting for the 90-catch Steven Jackson of 2006 to return, it is just not happening. He has caught just 26 balls this season for 151 yards and one score. Since the 90-catch season, Jackson has not caught above 50 balls for more than 379 yards and has just three receiving scores since 2006.
And that’s just what we would like to see as a pass catcher out of Jackson. He has problems just as a running back right now. After a three-week run of 25-plus carries and 128-plus yard games — 25-159-2, 29-130-0, 27-128-0 —he has dropped off with 15-42-0 and 17-64-0 the last two weeks. San Francisco has seen a 20-plus carry back just once this season — last week when Ray Rice carried 21 times for 59 yards and added three catches for 24 yards and a 9.8-point fantasy day. The 59 yards is the second-most San Francisco has allowed this season.
Add in that his starting QB, Sam Bradford, is not likely to play (ankle) and this is a no-brainer sit for Jackson.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Washington Redskins running back Roy Helu was the No. 1 waiver pick up of the week in most fantasy leagues. So go play him in Week 13 vs. the New York Jets.
Redskins coach Mike Shanhan said the rookie back from Nebraska was ready to be a full-time back after last week’s strong outing, his second strong of the season. He carried 23 times for 108 yards and a score and added seven catches for 54 yards for a 25.7-point day.
It’s the kind of performance we wanted to see from Helu the previous two weeks after he basically had the same kind of fantasy day in Week 9. However, Shanahan duped fantasy owners after waiver claims for Helu flooded the Week 10 wire. He went from 19.6 points to 6.9 points in a week as Ryan Torain got the start the week after Helu blew up. And there Helu went back into the pool in a lot of leagues.
But now we are expected to believe Shanahan when he says Helu has the starting job and it’s his to lose. Call me a sucker, but for the 4-7 Redskins hopefully trying to evaluate what they have for next year, that’s good enough for me. Helu is young, quick has power and is a killer in PPR leagues.
The Redskins get a Jets team that is 13th against fantasy running backs this season and No. 1 the last five weeks. But Helu did his two weeks of damage against San Francisco and Seattle, the No. 1 and 12-ranked rush defenses.
Many of us have been killed at the running back position this season.
From Jamaal Charles going on IR early followed by Jahvid Best and Fred Jackson to players like Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden out this week to players like Ahmad Bradshaw and, Michael Turner hobbled to Steven Jackson and Cedric Benson having terrible matchups this week, Helu is a perfect start, particularly in PPR leagues.
The Redskins are going with the hot hand, so should you.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Julio Jones is expected to suit up against the Texans and make it into the starting lineup today after battling hamstring issues the last few weeks.
Jones missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday after missing the last two weeks of football, but should be playing today for the first time since November 13th.
The questions is, do you play him?
The short answer is yes. (The even shorter answer is y).
Jones has been pretty spectacular this season and there's no reason to think he'll be anythng less against a Texans defense that hasn't been that strong against the pass.
Matt Ryan will be glad to have his rookie burner back and will look to get him involved and get their rhythm back as the Falcons make their way for a playoff push.
It's a little scary that he didn't practice this week, which means there will be some rust, and probably a few timing issues. But looking at Julio's history, he managed to come into the league with limited training camp and produce right away.
And we're hoping he can do that again after missing practice for nearly a month.
Don't expect gigantic numbers out of Julio Jones today, but something along the lines of 5 catches for 65 yards and a score is probably the low end. Unless he tweaks his hammy again. Then all bets are off.
But the Falcons wouldn't be putting him out there if they thought he would injure that hamstring again. Start Julio Jones with confidence today against the Texans.
Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown’s targets have dropped off in recent weeks, but in PPR leagues he continues to be a great flex play. I see him pushing for top-12 receiver status in Week 13 against AFC North rival Cincinnati at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati’s Leon Hall is on injured reserve. Nate Clements didn’t practice on Friday with a bum hamstring. That’s the Bengals cornerback situation. Pass rushing defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who didn’t play in the Week 10 meeting, will be out again. More time and more opening for Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger to find receivers like Brown and No. 1 Mike Wallace.
Hall injured his Achilles with less than two minutes to go in the first half of the Week 10 meeting while covering Brown. Brown went on to finish with a 13.2-point day after catching five balls for 86 yards on six targets.
Brown has been a target magnet since Week 7’s nine-target day against Arizona. He has since had games of 15, 11, 6 and 6 targets. I would certainly rather see target days like he had three and four games ago, but he continues to produce with the lower targets.
His breakout was the Week 7 nine-target game that he turned into seven catches for 102 yards. He followed with a nine-catch, 67-yard, one-TD game on 15 targets. The 11-target game produced a five-catch, 109-yard day. The targets dropped off to six the last two weeks, but Brown has gone 5-for-86 and 4-for-81, leading the Steelers in receiving yards both times.
Cincinnati has the fifth-best rushing defense in the league at 92.7 yards per game with 10 touchdowns allowed. And the Steelers continue to let you know this isn’t your daddy’s Steelers — they are a passing team. They rank eighth in the NFL at 264.9 yards per game with 17 touchdowns, while the run game is ranked 18th at 109.6 yards per game.
So it is through the air where the Steelers will succeed and where the Bengals are currently vulnerable. Pittsburgh is third in points per game from fantasy receivers this season (6th the last five weeks), while Cincinnati is 16th against fantasy receivers and 31st the last five weeks.
Start Brown with confidence and expect a bounce back from Mike Wallace.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
I said last week Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown was a good flex play against the Carolina Panthers terrible run defense. Brown produced with a 16.2-point fantasy day against Carolina, just his second double-digit fantasy day of the season.
That was last week.
Now the Colts travel to play the New England Patriots, their 11th-ranked rush defense (102.4 YPG), second-ranked offense (429.5 YPG) and third-ranked scoring offense (30.1 PPG). And Indianapolis rolls out Dan Orlovsky to replace Curtis Painter as the Colts’ starting QB with the Colts already having the 31st-ranked team when it comes to fantasy points per game from the RB position.
Where are Brown’s chances to produce going to come from against New England when the Colts are down double digits?
Since the 80 yards and a score made for Brown’s best day of the season, let’s look at the last time New England allowed a running back to get at least those numbers. You have to go back to Week 5 when Shonn Greene carried 21 times for 83 yards and a score and caught two balls for nine yards in a 30-21 defeat.
I don’t see Brown getting 21 carries. I don’t see the Colts scoring 21 points. I don’t see where Brown can help out your fantasy roster in Week 13.
The Colts have not had a back carry more than Joseph Addai’s 17 times in Week 3 at Pittsburgh and have not have over 80 yards since Delone Carter’s 89 in Week 7 at New Orleans and Addai’s 86 in Week 3 against Pittsburgh.
In games against top-12 scoring offenses — Week 1 at Houston, Week 3 vs. Pittsburgh, Week 7 at New Orleans and Week 9 vs. Atlanta — the Colts’ lead back has carried 8 times, 17 times, 10 times and 16 times. The lead back averages 11 fantasy points in those four games.
So hope you had Brown in last week and enjoyed his day. It was the last like that for him this season with the Patriots, Ravens, Titans and Texans to close out the fantasy season.
By Corby A. Yarbrough @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
UCLA has a proud tradition in football, but the last two decades have been very mediocre outside of three or four special seasons. The Bruins’ last Rose Bowl win? That would be a victory over Iowa at the end of the 1985 season. UCLA has been to two Rose Bowls since then but lost both to Wisconsin, concluding the 1993 and 1998 seasons. With Rick Neuhesiel leaving, the Bruins need to hit a home run hire. The widely-speculated frontrunner for the job was Boise State’s Chris Petersen, but there are reports he will stay in Idaho. If that is the case, the search becomes wide open. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin’s name comes up in every coaching search, but he may be receive more lucrative offers from Texas A&M and Arizona State. Other names that have been mentioned are former Oregon boss Mike Bellotti and former Raiders coach Tom Cable. Two other bowl-bound head coaches with Pac-12 ties are Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes and Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart. UCLA has traditionally not paid top dollar for coaches, but that may need to change with this hire to rejuvenate the fan base.
Who is your favorite to UCLA’s next coach?
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Boise State’s Chris Petersen should be the obvious top candidate with amazing run with the Broncos, but I do not see him taking the UCLA job. Ditto for Kevin Sumlin, who will probably get more money from other schools. I think three names that would be great fits in Westwood are Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes, Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart and Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. All three have coached in the Pac-12 and are offensive coaches, something the Bruins need badly. Despite Dykes and Taggart having head coaching experience, I think Chryst is a rising star that would be an excellent hire for UCLA. His offenses at Wisconsin and Oregon State have been stellar, and I believe he would be a great fit in the Bruins’ price range and academic culture.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a very important hire for UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. USC will have scholarship reductions for the next couple of seasons, and the Bruins have only one season of more than eight wins since 1999. The new Pac-12 television contract will add more funds into the Bruins’ search, and it seems like UCLA is ready to make a run at all of the big names available. Even though there are reports that he will not be a candidate, Boise State’s Chris Petersen has to be target No. 1. He is a California native and has an impressive 71-6 record with the Broncos. However, I can’t see him leaving for UCLA. Houston’s Kevin Sumlin should be target No. 2, but it seems Texas A&M or Arizona State is a more likely destination. Where does that leave UCLA? I’d take a look at SMU’s June Jones, former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and Wyoming’s Dave Christensen. None of those names have the flash of a Petersen or Sumlin, but would be a good hire. Out of those three coaches, Jones would be the one I would target. He’s got a flashy offense and has resurrected two programs: SMU and Hawaii.
Manny Diaz is wrapping up his first season as the defensive coordinator at Texas, so he may not be in any hurry to move on — and he may have filled Will Muschamp's shoes as the unofficial "coach in waiting... for Mack Brown to retire." If not, UCLA would be a great fit for Diaz. The 37-year-old does not have ties to the West Coast; he is the son and namesake of the former Miami mayor, attended Florida State and coached at NC State, Middle Tennessee and under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State before arriving in Austin. But Diaz's personality and aggressive defensive style will fit in anywhere. Plus, the southern California talent pool is ripe for recruiting, USC has scholarship sanctions and the Pac-12 South is winnable — after all, the Bruins won the division (by default) this year. The great thing about Diaz and UCLA is that the two could grow together. The Bruins have long been in the shadow of the Trojans. But UCLA has the potential to be a "destination"-type of gig. The right coach could go to the Rose Bowl on a consistent basis and possibly contend for BCS national titles at UCLA. Diaz would be that coach.
I'm going a little outside of the box here, but I'm going to say Jack Del Rio, who was relieved of his duties as the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach earlier this week. I know that Del Rio is a USC graduate, so it may seem like borderline-blasphemy to even suggest him, but hear me out. UCLA's biggest competition is USC. USC's head coach is Lane Kiffin, who is a big personality, dare I say, slightly arrogant? What better way for UCLA to get back into the game, if you will, then to hire a similar big personality, which is what Del Rio brings. Better still, the two would represent the yin and yang of football, with Kiffin being offense and Del Rio, an All-American linebacker in college and All-Pro in the NFL, who went on to make his name as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator before becoming the Jaguars' head coach, all about the defense. Sure Del Rio has zero experience as a coach in the college ranks, meaning he's never had to recruit a day in his life. But remember, UCLA and USC are in Los Angeles, which is home to Hollywood, the land of big egos, I mean, personalities. So shouldn't the crosstown rivals both have head coaches that fit that mold?
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
North Carolina is the only ACC school likely to make a coaching change this season. After an off-the-field scandal and a NCAA investigation, Butch Davis was fired as the team’s coach in July. Everett Withers served as the team’s interim coach, leading the Tar Heels to a 7-5 record. Although Withers will have a chance to retain the job on a permanent basis, North Carolina will interview other candidates.
Who will coach at North Carolina in 2012?
Troy Calhoun, head coach, Air Force – Calhoun is one to watch if you are looking for a under-the-radar option in North Carolina’s coaching search. In five seasons at Air Force, he has compiled a 41-23 record and five consecutive bowl appearances (counting 2011). He has served as an assistant at Ohio and Wake Forest, while working in the NFL with the Broncos and Texans. Although Calhoun runs an option offense at Air Force, his background in the NFL suggests he would adapt to whichever offensive style is necessary to win. Calhoun is a solid coach and would be a terrific hire for North Carolina. However, he graduated from Air Force, so it would take a lot to make him leave Colorado Springs for Chapel Hill.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora is going to have plenty of options on where he can coach next season. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record and a Conference USA East title this year. Fedora also has stops as an assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State. There’s no shortage of suitors for Fedora, so North Carolina will have to move quickly if he is at the top of its list.
Bud Foster, defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech – Foster has been one of the top defensive coordinators in college football over the last 10 years. He has interviewed for a few head coaching jobs, but has spent his career as an assistant. Foster would not be a flashy hire and his lack of head coaching experience could work against him. However, there’s no question he deserves a shot to run his own program – if he’s interested in leaving Virginia Tech.
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt – Franklin has only been at Vanderbilt for one season, but he made quite an impression. The Commodores finished the regular season with a 6-6 record and a likely berth in the Liberty Bowl. Franklin has experience coaching in the ACC, working at Maryland from 2000-04 and 2008-10. Although North Carolina may be interested in him, it’s unlikely Franklin would accept the job. Vanderbilt is working on a contract extension, which would keep him in Nashville for the immediate future.
Skip Holtz, head coach, South Florida – With the Big East’s uncertain future, Holtz may be looking to land at a job with more stability. In two years at South Florida, he has compiled a 13-11 record and led the Bulls to a berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season. Before landing in South Florida, Holtz posted a 38-27 record at East Carolina and led the Pirates to two Conference USA titles. He also has the reputation of running a clean program, which has to appeal to North Carolina after the end of the Butch Davis era. Holtz also has an outgoing personality, which would be a hit with the fans and boosters.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – After a disappointing 4-8 record last season, Jones has Cincinnati back on the right track. The Bearcats are 8-3 with one game remaining and still have a shot to win the Big East. Before coming to Cincinnati, Jones went 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan. He also has experience as an assistant from 2005-06 at West Virginia. Jones has maintained he is happy at Cincinnati, but his name has popped up in searches at Illinois and UCLA.
Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator, Auburn – Malzahn is regarded as one of the top offensive coordinators in college football and is ready for his first head coaching gig in college. His only head coaching positions came on the high school level in Arkansas at Hughes and Shiloh Christian. In addition to his current job at Auburn, he worked as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas (2006) and Tulsa (2007-08). Athletic director Bubba Cunningham was at Tulsa during Malzahn’s tenure there, so there is plenty of familiarity between these two. Although he has never been a head coach at the college level, Malzahn is one of the most desired names in coaching searches this offseason. Also, his high-powered offenses would have no trouble attracting talent to Chapel Hill.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State – Mullen’s name has been in the rumor mill over the last week, popping up as one of the favorites in the Penn State coaching search. As a Pennsylvania native, he is expected to be high on the list to be the Nittany Lions’ next coach. Could Mullen be interested in North Carolina? Winning at Mississippi State is not easy, especially in a difficult SEC West. In three years in Starkville, he has compiled a 20-17 record. Although Mullen has denied he will depart Mississippi State this year, he might get a call to gauge his interest in the North Carolina position.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – Petersen’s name always comes up with any BCS opening, so he appears on many coaching lists by default. His name has been mentioned in connection with the UCLA opening, but it’s very unlikely he will leave Boise State. If Petersen ends up at North Carolina, it will be a major surprise.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – The Tar Heels are another team in the growing line of suitors for Sumlin. He has been rumored to be in the mix at Kansas, Arizona State, UCLA, Ole Miss and Illinois. It’s no surprise Sumlin is a hot commodity in coaching searches, as he has a 35-16 record in four seasons at Houston. The Cougars are also one win away from playing in a BCS game. Sumlin will have his pick of jobs, which means North Carolina needs to move quick if he is their No. 1 candidate.
Everett Withers, interim head coach, North Carolina – Withers inherited a difficult situation this year, taking over for former coach Butch Davis in late July. The Tar Heels finished with a solid 7-5 record and had close losses to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami. However, Withers probably hurt his chances of getting the job with his comments about NC State in early November and he has no other head coaching experience. Although Withers was a solid replacement for this year, it’s unlikely he will keep the full-time position.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After four seasons in College Station, Texas A&M has decided to fire coach Mike Sherman. Under his watch, the Aggies posted a 25-25 record and did not win any bowl appearances. After a 9-4 finish last year, Texas A&M appeared to be on the right track, appearing in many preseason top-10 lists. However, the Aggies had trouble finishing games and closed with a disappointing loss to Texas on Thanksgiving night. With Texas A&M headed to the SEC, this is an important hire for athletic director Bill Byrne and president R. Bowen Loftin.
Art Briles, head coach, Baylor – Briles has been a successful coach on the high school and college level, with all of his experience coming in Texas. After working at the high school level from 1979-1999, he made a stop as a Texas Tech assistant from 2000-02, then accepted the head coaching spot at Houston. Briles led the Cougars to a 34-28 record in five seasons, including four bowl appearances. He has spent the last four seasons at Baylor, recording a 23-25 record. Although Briles has a losing record with the Bears, he has significantly upgraded the talent and overall competitiveness of this team since his arrival. Briles seems content at Baylor, but Texas A&M is a step up on the coaching ladder and the opportunity to work in the SEC.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora has been mentioned as a target for Ole Miss, Illinois, Kansas, Arizona State and UCLA. While Fedora could be interested in any of those jobs, Texas A&M is probably much more appealing. He was born in College Station and played at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Fedora also has stints as an assistant at Baylor, Air Force, MTSU, Florida and Oklahoma State. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record with one Conference USA East title. Fedora would be a good fit at Texas A&M, but Sumlin is believed to be target No. 1.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – Jones has done a good job of turning around struggling programs, making a stop at Hawaii from 1998-07 and SMU since 2008. The Warriors went 76-41 under Jones, while the Mustangs are 23-28 in four seasons. He also has NFL experience, spending time with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones has to be appealing in the Aggies’ coaching search, thanks to a high-powered passing attack and his recent experience coaching in Texas. He is also expected to be in the mix at UCLA or Arizona State, so there could be a lot of interest for his services. Also, Jones is paid very well for a non-BCS coach, and it would likely take a hefty contract to pry him away from SMU.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson – Out of the seven coaches mentioned on this list, Morris is probably the biggest longshot. He has spent just two years on the FBS level, jumping from Lake Travis High School to Tulsa offensive coordinator in 2010 and taking over the same position at Clemson in 2011. Morris is one of the rising stars in the assistant ranks and runs an up-tempo scheme that averaged 41.4 points a game at Tulsa last season and 33.3 at Clemson this year. Morris graduated from Texas A&M in 1992, but is lack of experience at the FBS level has to hurt his chances of getting the full-time position.
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama – Smart is another hot name in coaching searches and is believed to be drawing interest from Ole Miss. He has worked under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007, and has additional stops as an assistant at Georgia, LSU and Valdosta State. Smart has one year of NFL experience, spending the 2006 season with Saban and the Dolphins. Smart is due for a shot to lead a program, but current Saban assistants (Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley) haven’t been a smashing success as a head coach. Also, how much of Alabama’s defensive success is due to Saban?
Charlie Strong, head coach, Louisville – Strong recently signed a contract extension at Louisville, but could be in the mix at Texas A&M. He has done a terrific job in just two years with the Cardinals, posting a 14-11 record and a Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl victory last season. Strong has a wealth of experience as an assistant, making stops at Texas A&M, Florida, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and South Carolina. There’s no question Strong is a rising star in the coaching ranks, but is he ready to leave Louisville? The Cardinals could be a preseason top 25 team next season and will be the likely frontrunner in the Big East. If he waits another year, his stock could be higher.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin is a wanted man. His name has jumped into consideration at Kansas, Arizona State, UCLA, Illinois and now Texas A&M. In four years at Houston, he has compiled a 35-16 record and is one win away from taking the Cougars to a BCS game. Sumlin has a solid resume as an assistant, working at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops from 2003-07 and from 2001-02 at Texas A&M under R.C. Slocum. Considering Sumlin’s previous experience in College Station and Houston’s successful 2011 season, he has to be the clear frontrunner for Texas A&M.
Kellen Moore, Boise State
Kellen Moore is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
The Boise State senior signal-caller is finishing off a brilliant career in which he set a new record for most wins as a starting quarterback with 48, surpassing Colt McCoy.
His season began with a bang in the Broncos’ win over Georgia at Atlanta. He was 28-of-34 passing for 261 yards and three scores in that contest.
In Boise State’s lone loss, Moore drove his troops into field goal range before a potential game-winning kick sailed wide as time expired.
Andrew Luck, Stanford
Andrew Luck is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
Widely projected as a high pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Luck spurned the NFL for another year in college, and Stanford fans certainly rejoiced. Luck didn’t disappoint the Cardinal faithful and, if anything, actually improved his NFL stock with another terrific season.
Trusted with some play-calling responsibilities, the fourth-year junior has freedom to change plays and protections. After throwing an interception that was returned for a TD against USC with just more than three minutes to play, he rallied his team for the tying score and the eventual win in overtime.
Luck led the Cardinal to an 11-1 season with the only blemish a 53-30 loss to Pac-12 North champion Oregon. For his part, Luck passed for 3,170 yards and 35 touchdowns.
He has led the Stanford Cardinal to back-to-back BCS bowls.
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Has the Top 35 rule run its course?
Without question. Frankly, the rule should have never been around in the first place. It was designed at the end of 2004 to combat “field filler” operations — bare-bones Cup teams using provisionals just to start and park — and it was debatable whether such a drastic move was even needed to kill them off. There’s no doubt the rule did just that; within six months, it knocked out entire organizations looking simply to show up and collect a check each week.
But NASCAR circa 2008 is a whole different story. With 47 full-time teams now involved in the series, competition is at an all-time high. Each weekend, fully funded teams like Michael Waltrip Racing, Team Red Bull and The Wood Brothers come to the track loaded and ready to race — except that they have one hand tied behind their backs. For those outside the top 35 in points, the majority of Friday practice must be focused on qualifying, while teams with exemptions can work on race setups from the start. That creates a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario: if those “outsider” teams actually make the race, they have so much less practice time that it’s nearly impossible for them to dig out of the hole they’re in. It’s an ugly merry-go-round that never stops, and for those lying squarely on the top 35 “bubble,” the importance of maintaining their position has become so high that they wind up racing conservatively rather than letting it all hang out.
NASCAR’s motives are somewhat pure. It wants to protect both the sponsors and teams putting hard-earned money into the series each week. But isn’t sports about competition, not safety nets? To its credit, the sanctioning body at least made a change this offseason that allowed the non-top 35 teams to qualify together. But what good will that do in a system where the ninth-fastest qualifying time still could get sent home, just because the team didn’t have as many points as everyone else?
The Gatorade Duel 150’s at Daytona are now simply nothing more than a glorified math problem. How fun are qualifying races to watch when three dozen cars are automatically in the field to begin with?
Here’s the ugly truth: nowadays a major sponsor will go home each week — that’s just the way it is. But it’s time to let to the driving on the track decide which of those sponsors it will be. After all, isn’t qualifying part of the competition that makes a race weekend a ‘race weekend’?
2. Will a rivalry develop between Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Originally, we would have said no — and then two incidents during the Chase got us thinking differently. Busch’s chances at a title went up in smoke courtesy of an “accidental” tap by Junior at Kansas, a boo-boo that would be 100 percent believable — if it hadn’t occurred on the middle of the back straightaway. The two wound up coming together again at Homestead, where Junior’s pit road spinout caused him to make contact with the No. 5 car. By then, title dreams for Busch were up in smoke, but that didn’t keep him from being smoking mad at Junior all over again.
Look, it’s no secret that Busch is bitter after being pushed out of a ride at Hendrick, an organization he thought he’d be in the rest of his career. It’s not all that often you see a man who finished fifth in points switching rides at the beginning of the next season, and in Kyle’s defense, he’s got reason to complain. The fact of the matter is, no amount of immaturity would have taken him out of a ride he excelled in if Mr. Popularity hadn’t been available.
But while Junior was adjusting to a brighter future, Busch got busy landing on his feet over at rival Joe Gibbs Racing, and that’s what makes this interesting. Not only is Busch out to prove he’s been wronged by the team that dumped him, but the kid might also have the equipment underneath him to make his case. In ’08 testing at Atlanta last Fall, Busch blew his old team — as well as everyone else — out of the water, posting the fastest time of anyone there in his new Toyota Camry.
That left no doubt that Busch is fired up, but will he do enough to piss off his replacement? A laid-back personality most of the time, Junior can be fiery on the radio but rarely on the racetrack; unlike his dad, he’ll say I’m sorry after a wreck instead of shaking his middle finger. Still, with the pressure to perform at Hendrick likely to cause more than a little stress next year, don’t be surprised to see a whole different Junior if he gets involved in a wreck not of his making; and right now, it’s not a question of if he’ll receive some payback from Busch. It’s a question of when.
3. What are the potential pitfalls of financial investors entering the sport?
George Gillett, Robert Kauffman and John Henry, we don’t mean to be rude. There’s nothing but respect for the millions of dollars you bring to the NASCAR table — and the all-too-gracious attitude you’ve displayed in spending what it takes to be competitive.
It’s just that, well, you’re a different breed of “car owner” than what we’re accustomed to seeing. Bud Moore, Junie Donlavey, Junior Johnson — now these were men who cared about the traditions of our sport, mostly because they lived it. Along for the ride since NASCAR’s inception, these famous entrepreneurs succeeded at racing’s top level without the seemingly unlimited funding it takes to be competitive nowadays. Most important, though, when the going got tough, they dug in their heels. Diehard racers to the core, by no means would they ever just pack up and leave, for NASCAR wasn’t just a job for them — it was part of their soul.
Where the hesitation comes in with men like Gillett, Kauffman and Henry is whether they entertain that same type of love for a sport they’re approaching as little more than part of a business. Some might argue that these men couldn’t even name 10 drivers in a 43-car field as recently as six months ago; now, all three wield enormous power over the top level of the most prestigious stock car organization in the world.
That’s not to say these men can’t be successful. But what if they bite off more than they can chew, losing more money than expected right off the bat? Will they stick around and gut out their losses, or will they simply cut and run, leaving a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams in their wake? Such a nightmare scenario of crashing and burning in NASCAR can already be condensed into two words: Bobby Ginn. In February, Ginn was the maverick owner with a five-year plan whose driver nearly stole the Daytona 500; by November, he was the maverick scam artist with a list of out-of-court settlements a mile long.
You can’t really blame people like Ray Evernham, Michael Waltrip and even Jack Roush for taking these guys on — NASCAR’s a game of who has the most money these days, and they’ve got to do what it takes to keep up.
For their sake, we just hope those checks keep coming in.
4. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back at DEI, and what happens now?
The worst thing any fan can hear from the insiders is “we may never know the truth.” In this case, though, the issues between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother Teresa look to be increasingly complex, far beyond the power struggle that has played out in the media. There’s a saying that family quarrels have a bitterness unmatched by others, and when it comes to a lifetime of differences, no one can adequately explain that story better than both parties, each giving their side. Unfortunately for the gossip hounds, Teresa has chosen to keep her mouth shut; that’s her prerogative, and until that changes all we can tell you is that this move came down to basic, irreconcilable differences in philosophy — nothing more, nothing less.
Now, DEI looks to the future, and to do so it must first come to terms with the past — and that goes beyond digesting the fact that Junior is gone. Last July, DEI ingested a sprawling operation in Ginn Racing, and as of November it was still struggling to integrate that merger into every facet of its program. Luckily for DEI, that merger came packed with one heck of a secret weapon: Mark Martin. Even at 48, Martin possesses the type of leadership skills and insight this organization needs to formulate a plan of cohesive success. Having taken youngster Regan Smith under his wing in ’07, Martin hopes to do the same type of tutoring this year with co-driver Aric Almirola.
But the individual who really could benefit from Martin’s teachings is the other Martin. Martin Truex Jr. emerged as far more than Earnhardt’s sidekick in ’07; once his buddy became a “lame duck,” Truex stepped up and took the leadership role to heart over at DEI. However, a frustrating Chase seemed to cause him to revert to the Truex of old, letting emotions get the better of him one too many times. For DEI to step it up, Truex needs to bring it down a notch — driving with his head and not with his heart. If he can learn to be patient, there’s nowhere to go with this four-car program but up — especially now that the loss of Joe Gibbs Racing has bumped it up the ladder at Chevrolet.
5. Are team orders ruining racing?
It’s on the verge of happening. Fans may remember the ugliness of 2004 at Richmond, when we believe that this all began. In a desperation move, Chip Ganassi Racing angrily demanded that James Finch’s car driven by Mike Wallace should “slow down” in order for Jamie McMurray to pass. At the time, Ganassi gave technical support to Finch’s group, and with a berth in the Chase at stake for McMurray, it figured competition be damned.
Luckily for the good of the sport, Wallace didn’t give in, but the price tag proved high, as the small-time team lost its partnership with Ganassi soon after. You’d think that ugly incident would have sounded the NASCAR alarm, but ever since that day, it seems the problem has gotten 10 times worse.
At Dover this season, a glimpse into a repulsive future was offered to all of us; at the end of the race, Casey Mears reluctantly pulled over for his teammate Kyle Busch at the request of the Hendrick organization, giving Busch five more points in the battle for the ’07 title. At the time, Busch’s car was a mangled mess, damaged in an earlier wreck; but even though Mears had four fresh tires, his shot for the win became secondary to “being a good teammate.” When that move went public, the garage reaction was even more revolting. Not only did people feel Hendrick was in the right, but they also claimed that the team was merely doing what was necessary to keep up with the Joneses. Why, just one week earlier, Greg Biffle had done the exact same thing for Roush Fenway Racing at New Hampshire — all in the name of giving Carl Edwards that three-point boost for the title.
But what’s good for the team isn’t good for competition. What’s going to happen one year when Mears is leading the final race of the season at Homestead, but Jeff Gordon’s running second and needs to take the win in order to complete his Drive For Five?
At this point, there’s virtually no doubt Mears would pull over, cutting the fan base in half with the white flag of surrender. Now, if you’re NASCAR, how do you police this? We don’t have the answer yet, but throwing up your hands and doing nothing about it — the sanctioning body’s response to this so far — is not going to help correct this problem.
6. Car of Tomorrow: Success or Failure?
NASCAR’s latest method for tightening its control over the sport came in the form of the much-heralded (and ballyhooed) Car of Tomorrow. The CoT made its debut at Bristol last season to not-so-rave reviews. Race winner Kyle Busch went so far as to say the car “sucked” in his Victory Lane interview.
The car, which was implemented to provide a safer machine to the competitors while increasing competition and saving owners money, has widely been panned by drivers, teams and fans alike.
While the first two CoT events, at Bristol and Martinsville, witnessed .064- and .065-second margins of victory — not unusual for a short track finish — the other 14 CoT races proved hard to watch.
With aerodynamic adjustments off-limits to the teams, the cars were cookie-cutter recreations of one another with no aero differences. While that may sound like a recipe for great racing — bunch the field up and the drama goes up proportionally — it instead made it hard for drivers to pass, as Matt Kenseth pointed out.
“If everybody is running the same speed, how are you gonna pass?” he asked. Good question.
Drivers, teams, officials and NASCAR understand that the car is still a work in progress and will most likely improve the financial conditions that owners now face. The racing itself will also improve a bit over time as drivers and teams continue to perfect the nuances of the piece.
In the short term, though, NASCAR must deal with a backlash from fans who accurately see a series that once rewarded ingenuity transformed into a resurrected IROC Series.
So the answer seems to be that the Car of Tomorrow Era is off to a shaky start, and that the directive from the sanctioning body will continue to be a less-than-popular one. But the car is not going away, so like it or not, this is the face of the sport, circa 2008.
7. Which driver at Roush Racing stands the greatest chance of losing his ride as the company condenses from five to four teams by 2009?
Trick question! The answer is none. In case you haven’t noticed, the two-car team that was Yates Racing has quietly transformed into a little dinner joint we like to call “Roush B.” Ever since former owner Robert Yates announced his retirement, the organization he led to the ’99 Cup championship has now deteriorated into little more than the new right arm for Jack Roush’s future R & D projects. Consider these facts:
Within 48 hours after transferring the deed to his son, Doug, the open seat in the team’s No. 88 (now No. 28) car was magically filled for 2008 — by none other than Roush Fenway Truck Series driver Travis Kvapil. Kind of funny how that worked, considering the team already seemed to have a driver in place. Kenny Wallace was busy subbing for an injured Ricky Rudd at the time; up until Yates’ retirement announcement, he appeared all but a shoe-in to get the ride the following year.
But Wallace was kicked off the ship of the future, and soon afterwards, a lot of old-time Yates employees jumped off to join him on shore. The team quickly announced a move from their shop in Mooresville, N.C. to a building right next to the main Roush Fenway facility down the road in Concord. Right away, the new neighbors figured Doug Yates would need plenty of help, so they wasted no time sending a housewarming gift — a new co-owner. Former Roush Fenway GM Max Jones pledged to work together with Yates to oversee construction of chassis delivered by — you guessed it — the Roush Fenway program next door.
No offense to Jack Roush, but how much more obvious can you make the fact that you just expanded from five cars to seven? Now, all he has to do at the end of this season is have the Yates/Jones group “purchase” one of the teams currently in his possession. Like clockwork, the cars move one building down the road and — voila! — Roush is technically down to a four-car organization, washing his hands of this whole NASCAR team limit rule.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the elder Yates was OK with letting this happen. No doubt, it’s a sad state of affairs for a team that used to run circles around Roush no more than half a dozen years ago.
8. How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fare at Hendrick Motorsports?
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his intention to leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc., last May, Rick Hendrick realized the potential of teaming his wildly successful organization — a company that boasts four Cup titles over the preceding decade — with the sport’s most recognizable, popular and marketable personality.
Although some have questioned Earnhardt’s true driving ability and where it stacks up against the greats of the sport, the 32-year-old does boast 17 career Cup wins, two Busch Series titles and three finishes of fifth or better in the Nextel Cup point standings. That’s more than many drivers — some thought to be more naturally gifted and in better equipment — can claim.
Junior left DEI to win championships, and the fact of the matter is, Hendrick Motorsports is the perfect place to go to achieve that goal. While he will have to learn to fit into the system at a company known for its white-collar approach and clean-cut, wholesome reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he finds his niche within the organization and learns to succeed working within its parameters.
How many princes can live in the same kingdom will be the larger issue with a group that includes Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But Hendrick is a leader of the highest caliber, and if anyone can make everyone play nice, it’s him.
Don’t expect Earnhardt to set the circuit ablaze this season, but he will rack up his share of wins in the next few years and should win the championship that proved unattainable at DEI.
9. Have the latest changes to the Chase format worked as expected?
It’s a mixed review of sorts. To a man, each driver liked the new way in which the playoff format was “seeded” in ’07; the extra bonus points for wins made finishes more exciting, as the extra incentive to go all out for a regular-season race trophy paid off.
But it seemed like having 12 drivers compete for the title made far too many people feel like they had a chance at the Chase, diminishing the focus on the racing at each individual event. Certain title contenders also pulled so far ahead of the 13th-place bubble that by the last month of the regular season, they spent a four-race stretch literally twiddling their thumbs. That’s a consequence of the 10-point win bonus; if a “locked-in” Chase driver doesn’t have a car that could win the race, why would he bother to take any chances? A fifth or a seventh wouldn’t really matter for Jeff Gordon in the grand scheme of things, since it wasn’t going to earn him a better playoff “seeding.”
So if the Chase still has to exist — and it looks like it’s not going anywhere — early results seem to be better with 10 drivers gunning for the title, not 12.
Check out this Richmond drama if the field had been cut by two in ’07: Clint Bowyer would have made it in by the skin of his teeth, at ninth in points by 19 over Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch. Those two would have tied for the 10th and final spot in the Chase, giving us an unlikely field of 11 contenders, with Kevin Harvick missing the boat by only five points.
Now that’s one heck of a battle for the playoffs. Instead, fans were treated to three straight hours of seeing if Brian France would simply change the rules and let longshot Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the Chase in 13th.
Such nonsense didn’t happen, and now the question is whether France has one more rule change left in him. Let’s see if he’ll use it for 2008.
10. Should Greg Biffle have been awarded the win at Kansas last season?
In one of the craziest races seen in quite some time, Greg Biffle was flagged the winner of the LifeLock 400 at Kansas Speedway last season. The event had been shortened by a lengthy rain delay and chopped from 400 miles to 315 on account of impending darkness.
After a late caution that would have taken the race into a green-white-checker finish, NASCAR decided to call the race then and there, with Biffle leading the field but running on fumes.
Coming to the checkers/yellow behind the pace car and at caution speed, Biffle’s car slowed, appearing to have run out of fuel. When Biffle dipped to the apron of the track, second- and third-place Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson cruised by, crossing the finish line ahead of Biffle.
Biffle claimed he was not out of fuel, but just conserving enough gas to do a few victory burnouts. He never did, though, as NASCAR asked his team to push the car directly to Victory Lane instead.
While Biffle and team claim otherwise, it seemed obvious that he was, in fact, out of fuel, and because he could not keep a “cautious pace” gave up his spot in the running order.
The rule book, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, states:
“…cars will be scored on the basis of their respective track position. No passing will be permitted, as long as cars maintain a reasonable speed considering the conditions that exist on the track. The determination of respective track position and a reasonable speed are judgment calls that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
Get that last part? “Reasonable speed (is a) judgment call that will be made by NASCAR Officials.”
How a driver can be flagged the winner without having crossed the start/finish line first remains a mystery. Although the field was frozen with Biffle in the lead, he could not keep a cautious speed, which truly is the central point here.
The singular objective in racing of any form is to complete the full distance of the event before all other competitors. Biffle did not.
So no, Greg Biffle should not have been awarded the Kansas win, but because the guys in race control seemingly fell asleep at the wheel, his victory will stand.
11. Why did Joe Gibbs Racing defect from Chevrolet to Toyota?
Three reasons: pecking order on the GM food chain, lots of cash and foresight.
JGR, although successful to the tune of 58 wins and three Cup titles in 16 seasons in the sport, would never supplant Hendrick Motorsports as GM’s top dog. At Toyota, the Gibbs powerhouse brings the swagger and success the new manufacturer desires. In short, JGR will receive the best resources Toyota has to give.
Some of what Toyota can give may have already been delivered. Gibbs was the recipient of a reported $60-$75 million to jump the GM ship. In a sport that is strictly a business six days a week, the bottom line demanded that Gibbs make the decision.
Lastly, Joe Gibbs is a man of vision. Whether winning Super Bowls or Cup titles, he has obviously mastered the art of motivation and leadership. If Gibbs’ transition results in wins and championships, other owners — Roger Penske and Ray Evernham come to mind — will wish they had had the foresight to capitalize on Toyota’s new way of doing business.
12. Is it time for NASCAR to revamp the schedule?
This topic is one that demands a feature unto itself but can be summed up quickly enough. The simple answer is yes, NASCAR needs to shake up the logistics of the schedule to better accommodate the teams and the fans. After all, 14- and 17-race streaks could be divided up to give everyone a well-deserved break.
NASCAR’s larger problem centers around the stagnation of the Chase and its venues. A 10-race playoff stretch is much too long to hold the attention of a fanbase already weary from a 26-race regular season. Further, said events need to be rotated among all of the circuit’s venues to ensure a renewed interest in a playoff format whose legitimacy and entertainment value are questioned by many as it now stands.
The unfortunate truth, however, tells us that changing the venues and/or dates may prove to be difficult at best. With Chase-hosted tracks basing their year-long marketing programs around the fact that they host a coveted spot on tour, the call would depend in large part on the blessings of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Dover Motorsport, Inc.
Like many issues alive within the sport today, the question is easier to answer on paper than to enact as policy.
13. What tracks are in jeopardy of losing a date now that Bruton Smith owns New Hampshire International Speedway?
The obvious answer is New Hampshire itself. When Smith, the owner and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., bought the one-mile oval from Bob Bahre in November 2007 for $340 million, the assumption was that he would move New Hampshire’s September date — the event that kicks off NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship — to Las Vegas, where the billionaire could host a spectacle in a city known for spectacles.
SMI owns and operates seven race tracks that host Cup events: Atlanta, Bristol, Infineon, Las Vegas, Lowe’s, New Hampshire and Texas. Atlanta, Bristol, Texas and, currently, New Hampshire each have two dates, and Smith has made his desire for a second date in Vegas widely known.
While New Hampshire is candidate No. 1 to forfeit a date, it also makes a case for itself to retain its events because of its location. NHIS, along with Watkins Glen and Pocono, are the only tracks in the coveted Northeast market to host Cup races. Also, if Smith were to upgrade the facility, installing lights and variable banking, the quality of racing would improve as well.
Atlanta is a candidate to give up a date as the South is well-represented, and the track has difficulty selling out both races. One of its dates could go to Vegas, with the new date swapped with NHIS to accommodate the first Chase date.
What Smith plans to do with his two new dates remain a mystery, but his track record (read: North Wilkesboro) points to a track being purchased for its dates, not its specific events.
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Monte Dutton
Many NASCAR insiders would prefer that the spots in the starting fields of Sprint Cup races were determined by franchises. It’s a team sport, they say, so why shouldn’t it be composed of organized teams assured of a chance to compete in every race?
“There are two or three of us who like the idea of a franchise,” understates Richard Petty. “NASCAR, basically, does not.”
It’s a complicated issue, and the central complication is the complexity in comparing auto racing to other sports. Stock-car racers are fond of calling theirs “the ultimate team sport,” though, by definition, it isn’t a team sport at all.
Two teams don’t meet and race against each other. Forty-three contestants — yes, they’re composed of drivers with teams behind them — compete on an individual basis, which is more comparable to what would otherwise be referred to as an individual sport, like golf. There’s an element of teamwork in every sport. Even golfers use clubs that are constructed for them. The team element is more relevant to NASCAR, but it isn’t definitively a team sport.
The absence of franchises undermines the market value of teams because they have no reliable right to compete in every race. NASCAR has evolved in a way that protects teams in a manner that would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago. Now, for instance, 35 spots in each race’s 43-car field are guaranteed on the basis of owner standings. During the season’s first five races, those spots are determined by the standings of the previous year, which makes it difficult for start-up teams to acquire security. This very issue greatly complicated Toyota’s entry into what is now the Sprint Cup Series in 2007.
“I believe that a franchise system — and I hate to use the word ‘franchise’ — is the right thing to do for the investment of the car owners and, primarily, the investment of the sponsors,” says Jeff Burton. “By the same token — what about, in baseball, when the Florida Marlins win the World Series and then dump everybody afterwards — there ought to be a way you can lose your franchise. You shouldn’t be able to operate with a continuing losing record. You should not be able to keep your franchise without putting a competitive team on the court.”
Or the track.
“You should not be able to do that,” Burton continues, “but I believe that we are to the point where our car owners have so much invested and our sponsors have so much invested that we’ve got to find a way to protect them. The ‘top-35 thing’ works better than the way it used to be, but in this environment, it’s not good enough.”
From NASCAR’s perspective, the current system works. It conveys a fleeting, unofficial franchise system based on recent performance. While franchising appeals to many within the sport, it’s objectionable to hard-liner fans who think every race ought to be contested between the fastest 43 cars based on qualifying speeds. The fact that qualifying mainly determines the starting order, not the composition of the field, is disturbing to purists.
The controversy even divides families. Petty, who won more races than anyone in NASCAR history, still heads up the team founded by his late father, Lee, who himself was a three-time champion. Richard is an ardent supporter of franchises. His son, still-active driver Kyle, is unsure. “I think it should be the fastest 43 cars. I have no problem with that,” says Kyle Petty. “That’s from the competition side. This is where this is a goofy sport. From an owner’s side, I should have a franchise. We’ve been here 60 years doing the same thing, beating our heads against the wall pulling from California to New York to Florida and back six times a year with some of the schedules they’ve made throughout the years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it.
“Is it a sport or a business? It’s really a business six days a week. It’s only a sport on Sunday, but it’s a business Monday through Saturday. That’s the way it works. From a business side, I’m not against the top 35 having a free ride. I’m not against a franchise, but for the quality of the show, it should be the 43 fastest cars.”
The official NASCAR position, as conveyed by spokesman Ramsey Poston, holds that the current system is an effective compromise. From another perspective, though, it has the effect of creating a makeshift franchising system in which all the value and power remains centered in the ruling body’s hands. There’s no long-term value for teams like Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers that have been instrumental in the sport’s history. And most observers don’t see any further shift toward franchising in the foreseeable future.
“The issue of franchises in NASCAR has generated quite a bit of buzz, mostly because of all the new owners and investors coming into the sport,” says Michael Smith of SportsBusiness Journal. “As people try to put two and two together to read the changing landscape of ownership in NASCAR while wondering why so many new owners are suddenly interested, many have speculated that franchises are on the horizon.
“But there’s really no reason, from NASCAR’s perspective, to believe that franchises will be issued in the near future.”
Even as NASCAR officials strain to come up with meaningful cost-cutting measures, costs associated with every aspect of the sport are escalating at a rapid rate. Teams that once constructed race cars in a somewhat modest shop are now employing hundreds. They own and maintain private jets to transport personnel to tracks all across the country. Some field teams in all three of NASCAR’s so-called “major touring series” — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck.
One of the chief recent developments is the soliciting of lucrative investors with relatively little prior knowledge or interest in the sport.
John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is now Jack Roush’s partner, hence the name Roush Fenway Racing. George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, bought into Ray Evernham’s team, making it Gillett-Evernham Motorsports. Two members of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ownership group, Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel, now own controlling interest in Hall of Fame Racing. It’s a trend that shows no sign of abating, and all this new capital makes it more and more difficult for family teams like Petty Enterprises to remain competitive.
Rob Kauffman, a London-based investor, bought half of Michael Waltrip Racing. One of Kauffman’s advisers is real-estate developer Johnny Harris, who also acquired a stake and now sits on the team’s six-member board. Harris is a member of the Carolina Panthers’ ownership group.
“John Henry is an excellent example of a strategic investor,” says Timothy Frost, whose firm, Frost Motorsports LLC, has participated in securing sponsors and investors. “These investors own companies active in a wide range of activities related to sports. They’re able to use their resources in ways — marketing, sponsorships, media exposure, souvenir and collectible sales — that benefit the race teams in areas other than just performance on the track.”
Still, the ultimate value and power remain firmly centered in NASCAR’s hands. The system as it has evolved has conveyed only fleeting, short-term value to the participants. The sport is changing rapidly, and it’s hard for longstanding teams not to be swept away in these changes.
“If you don’t have an open mind, you’ve got to be surrounded with enough people who do have open minds to help you make the transition or change you have to make,” says Bobby Labonte, who now drives for Petty Enterprises.
“It takes a while to change.”
A Forbes magazine article estimated that the average NASCAR team is valued at $120 million. Its estimate rose by 67 percent between 2006 and 2007. According to the article, 20 percent of NASCAR’s top teams were losing money, in part because Forbes judged there to be 41 in the “top teams” category. The most valuable team, by those estimates, was Roush Fenway Racing at $316 million. Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team of 2006, was valued at $297 million, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing at $173 million. The Forbes estimates were based on total sponsorship values and race-related income.
As a comparison, the average National Hockey League franchise is worth $150-200 million, according to Forbes.
Forbes’ Jack Gage writes that licensing is on the decline in NASCAR, and sponsorship rates have flattened out since 2003. Despite rising costs, the average NASCAR team still banks $12.3 million in profits, or roughly 15 percent of revenue, and estimates say that $100 million will be saved sport-wide over the next two years by switching to the Car of Tomorrow.
“What franchising would do is give team owners the security to know that they’ll be able to compete from year to year, that they’ll have a spot on the track, compared to the current model where teams are often reliant on sponsorship to keep their doors open from year to year,” says SportsBusiness Journal’s Smith.
“Many of the top owners in NASCAR have operations that take on franchise tendencies anyway, which is why there’s a deepening gap between the haves and have-nots. Hendrick, Roush Fenway, GEM (Gillett-Evernham) and now MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing), among others, all can rest assured that they’ll be around for years to come because their owners don’t rely on their NASCAR teams for income. They all have developed alternate sources of income. … Teams that rely on sponsorship for 80 percent of their revenue without any other significant streams of income are more likely to run the risk of going out of business.”
Jack Roush admits his agreement with Henry and Fenway Sports Group began partly as a response to Toyota’s entry.
“Toyota will not find that others will wither in their path as they have found in other series in which they’ve competed,” says Roush, a longtime Ford owner.
“Toyota is bringing about changes in the way we do business. They are willing to pay more for a service than sound business practices would otherwise justify.”
“NASCAR certainly understands (the Toyota) problem,” Roush adds. “I regard the Car of Tomorrow as primarily NASCAR’s initiative to limit technology as a way of controlling technology.”
Joe Gibbs took another tack. The Washington Redskins head coach, whose NASCAR operations are managed by his son J.D., switched his three-car team from Chevrolet to Toyota. Three of the sport’s big names — two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, 2006 Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — will compete in Toyotas this year, greatly enhancing the likelihood that the sport’s newest manufacturer will begin winning races this year.
That move, in turn, is a reaction by Toyota to the frustrations associated with entering the sport. Had Toyota not successfully wooed JGR away from Chevrolet, it would have begun the season with only one driver, Dave Blaney, assured of a spot in the Daytona 500 field. Now there will be at least four.
Burton, one of three Sprint Cup Series drivers competing regularly for RCR, admits the future is fraught with uncertainty.
“I’m nervous about having manufacturers, sponsors, and millions and millions of dollars put into this program for marketing reasons, without the product on the race track, and that’s going to happen to major teams and major corporations,” he says. “In the long run, I don’t think it’s good for our sport. I do believe that there is a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality in this sport that has worked for a long time.
“In today’s economy and taking into account the ultra-competitive nature of the sport, I believe there need to be some changes. I don’t believe it’s in our sport’s best interest, being that without corporate involvement, we’re nothing. We can’t even come close to running our programs on the purse (prize money). It’s not even a thought. It’s NASCAR’s charge to find a way to make that work for everybody. … The current program, locking in the top 35, is the best we’ve ever had, but it’s time to find a way to do it even better.”
To Burton, teams deserve even greater security.
“With the Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers, they know they are going to have a chance to play in every game,” he says. “They don’t know if they’re going to make the playoffs, but we need that here. I think it would protect the owners, and it would protect our sponsors and I think we have to find a way to move toward that. I think we need 43 teams that know they are going to be in the show, but, at the same time have to do things to validate that they deserve a franchise.
“We need to find a way to guarantee everybody they are going to be in the show for our sponsors and car owners. It isn’t about the drivers; it’s about the sponsors and the car owners. At the same time, if a car owner doesn’t do a certain amount of things, he could lose his franchise.”
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon owns a stake in Hendrick Motorsports, giving him a perspective derived from seeing the issue from two sides.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be franchising,” he says, echoing Burton. “I’m a big fan of making these teams hold their value. Look at our team. It basically has no value other than the people, the machines and the building space that we have.
“Somebody can go out there and basically start up a new organization. Maybe Hendrick Motorsports is a bad example because it’s an organization that has been so solid that it might have a little bit more value than some other teams out there, but other than having our sponsorship dollars and … the winnings that you get, the value that should come along with it isn’t there. Hendrick has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to get our organization where it is.
“If something catastrophic were to happen, then it wouldn’t be worth the money that’s been invested at this point.”
No reliable, specific plan has emerged to accommodate the concerns voiced by Burton, Gordon and others. The absence of a balanced plan is itself an obstacle in persuading NASCAR to move further toward a franchise system.
“When you support the sport and help build the sport, you should have something for that,” says Jimmie Johnson, the Cup champion of the past two seasons.
“We’ve all talked about franchising our sport, and I’m sure it will never happen, but this (stability for the top 35 in owner points) is the only thing that these owners have that they can count on that they can sell to their sponsor.”
The current system is a compromise in itself, of course. The official NASCAR position is that it provides a balance between the extremes of cutthroat competition and docile stability.
“There should not be a welfare system in sports,” says Kyle Petty. “When kids play baseball, and I’m going to be very politically incorrect here, they ought to keep score, and there ought to be a winner and there ought to be a loser.
“You learn from losing. Kids learn from losing. You learn sportsmanship from losing. That’s what we do out here on Sundays. There are winners and losers.
“In the business world, there’s a totally different set of rules. If I look at this as a business, there are certain things, and I’m not going to call it welfare. Call it sweat equity. We put 60 years here, and we deserve something back for those 60 years. The Wood Brothers deserve something back for their 50 years.
“For the sport to have potential to grow, it also has to be built on the back of some of those guys. Call it what you want to call it, but I do think there’s a different standard from the business side to the racing.”
Richard Petty’s career — begun working on father Lee’s car, then racing at the highest level from 1958–1992 and now with a still-active role in the family team — has spanned the sport’s entire history. In fact, Lee Petty competed in NASCAR’s very first race in 1949.
“The guys who helped build NASCAR paved the way for the guys that come in now with money,” Richard Petty says.
“When it first started, Junior (Johnson), Bud Moore, us, all these guys were racers. They didn’t have any outside business. All they wanted to do was race.
“Then, all of a sudden, there was some money in it, so people with money came in and said they were going to spend money to make money. The first thing you know, the money runs the racers out of the racing business.”
Why does NASCAR oppose the concept of franchises?
“I don’t know if they think they lose some of their authority over everybody if there were franchises. One of these days, it will probably happen,” opines Richard Petty. “I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it or not, but it will probably happen some day.
“I think the only thing in my mind that keeps NASCAR from being completely legitimate, major league, with golfing or football or baseball or whatever, is being franchised. All the other entities are basically franchised. As they are franchised, you get a lot of people’s ideas thrown in the middle of the thing.
“And in the long run it winds up better for everybody.”
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Tom Bowles
Every Sunday, 43 drivers strap in, armed with the guts the rest of us wish we had. Going door-to-door at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, they put their lives on the line in a way few of us ever will, dancing precariously close to the edge of a cliff where the consequences of falling over are often injury or death. Clearly, stock car driving is not a profession for the meek.
So, why have races become a procession for the cowardly?
Throughout the 2007 season, the knock against NASCAR from its fan base was that when people curled up on a lazy Sunday, they turned on the television and got 500 miles of lethargy staring right back at them. All too often, side-by-side finishes like the one between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Martinsville last spring were juxtaposed with three quarters’ worth of Talladega tedium, in which racing resembled a 200-mph straight-lined version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — with none of the floats or pizzazz that keep people coming back. Sure, Santa Claus comes through at the very end of the show, but after hours of watching the same monotonous march, are you really going to stick around that long to see him?
“There were times — at the speedways and restrictor plate races — where you’re (just) riding and riding and riding,” said ESPN commentator Rusty Wallace, referencing an eerie comfort level among the top-level drivers in the series that made fans less than comfortable with the current state of the sport.
No matter what Mike Helton or Brian France might tell you, that failure to push the envelope is a noticeable problem. In fact, they’ve got their own letters of warning signed, sealed and delivered from a group of anxious TV networks worried about a second straight season of ratings decline.
So, what’s at the root of it all? The answer appears simple — better safe than sorry. In a sport where drivers are supposed to make the rules, it’s the rules that are bending the drivers into submission, turning a culture based on aggression into one that may have mistakenly concluded ‘racing’ and ‘conservative’ go hand-in-hand.
THE SAFETY CULTURE
NASCAR has been criticized from all angles of late, but if there’s one constant where it has escaped the damnation, it’s in the arena of keeping drivers safe. Only one Cup driver, Ricky Rudd, missed significant time due to injury in 2007, and no one has been seriously hurt since Jerry Nadeau’s crash at Richmond in 2003. This decade, no series has done more to make the cars safer for the men behind the wheel. This process began only through the tragic death of a driver, the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Nicknamed the Intimidator, Earnhardt’s fears in racing were simply that he was never going fast enough. Throwing caution to the wind, he had no problem speeding to 76 wins and seven titles. But on Feb. 14, 2001, he ran into one opponent he just couldn’t outrun.
Seven years after the man most thought was invincible proved to be all too mortal, the Intimidator’s legacy now extends far beyond the record books. While some modern initiatives had started before Earnhardt’s untimely passing, there’s no doubt his tragic crash on the last lap at the 2001 Daytona 500 clearly accelerated that process.
“It really woke everybody up,” says Wallace of that fateful day. “When we lost (other drivers), a lot of people said this just had to be a fluke. But then, we lost Dale Sr. and we went, ‘Oh my God, the sport has really lost one of the biggest stars and there absolutely is a problem.’”
Earnhardt’s death followed that of the Busch Series’ Adam Petty, Cup’s Kenny Irwin and Truck Series driver Tony Roper — all killed in wrecks one year earlier. That four-pronged hit at the sport’s top levels struck when many of today’s drivers were impressionable youngsters rising through the ranks. After a relative lull in NASCAR fatalities, it was an eerie reminder of the risk they took once they strapped on their belts every Sunday. As drivers made their ascendancy from relative unknowns to booming superstars throughout 2001 and ’02, their own safety was suddenly an issue; after all, these weren’t unknown drivers losing their lives — they were friends.
“I swear that never enters into a driver’s mind while he’s driving,” Wallace says about the fear of death. “The drivers are nervous … but as far as when they’re in the car, it just completely goes away.”
However, Wallace is old school, from the Earnhardt and Rudd generation of hard knocks. Wallace flipped end-over-end at Talladega in 1993 and broke his hand, only to suit up and drive in the next race. Rudd actually was so desperate to race, he taped his eyes open in order to run the 1984 Daytona 500.
Notice, though, that Rudd stepped out of the car last September with a separated shoulder, in a different place in his life when it comes to risk versus reward. You talk to drivers like Johnson, the 2007 Nextel Cup champ, and you realize that mentalities around the circuit may have changed.
“Yeah, all the time,” says the Nextel Cup champion of the fear he sometimes feels during the race. “That’s something I’ve seen a lot lately. There certainly are times when I’m in the car and things are going wrong and I am scared. It’s going to hurt. You can get hurt, and those things go through my head.”
Of course, Johnson knows the consequences of wrecking firsthand. One of his best friends in racing, Blaise Alexander, was killed in the fall of 2001 during a wreck at Lowe’s. That was also the same weekend Johnson made his first start in the Cup Series, a chilling reminder about the blurry line that exists in this sport between who makes it and who doesn’t.
“The scariest thing that still hovers out there is hitting a wall at close to 200 miles an hour, driver’s side first,” says Wallace. “And fire.”
Fiery fear has led to NASCAR doing everything in its power to prevent the Earnhardt nightmare from happening again. Several fixes have indeed gone on to markedly improve the safety of drivers. For example, the HANS Device, a head-and-neck restraint system mandated by the sport since 2002, has been credited by many as saving them from serious injury. The installation of soft walls at tracks has also transferred a large degree of energy from the driver to the car, tearing up more sheet metal and not the men behind the wheel.
However, in its safety crusade, NASCAR seems to have literally thrown caution to the wind. Yellow flags — once only used as an absolute necessity — are now waved for anything as simple as a small piece of metal lying on the apron of the track, out of harm’s way. The rate of cautions in races has gone up significantly this decade, with more questions than answers surrounding the level and consistency of their use.
“To me, it’s about the integrity of the sport, and when I feel our own sanctioning body isn’t taking care of that, it’s hard to support them,” Tony Stewart said following the Phoenix event last year. NASCAR forced a retraction of his statement soon after, but his accusations were what many had been afraid to state for years.
In truth, some debris cautions do have legitimate safety concerns behind them; a piece of metal can rupture a tire at lightning speed. Throughout a race, so much falls off these cars — and out of the stands — that debris cautions could be called at any time. Rupturing the consistency of the race, they affect outcomes of long green flag runs — while arbitrarily inflating lead changes in the process.
CONSERVATISM IN A BOX
Something that won’t be arbitrary this season is the full-time use of NASCAR’s ultimate safety fix — the Car of Tomorrow. Making its debut last March, the new car was built around the concept of safety first, leading to a list of landmark advancements.
“NASCAR really stepped out and said, ‘Well we’re going to go further yet and make this racing safer yet,’” says Wallace. “Taller, wider, impact-resistant foam, wide seats … They definitely took the Car of Tomorrow to the next step.”
There’s only one problem; in its rush to put a safer product on the track, NASCAR ignored the car’s real purpose: how it would compete. With a new rear wing and a front end splitter designed to provide both downforce and support, it has instead raised questions as to just how much safety should affect competition.
“It doesn’t have much front end travel,” says Kurt Busch of the new CoT. “That front splitter hits the ground way too soon, and so the rear is sitting there bouncing around like it normally does. But the front is so restricted by its movement, it makes it very difficult to drive. And if a car’s tough to drive, we’re not going to run side by side as much.”
What it’s also done is aid the “aero push,” the by-product of aerodynamically sleek stock cars running up against each other with too much downforce. It’s a problem the CoT was supposed to eliminate, but instead it has made the phenomenon worse.
“I used to go to the race track with lift,” says Wallace. “I’ll never forget going to Daytona (in the late 1980s). I went to Daytona with 100 pounds of lift in the front and 100 pounds of downforce in the back and it was one of the best-handling cars I ever had.
“Now, the car’s got close to 1,000 pounds of downforce.”
That’s caused frustration, in no uncertain terms, for the men for whom the CoT was made.
“My car pretty much sucks from unloading it to loading it back up,” says Kyle Busch. “We work on it and try to make it better, but never really get it the way you want it.”
“In the past, the cars weren’t as competitive as they are, so the little things, you didn’t notice as much,” says Jeff Burton. “The reason we notice them now is all the cars run so close to the same speed.”
That result is more in tune with adjustability than anything. With NASCAR so focused on making the cars generic enough that they can be assured of basic safety controls, it has forgotten to give teams the tools needed to make the cars better or worse.
“You build this rules package and you make everything the same aerodynamically and they give you so little stuff to adjust … it’s just the closer they are to the same speed, the harder it’s gonna be to pass,” says Matt Kenseth.
“That’s easy to figure out. If everybody is running the same speed, how are you gonna pass?”
RACING FOR POINTS, NOT PRIDE
These safety innovations come four years following another modern NASCAR contraption, the Chase for the Championship.
The playoff format, introduced in 2004, has always been controversial, but even with all its tweaks, the points scored during the stretch resemble the same system NASCAR has had in place since 1975. Under that format, consistency proved to be the key to success, and the Chase has proved to be the same. Only once in four seasons has the driver winning the most races during the Chase won the title. Johnson was the first to accomplish that feat in ’07. Usually, the opposite is true. In fact, Stewart won the Chase title in 2005 without winning a single race during the postseason.
“In the old format, you were penalized for having bad races, just like you are in this format,” Jeff Burton says. “The key to winning the championship in the old format was running well. The key to being in the Chase is running well. So the performance hasn’t changed, but the pressure to (get in championship contention) is higher today.”
That pressure comes by virtue of a 26-race regular season in which drivers fight to be one of 12 eligible for a shot at the title.
The format makes one quarter of the starting field title contenders; it’s a major difference from years past, in which three to five drivers would usually find themselves in realistic contention. That has many teams thinking differently during the regular season — their strategies revolving around the equivalent of a complicated math problem.
“You have to make every lap, every race is a calculated risk,” says Burton. “With the situation I’m in, what risk am I willing to give?”
In the regular season, that apparently means running conservatively.
“In race four, I’m sure as hell not going to wreck trying to pass a guy for eighth when I’m running ninth with 10 laps to go,” says Carl Edwards. “You’ve got to think of the big picture. That’s just how it is when you’re racing for points.”
What of the little guy, you ask? Surely, the underdogs will go all out for 500 miles, trying to prove to sponsors and competitors alike they belong.
But in the past few years, NASCAR rules force even backmarkers to concentrate on just bringing it home in one piece. Fighting for a coveted exemption for the top 35 cars in owner points, the DNF is now a dreaded killer. Being forced to qualify on speed each week — and facing your sponsors when you fail to make the field — is a lot less enticing than coming to the track knowing you’re in the show. So, these teams play it safe, running just well enough to keep their exemption until the following week rather than taking a chance and letting it all hang out, even when you’re running well.
“Our first goal was to get back in the top 35 in points, so I had to take care of the car all day,” says Dave Blaney, who was driving for bubble-team Bill Davis Racing when he finished third at Talladega. “I didn’t want to do anything to put it in harm’s way. I was way more cautious than I probably wanted to be.”
CHOKING DOWN EMOTION
In August, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick held a war of words on the race track at Watkins Glen. But it wasn’t what the two said to one another that was newsworthy. After the two got involved in a wreck and both felt they were the innocent victim, a verbal barrage of insults ensued that would make your mother blush.
Afterwards, neither got fined, an unprecedented break from an aggressive fining system.
As NASCAR has raised the level of safety this decade, it’s also done so for image-conscious rulemaking in order to push forth marketing appeal as a “family sport.” In the past few years, drivers have lost championship points for saying a cuss word in Victory Lane, been fined for a post-race shove, or suspended due to off-track incidents amounting to little more than a speeding ticket. Personality appears to have fallen by the wayside in favor of political correctness, with financial backers carrying more power than at any time in the sport’s history.
“It’s just a phase in our sport,” says Kurt Busch. “It used to be where you jumped out of your car and had a fight on the back straightaway in the first Daytona 500 ever broadcast on live TV. Nowadays, your sponsor would call you and tell you they’re going to drop you, or your old car owner would call you and say they didn’t like you getting pulled over and getting a harmless traffic ticket. And so those things don’t bode well.”
“It’s more than just NASCAR trying to keep us from tearing each other apart after a race,” adds Johnson, speaking from the standpoint of someone who’s been criticized for starting major melees due to ill-timed driver aggression.
“There are other things and other influences that aren’t fun to experience when the world hates you. And I don’t know many guys that like to go around being booed and being picked on and having that negative media attention on them.”
HOW TO FIX IT
With evidence mounting, you’d think there’s a simple solution to stop the conservative wave facing the sport: fix the rules.
“Give out incentives from leading a certain lap of the race,” proposes Kyle Busch, who claims that the 10-point bonus drivers received in the Chase for winning regular-season races will promote aggression long-term.
“I think you could break down the race tracks in quarters and have more awards to stay on the throttle, give a three- or four-point bonus for running in the top 5 in certain stages of the race,” adds Wallace.
“You could have whoever’s running in the top 5 get more money at the one-quarter point of the race, and halfway through the race you get more, and three quarters of the race, etc.
“Keep them up on the wheel so they’re grinding like hell for the winnings.”
That’ll help, but fixing personalities is also a necessity. Drivers need to say what they feel and do what they think is right at every moment — as the fans seem to see through anything less.
“The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car,” Dale Earnhardt Sr. said. “It’s the one who refuses to lose.”
More than ever, that type of attitude is exactly what NASCAR needs. Otherwise, it will be the fans staying the hell home, not the drivers scared of going too fast.
This ultrasound photo of a fetus "Tebowing" may be the first time anything having to do with Tim Tebow has been inside a woman.
If you look, you can clearly see that the baby is kneeling down, with his/her right fist on his/her head in the perfect Tebowing form.
We're not sure what he's praying for (A healthy trip down the canal? For his mom to stop playing Mozart 22 hours a day? For Tim Tebow not cut off his foreskin?), but this little guy would probably make Tim Tebow proud.
What's also unclear is if this baby is a fan of the Broncos, or is just inspired by Tebow's on-field heroics. Either way, we're pretty sure this baby is going to grow up to be a winner. Even if he can't throw a football.
The father of this baby is John Keller (@JKells1). We don't know who he is or anything about him. But we really like what he made.
Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Landry Jones is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
Even though the Sooners lost two potent weapons on offense during the season in wideout Ryan Broyles and running back Dominique Whaley, the Oklahoma offense led by Jones is still averaging 43 points a game.
Jones turned in a huge performance in the annual Red River Rivalry with Texas, throwing for 367 yards and three touchdowns in the Sooners’ win. Jones established a new school record with 505 yards passing against Kansas State this season.
Jones has already topped 4,000 yards with 4,052 yards passing this season with 28 touchdowns. He has three five-TD games passing in 2011.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Just 16 years removed from his first go-kart, Martin Truex Jr. has come a long way in the fashion most racers prefer: Fast.
In a family-owned Busch North ride by 2000 that spawned sporadic trips up to the Busch Series, the New Jersey native got the call to drive the Chance2 Chevy for JR Motorsports in 2003. It’s been a fast track to success ever since.
Two Busch titles followed in 2004 and 2005 driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. A promotion to Cup in ’05 came next.
After a breakthrough 2007 season — highlighted by a win at Dover and a spot in the Chase — Truex now sits poised to lead Dale Earnhardt, Inc. into the future without its famous son and Truex’s good friend.
That’s OK with Truex, though. He stepped up admirably in a season of turmoil at DEI and is now ready to “Just go race!”
Athlon Sports’ Matt Taliaferro sat down with Truex after a practice session on a sunny autumn afternoon in Charlotte and found the 27-year-old to be the ultimate combination of old-school, fix-it-yourself short-tracker and new-school, big-money NASCAR driver who is living his dream.
Athlon Sports: Your dad was a Busch North champ and you cut your teeth driving up there — and with him. How proud a moment for you and him was it when you got the call from Chance2 to drive in the Busch Series?
Martin Truex Jr.: It was surreal for me. You know, I remember sitting there just working on my (own) car, building cars to go racing. I was having fun doing what I was doing and I watched the Busch races and the Cup races on the weekends and just dreamed about what it would be like to race with those guys. And the next thing I know I am racing with them and beating them and winning championships. So, it was just cool to get the call, and the way everything went down so quick it was really kind of shocking to me.
So tell me about when you made the transition to Cup in 2004. You’re already on your way to a Busch Series championship that year and DEI enters you into the Atlanta fall race. Now you are on the track with the big boys; intimidating as hell or ‘hell yeah!’?
Hell yeah! It was like, you know you just wanted to do it, and then when I got there and started doing it, you just wanted to win just like it was anywhere else. So it’s no different than when I first got out there racing go-carts. First time I got out there I wanted to win.
The Bass Pro team showed signs of life late in 2006 when you almost won Homestead. You guys got off to a rocky start in 2007 but rebounded with the Nextel Open win, the big Dover win and ran consistently enough down the stretch to earn a Chase spot. What turned the season around?
Nothing. Just good timing. Like you said we got off to a rocky start but we had been fast all year. We had great racecars; my guys were doing a great job for me. And it was like for a while there it seemed that everything that could go wrong would.
Just like it is right now (during the ’07 Chase), you know, we would get a flat tire (and) the caution would come out when we pitted under green. Just anything that you could imagine that could go wrong, went wrong and that is what took us out of finishes.
But we had fast cars and we just kept doing what we knew how to do and then sooner or later the bad luck went away. Things started going the way we needed them to and that was the only difference.
Do you think we will ever see another team like yours that really got it started — as a group — in the Busch Series, stayed there for a couple years, won championships, then made the jump to Cup and now contends for titles? There is a different mindset to building teams now, one where a team rushes a driver through the ranks and sticks him with an experienced crew. You guys did it all together.
Yeah, it doesn’t happen that much anymore. I am not sure why. It’s worked great for us. Obviously, you know, I think when people come into the sport now, there are (more) demands. They have to have success right away to stay around. I don’t think doing it the way we did it is the formula to come in and be successful right away, but I think in the long run it makes you stronger.
The Car of Tomorrow made its plate-track debut at Talladega last October to mixed reactions. What was the quality of racing like from your view?
Sometimes it was wild and crazy like we all thought it would be and sometimes it was mellow. I think the times that it was single file and everyone was riding around the top it was just people being smart and trying to be patient. You know, usually everyone gets yelled at and says that people are driving stupid and being idiots, so a lot of us were being smart and not doing that. Then we got criticized for the race being boring … It’s just one of those deals where you can’t win.
Mark Martin once said that racing within the Chase was one of the most stressful racing conditions that he had ever been subjected to, and coming from Mark Martin, that is saying something. You’ve now been through the rigors of racing in the Chase. Does Chase racing feel the same for you, or is this just going out every week doing the same thing?
It hasn’t been stressful to me at all. We just take it as it comes. We go out there to race and do the best job we can do, and that’s all you can do.
So do you have a different mindset when you go into a weekend during the Chase?
Absolutely not. Not at all.
Junior’s decision and subsequent announcement last June coincided with a hot streak for you that produced four top-3 finishes in five races. Coincidence or statement?
Both. You know, it was a bit of a coincidence because, like I said earlier, we had been running well enough to be able to do that (all season). And it was (another) coincidence that we had been able to do it at that exact time.
You know, finally, the things that we needed to start going right started going right when he made his announcement, which was definitely a coincidence. We weren’t doing anything different by any means. The racing gods looked upon us and quit doing bad things to us, I guess.
Let me ask you what was more special: that first career Cup win at Dover or qualifying for the Chase?
Whoa. I would say the Dover win. You know, that first win, there is nothing like it. It’s great to be in the Chase and all, but that win was part of the reason we are in the Chase. So it’s definitely the win at Dover.
Tony Stewart told us he realized he ‘made it’ when he saw his face on a Coke machine in his hometown. Have you ever had an incident like that were you saw something and said, “Wow, I’m officially here?”
No. You know, I’m happy with the way things are going. I don’t need a sign or a picture to let me know that I’ve made it. I am happy with the way things are going.
I live in Nashville, which has a Bass Pro Shop where I spend too much time and money. I know you have a great love for the outdoors as well. How cool is it that you get to combine your passion for the outdoors and your passion for racing? That would just be the ultimate for me.
Yeah it’s awesome. You know, if I had to pick a sponsor — and just say Bass Pro was never in the mix and was out of the sport — that’s what I would want to be a part of. It’s been a dream come true for me. I got really lucky and just kind of stepped into it and met John (Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops), and they were kind of sponsoring the car when I came in to drive it. We just formed a relationship and it’s been great ever since.
I love hunting and fishing. When I am not here at the racetrack I am doing something that I can support Bass Pro Shop with. So it’s been a dream come true for me. It’s a great relationship.
What is your biggest bass?
My biggest bass? About 8 pounds.
You got me beat by a couple ... I’m still looking for the wall mount. Do you get to fish at all on race weekends around the country?
Sometimes, yeah. Actually the biggest bass I caught was down in Atlanta (at) the first race this year. I went with Ryan Newman on a Saturday after practice in the afternoon and caught some big bass.
You got the Tracker boat and everything?
I got the Nitro Bass Boat. Yep, absolutely.
At the end of a 36-race season are you ready keep racing or go home?
I am ready for a break. Ready to do some hunting. Kick back.
You ever been hunting with Richard Childress?
Nope. But I have been hunting a good bit.
Probably. I don’t know. It’s fun to get some time off and do whatever you want. You have no schedule — hopefully — no schedule to commit to.
I know that your goal every year is to win a championship, to win races. Well now you’ve won races and you have made the Chase. Are there specific tracks, specific events, a specific number in mind that you look at at the beginning of the season?
No, we just tried to be prepared the best we can for all the racetracks, the different types of racetracks. Not put all our eggs in one basket and, you know, just go race!
By Mitch Light
No. 67 Ohio vs. No. 57 Northern Illinois (MAC Championship Game)
Northern Illinois, winner of seven straight, brings an explosive offense to Ford Field in Detroit. NIU ranks ninth in the nation in total offense and has scored 40 points or more in nine of its 12 games. Ohio, too, can score points, but Frank Solich’s club leans on its defense. The Bobcats allowed only 350.7 yards and 22.0 points per game.
Northern Illinois 34, Ohio 21
No. 54 UCLA at Oregon (ACC Championship Game)
This isn’t what Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott had in mind when the league expanded to 12 teams to set up a conference championship game. Oregon is a 31-point favorite over a UCLA team that went 6–6 overall and is fresh off a humbling 50–0 loss to USC. Oh, and the Bruins have fired their coach.
Oregon 48, UCLA 14
Saturday, Dec. 3
No. 1 LSU vs. No. 15 Georgia (SEC Championship Game)
LSU has all but locked up a spot in the national title game, but the Tigers still have plenty to play for — a coveted SEC championship. Les Miles’ club proved once again why it’s deserving of the No. 1 spot in the polls with a thorough, 41–17, victory over Arkansas on Friday.
LSU 34, Georgia 17
No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 3 Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State is ranked No. 3 in the BCS, but it appears as though the Pokes are a long shot to play in the national title game — even with a convincing win over Oklahoma coupled with an LSU loss to Georgia in the SEC title game.
Oklahoma State 41, Oklahoma 33
No. 6 Virginia Tech vs. No 25 Clemson (Pac-12 Championship Game)
Clemson established itself as a legitimate national title contender — at the time — with a dominating 23–3 win at Virginia Tech back on Oct. 1. Times have changed. The Tigers are now 9–3, having lost three of their last four games, each by 14 points or more.
Virginia Tech 34, Clemson 24
No. 10 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Michigan State (Big Ten Championship Game)
The Badgers will have an opportunity to avenge their “Hail Mary” loss when they face Michigan State in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans have had a fine season — they won 10 games for the second year in a row — but Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten. The Badgers have been mauling the opposition with a devastating rushing attack and an efficient passing game.
Wisconsin 27, Michigan State 20
No. 42 Iowa State at No. 12 Kansas State
Kansas State still has a shot at its first BCS bowl since 2004. Here’s what needs to happen: The Wildcats need to beat Iowa State (likely); Oklahoma State needs to beat Oklahoma (very possible); and Michigan, which doesn’t play, needs to remain outside the top 14 of the BCS standings (it is No. 16 now). Not bad for a team that was predicted by most — including Athlon Sports — to finish ninth in the Big 12.
Kansas State 31, Iowa State 17
No. 115 New Mexico at No. 13 Boise State
This is the final game before the Bob Davie era begins at New Mexico. It will be a major surprise if the margin of victory for Boise State is less than 40 points.
Boise State 51, New Mexico 0
No. 29 Texas at No. 16 Baylor
Texas somehow won at Texas A&M over the weekend despite gaining only 237 yards of offense. Yards and points should be easier to come by in Waco, but the Horns might not be good enough offensively to outscore the Bears.
Baylor 30, Texas 27
No. 116 UNLV at No. 17 TCU
It’s TCU’s final game as a member of the Mountain West. It will not be close.
TCU 47, UNLV 10
No. 38 Southern Miss at No. 18 Houston (C-USA Championship Game)
Houston is one win away from its first Conference USA title since 2006 and its first-ever spot in a BCS bowl. With a win over Southern Miss, the Cougars are likely headed to the Sugar Bowl to face Michigan. But first things first: Southern Miss is a very good team that won 10 games in the regular season, highlighted by a 30–24 win at Virginia in September.
Houston 47, Southern Miss 31
No. 66 Connecticut at No. 32 Cincinnati
Connecticut needs to win to become bowl-eligible in the first season of the Paul Pasqualoni era. Cincinnati needs to win to grab a share of the Big East title. Cincinnati is the better team.
Cincinnati 31, Connecticut 20
No. 82 Syracuse at No. 53 Pittsburgh
It’s been a disappointing third season for Doug Marrone at his alma mater, but the Orange (5–6 overall, 1–6 Big East) can still become bowl-eligible with a win at Pittsburgh. The Panthers, too, need to win to extend their season. Not sure it will be a great game, but there is a lot at stake for both teams.
Pittsburgh 27, Syracuse 14
No. 56 BYU at No. 78 Hawaii
The Cougars haven’t been overly impressive, but they’ve still managed to win eight games — so far — in their first season as an Independent. Usually, a trip to Hawaii is no easy task, but the Warriors are struggling (despite beating Tulane last week).
BYU 41, Hawaii 30
No. 111 Troy at No. 62 Arkansas State
Arkansas State is one away from wrapping up a perfect 8–0 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. Hugh Freeze has done a tremendous job in a very short time in Jonesboro.
Arkansas State 33, Troy 14
No. 63 Wyoming at No. 110 Colorado State
Wyoming has very quietly enjoyed a solid 2011 season. The Cowboys are 7–4 overall and 4–2 in the MWC. With a win over rival Colorado State — the two schools are only 65 miles apart — Wyoming will secure a third-place finish in the league standings.
Wyoming 34, Colorado State 13
No. 102 Fresno State at No. 64 San Diego State
Fresno State has a losing record in the WAC for the first time in the 15-year Pat Hill era. And it’s only the second time in the past 13 years that the Bulldogs will not be playing in a bowl game.
San Diego State 33, Fresno State 15
No. 71 Utah State at No. 101 New Mexico State
Utah State recovered from a slow start — which included several painfully close losses — to win four straight games. The Aggies (of USU, not NMSU) are headed to a bowl game (the Idaho Potato Bowl) for the first time since 1997.
Utah State 30, New Mexico State 10
No. 112 Idaho at No. 72 Nevada
Nevada proved there is life after Colin Kaepernick, averaging over 500 yards of offense for the fourth straight season. Idaho, on the other hand, has struggled after the graduation of its standout quarterback, Nathan Enderle.
Nevada 44, Idaho 14
No. 113 Middle Tennessee at No. 98 North Texas
It’s been a nightmare season for Middle Tennessee, which is 2–9 overall with wins over two of the worst FBS teams in the nation — Memphis and FAU.
North Texas 21, Middle Tennessee 17
No. 107 UL-Monroe at No. 117 Florida Atlantic
Mercifully, Howard Schnellenberger’s final season in coaching will not end with an 0–12 record. The Owls finally broke through last week with a 38–35 win over UAB. They will, however, likely send their coach out with a 1–11 mark.
UL-Monroe 28, Florida Atlantic 10
Last week — 40-12
Season — 526–139
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 14
1. When commissioner Larry Scott envisioned the first Pac-12 title game, a 6-6 UCLA team is probably not what he had in mind. However, that’s the predicament the conference is in, thanks to USC’s probation and Utah’s loss to Colorado last Friday. The 6-6 finish cost coach Rick Neuheisel his job, and the Pac-12 title game will be his last on the UCLA sideline. The Bruins are heavy underdogs and with nothing to lose, will throw everything they have at the Ducks. Could we see Neuheisel and his staff empty the bag of trick plays? But will it even make a difference? UCLA has lost four out of the last five matchups to Oregon, including a 60-13 meeting in Eugene last season. The Bruins rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rush defense and will have their hands full trying to stop the Ducks’ big-play rushing attack. Unless UCLA is able to force a couple of turnovers and find a way to keep Oregon’s offense off the field, all signs point to a big mismatch on Friday night in Eugene.
2. Friday night’s viewing menu consists of only two games: UCLA-Oregon and the MAC title game between Northern Illinois and Ohio. This is the first meeting between the Huskies and Bobcats in the MAC Championship. Ohio has won five out of the last six matchups during the regular season between these two teams, including a 38-31 shootout in 2009. The Huskies finished the regular season ninth in scoring offense and have one of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks calling the shots in senior Chandler Harnish. He ranks seventh nationally in total offense per game and has reached the endzone 34 times this season. The Bobcats also have their own interesting story at quarterback, as Tyler Tettleton is the son of former Major League Baseball player Mickey Tettleton. The Huskies averaged 39.6 points a game this season, but face a tough Ohio defense that is allowing just 22 points a game. Although the MAC title game is often lost in the shuffle with other championship matchups, this one should be more entertaining than the Oregon-UCLA matchup on Friday night.
3. With West Virginia’s win over South Florida on Thursday night, there is finally clarity to the Big East title race. If Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday, the Mountaineers will win the conference title. If the Bearcats lose, Louisville will get the conference’s automatic BCS bid, thanks to a victory over the Mountaineers earlier this season. The Big East has been a punching bag for critics all year, but the race has been one of the more interesting battles to watch in November. And with West Virginia headed to the Big 12, this should be Louisville’s conference to win in 2012. The Cardinals are loaded with young talent, and coach Charlie Strong is the top coach in the conference.
4. After knocking off Tulsa 48-16 and clinching the Conference USA West Division title last Friday, the stakes are even higher for Houston this Saturday. With a win over Southern Miss, Houston will strengthen its hold for an at-large spot into a BCS game. The Golden Eagles won’t be an easy out, as they enter this game 10-2 and defeated Virginia 30-24 on the road earlier this year. These two teams have met once before in the Conference USA title game, with Houston winning 34-20 over Southern Miss in 2006. The Golden Eagles knocked off the Cougars 59-41 last season, but Houston quarterback Case Keenum was out due to a knee injury. These two teams lead Conference USA in scoring offense, so there should be no shortage of points. And there’s been plenty of speculation surrounding the future of both coaches – Larry Fedora (USM) and Kevin Sumlin (Houston) – as they have been mentioned in searches at Ole Miss, Kansas, Arizona State, Texas A&M, North Carolina and UCLA. With a large payout ahead if it can make a BCS bowl, this is one of the most important games in Houston football history.
5. With Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Alabama’s Trent Richardson finished for the regular season, Baylor’s Robert Griffin has one more chance to make a Heisman statement. Griffin missed the second half of last week’s victory against Texas Tech with a concussion, but is expected to start on Saturday. In addition to a Heisman statement, Griffin has a chance to elevate the Baylor program another notch. With a victory over the Longhorns, the Bears will have their first nine-win season since 1986. Texas is coming off a huge 27-25 victory over rival Texas A&M, but could be in trouble if its offense continues to sputter. The Longhorns should be able to take advantage of their rushing attack against a porous Baylor rush defense. Texas’ best shot at winning rests with controlling the clock and keeping Griffin and his receivers on the sideline. With Texas visiting Waco, a chance to earn six Big 12 victories for the first time in school history and an opportunity for Griffin to boost his Heisman hopes, this has to be one of the most important games for Baylor under coach Art Briles.
6. Barring an unexpected change in the polls, all signs point to a LSU-Alabama rematch in the national title. The Crimson Tide finished their regular season with a win over Auburn last week, but the Tigers still have one more game remaining, playing in the SEC title game against Georgia. Since starting the season 0-2, the Bulldogs have been on a roll. They have won 10 in a row, rank fifth nationally in total defense and quarterback Aaron Murray has thrown 14 touchdown passes in his last four games. These two teams have met twice in the SEC Championship, with each winning once. Although LSU won in Athens last season, Georgia has won three out of the last four in this series. Any chance the Bulldogs have of pulling the upset rests with the health of running back Isaiah Crowell. The freshman injured his ankle in the win over Kentucky and did not play against Georgia Tech. If Crowell is able to play, it will give Georgia’s offense some much-needed balance. With a spot in the national title game likely assured, will LSU suffer a letdown? The Bulldogs are a dangerous opponent and will give the Tigers all they can handle.
7. Round two of Clemson-Virginia Tech matchup could look a lot different than how the first game played out in early October. The Tigers won 23-3 in Blacksburg, but a lot has changed since that meeting. The Hokies are a different team, largely due to the progress made by quarterback Logan Thomas. Since the loss to Clemson, the sophomore has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Tigers have also cooled after their 8-0 start, winning only one out of their last three games. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has struggled recently as well, throwing seven interceptions over his last four games. The problems for the Tigers aren’t limited just to offense, especially with a defense that is allowing 186.5 rushing yards a game. With Thomas getting better each week, combined with running back David Wilson’s rushing, the Hokies should win their third ACC Championship in four seasons.
8. With Oklahoma State’s loss to Iowa State and Oklahoma’s defeat to Baylor, the Bedlam series lost a bit of its national appeal. There is still plenty on the line on Saturday night, as the winner of this game will claim the Big 12 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys have not played since their 37-31 loss to Iowa State, while the Sooners bounced back with a victory over the Cyclones last week. Oklahoma State has not defeated Oklahoma since 2002, but due to realignment in the Big 12, will get a shot at the Sooners for the second year in a row in Stillwater. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones has not thrown a touchdown pass in his last two games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners need Jones and his receiving corps to step up on Saturday night, especially with a high-powered Oklahoma State attack on the other sideline. Even though the possibility of a national championship berth is likely gone, the Cowboys have plenty of motivation to end an eight-game losing streak to Oklahoma and make their first trip to a BCS bowl.
9. Championship Saturday brings two rematches from the regular season. Clemson and Virginia Tech are set to square off in Charlotte, but the Wisconsin-Michigan State rematch is surrounded more by intrigue. The first meeting was decided on a Hail Mary pass and it will be hard to beat that on Saturday night. However, the first Big Ten title game should be one of Week 14’s most competitive matchups. Wisconsin’s offense leads the Big Ten with 477.1 yards per game, but Michigan State ranks third nationally in total defense. The Badgers could get some good news on their offensive line this week, as center Peter Konz is close to returning from an ankle injury. Getting Konz back into the lineup would be huge, especially against a Spartans’ defensive line that has recorded 37 sacks this season. Winning the battle in the trenches is going to be critical to winning this game. If the Badgers can get their rushing game on track, they should get revenge for the loss in East Lansing earlier this year. However, if the Spartans control the line of scrimmage, the rematch swings in favor of a Michigan State victory.
10. Most of the news surrounding Hawaii this season has not been positive. Allegations of point shaving, a coach on the hot seat and an injury to quarterback Bryant Moniz have made it a disappointing season in Honolulu. The Warriors need one more win to get bowl eligible, but it won’t be easy with BYU visiting Aloha Stadium on Saturday night. These two teams are old WAC rivals, but this is the first matchup since 2002. The Cougars are expected to have quarterback Riley Nelson back in the lineup after missing a game due to lung and cartilage damage suffered in the victory over Idaho. Hawaii considers BYU one of its biggest rivals, and a win on Saturday night could help save Greg McMackin’s job, while getting the Warriors bowl eligible.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 14 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Northern Illinois 34, Ohio 31
Oregon 48, UCLA 17
Cincinnati 31, Connecticut 20
Pittsburgh 27, Syracuse 20
Kansas State 34, Iowa State 20
Oklahoma State 34, Oklahoma 31
Baylor 27, Texas 24
BYU 30, Hawaii 24
Houston 45, Southern Miss 31
LSU 27, Georgia 17
Virginia Tech 31, Clemson 20
Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 24
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 14
Will Tom Bradley be Penn State's coach in 2012?
Beating Indiana likely saved Purdue coach Danny Hope's job for another season.
Where does Randy Edsall and Maryland go after an awful 2011 season?
The Miami Herald does a good job breaking down Miami's 2011 season.
Should the Sooners slow down their offensive tempo for Saturday's game against Oklahoma State?
A bye week came at a perfect time for Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.
In order for Clemson to win the ACC title, it needs quarterback Tajh Boyd to get back on track.
Two Floida players are planning to transfer at the end of the semester. Since April, 11 players have decided to transfer from Gainesville.
Junior college players have played a key role in Kansas State's success this season.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Win or lose on Saturday, LSU should already have a spot clinched in the national title game. So what’s there to play for? Only the coveted SEC title. Despite what the Tigers have to look forward to on Jan. 9, don’t expect any letdown on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a wild ride for Georgia in 2011. Coach Mark Richt entered the year on the hot seat and things didn’t get better after an 0-2 start. The Bulldogs rebounded from their slow start, finishing the regular season with 10 consecutive victories and earning their first trip to Atlanta since 2005.
Georgia and LSU have met twice in the SEC title game, with each team winning once. The Tigers have lost three out of the last four overall meetings against the Bulldogs, but won in Athens 20-13 last season.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Quarterback Aaron Murray makes the Georgia offense go, but whether or not the Bulldogs can win on Saturday rests largely with the rushing attack.
Running back Isaiah Crowell did not play against Georgia Tech with an ankle injury, but is expected to return against LSU. The freshman has rushed for 832 yards and five scores this season, and his presence will be needed to establish balance.
Georgia’s offensive line will also have to step up, as it has allowed 25 sacks this season. The Tigers own one of the nation’s most relentless pass rushes, averaging 2.8 sacks per game.
If the Bulldogs can establish Crowell, it will help slow down LSU’s pass rush. Another factor that could help Georgia’s rushing attack is Murray’s mobility. He has 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season, and he may need to make a few plays with his legs to keep the chains moving for the Bulldogs’ offense.
As if trying to slow down the LSU pass rush wasn’t enough, Murray and his receivers will have their hands full against its secondary. The Tigers have allowed only six passing scores this season, while quarterbacks are completing just 52.8 percent of their throws against this secondary.
Murray set Georgia’s single-season touchdown record with 32 this season and has tossed only 10 picks.
The Bulldogs have no shortage of talented receivers for Murray. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads the team with 582 receiving yards, while tight end Orson Charles ranks second with 530 yards. Tavarres King, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Marlon Brown will also pitch in.
LSU got plenty of preparation for Georgia’s passing attack last week, as it held Arkansas’ quarterback Tyler Wilson to only 207 yards and one touchdown. However, the Bulldogs have a better rushing attack, which should help take some of the heat off of Murray.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers certainly aren’t going to wow anyone with their offense, but it isn’t exactly easy for opposing defenses to stop.
While LSU’s offense may not seem like a big-play group, it is averaging 38.2 points a game, which ranks 13th nationally.
The success starts up front with an offensive line that has allowed only 12 sacks and has paved the way for players to average 4.9 yards per rush.
The Tigers’ rushing attack will be tested by a Georgia defense that is allowing only 94.8 yards per game. Michael Ford leads the team with 721 yards, but Spencer Ware (687), Alfred Blue (445), Kenny Hilliard (248) will also see time.
Quarterback play has been an interesting storyline for LSU this season. Jarrett Lee assumed the starting role after Jordan Jefferson was suspended before the season opener, but has played sparingly since the victory over Alabama. Jefferson has been solid over the last three weeks and has tossed only one interception on 70 attempts.
There’s no question LSU wants to establish its rushing attack and control the time of possession. However, Jefferson has to hit a few plays through the air to keep Georgia’s defense from crowding the box to stuff the run.
When Jefferson drops back to pass, keep an eye on linebacker Jarvis Jones. The sophomore leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss, and his presence will be critical in keeping Jefferson under wraps.
Georgia’s defense has recorded 29 takeaways this season and if it wants to have any chance at upset victory, winning the turnover battle is going to be critical aspect on Saturday.
Expect LSU's offensive gameplan to remain the same as it has been all year - establish the run and take a few shots downfield. The Bulldogs have to find a way to keep the Tigers' rushing attack in check and force Jefferson to beat them in third and long situations.
Give LSU the edge in this department.
Georgia kicker Blair Walsh has surprisingly struggled this season, connecting on 18 of 29 attempts. Walsh was regarded as one of the top kickers in the nation coming into 2011.
LSU’s Drew Alleman has hit on 16 of 18 attempts, including all three attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Punter Drew Butler is having a solid year for the Bulldogs, averaging 43 yards per punt and has placed 16 inside of the 20. LSU's Brad Wing has been outstanding this year, matching Butler’s 43 yards per attempt, while placing 21 inside of the 20.
Georgia’s Brandon Boykin is averaging 23.6 yards per kick return and 9.8 yards on punt returns.
Morris Claiborne is having a terrific year on kickoff returns, averaging 27.5 yards on 15 attempts, while taking one back for a score.
Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 13.7 yards per punt return and took one back for a score in last week’s win against Arkansas.
Even though LSU has a spot in the national title game likely already under wraps, don’t expect a letdown.
Georgia will give the Tigers all they can handle, but it won’t be enough in the end. The Bulldogs have come a long way since the 0-2 start, but LSU is the better team and has navigated a more difficult schedule. Georgia will keep things close, but the Tigers pull away late in the fourth quarter.
Tigers 27, Bulldogs 17
-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on twitter)
The college football season is basically over. With the possible exception of The Bedlam Series, there is very little on the line this weekend. Six of the eleven conferences have concluded play and have only a champion to crown. The national title game is basically set, despite the LSU-Georgia battle in The Dome. And my 2011 "gambling" season has come to an end. My holiday weekend got started right with a tasty 3-0 Black Friday, but I wrapped up my final weekend with a 3-4 Saturday afternoon.
I picked 133 games against the spread this season and finished 26 games up. So if you laid $100 — for entertainment purposes only, of course — on every game I picked you would have made roughly $2,600 for the season (minus the juice). But just because I cannot leave you hanging with a pseudo-week of action still taking place, I will go ahead and pick the conference championship games. Consider it an early Xmas present.
Final 2011 Season Record ATS: 78-52-3 (6-4 last week)
Bonus Championship Picks:
UCLA (+31.5) at Oregon (Eugene, Friday, 8 PM ET)
Poor Slick Rick. The UCLA Bruins are currently looking for a new head coach after a 50-0 loss to rival USC. Oregon beat the Bruins 60-13 the last time they visited Eugene in 2010, and this edition shouldn't be much different. My Pick: Oregon -31.5
Ohio (+3.5) vs Northern Illinois (Detroit, Friday, 7 PM ET)
The Bobcats have won five straight games and the Huskies have won seven straight, so both teams are confident entering Ford Field. Chandler Harnish leads one of the nation's most dynamic offensive attacks — ranking in the top ten nationally in rushing and total offense. Ohio ranks near the bottom of the MAC in nearly every offensive category. My Pick: Northern Illinois -3.5
Southern Miss (+13) at Houston (Saturday, 12 PM ET)
Houston boasts the best record in the nation against the spread this season at 10-2. With a cover, they would post the best mark ATS of anyone (since the other 10-2 teams are done playing). The Cougars are rolling, are at home and have a trip to the BCS on the line. My Pick: Houston -13
LSU (-14) vs Georgia (Atlanta, Saturday, 4 PM ET)
The Georgia Bulldogs have won ten straight games and are playing for their BCS bowl lives. LSU is playing for...nothing? It is believed that even with a loss to UGA, the LSU Tigers are locked into the BCS title game. I will take LSU to win, but there is no way they aren't looking ahead with nothing really to play for. My Pick: Georgia +14
Virginia Tech (-7) vs Clemson (Charlotte, Saturday, 8 PM ET)
Clemson handled the Hokies when these two got together earlier this season in Blacksburg. The Tigers have been manhandled by Georgia Tech, NC State and South Carolina since. The Hokies simply continue to be one of the nation's best second half teams and have not lost an ACC game in the state of North Carolina in 14 tries. My Pick: Virginia Tech -7
Oklahoma (+3) at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 8 PM ET)
The Cowboys have a very small outside shot at landing in the BCS national title game with a convincing win. A BCS bowl is on the line for both, but there is more at stake for little brother. The emotion of the night, the home crowd and some extra motivation give the Pokes their first win over big brother since 2002. My Pick: Oklahoma State -3
Michigan State (+9.5) vs Wisconsin (Indianapolis, Saturday, 8:15 PM ET)
The MSU-UW rivarly has been elevated in recent years as both programs have been competing for conference titles of late. And with the Michigan State Miracle earlier this season, fans can bet the Badgers will be ready. However, as a big underdog, Mark Dantonio will have his Spartans ready for battle. Wisconsin is the best team in the league and should win, but Sparty will keep it very close (if not pull the upset). My Pick: Michigan State +9.5
2011 Top Teams ATS:
Louisiana Tech (10-2)
Western Kentucky (10-2)
Arkansas State (9-2)*
Kansas State (9-2)*
Oklahoma State (8-3)*
UL Lafaytette (8-4)
Michigan State (8-4)
Western Michigan (8-4)
2011 Bottom Teams ATS:
Central Michigan (1-11)
Texas A&M (3-9)
Colorado State (3-8)*
Florida Atlantic (3-8)*
Middle Tennessee (3-8)*
Penn State (3-8-1)
Virginia Tech (4-8)
* - one regular season game left to play
-by Braden Gall ( @AthlonBraden on twitter)
Start These Quarterbacks:
Eli Manning, NY Giants (Green Bay)
The NFL’s second-worst pass defense has allowed six 300-yard efforts and seven multiple-touchdown games. And with the ability the Packers have to score points, Manning should have plenty of chances to chuck it around.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (Cincinnati)
The ground game should struggle again this weekend for the Steelers, and Big Ben will be the fantasy beneficiary. This offense has been built around the pass this season, and the big-play threats at wide receiver have been very productive.
Matt Moore, Miami (Oakland)
The Raiders have allowed at least two touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks in four straight games. Moore has played well since being inserted into the lineup, throwing seven touchdowns (including two 3-TD games) over his last four starts. He is coming off a season-high 288 yards and should be able to produce against the struggling Raiders pass defense.
Bench These Quarterbacks:
Matt Ryan, Atlanta (at Houston)
The Falcons passer has been one of fantasy’s top scorers over the last month and half. But against the stingy Texans, that will change. Only twice this season has a quarterback thrown for either more than one TD or 200 yards against the Texans' revamped defense. Wade Phillips is right at home managing half of a football team.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore (at Cleveland)
This one may look out of place with his track record against the Browns; however, the Ravens passer has been a fantasy lump of coal for most of the year, with one multi-TD game since Week 3. The passing game should be largely irrelevant in this one. Ray Rice should get plenty of touches against a Browns defense that hasn’t stopped the run of late.
Carson Palmer, Oakland (at Miami)
Tony Romo’s two scores aside, the Dolphins have been playing excellent football against opposing quarterbacks this month (2 TD, 6 INT in the last four games). And Palmer’s receiving corps looks to be depleted this weekend as Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford both could be out. He'll churn out some yards, but expect scoring to be at a premium.
Start These Running Backs:
Chris Johnson, Tennessee (at Buffalo)
CJ2K got his third-heaviest workload of the season last weekend and did not disappoint. Against the Bucs, Johnson had his best rushing performance of the season with 190 yards on 23 carries. The Bills are 28th in the NFL in rushing touchdowns allowed with 12 and are 21st in the league in rush defense (123.8). The Bills are also allowing 33.5 points per game during their current four-game skid and surrendered 138 yards on 6.0 per carry last week to the Jets.
LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay (Carolina)
No team has allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Panthers' 15 thus far in 2011. They rank 28th in the NFL against the run at 137.5 yards per game, and Blount is playing the best football of his season. He has two straight 100-yard games and even got involved with the passing game last week against the Titans. Expect the Bucs to turn to the burly tailback once again this week.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England (Indianapolis)
Just when you had given up on the Lawfirm, he does something like score two touchdowns. Only six running backs have more than his seven rushing touchdowns this season, and the Colts should not be able to slow anyone on the Pats offense. Indy ranks 31st in the league against the run at 150.6 yards per game, and no one has allowed more rushing touchdowns than their 15.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego (at Jacksonvile)
When the Chargers give One-T Mathews the ball, he produces. He had a big outing last week against an improved Broncos team (142 yards from scrimmage), and the inconsistency of the passing game makes him a much more appealing option for Norv Turner.
Bench These Running Backs:
Steven Jackson, St. Louis (at San Francisco)
The story is pretty clear at this point. The 49ers still have not allowed a rushing touchdown this season and are leading the NFL in rushing defense at 75.5 yards per game. They held Ray Rice to 59 yards on 21 carries in last week’s loss to Baltimore (9.8 TFP in Athlon’s scoring system). I told you to bench Rice last week, and I have to do the same for Jackson, who has averaged 77.5 yards and 3.6 per carry against the Niners in 13 career games (5 TDs) again this week.
Cedric Benson, Cincinnati (at Pittsburgh)
The Steelers boast a top-five rush defense, and they held Benson to a 57-yard performance three weeks ago. In seven career games against Pittsburgh, the former Longhorn has averaged 45.0 yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry and has scored twice. The Curtain is fifth in the NFL with only six rushing touchdowns allowed this season, and I cannot see that trend changing this weekend.
Reshard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh (Cincinnati)
Yes, he scored twice against the Bengals defense three weeks ago, but don’t expect a repeat. He carried 16 times for 44 yards — a paltry 2.8 ypc clip — in that game. And frankly, he just isn’t getting the ball as much as expected, with only one game of more than 20 carries for the entire season (23, Week 6). And the Bengals are sixth in the NFL against the run at 92.7 yards per game.
C.J. Spiller, Buffalo (Tennessee)
The electric tailback got his first big chance at stardom last week and posted an uninspiring 70 yards from scrimmage on 22 touches against the Jets. The Titans are third in the NFL with five rushing touchdowns allowed, and this seems like a game that will be played through the air for the Bills.
Start These Wide Receivers:
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis (New England)
The Colts should have to throw early and often. And they will get to do so against the worst pass defense in the league. And with Dan Orlovsky under center, Wayne has a chance. His 5-122-1 line last week was his best of the season. Look for more this weekend.
Eric Decker, Denver (at Minnesota)
The Vikings are just not the same without Antoine Winfield – one of the most underrated corners in NFL history. Despite the Mile High Messiah’s inability to complete the forward pass, Decker has still scored in four of five games. Get him in there.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh (Cincinnati)
The Steelers have been leaning much more on the passing game this season, and that trend should continue this weekend against a stingy rush defense. Without Leon Hall, the Bengals secondary has struggled to stop big-play wideouts, and Brown is getting tons of targets (46 in five games).
Nate Washington/Damian Williams, Tennessee (at Buffalo)
I had both Plaxico and Santonio on this list last week, and both reached paydirt against the Bills. The same could be the case for Matt Hasselbeck’s improving duo.
Percy Harvin, Minnesota (Denver)
The Broncos defense has done a complete 180 since the start of the season. They will be chasing Christian Ponder all game long, and Champ Bailey is back playing Champ-ionship football. Harvin and the rest of the Vikings will struggle.
Anquan Boldin, Baltimore (at Cleveland)
Joe Haden should be checking all day, and that does not bode well for the Ravens receiver. Additionally, the passing game should not be needed much in this one.
Stevie Johnson, Buffalo (Tennessee)
David Nelson gets the redzone looks, and Cortland Finnegan will be in his jersey all game long. Johnson cost his team a chance at the win last week, and one has to wonder if he is back in good graces yet — especially considering the offense’s struggles this month.
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City (at Chicago)
Kyle Orton took a lot of reps with the first team this week, and I reserve the right to upgrade the stud wideout should the Neckbeard start. But if Tyler Palko is under center, Bowe’s value is much lower against a team that will be pressuring whoever is playing quarterback. Oh, and he hasn’t scored in seven games.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina's college football coach was trying to make a case for his team earlier this week and made the following statement: "We may not be LSU or Alabama, but we ain't Clemson."
That didn't sit too well with Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. After hearing about Spurrier's remarks from a reporter, the Tigers coach proceeded to detroy South Carolina's history and program with lines like "they're never going to be Clemson, and no three game win streak will change that," while giving political answers like "I have a lot of respect for Coach Spurrier."
This isn't the first time Steve Spurrier has irked others around college football. He likes to get a dig in here and there, but no one has ever calmly and completely detroyed one of Spurrier's comments.
A few favorite lines:
"My grandkids won't live long enough to see this turn into a real rivalry."
"We've won more bowl games than they've even been to."
"We got 100 plus more wins than South Carolina. That's reality."
"The best era of South Carolina football is right now. After five years [at South Carolina] coach Spurrier has 35 wins. If I had 35 wins in five years there'd be a new coach here. Because there's a different standard at Clemson than there is at South Carolina."
"Now what do you want to talk about, anything else?"
Well done Dabo. Well done.
Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Brandon Weeden is one of the Top 5 finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a distinction awarded to the nation's top senior quarterback and one that rewards character, citizenship, integrity and those who honor the game. Please click here for a full list of the 2011 Golden Arm Award nominees.
Triggering one of the most potent offenses in the land, Weeden has kept the Cowboys in the national title hunt through the season’s final week.
His most brilliant performance this season came during a second-half comeback against Texas A&M with 438 yards passing and two touchdowns. He threw for a school-record 502 yards and four scores in a win over Kansas State.
He has now thrown for more than 4,00 yards and 34 touchdowns in consecutive seasons, despite playing for two different offensive coordinators.