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Path: /college-football/duke-or-north-carolina-which-team-finishes-higher-coastal-2014

The ACC Coastal should be one of the toughest divisions to predict in 2014. After all, Duke won the league with a 6-2 conference record last season and three teams finished tied at 5-3 just behind the Blue Devils.

Considering how close the top six teams in the division are, another 5-3 record might be enough to finish second and 6-2 will probably win the division.

Duke and North Carolina are both in the discussion for the Coastal Division title in 2014, but both teams will be pushed by Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.

The Tar Heels finished two games behind the Blue Devils last year and barely lost to Duke 27-25 in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale. Larry Fedora’s team is expected to take another step forward in the win column in 2014, especially with an offense that should be among the best in the ACC. North Carolina’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but home games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech will help in a tight division battle.

David Cutcliffe has raised the bar at Duke, guiding the Blue Devils to the most wins in school history last year. And even with a few concerns about the defense, Cutcliffe should have Duke back in the discussion for the Coastal Division title.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Duke or North Carolina: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Coastal in 2014?

Steven Lassan ()
I don’t expect much separation in the win column among the top six teams in the Coastal this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if North Carolina and Duke tied with a 5-3 or 4-4 conference record. However, even with little room to maneuver in the win column, I think the Tar Heels will finish ahead of the Blue Devils. North Carolina finished last season on a tear, averaging 40.6 points per game (slightly skewed by the 80 points scored on ODU) over its final seven contests. Most of the offense returns intact, as coach Larry Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s deepest collection of skill players, and quarterback Marquise Williams is a contender for All-ACC honors. The biggest concern is a line that loses standout tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. And it’s a good thing North Carolina should have one of the best offenses in the ACC, as the defense is still searching for the right pieces. However, improvement should be noticeable on that side of the ball in 2014. Duke won’t take a huge step back in the standings, but this team is a good candidate to regress after being outgained by 73.4 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Also, the Blue Devils no longer have Brandon Connette to help with short-yardage and goal-line situations, the defensive line must be rebuilt, and standout cornerback Ross Cockrell has expired his eligibility. Duke also has four potential swing games on the road, including a crossover date against Syracuse and a Sept. 27 matchup at Miami. North Carolina and Duke should both go bowling in 2014, but I’ll take the Tar Heels to finish ahead in the standings.

Mark Ross
I realize the Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal Division champions and I am not expecting David Cutcliffe's team to take a gigantic step backwards this season. However, I also think it's perfectly fair to say that Duke got quite a few breaks to go its way last season. After all, this is a team that while it won 10 games, it was out-gained by more than 73 yards per contest in ACC play. The blowout loss to Florida State in the conference championship game has a lot to do with this deficit, if you will, but Duke beat Virginia Tech on the road by three points in a game in which the Blue Devils didn't convert a single third down and threw four interceptions. What's more, most of the starting defensive line and all-conference cornerback Ross Cockrell are gone, leaving some pretty big holes to fill. Cutcliffe's team doesn't have a particularly (ahem) devilish schedule to contend with this season, but I don't expect him to orchestrate anything that closely resembles a repeat of 2013's success either.

To that point, North Carolina was a late defensive stop away from ruining Duke's title chances last fall. The Tar Heels fell to the Blue Devils 27-25 in Chapel Hill, a victory that put Duke in the ACC Championship Game. But with UNC welcoming 14 starters back and the pieces in place to produce one of the nation's most prolific offenses, there's a chance that the roles between these two basketball-centric schools could be flipped for 2014. Yards and points shouldn't be an issue for Larry Fedora's team this fall, at least not from an offensive standpoint. With dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams leading the way, the Tar Heels should improve on their production from last season, when it ranked 49th in the country in total offense and 43rd in scoring. The key will be the improved play of the defense, which struggled mightily to start but got better as the season progressed. An early road trip to Clemson will serve as an ideal barometer for how far the defense has come and if the Tar Heels can be considered a legitimate contender in the Coastal. But regardless of the outcome in Death Valley, I expect North Carolina to finish higher in the division standings than Duke this fall. Who would have ever thought that a Duke-UNC matchup in late November would generate as much attention as one in February or March?

Listen to our staff discuss every team in the ACC as Athlon starts to look to 2014.


Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football leading up to the 2014 season.

John Cassillo, (), 
Both teams have their issues -- Duke's running game, North Carolina's defense -- but for the last few seasons (and this year, too), they're pretty evenly matched. So in what should be a wide-open division yet again, it may end up coming down to schedule construction. Both squads visit Miami, while Duke's other conference road games include Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse; a slightly easier group of teams than the Heels' respective ACC road opponents, Clemson, Virginia and Duke. The winner of that mid-November Duke-UNC matchup may not only finish higher in the division of these two teams, but also end up representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game. And for right now, I'm going with the Blue Devils there, who should look even more consistent on offense now that Anthony Boone has more experience under his belt. With Miami already dealing with a key injury (QB Ryan Williams), and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech breaking in new quarterbacks themselves, this division may find itself ruled over by its North Carolina squads in 2014.

Matt McClusky, (), 
Really, when you're talking Duke and North Carolina, you're talking Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Wil...oh, right, this is football! And isn't it nice that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are both relevant enough on the gridiron to be worth discussing? David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora seem to have their respective teams heading in the right direction and the beauty of that is the two rivals are in the same division.

Actually, he two are flying high after Duke took the Coastal last season and North Carolina ending the year with a bowl win over Cincinnati. Good times behind with good times seemingly ahead. So which one will finish higher in 2014? Well, that answer will likely come November 20, when the Tar Heels head to Durham for a game that could rival their basketball counterparts in terms of hype.

Still, with the Blue Devils hitting the road for four of their first five ACC games, Cutcliffe's boys may be destined for something of a letdown. Plus, quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone, is transferring to be closer to home to be with his is ailing mother. Of course, Anthony Boone, who split time at QB with Connette, looks ready for prime time but Cutcliffe also has to replace the likes of Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx on the defensive front line. The foundation is certainly set in Durham for success, so the seasons of two or three wins are gone, but it will be tough to replicate the meteoric rise last season brought.

That's not to say UNC doesn't have issues of its own -- the offensive line being a major concern. But quarterback Marquise Williams looks like the real deal with a ton of skilled talent for him to get the ball to on offense. Plus, the final month of the season gives the Tar Heels a bye week and two home games sandwiched around the trip to Durham. Ultimately, it will be close, but I'm going with UNC to finish higher than Duke in the Coastal and to likely contend for the division championship -- only fitting the year after the Blue Devils take the Coastal, the Tar Heels get their answer. It's what makes a rivalry fun to talk about.

Ryan Tice, (), 
This is a pretty tough question with how wide-open the Coastal Division is. The first thing to keep in mind is that North Carolina’s game at Notre Dame is a non-conference one this year, so that might tip the scales their way. 

When I look at the two teams’ conference schedules in late April, I would give them the same number of games I expect each to win, lose and what I’d deem toss-ups games. With everything still pretty equal, it’s time to look at what each squad lost and returns.

UNC won six of its last seven games, but lost its best two offensive linemen, its stud tight end and several key pieces on defense. Meanwhile, Duke returns 17 starters off of their 10-win squad, including eight on offense and six on defense. The transfer of quarterback Brandon Connette, who was an automatic seven inside of the red zone, is underrated, but I’m putting my faith in David Cutcliffe to keep the Blue Devils from taking too far of a step back and stay ahead of the Tar Heels in 2014.

Duke or North Carolina: Which team finishes higher in the Coastal in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-tens-college-football-schedules-2014

Scheduling in college football is all that matters. Sure, coaching, rosters and even a little bit of luck play bigger roles in determining championships in the NCAA ranks.

But scheduling in college football plays as big a role as any of those other factors. Non-conference play varies greatly from team to team. So, too, does crossover play within the divisions of any conference. Home and road slates are important  — especially for the championship-deciding, rivalry-bragging, marquee showdowns. And the important bye weekends also play a large role in ironing out win-loss records in any given season.

So taking all of the above into account, which team has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten in 2014?

1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Crossover: at Nebraska, Wisconsin
Non-Conference: at Washington St, Howard, at Navy, Tulane
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-58 (62.6%, 9th)

In its first year in the Big Ten, Rutgers has been handed the toughest schedule of any team in the league based on how teams fared last year (9th nationally with 97-58 opponents record). Talk about your rude welcomes. Rutgers will play two of the best teams from the West and will likely be picked to finish last in the East. A long road trip to Washington State and the short trek to Annapolis, Md., to face Navy in non-conference action means a 2-2 record could be expected before facing a Big Ten slate that has one winnable game (Indiana at home, Nov. 15). The off weekend comes between facing Michigan and Ohio State but there isn’t a lot to like about what could be a horrible first season in a new league.

2. Maryland Terrapins
Crossover: Iowa, at Wisconsin
Non-Conference: James Madison, at USF, West Virginia, at Syracuse
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-67 (56.2%, 40th)

The non-conference schedule doesn’t have a marquee game but three tough bouts with regional rivals (Cuse, WVU) along with a long road trip to USF. But the conference slate is what makes this such a touch schedule. Maryland will likely play the best six teams in the league over a six-game stretch with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home coupled with road dates at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. The only good news is that both bye weeks fall in the middle of that nasty six-game stretch. This doesn’t include a trek to Indiana and home game with Rutgers. And all of this while playing in the Big Ten for the first time.

3. Indiana Hoosiers
Crossover: at Iowa, Purdue
Non-Conference: Indiana St, at Bowling Green, at Missouri, N. Texas
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-64 (59.2%, 24th)

Last year’s schedule was one of the toughest (93-64) of any team in the Big Ten and, now in a tougher division, Indiana hasn’t gotten any favors for ’14 either. Road trips to Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Missouri are brutal and home tests with Penn State and Maryland make it very difficult to see Indiana getting to a bowl game. In particular, the non-conference slate could be one of the tougher in the league with trips to Bowling Green, Mizzou and hosting a developing North Texas squad.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Crossover: at Ohio State, Penn State
Non-Conference: Youngstown St, W. Kentucky, at Washington, Texas St
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-61 (59.6%, 21st)

The Illini have a nasty road trip to Seattle to face Washington and also will face two quality mid-major teams, so starting out 3-1 isn’t a lock. Then things get nasty for Illinois. Road trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern are all tough and the home slate includes Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. There is one, maybe two, winnable Big Ten games this year for Illinois — even with an improved offense. Crossover play might be the worst of any team in the league. Lastly, Illinois doesn’t get to play… Illinois.

5. Purdue Boilermakers
Crossover: Michigan State, at Indiana
Non-Conference: W. Michigan, C. Michigan, at Notre Dame, S. Illinois
Opponents ’13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)

Simply because Purdue doesn’t get to play Purdue, it makes the Boilermakers' schedule the toughest within the division. And with Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road) in crossover play, Purdue has one of the tougher slates in the league. A four-game stretch in the middle of the year — Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Nebraska and Wisconsin —with a bye week in the middle is one of the toughest months any team has to deal with. Iowa and Notre Dame in the first month make this schedule tough from beginning to end.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Crossover: at Michigan, Ohio State
Non-Conference: E. Illinois, Middle Tennessee, at TCU, San Jose St
Opponents ’13 Record: 85-68 (55.6%, 46th)

A visit to TCU is the toughest non-conference game on the slate and that will be a challenge but what makes the Gophers' schedule so tough is its Big Ten slate. Crossover is brutal with a trip to Michigan and home date with Ohio State. And the final month of the season is ridiculously hard with a four-game stretch that includes Iowa at home, Ohio State and back-to-back visits to Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road to end things. The only good news for Jerry Kill’s bunch is at least the team gets a bye week Nov. 1 before these final four games. A repeat of eight wins would be an excellent season for Minnesota.

7. Northwestern Wildcats
Crossover: at Penn State, Michigan
Non-Conference: Cal, No. Illinois, W. Illinois, at Notre Dame
Opponents ’13 Record: 76-76 (50%, 78th)

The non-conference schedule isn’t all that easy with a Pac-12 opponent, the best program in the MAC and a road trip to Notre Dame late in the year. Toss in a nasty crossover slate with Penn State (road) and Michigan (home) and Northwestern has one of the toughest schedules in the West Division. Both Wisconsin and Nebraska have to come to Evanston, but don't overlook road trips to Minnesota and Iowa either. For a team trying to bounce back from a disappointing season due in large part to a nasty schedule, this isn’t an easy slate for the Wildcats.

8. Michigan State Spartans
Crossover: Nebraska, at Purdue
Non-Conference: Jacksonville St, at Oregon, E. Michigan, Wyoming
Opponents ’13 Record: 83-71 (53.9%, 55th)

The highlight of the first month is easily the toughest non-conference game in the league when the Spartans visit Oregon in Week 2. Then Big Ten play starts in primetime against Nebraska followed up by a trip to Purdue. It means Sparty will play six straight straight division games to end the year. The best news about the tough final six weeks is an off weekend falls directly between a home game with rival Michigan (Oct. 25) and conference frontrunner Ohio State (Nov. 8). Road trips to Maryland and Penn State in the final three weeks could be very difficult as well.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Crossover: Illinois, at Minnesota
Non-Conference: at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent St, Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 87-66 (56.9%, 35th)

The Buckeyes boast one of the league’s toughest non-conference slates but have one of the easier crossover slates with the Illini and Gophers on tap. Both bye weeks take place early in the year and won’t break up any of the tough division games that seem to be backloaded in Columbus. Over the final six weeks, Ohio State will visit Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota while hosting Indiana and Michigan. This is a tougher slate than most league favorites can boast nationally.

10. Michigan Wolverines
Crossover: Minnesota, at Northwestern
Non-Conference: App. State, at Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Utah
Opponents ’13 Record: 81-71 (53.3%, 59th)

The Wolverines boast some intriguing non-conference tilts with Notre Dame, a rising FBS program in AP-State and Pac-12 foe Utah, so the start to the year could be very testy for the embattled Maize and Blue coaching staff. The good news for Michigan is the bye weekends set up nicely before and after critical games. The first of which will come between two huge games with Penn State at home (Oct. 11) and a trip to defending champs Michigan State (Oct. 25). Then the second off weekend comes before the final two games with Maryland (home) and archrival Ohio State (road). Like the Buckeyes, Michigan will miss Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa in crossover play.

11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Crossover: at Michigan State, Rutgers
Non-Conference: FAU, McNeese St, at Fresno St, Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-63 (58.8%, 25th)

A tricky non-conference slate is highlighted by a long trip to Fresno and a visit from Miami. All four could be wins but at least two will be tough games. Additionally, crossover play is more difficult for Nebraska than the other contenders in the West Division (Wisconsin, Iowa). The bye weeks come at perfect times after the first five games and just before the tough final three-game stretch.

12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Crossover: Northwestern, at Illinois
Non-Conference: UCF, Akron, UMass, Temple
Opponents ’13 Record: 79-73 (51.9%, 68th)

The non-conference slate is going to be very tame for Penn State now that Blake Bortles is gone from UCF, so a 4-0 start should be expected. Then the Lions get a bye week before two of their toughest three games of the year before visiting Michigan (Oct. 11) and hosting Ohio State (Oct. 25). Then Penn State gets a November loaded with gimmies, including a bizarre late-season semi-rivalry with Temple, before hosting Michigan State at home. A win over the Spartans not only could change the complexion of the division title but could give Penn State a double-digit win season.

13. Iowa Hawkeyes
Crossover: Indiana, at Maryland
Non-Conference: No. Iowa, Ball St, Iowa St, at Pitt
Opponents ’13 Record: 68-70 (49.3%, 85th)

Iowa has an interesting non-conference slate with two in-state rivals who have played the Hawkeyes tough (Northern Iowa, Iowa State) consistently and a road trip to Pitt isn’t an easy game either. Crossover play sets up well with Indiana and Maryland posing as two winnable but tricky games. The key is missing Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and getting both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to end the season. A road trip to Minnesota might actually be the toughest situation the Hawkeyes face all season.

14. Wisconsin Badgers
Crossover: Maryland, at Rutgers
Non-Conference: LSU, W. Illinois, Bowling Green, USF
Opponents ’13 Record: 74-78 (48.7%, 87th)

LSU in Houston to start the year might be the toughest game Wisconsin plays all season long. Otherwise, the opening Big Ten slate is almost comically easy for the Badgers. At Northwestern, Illinois, bye week, Maryland, at Rutgers and at Purdue will all feature large point spreads in Wisconsin’s favor. Over the final three weeks, however, things get interesting with road trips to Nebraska, Iowa and a home tilt with rival Minnesota. There is no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on the slate for UW. Double-digit wins doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation by any stretch of the imagination.

Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Schedules in 2014
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-strengths-and-weaknesses-2014-calss

Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.

Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.

The second quarter of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins next weekend at Talladega, and since this will be the last ranking of the first quarter I’m focusing this batch of evaluations on the biggest strength and weakness for each driver in this year’s rookie crop.

Strengths are easy. Every person enjoys hearing what others feel are their strengths. Weaknesses? Not so much. Since there are three whole quarters of the season to go (and, you know, the remaining races of an entire career) for this band of first-year drivers, there is plenty of time to correct the things that hinder their progress the most. So don’t panic, fanatics. It is still possible for your favorite rookie to develop into a well-rounded racer.

There was no movement in the rankings , but there is quite a bit to evaluate after each rookie’s first dip in Darlington’s waters:

1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)  Kyle arson
Biggest strength: The passing. My God, the passing. His 53.07 percent adjusted pass efficiency (passing totals adjusted to omit positions gained during green-flag stops and pass-thru penalties) ranks fifth in the Cup Series. There isn’t another rookie that ranks in the top 20. He is also passing for value; his adjusted efficiency is 1.76 percent better, on average, than what is expected from a driver with an 18.4-place average running position.

Biggest weakness: Crashing, which should subside. He crashed three times in eight races, three of which came at Daytona. That once-in-seven races mark doesn’t mean he is impervious to crashes, though. Per his closing numbers, he is one of the most aggressive drivers in the waning laps of races, averaging a 2.7-position gain after each race’s 10 percent-to-go mark (dubbed by Team Penske’s Greg Erwin as “the red zone”). Aggressive drivers tend to crash more often. Case in point: Kurt Busch, who joins Larson in a five-way tie for the worst crash frequency in the series.

2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Biggest strength: Closing out races. He and crew chief Gil Martin are simply having a field day right now picking up spots late in a race. They’re retaining the position at the beginning of the red zone 100 percent of the time, and advancing their position by 20.8 percent, the second-best position retention difference in the series. Those efforts amount to a 1.8-position increase per race.

Biggest weakness: Dillon struggled with passing last season, both in 11 Cup Series starts and in a title-winning NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign. He’s still having some difficulty, currently sporting a 49.27 percent adjusted efficiency (anything below 50 percent means a driver is passed more than he/she passes) and a minus-0.87 percent surplus value, indicating he is passing below his average running position’s expected output.

3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)  Justin Allgaier
Biggest strength: His passing numbers aren’t as pleasing to the eye as Larson’s, but they do the job. He is in the black in both adjusted efficiency (50.28 percent) and surplus value (plus-2.87 percent, which ranks fifth in the series). , insisting he thought sub-par qualifying efforts was skewing his team’s perception. He is right about that if his last five races are any indication; after finishes of 30th and 31st at Phoenix and Las Vegas, he has finished 24th or better in four of his last five outings.

Biggest weakness: Allgaier and team have only finished in the top half of the field 12.5 percent of the time. It isn’t because they can’t do it. They have finished on the lead lap just once this season, which has limited their position progression late in races. They hold an 85 percent position retention rate in the red zone, advancing position in five of the eight races so far. If they could close races on the lead lap, their ability to gain spots — there are more cars on the lead lap than cars one or two laps down, on average — would reward them with significantly better results.

4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)
Biggest strength: Up until a rough outing at Darlington, Annett was passing above his positional value, featuring a race-best surplus passing value of plus-16.7 percent at Phoenix. He gained five positions in the closing laps at Fontana to score a season-best 19th-place finish.

Biggest weakness: A few of the smaller tracks (Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington) wreaked havoc, doling out three of his four worst finishes. Though the Martinsville race represented his first start at the facility, it’s clear he needs some elbow room to race. Following this weekend at Richmond, he’ll get a chance to tackle Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte.

5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)  Cole Whitt
Biggest strength: Whitt is passing above value, averaging a plus-2.69 percent surplus that ranks sixth in the Cup Series, something that helped give a Swan Racing car that ranked 36th in average green-flag speed a more fighting chance at decent finishes. He finished better than 36th five times in the first eight races.

Biggest weakness: He isn’t getting a lot of help from his team. Even the steadfast closing he and Randy Cox have had — 85.71 percent base retention — doesn’t amount to much when the position they’re retaining is 30th place. His reported move to BK Racing would at least offer a chance for something different than what he has now.


Couch Potato Tuesday:

6. Parker Kligerman, No. 30 (previous: 6)
Biggest strength: It has been a trying year for Kligerman, but there have been glimpses. He holds a positive pass differential in the four races he finished, he is a positive value passer (plus-1.88 percent) through all eight races and he managed to make his highest running position of a race his finishing position at both Bristol and Darlington.

Biggest weakness: The whole not finishing races thing is the clear issue. He is one of five drivers that are tied for the worst crash frequency and he is one of just four drivers to have crashed out of at least two races. Additionally, he has suffered two race-ending equipment failures.

7. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 7)   Alex Bowman
Biggest strength: A byproduct of running off of the lead lap is the ease of position protection. Bowman and crew chief Dave Winston have held their red zone position 100 percent of the time, but they’ve also managed to advance by 6.3 percent, which ranks as the 12th-best mark in the series.

Biggest weakness: A sheer lack of speed. Bowman and team rank 35th in average green-flag speed and hold the fourth-worst average running position among Cup Series regulars. They’re essentially non-factors in the series, with their two best finishes coming at Fontana (22nd) and Daytona (23rd), the two races that provided the most random results of the first eight events.

8. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 8)
Biggest strength: Unfortunately, there isn’t a statistical strength for Truex, but the fact that he is getting repetitions behind the wheel of a Cup car might suffice as a win, especially considering he has raced sparingly since 2011. The rust shows in his crash frequency — he has crashed three times in six races.

Biggest weakness: Truex failed to qualify for two races, the second of which was the straw that broke the camel’s back on the crew chief tenure of Dale Ferguson, who was replaced by Doug Richert prior to Darlington. Truex might be on the chopping block next if he doesn't offer more help to his team by way of passing. His 42.31 percent adjusted pass efficiency ranks as the second-worst in the series among regulars.

David Smith is the founder of and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at .

Photos by

Ranking the eight-driver crop of rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 01:45
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-22-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 22.

. Mild NSFW warning.


• Holy cow: .


• NFL CBA quirk of the day: .

• On this day in 1991, .



• Today's dose of schadenfreude: .


. Or else he's just trolling.

• Kevin Durant's four-point play was insane.

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 13:09
All taxonomy terms: Arkansas Razorbacks, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/arkansas-updates-uniforms-2014

After a disappointing 3-9 record in Bret Bielema’s first season at Arkansas, the Razorbacks are hoping for bigger and better things in 2014.

And what better way to build momentum for 2014 than the release of new uniforms and logos?

It seems every BCS school is releasing uniforms recently, and the Razorbacks unveiled an updated look for 2014 on Monday night.

Here are some photos of , as well as updated logos:

Arkansas Updates Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 08:30
Path: /college-football/who-leads-sec-rushing-2014

2013 was the year of the quarterback in the SEC. The league featured standouts in AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw.

But heading into 2014, the SEC is a league searching for answers at quarterback. Auburn’s , with Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Missouri’s Maty Mauk in the next tier.

With the SEC losing several quarterbacks, expect the league to feature its rushing attacks and defenses more in 2014.

The SEC is loaded at running back in 2014, as Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Arkansas’ Alex Collins could all be All-Americans this year.

Gurley missed action last year due to a foot injury, but the junior is expected to be at full strength in 2014. Collins and Yeldon should have plenty of opportunities, but both players will have competition from a talented backfield. Davis should have no trouble matching last year’s numbers, especially with an offensive line that could be the best in the SEC.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

Steven Lassan ()
The SEC is loaded at running back this year. Just how loaded? One of these backs: Mike Davis (South Carolina), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) or Todd Gurley (Georgia) will have to be placed on the second-team All-SEC squad this preseason. And the depth extends deep in the conference, as Derrick Henry is ready for a breakout year at Alabama, Jerron Seymour could shine at Vanderbilt under new coordinator Karl Dorrell, and Texas A&M has a talented trio of running backs waiting for more opportunities. With the losses at quarterback this offseason, expect to see a return by the offenses in the SEC on the ground attack. While I expect this will be a close race for the top spot, I’ll take Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Despite a nagging ankle injury last season, Gurley finished fourth among SEC running backs by averaging 98.9 yards per game. Gurley also averaged six yards per carry and opened the year with back-to-back 100-yard games (Clemson, South Carolina). The Bulldogs’ offensive line is a work in progress, but I suspect a motivated (and healthy) Gurley will finish atop the SEC leaderboard in rushing yards in 2014.

Josh Ward, , ()
I’ll take Todd Gurley. He averaged six yards a carry last year despite playing at less than 100 percent for much of the season. Gurley has the perfect combination of size and running ability and should enter his third season at Georgia in the best shape of his career. There are other strong choices for this question – Mike Davis at South Carolina and Alex Collins at Arkansas come to mind – but I’ll stick with Gurley. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason called Gurley the “best back in the country” when he’s healthy. Sure, Mason is biased. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Kevin Causey (), 
Last year, the SEC was a QB driven league that was deep at that position. This year, those QBs have exited but a bunch of great RBs remain. Todd Gurley, TJ Yeldon, Mike Davis, Alex Collins and Derrick Henry just to name a few. In looking at this question, I looked back at the last four years in the SEC and noted that the player that led the SEC in rushing was either the best RB in the league (Tre Mason, Trent Richardson) or a QB (Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton).

So the way I figure, it's either going to be Todd Gurley, Mike Davis, Derrick Henry, Nick Marshall or Dak Prescott. Alabama and Georgia are deep at RB and I think that will take some carries away from Gurley and Henry (and you also have to factor in Gurley's past durability). South Carolina will rely more on Davis this year but I still wonder how much the Ol' Ball Coach wants to pound the rock play after play. I might be going outside the box a bit but my pick is Nick Marshall.

He finished 7th in the league last season in rushing, but he also had to learn Gus Malzahn's offensive system and he had a feature back in Tre Mason to hand the rock to. He had at least 89 yards rushing in six games last season and he got better at making decisions as the season went on. Auburn will still have some good RBs in the backfield but I foresee more of an onus being put on Marshall to carry the load in 2014 and it will result in more carries and more yards and maybe, just maybe, for the third time in five years a QB will lead the SEC in rushing yards.

David Fox ()
History says the SEC’s rushing leader will be something of a surprise. I doubt anyone would have predicted Tre Mason to win the rushing title by more than 400 yards last year. Or that a quarterback would do it in 2012 and 2010. The off-the-wall pick would be Arkansas sophomore Alex Collins, but the Razorbacks might not give him enough leads to protect late in the game. My guess, then, is Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Think about what he did last season before he got hurt: 154 yards against Clemson, 132 against South Carolina. Going back to his freshman season, Gurley topped 100 yards in five of the final seven games. With a new quarterback and the possibility that Keith Marshall will redshirt, Georgia will need to rely on Gurley. We know he’s up to the task.

Braden Gall ()
With the recent departure of elite quarterbacks from the SEC, fans should expect a return to normalcy in the nation's toughest league in 2014. That means running the ball with a deep and talented collection of running backs. Georgia's Todd Gurley is the most gifted back, but he has dealt with injuries and may lose touches with the return of Keith Marshall. Alabama's T.J. Yeldon is an All-American back but should also lose touches to the very talented Derrick Henry in Nick Saban's traditional two-back system. Alex Collins at Arkansas is in the same boat with Jonathan Williams expecting at least 150 carries for the Hogs. So I will go off the board with South Carolina's Mike Davis. He is as talented as any of the aforementioned runners and will be playing behind five returning starters for the Gamecocks. The schedule isn't all that daunting as Steve Spurrier's bunch will miss all of the toughest defenses from the West: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Davis dealt with his own small injuries a year ago and still managed to finish fourth in the SEC with nearly 1,200 yards. Should he play in every game, my money is on the rising junior star in Columbia to lead the SEC in rushing.

Mark Ross
I'm going to give a slight edge to Todd Gurley over Mike Davis. Gurley, a junior, has been consistent in his first two seasons in a Georgia uniform, averaging 98.9 yards rushing per game. Last season, Gurley missed three-plus games because of an ankle injury. Taking his 98.9 yards per game average into consideration, if Gurley had played all 13 games he would have finished with 1,286 yards rushing. That total would have placed him third in the SEC behind Auburn's Tre Mason (1,816) and LSU's Jeremy Hill (1,401). Both Mason and Hill are gone, so as long as Gurley stays healthy, I think he will get more than enough carries to post some pretty big numbers, especially with unproven Hutson Mason entering his first full season as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. South Carolina's Davis, a fellow junior, averaged basically the same number of rushing yards per game (98.6) as Gurley last season, and he definitely should be the Gamecocks' workhorse this fall. However, I'm giving Gurley the slight edge over Davis in this matchup of SEC East ground-gainers based on Gurley's more impressive track record and the assumption that he will be able to stay healthy this season.

Who Leads the SEC in Rushing in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/state-iron-bowl-alabama-fans-move-2014-finish-not-saban

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a fan base not always known for its sense of perspective, the Alabama faithful seem to be taking the events of the last four months well.

A-Day at Tuscaloosa was 140 days since Auburn ended Alabama’s bid to win four national titles in five years and 108 days since Oklahoma stunned the Crimson Tide for a 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl. For two losses that put a halt to national championship ambitions and temporarily derailed a dynasty, the topic isn't a total conversation-killer in the quad outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“We don’t think too much about it,” said Luke Kiszla, an Alabama junior from Mobile.

Kiszla’s friend at his tailgate, Jordan Yue, completed the thought.

“Not as much as we used to,” Yue said.

Inside the program, though, the 0-2 finish is inescapable. At the start of spring, Alabama coaches placed motivational posters indicating the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.

At the end of January, quarterback AJ McCarron pinpointed the problems that contributed to losses that ended the 2013 season. Complacency, , was Alabama’s undoing long before the Auburn game, too many players who didn’t fully appreciate all it took to get to three national championships from 2009-12. No one rushed to dispute the assessment of Alabama's championship quarterback.

For most programs, spending every week of the season until December at No. 1 would be a major success. At Alabama, that wasn’t enough, especially given the stakes.

“From the Alabama fan perspective, they can’t wait until next season," said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led Tide to the 1994 championship and co-hosts the morning show on WJOX in Birmingham. “Everything that built to the three-peat boiled down to that Auburn game. Then you get to Oklahoma. You’ve got to finish stronger than last year. This is a team that had a chance to create history.”

For the optimist, even a disappointing finish in 2013 isn’t a bad development in the long run. The 2008 Alabama team had the national championship in its sights before a loss to Florida in the SEC title game and a flop in the bowl game.

“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending. The process is never-ending."
-Alabama coach Nick Saban
“Last year mimicked 2008 exactly,” said Doug Lolley, an Alabama tailgater on A-Day who is an administrator on the message board. “We lost the last two games — Florida in the SEC championship game was like the Auburn game. Then we lost the Sugar Bowl.”

The Crimson Tide went 14-0 the next season and won the first national championship of the Saban era.

The veterans from that team, though, remembered going 7-6 in Saban’s first season, including a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

If Alabama is going to maintain its dynasty — rather than ending it — the issue won’t be talent as much as culture.

Alabama has finished first in the 247Sports Composite team rankings every signing day from 2009-14 and have the current No. 1 class for 2015. That figure does not include potential 2014 starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who will arrive in fall after a transfer from Florida State. But all that talent can't guarantee another championship.

“I think they got by on talent last season,” Barker said. “When it came to the Auburn game, it all caught up to them. All the things they didn’t do in the summer caught up to them.”

Now is the chance to atone for it. Saban said he’s been encouraged by the change in attitude during the spring, but responding when the coach is on the same practice field is one thing. Doing the same during summer conditioning or passing drills is another.

“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending,” Saban said. “The process is never-ending.

“One thing I like about this group, when you talk about it, they respond well. Last year, I felt we talked about some of the issues we had and we acknowledged them, but we didn’t really respond like you’d like.”

Alabama’s focus is two-fold. On the one hand, Saban needs his team to adopt the process-oriented culture. On the other, Saban needs credible leaders to replace McCarron and his counterpart on the other side of the ball, former linebacker C.J. Mosley.

On the defensive side, that may fall on senior linebacker Trey DePriest. The answers on the opposite side of the ball might not be clear until a quarterback is determined. Still, Alabama may have some of the best skill position talent in the country in running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper.

“We’re getting back to the basics, and when coach says something, we’ve got to be there to back him up,” DePriest said. “We’re there to tell (a young player) that he’s not hollering at you and trying to put you down. He’s trying to make you better.”

In many ways, this is a 11-2 top-10 team that’s in the process of starting over, including the eye-opening hire of controversial former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator.

At least for some fans, they’ve responded. A hire that first garnered skepticism is now greeted with cautious optimism.

Alabama, after all, has made it this far with on the coaching approach by Saban.

“I don’t make $7 million a year to make those decisions,” Lolley said. “In Saban we trust.”

State of the Iron Bowl: Alabama fans move on from 2014 finish, not Saban
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Auburn Tigers, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/state-iron-bowl-fans-excited-malzahn-not-satisfied

AUBURN, Ala. — Abby Lemons had no idea what she was getting herself into when she decided to go to Auburn.

She came to Auburn in part because of the football atmosphere two years ago, but morale on campus was at an all-time low when she was a freshman following the first winless SEC season in school history and the tragic poisoning of the historic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.

“Going into last year, we had lost our coach, lost our trees at Toomer’s Corner and we felt like we had nothing (else) to lose,” Lemons said. “So last season was a bizarre and eerie situation as it seemed like the trees were speaking to us. We got two miracles for each tree — the first for Georgia and the second for Alabama.”

The miracles credited to the Toomer’s oaks were Ricardo Louis’ circus catch against Georgia and Chris Davis’ 100-yard missed field goal returned for a touchdown to beat Alabama. 

The energy that courses through the Plains is now palpable after Gus Malzahn led a team that won just three games the year before on an unlikely run to the BCS National Championship game. The campus is brimming with excitement, the community is smiling again and over 70,000 people — the second time in as many years Auburn has topped 70,000 for A-Day — showed up on a chilly, overcast Saturday in April to watch a glorified practice.

Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs has witnessed those excruciating lows and the remarkable highs first hand.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Jacobs said. “We’ve had some high points, some low points and some curves but it’s been a fun ride. It’s a great time for Auburn University.”

There is no doubt Auburn is a fun place to be right now, but both Jacobs and Malzahn understand the difficulty of winning over the long haul in the SEC. They understand the pressures that come with winning the conference championship and returning a team that was seconds away from winning a second national title in four years.

“The epicenter of college football right now is right here in the state of Alabama,” Jacobs said.

The epicenter, of course, includes Iron Bowl rival Alabama. Auburn has reached the title game twice in four seasons, but along the way, the Tigers fired the coach who won a title and needed those two unlikely finishes to reach the second.

Auburn is on top of the college football world right now, but the Tigers still have work to do in order to become a machine that mirrors the one in Tuscaloosa.

“We got better in the spring, but we still have a long way to go,” Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We still have to prove a point.”

Jacobs, who has dealt with his share of adversity in his decade-long run as Auburn AD, can’t help but smile when he talks about his athletic department. Who can blame him? He watched his football team win the SEC title and play in the BCS title game with a first-year coach, and he recently hired cult-hero Bruce Pearl to lead the basketball program.

Malzahn, however, is not ready to bask in the accomplishments from last season.

Auburn honored the departing players from last year’s SEC championship team with a ring ceremony and a highlight package culminating with the “Kick Six” against Alabama.

Highlights from one game — the loss to Florida State in the championship game — were conspicuously absent from the montage but not from the mind of Malzahn, though.

“As a coach, I think about the last game a lot,” Malzahn said.

In contrast to his up-tempo offense, the Auburn coach doesn’t have time for enthusiasm or the whispers of oak trees. The deliberate second-year coach knows his team got lucky a year ago, and if it expects to repeat as SEC champs, Auburn will have to address some major concerns this summer.

Those concerns begin and end with the defense. This unit dealt with major injuries all spring camp and had to mix and match pieces during the spring finale. Voids left by Dee Ford, Jake Holland and Chris Davis remain temporarily unfilled. One of the few certainties, however, is that allowing more than 420 yards per game on defense isn’t a way to sustain success in the nation’s toughest league.

It’s why Malzahn’s mind wanders and he fidgets after sitting in the same place for more than five minutes at a time. He likes the young players he has on defense but can’t afford to let anyone know about it.

“You cannot pretend to be something you’re not because this business will eat you up if you do,” Jacobs said. “Gus runs a very tight ship and wants to keep everything very close to the vest. He’s is a dot-the-I, cross-the-T sort of guy.”

Jacobs’ job is to address the entire Auburn picture, deal with the politics of major college football and keep the rabid boosters at bay. Malzahn’s job is to find linebackers who can tackle, defensive backs who can cover and defensive ends who can pressure the quarterback. The heavy pressure to win games falls squarely on the head coach's shoulders and it all happens under the most powerful microscope in college football in the most difficult league in the nation.

Lemons recounts her first A-Day a year ago when a record 83,401 fans showed up the spring game to roll Toomer’s Corner for the last time.

“One of my favorite scenes from my first spring game was all of the older couples walking hand-in-hand, who had met at Auburn, fell in love at Auburn and had returned to Auburn to roll the trees one final time,” Lemons said. “It symbolized how important the community is and how important the trees were to the Auburn atmosphere.”

Jacobs and Lemons can afford to get caught up in the moment and enjoy the wild ride that has been Auburn football over the last 24 months. Malzahn cannot.

“Our success in football last year is because of the environment I created here,” Jacobs said.

“More than anything, however, it was Gus Malzahn and his leadership.”

State of the Iron Bowl: Fans Happy, Malzahn Not Satisfied
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-21-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 21.



• A year ago, .



. Irony alert: The game program had a picture of Harper with the caption "Nothing but Hustle."



. Photo looks like more, but not much more.

. Still working out the spring kinks, I guess.

• Watch Blake Griffin douse a fan with water after a bad call.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Monday, April 21, 2014 - 10:54
All taxonomy terms: College Football, TCU Horned Frogs, Big 12, News
Path: /college-football/tcus-qb-concerns-could-be-answered-texas-am-transfer-matt-joeckel

Despite owning one of the Big 12’s top defenses last season, TCU finished with its worst record under Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs finished 4-8 overall and just 2-7 in Big 12 play.

The main culprit of last season’s four-win mark was an offense that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in total yards per game (349.1) and managed just 4.9 yards per play.

Some of TCU’s offensive struggles were due to bad luck, as quarterback Casey Pachall was injured early in the year, which hindered the development of the passing attack.

Despite last year’s disappointment, there is plenty of optimism in Fort Worth going into 2014.

New co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham have installed an up-tempo attack, and TCU landed Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel after spring practice to bolster the quarterback spot.

Joeckel doesn’t have a wealth of experience from his three years with the Aggies. Joeckel threw for 335 yards in his Texas A&M career and tossed two touchdown passes in 2013.

Despite his lack of experience, Joeckel’s transfer is a key addition for TCU. While eight overall losses on the resume last year looks bad, the Horned Frogs had several close calls against some of the top teams in the Big 12. TCU lost by only two points against Kansas State, by three to Baylor and by three to Oklahoma.

With slight improvement on offense, the Horned Frogs would easily make a bowl in 2014.

That’s where Joeckel comes in.

Why is his transfer important for TCU in 2014? Joeckel should claim the starting job in the fall, which would allow Trevone Boykin to switch to receiver. The Horned Frogs need more weapons on the outside, and moving Boykin from quarterback would bolster the passing game.

Also, Joeckel is no stranger to this style of offense. At Texas A&M, he was tutored by Kliff Kingsbury and Jake Spavital – both coaches that worked under Dana Holgorsen, who spent time at Oklahoma State with Meacham. So switching from the offense in College Station to TCU's up-tempo attack shouldn't be much of a concern.

Joeckel probably isn’t going to be an All-Big 12 quarterback, but he should help TCU’s passing attack improve, as well as allow Boykin to become one of the offense’s top receivers.

And while a Big 12 title seems unrealistic, with Joeckel in command, the Horned Frogs could be the most-improved team in the conference this year.

TCU's QB Concerns Could be Answered With Texas A&M Transfer Matt Joeckel
Post date: Monday, April 21, 2014 - 09:15
Path: /college-football/will-indiana-make-bowl-2014

Under coach Kevin Wilson, Indiana has made steady progress over the last three years. The Hoosiers went 1-11 and winless in Big Ten play in 2011, but Indiana improved to 4-8 in 2012.

Wilson continued his improvement project in Bloomington in 2013, as the Hoosiers went 5-7 last season and 3-5 in conference play. Just how close was Indiana to playing in a bowl last season? The Hoosiers lost by six to Navy and by three to Minnesota.

After improving their win total in each of the last two years, getting to six victories would be quite an accomplishment for Indiana in 2014.

The Big Ten realigned the divisions with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, which placed Indiana in the East Division. The Hoosiers are now division rivals with Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. While the division should produce plenty of games against top-25 teams, getting to a bowl game will be a huge challenge with a tougher schedule.

Indiana’s non-conference schedule provides few breaks in 2014, as Kevin Wilson’s team plays at Bowling Green and Missouri – two potential 10-win teams. North Texas also visits Bloomington, and the Mean Green could be the favorite in Conference USA’s West Division.

If Wilson is able to guide Indiana to a bowl in 2014, he could be one of the top candidates to win coach of the year honors in the Big Ten.

Will Indiana Make a Bowl in 2014?

Steven Lassan ()
Tough call. I think Indiana will be right in the 5-7 win range once again. The Hoosiers should have one of the Big Ten’s most-explosive offenses, but the defense is a huge question mark. In conference play last year, Indiana allowed a whopping 7.4 yards per play. The Hoosiers also gave up 41.9 points per game in eight conference contests. Those two numbers have to improve if Kevin Wilson’s team wants to make a bowl. With 10 starters back, there is certainly potential for this unit to show improvement. However, it’s hard to envision significant growth by the defense in 2014, even with new coordinator Brian Knorr. Once again, the Hoosiers’ bowl hopes will rely on an explosive offense. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson are two of the best in the Big Ten and have weapons at their disposal in running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Shane Wynn. And Indiana quietly has one of the Big Ten’s best offensive lines. Despite possessing a dynamic offense, I think the Hoosiers are going to fall short of a bowl. Swing games against Missouri, Rutgers and Iowa are away from Bloomington, and Indiana was one of the losers in the Big Ten’s newly aligned divisions with Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule every year. It’s possible the Hoosiers are a better team in 2014 than they were in 2013. However, a bowl will be just out of reach due to a tougher schedule this year.

Brent Yarina, (),  Senior Editor
Yes. The Hoosiers have gone from one to four to five wins in Kevin Wilson’s first three seasons, so they’re moving in the right direction. Expect the trend to continue in Year 4 – even in the loaded East Division and with OC Seth Littrell now at North Carolina. We know the offense is going to be exciting and as prolific as any in the Big Ten, with QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson both back, in addition to underrated RB Tevin Coleman and WR Shane Wynn. The defense, well, there’s always the hope a new DC (Brian Knorr) and schematic change (4-3 to 3-4) can do the trick. Thing is, the defense doesn’t even have to be average to get the Hoosiers to six wins; it just has to show some improvement and avoid being the Big Ten’s worst unit for the fourth consecutive season. 

Mark Ross
Offense was not an issue for Indiana last season (9th nationally in yards gained, 16th in scoring), but defense certainly was. The Hoosiers ranked near the bottom of FBS teams in all four major defensive categories. This is why a team that piled up more than 500 yards and 38 points per game only won five games. In Big Ten play alone, Indiana was out-gained by 71 yards per game and out-scored by a total of 52 points, nearly a touchdown per contest. The defense returns all but one starter this season, but is that a good thing? The offense should be pretty productive once again, but I don't see it putting up big enough numbers to offset what was one of the worst defenses in college football a year ago. Then there's the schedule. The Hoosiers should (hopefully) beat Indiana State and North Texas in non-conference action while Purdue and Big Ten newcomer Rutgers figure to bring up the rear in the East and West divisions, respectively. However, after that I have a hard time finding two more wins. Missouri is the defending SEC East champion and Bowling Green won the MAC last year. Both should be pretty good again in 2014 and these two games are on the road. The rest of Indiana's conference slate consists of Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland at home with road dates against Ohio State, Michigan and a crossover game at Iowa. Maryland may be the other new kid on the Big Ten block, but I actually think the Terrapins are more talented and better than the Hoosiers. So unless Indiana pulls off an upset or two at some point in the season and doesn't lose a game it's expected to win (and I'm not sure I would put the Bowling Green game in that category), I think Kevin Wilson's team will be hard-pressed to put together six wins this fall. In fact, from my perspective, five would be nothing to be ashamed about.

Kevin McGuire
It is hard to not appreciate the work done by Kevin Wilson since his arrival in Bloomington, because he has managed to build something at Indiana. The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up when Wilson was hired and this season could be the best yet. The Hoosiers return all 11 starters an offense that has become one of the more entertaining units in the Big Ten and 10 on defense that could benefit from the experience. The problem is Indiana has quite the uphill battle to get to the minimum six victories. Road games at Bowling Green (defending MAC champions) and Missouri (defending SEC East champions) could be extremely difficult in the non-conference slate, and North Texas will not be a pushover either. The Hoosiers are also lumped in the same division with both of the Big Ten’s 2013 division winners (Ohio State, Michigan State) and play at Michigan and at home against Penn State in back-to-back weeks (and I suspect Penn State will not unravel the way they did in Bloomington last season). Indiana came close with five wins last year, but five games may be the high mark again unless the defense drastically improves.

Will Indiana Make a Bowl in 2014?
Post date: Monday, April 21, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Auburn Tigers, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/marshall-malzahn-shine-auburn-day-offensive-showcase

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn is not one to waste time. His offense and track record are testaments to that.

He’s also not likely to get too wrapped up praising his first-team offense that put up 58 points in the spring game, in part on the improved passing of quarterback Nick Marshall.

Malzahn knows he's got a lot of work to do, and he's not one who wastes his breath.

Malzahn wraps up his second spring camp knowing that 2014 presents new challenges in his effort to repeat as SEC champion.

He has to replace a likely first-round pick in left tackle Greg Robinson. He needs to find a back who can attempt to match the record-setting performance of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason. He needs to develop his elite young stars along the defensive line after sack master Dee Ford departed for the next level.

And — get this — he wants to do it all at a quicker pace than a year before. He spent all spring working on running his offense even faster than last year's breakneck speed — this from an offense that went from dead last in the SEC at 60.5 plays per game in 2012 to fifth in the league at 73.8 a year ago. With the potential starters in the lineup, Auburn ran 44 plays for 483 yards and 44 points in the first half (just 24 minutes) of the game before the running clock drained the box score in the second half.

No matter how impressive the system, Malzahn knows it all begins and ends with the return of Marshall.

Marshall drew the most buzz Saturday. The former Georgia Bulldog started the game just 3-of-8 passing for 24 yards before settling into a rhythm to earn Offensive MVP honors. The Heisman contender and potential preseason first-team All-SEC quarterback looked like the seasoned veteran Auburn needs him to be on offense. What else should fans expect from a guy who played in an SEC title game and BCS national championship before making his A-Day debut this weekend?

"What he accomplished last year not going through spring is really something," Malzahn said. "He's had a great attitude and he's had a very good spring."

With all of the potential preseason accolades and one full season of highlights under his belt, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee know Marshall needs to improve as a passer to take the next step in his development, and that was clearly a focus on Saturday as the Auburn quarterback attempts 22 passes and ran the ball just once.

"There's no doubt that was part of our plan today," Malzahn said. "Coach Lashlee has worked him extremely hard on his footwork, his timing passing game and he's got a very good grip of our offense right now. He's starting to look very natural."

Marshall finished 13-of-22 passing for 236 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions before sitting the entire second half. Marshall led his offense to points on all seven of his series, including six touchdowns.

To address the need at left tackle, Malzahn and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes used a lot of moving pieces along the offensive front throughout the spring and that didn't change in the spring finale. Reese Dismukes is the leader at center, but he didn't play on Saturday. Chris Slade, Avery Young, Patrick Miller, Shon Coleman and Alex Kozan all played more than one position this spring. Who will fill the void left specifically left by Robinson may still be up in the air, but Coleman got the majority of the snaps at left tackle with the first unit on Saturday and the offense ran behind the big sophomore for more than one touchdown. Malzahn and Lashlee believe they have more depth, experience and versatility now despite the loss of the supremely talented Robinson.

"Our offensive line was a strength last year," Malzahn said. "We got everybody coming back but Greg, so it should be a another strength again. We are starting to get some depth which is very important. Coach Grimes has moved some people around at times just to help with the depth for next fall."

The void left by a Heisman finalist at tailback could be tough to fill. However, Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne and a host of hungry young players proved on Saturday why fans shouldn't be worried about the Auburn running game.

Artis-Payne scored the game's first touchdown from 14 yards out and Grant consistently showed why he could be one of the SEC's most explosive players. The duo combined for 225 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries in the first half. Grant carried just five times for 128 yards and had two runs over 35 yards. The Tigers' running game — the one that became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing — is going to be just fine this fall without Mason.

That said, one of those young backs fans were eager to see was redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. But on his first carry of the game, Barber fumbled and injured his right ankle/knee. He was carted off and never returned. Malzahn said after the game that Barber is doing fine and won't miss any time.

While the offense looked the part of an SEC champ, the defense has much further to go if it wants to get back to Atlanta. In the nation's toughest conference, one known for its defensive play, the Tigers finished spring practice cautiously optimistic. There is a ton of talent returning, but replacing Dee Ford, Jake Holland and Chris Davis from a unit that ranked 87th nationally at more than 420 yards allowed per game a year ago means that developing the young players was a focus.

"There's no doubt we need to develop our young defensive line players," Malzahn said. "(Defensive line coach) Rodney Garner did a great job with our defensive line last year. He played a lot of people, a lot of young guys and that should help us moving forward. We do have a lot some talent up there and it seems like the guys have improved this spring."

Those guys Malzahn is referring too are, among others, rising sophomore stars Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Lawson, who may be the most talented of the bunch injured his knee late in camp and wasn't able to participate, and Adams played most of the day for the White team. This side of the ball was dealing with injuries all spring camp, so fans got to see a lot of new faces in new places on defense. Not surprisingly, the first-team defense held the second-team offense in check all day, allowing just 85 total yards and three total points.

Malzahn and coordinator Ellis Johnson know the defensive side of the ball, not the ballyhooed offense, holds the key to another run to Atlanta. Should the young talent develop quickly, Auburn will be as competitive as any team in the nation in '14. And what better way to prepare for football during the wide-open playoff era than practicing against Malzahn's warp-speed offense.

"Ellis Johnson likes it because it really helps our defense get lined up," Malzahn said. "It really helps our communication. It's very good. That's where college football is going and on our schedule, most teams are going to have some type of tempo."

At the end of his second camp as head coach, Malzahn showed he's going to try to take that tempo to the next level.

Post date: Saturday, April 19, 2014 - 18:08
Path: /college-football/alabamas-day-spring-game-does-little-settle-qb-question

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The last two Alabama quarterbacks couldn’t be missed in Tuscaloosa for the spring game. Greg McElroy spent time with the ESPNU broadcast crew, and AJ McCarron marked his spot in the Walk of Fame in a pregame ceremony.

The next Alabama quarterback, though, could soon be back in Tallahassee, Fla.

The Crimson Tide finished spring practice with an offensively challenged scrimmage that ended in a 17-13 win for the White team, which comprised the first-string players on defense.

While Alabama coach Nick Saban noted the limitations now-first-string quarterback Blake Sims faced in a spring game situation, a 6-5, 235-pound shadow in the form of Jacob Coker will loom over the offense until the fall.

Sims, a 6-foot senior who backed up McCarron the last two seasons, distanced himself in the quarterback race in the spring. In a spring game with a limited offensive playbook, Sims was 13-of-30 for 178 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

The performance of the offense, which included 15 punts and six turnovers, wasn’t enough to stop anyone from wondering what Coker could bring to the table.

Coker lost a competition with eventual Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season and will finish his undergraduate degree at Florida State to become eligible immediately at Alabama. During his spring break, the Mobile, Ala., native working out and studying in Tuscaloosa. He returned Saturday to observe the spring game.

The scrimmage shouldn’t be an indictment on Sims, even if he did struggle with the two turnovers and passes bounced off his receivers. On the pick six, Saban said freshman Cam Robinson, running with the first team offense, contributed to the pick by blocking the wrong player on a screen.

“The game (sped) up today, and (Sims) tried to speed up with it rather than stay in his rhythm,” Saban said. “There are a lot of things Blake can do as a quarterback that we didn’t do today.”

Through the spring, Saban praised Sims’ command of the offense, and Sims eventually secured himself as the best quarterback in camp, beating out Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris.

Saturday appeared to be an aberration.

Neither Alabama squad scored an offensive touchdown for the first 38:27 when T.J. Yeldon rushed for a one-yard score. And even that came with a caveat — backup tailback Kenyan Drake, on the opposing White team, fumbled to set up a seven-yard scoring drive for the Crimson.

Until then, Alabama’s offense had been operating in the red. Sims threw an interception returned for a touchdown earlier in the third quarter.

Not since 2011 has Alabama had a quarterback competition. That's when when McCarron beat out Phillip Sims by the second game of the season. Now, Alabama coaches will have to wait until fall to get a complete picture for 2014.

That Sims and Coker are competing for the same job is not lost on the quarterback who was able to play during the spring.

“Blake knows this and Blake embraced (Coker) before the game,” Saban said. “They’re going to compete through the summer and fall camp.”

Alabama's A-Day Spring Game Does Little to Settle QB Question
Post date: Saturday, April 19, 2014 - 17:57
Path: /college-football/washington-gets-new-uniforms-start-chris-petersen-era

It’s a new era in Seattle, as Chris Petersen was hired away from Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian. Petersen is regarded as one of the top coaches in the nation, so it’s no surprise there is plenty of excitement around the program in 2014.

The Huskies continued to build on their offseason momentum with the release of new uniforms and helmets for 2014.

And by all accounts, these new uniforms are a hit with the players and fans.

Check out the full and below are a few selected images from today’s release:

Washington Unveils New Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 21:56
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-18-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 18.

• To celebrate the end of the NBA's interminable regular season and the start of the playoffs,

• Speaking of the playoffs, this is cool: .

• A minor league baseball team contributed in its own small way to America's obesity epidemic with .

• Think your day's going poorly? .

• Frank Haith has cashed in at Tulsa, .

• In the spirit of the season: .

• Santa hasn't cornered the market on leaving little kids terrified and screaming. .

• This is not good for MLB's future: . I didn't think that was possible.

• Headline of the day: Doesn't really narrow their search that much.

• Another headline says . I couldn't disagree more.

• I thought I knew just how bad the Lions had been. .

• You know how your angry grandpa says he hates the NBA cause they don't play defense? If you watch this James Harden lowlight reel, you might see his point.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 13:23
Path: /college-football/peyton-manning-visits-nick-saban-tennessee-fans-and-nflpa-squirm

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a day or so, two of the most beloved Tennessee sports figures were in the state of Alabama.

Bruce Pearl, of course, is the . And now Peyton Manning and Nick Saban are trading football tips.


Athlon Sports will be covering both Iron Bowl spring games.

Follow for updates from Alabama and for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.

Also follow for images from the Iron Bowl rivals.
The former Volunteers quarterback and his Denver Broncos offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, spent time with Saban and his staff trading knowledge. Gase worked for Saban at Michigan State and LSU. The meeting, one of several visits Saban said Manning has made in the offseason, was mutually beneficial.

Both Saban and Manning are coming off shocking postseason losses ‚ Alabama losing 45-31 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and the Broncos losing 43-8 to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

“To be honest with you, he was just trying to learn so he could be a better player,” Saban said at his post-practice press conference. "I think a lot of people would say, 'Wow, the guy is one of the best, if not the best, and certainly from a career standpoint probably about as good as anybody's been in the history of the league.’ After all the experience and knowledge that he has, he's going out and trying to seek more knowledge and understanding of the game of football so he can play better.”

Saban said he talked to Manning about the no-huddle offense and what gives him trouble from a defensive standpoint. Alabama, of course, faces its share of up-tempo teams in the SEC West. Not to mention the team in Knoxville.

Tennessee fans seem to be taking it well:

The real party to be a little upset, though, might be the NFLPA. By meeting with Gase, Manning may have committed a violation of the CBA, . The Collective Bargaining Agreement forbids players from meeting with their NFL coaches before the official start of the offseason program.

Manning isn’t the only figure to visit. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano also visited Saban and his staff during the spring.

“I guess the best way to answer the question is who's doing who a favor?” Saban said “Sometimes we have people that we ask to come in because we want to learn from them. The goals that you have for next year are basically the things that you struggled with last year. You make a list of those things through your quality control, and then you go out and look for people who might be able to help you develop a little more expertise, a better way to teach, a better way to coach some situation.”

Manning visits Saban; Tennessee fans (and NFLPA) squirm
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 12:51
Path: /college-football/10-things-watch-alabamas-day-spring-game-fans-guide

Alabama is coming off the kind of disappointing season most teams would envy.

The Crimson Tide were No. 1 and undefeated until Nov. 30 and reached the Sugar Bowl. But the glaring number here is 0-2, as in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to finish the season.

The theme of spring practice in Tuscaloosa has been to rediscover the magic that started to fade, players say, well before the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. The two-touchdown loss to Oklahoma was the culmination of the complacency that Alabama feared going back to spring 2013.

As spring 2014 comes to a close, Alabama coach Nick Saban is not only looking for a change of attitude in his team, but also some key personnel moves, starting with the replacement of quarterback AJ McCarron.

Athlon Sports will be covering both Iron Bowl spring games.

Follow for updates from Alabama and for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.

Also follow for images from the Iron Bowl rivals.
The final solo audition for Blake Sims
Alabama won’t have a true picture of who will replace career-leading passer and two-time national championship quarterback AJ McCarron until the fall when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Credit senior quarterback Blake Sims, though, for making the most his spring in the spotlight. Alabama coach Nick Saban has praised Sims’ “command” of the offense. This will be Sims’ final audition before competing for the job yet again when Coker arrives. Coker, a Mobile, Ala., native, competed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season at Florida State. Coker is still finishing his final semester in Tallahassee before he’ll be eligible immediately at Alabama.

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on the same team
Saban has been generous in his praise of Henry, who was one of the breakout players of bowl season with 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Oklahoma. He and incumbent T.J. Yeldon are both on the Crimson team for first-stringers on offense. That means Yeldon and Henry will both run into the No. 1 defense. Both are capable of being a feature back — and a star feature back, at that — so the rotation and 1-2 punch will be worth watching.

The unveiling of Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator
One of the more intriguing coaching moves of the offseason was the addition of Kiffin to the Alabama staff as offensive coordinator. By Alabama policy, Kiffin shouldn’t be as much as a lightning rod as an assistant in Tuscaloosa. Alabama assistants do not conduct media interviews. That means the Alabama offense will have to speak for the former Tennessee and USC coach. Receivers, including Amari Cooper, have said Kiffin has a knack for getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. But Kiffin is also one of a dwindling group of college coordinators who embrace the kind of pro-style offense Saban wants to run. How will that manifest itself on A-Day?

The attendance battle with Auburn
Everything is a competition with the Iron Bowl, so why not put the spring game attendance figures head to head. During the Saban era, Alabama has demolished Auburn in spring game attendance, at least until last season when the Tigers set a school record with 83,401 at their spring game. Alabama’s spring game attendance has leveled off to sub-80,000 (by the way, how many coaches are wishing they had a 78,000 at their spring games?). Maybe the added mystery — a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator — and good weather will draw more Alabama fans for the scrimmage. Remember, Alabama set a record in the 2011 spring game, another game after a non-championship year.

Spring Game Attendance
*school record

The fan reaction
Perhaps no fan base in the SEC has had quite the swing in emotions. Alabama went into the Iron Bowl undefeated with hopes of a fourth national championship in five seasons. Then came the Kick Six. Then came the flop against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Hiring Lane Kiffin was puzzling. Is this a fragile fan base? With Auburn on top as well, no state will have a more interesting offseason than Alabama.

The state of the secondary
The secondary is the biggest question on the defense with positions open at spots not manned by safety Landon Collins. This brings up the classic question for spring games — if Sims has a good day passing is that good for him or bad for the defense and vice versa.

Trey DePriest steps up
The defense also needs its quarterback with C.J. Mosley gone. Middle linebacker and multi-year starter Trey DePriest takes over at signal-caller on the defense. He’ll also need to shepherd a young linebacker corps.

Nick Saban, having fun?
The tradition at Alabama, as it is for a handful of schools, is to treat the winning team in the spring game to a lavish dinner while the losing team receives, let’s say, more standard fare. In the case of Alabama, it’s steak with wait service for the winning players and coaches and buffet-style franks and beans for losing team. Saban, the “commissioner” of A-Day, always gets steak. “The players say I have to choose a team because they get tired of me being over there eating steak and not being on team,” Saban said. “But it’s not just the steak. It’s the tablecloth, the roses on every table, waitresses waiting on you. The other side of it is paper plates, one pot, beans, paper towels, plastic silverware.”

Related: What might get under Saban’s skin?
Saban’s not above sending a message through the media, particularly when he’s unhappy. When asked why running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny, two of the tree running backs on the White team, were absent from the open portion of practice, Saban tone ticked up for a bit: “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do in school this week, so I sent them to study table for four hours and they didn’t come to practice,” Saban said. “If they don’t stay over the for four hours, the probably won’t play in the spring game. There’s no update, just a fact. ...

“I’d rather do it now than during the season. You know, all these players need to learn that they have a responsibility and obligation to do the right thing for themselves.”

Freshman offensive lineman Cam Robinson
In a mild surprise, freshman Cam Robinson will play left tackle with the first-team offense on Saturday while Brandon Greene, his competition, will be with the second unit.

See the sights
Colleague Braden Gall he’s looking to take in at A-Day over at Auburn including Toomer’s Corner and tailgates. I’ve covered games at most SEC programs, but Bryant-Denny is a glaring blind spot on my stadium resume. I’m looking forward to taking a stroll around the stadium to check out the national champion coach statues. There has to be a line for taking photos with the Bear and Saban, right?

From the beat: reporter Andrew Gribble joined us to talk about what he’s seen around Alabama spring football.

Athlon Sports: A major point at spring practice this season has been rediscovering the edge and attention to detail that derailed last year’s national championship hopes. How much as that been an issue this spring?

Andrew Gribble: I think they realized they lost their identity at some point last season. Many of the players said that happened before the Auburn loss. That’s been the key talking point from Saban and the players. I think he’s been pleased with what they’ve been able to do. The attitude has been better this year. I think they’re still looking for leaders because they lost a few big ones. The vibe has been back on the right path. That’s been the key theme. Last year, they talked about avoiding complacency. That never really happened this year.

Athlon: How has the messaging been different from Saban compared to years past?

Gribble: He entered this year saying they were going to start over. That’s been the theme, and he’s been pretty positive with many of the players. He’s been more open with the quarterback competition than he was with the McCarron and (Phillip) Sims one. He’s been pretty transparent on that. He’s been very high on praise for Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry and guys like that. There’s been moments when he’s been more positive than in past years.

Athlon: What has been the reaction to Lane Kiffin’s hire, both from the team and the fan base?

Gribble: The fan base has bought into it. I think they were skeptical initially. But I think they kind of trust that Saban knows what he’s doing. The players have really responded well to him. Amari Cooper especially has talked about how the offense is simpler and playmaker-friendly. That’s good news for all the running backs and Cooper and O.J. Howard. Kiffin has a good track record with quarterbacks and they recognize that. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard a lot about tempo. They’re not going to look like Oregon anytime soon, but there are going to be situations where they pick up the pace a little bit.

Athlon: How much will the quarterback situation change when Jacob Coker gets here?

Gribble: They’re not going to have an answer by the end of spring, and Coker is the main reason for that. It’s kind of clear that Blake Sims has emerged as the top guy for this current group. He’s had a good spring. The players really like him. He worked with a quarterback coach over spring break, so he’s gotten a lot better. But Jacob Coker wouldn’t have signed with Alabama if he wasn’t going to compete. I think he’s still the frontrunner because he has the skills that Alabama likes in its quarterbacks, and he’s mobile, too. It’s really going to get started once fall camp starts. Saban’s said it could go into the season. I don’t know if it’s going to last that long, but he said the same thing with McCarron even though it was pretty clear McCarron was the guy.

Athlon: What are you looking for in the spring game, especially since most of practice has been closed?

Gribble: Quarterbacks obviously is the big one. The quarterback who has been No. 2 to Sims, Cooper Bateman, is going to be on the other side. He’s going to be able to throw a lot. The offensive line, it looks like a true freshman, Cameron Robinson, is going to be with the first team at left tackle. That’s following in the footsteps of Andre Smith in 2006. Secondary is a big issue. The loss of (cornerback) Eddie Jackson was really significant. He was emerging as one of the top corners. I don’t know how much they’re going to do with special teams. Alabama has one kicker now (Adam Griffith), and he’s been inconsistent. He didn’t have many opportunities last year, but he’s going to have to be the guy this year. Outside of what happened in the Iron Bowl, Alabama has been very good on field goals since 2011.

Athlon: How might the Yeldon/Henry tandem play out?

Gribble: I think Henry is going to be very involved in the offense, but Yeldon is very good. I think the ideal situation for Alabama is going to be to replicate what they had in 2012 with Yeldon and (Eddie) Lacy. They both split carries through the season, and when they got to Georgia and Notre Dame, they were fresh and had huge games. Maybe last year, Yeldon carried the ball a lot and he may have run out of gas. Having those two is a good option for them. It’s a good problem to have. I think (Kenyan) Drake is involved as well because he brings a different element with his speed. But Henry has received the most praise of anyone from Saban. He’s had a great spring, and he knows how to play running back now. Last year, he just knew how to run the ball.

10 Things to Watch From Alabama's A-Day Spring Game: A Fan's Guide
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 12:15
Path: /college-football/texas-or-kansas-state-who-finishes-higher-big-12-2014

Oklahoma and Baylor are considered the favorites in the Big 12 for 2014, but Kansas State and Texas aren’t too far behind.

The Wildcats and Longhorns both finished 8-5 last season, but Texas held a two-game edge in conference play.

Texas defeated Kansas State 31-21 in 2013, but prior to last season, the Wildcats had won five in a row over the Longhorns.

With Charlie Strong taking over, Texas is due for a transition period, but there’s still a ton of talent on the roster.

Kansas State finished 2013 on a tear, winning six out of the last seven games. And with 10 starters back, the Wildcats are a sleeper team to watch in the Big 12 in 2014. The offense should have no trouble scoring points with the return of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett, and the defense will get a boost from a couple of key recruits from the junior college ranks.

Even though Oklahoma and Baylor are considered the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the conference (in whatever order you prefer), it’s not out of the question Texas or Kansas State could win the Big 12 title if all of the pieces come together.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Texas or Kansas State: Who Finishes HIgher in the Big 12 in 2014?

Steven Lassan ()
Tough call. There’s very little separation between these two teams, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kansas State and Texas tie in the Big 12 standings. The Wildcats have a huge schedule advantage by hosting the Longhorns, but Bill Snyder’s team plays at Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia and Baylor. Although Texas has to play in Manhattan, its road schedule in conference play seems to be more manageable. Talent certainly hasn’t been an issue for the Longhorns, but this roster has underachieved in recent years. Strong should fix that problem by bringing discipline and a better fundamental, X’s and O’s approach than former coach Mack Brown. But much of Texas’ chances of finishing ahead of Kansas State in the standings will rest on the quarterback position. The Wildcats have a huge edge over the Longhorns in that department, as Jake Waters should be one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2014. The health of quarterback David Ash is a concern for Strong, but the Longhorns can win games with their stable of running backs and a solid defense. A compelling case could be made for either team in this discussion, but I will give a slight edge to the Longhorns. Yes, the home matchup favors Kansas State, and Bill Snyder on the sidelines is worth an extra win or two every year for the Wildcats. However, Strong should be what Texas needs to maximize the talent on the roster, and the Longhorns should narrowly edge Kansas State for the No. 3 spot in the Big 12. 

Allen Kenney, (), 
The correct answer is neither. Or perhaps both.

I've got Texas projected to finish the year at 6-3 in conference. Wins: Iowa State, Kansas, West Virginia, TCU, Oklahoma State, Baylor. Losses: Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Kansas State.

Same for Kansas State. Wins: Texas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech. Losses: Baylor, Oklahoma, TCU.

If you want to get all technical about it, the Wildcats would have the tiebreaker by virtue of a head-to-head win. Record-wise, however, the two teams tie for third place. Feel the excitement.

Mark Ross
As much as I like the Charlie Strong hire for Texas, I have learned it's never a wise move to count out Bill Snyder. All the man has done as Kansas State's head coach is win consistently with less talent, at least according to the recruiting services, than the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and more recently, Baylor. Over the past three seasons, the Wildcats have won 29 games, gone 20-7 in Big 12 play, including claiming the conference crown in 2012. K-State has enjoyed all of this success due to Snyder's steady hand, solid coaching and the impressive ability to mine the junior college ranks for impact talent on a year-in, year-out basis. That's why even though the Wildcats return just 10 starters, just four of those on defense, I still expect Snyder to find a way to coax enough wins out of this roster to finish ahead of Strong and the Longhorns. For one, Jake Waters is fully entrenched as the starting quarterback and appears to have the same type of dual-threat skill set that thrives in Snyder's offense. Waters also has some playmakers around him, namely All-Big 12 standout wide receiver Tyler Lockett. The defense is inexperienced, but there's talent for the coaching staff to work with and, as always, reinforcements on the way in the form of junior college transfers and redshirt freshmen.

The other reason I like K-State a little better than Texas this season is the schedule. The Wildcats have a big showdown with defending SEC champion Auburn on Sept. 18, but that game takes place in Manhattan, Kan. Likewise, Snyder's team also will welcome Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and, that's right, Texas, to the Little Apple this fall. Road trips to Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and West Virginia won't be easy, but this schedule appears, at least on paper, more palatable than the Longhorns'. Before Strong even gets his first taste of the Big 12, he will have played both BYU and UCLA in his new home state, the latter coming at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Texas' conference slate has them visiting Stillwater, Lubbock, the aforementioned Manhattan and of course Dallas for the newly re-branded AT&T Red River Showdown with an Oklahoma team that's still smarting from last year's beatdown to the 'Horns. And don't forget home dates with Baylor and TCU. Yes, Texas made a wise choice in tabbing Strong as the successor to Mack Brown, but that doesn't mean he will immediately return the Longhorns to the top of the Big 12. Not with wily old Snyder and Kansas State seemingly flying under the radar for yet another season.

David Fox ()
The safe pick is Kansas State. The upside pick is Texas. Kansas State has the more stable quarterback situation with Jake Waters’ development pushing Daniel Sams to wide receiver. Kansas State has the fortuitous schedule with three off weeks and Texas at home. That said, both teams have big time questions that may prevent them from contending for the Big 12. I like Texas’ potential. While the Longhorns don’t have an easy solution at quarterback with the injury-prone veteran David Ash, the upstart Tyrone Swoopes or the potential newcomer Max Wittek, as long as any of them are competent, Texas can win thanks to the run game. Joe Wickline is a quality offensive line coach, and his arrival is huge for Texas. Texas will find some answers there. And even if we don’t know some of the names on defense, Texas has the talent. If I’m feeling safe, I go Kansas State. If I’m feeling lucky, I’ll go with Texas.


Texas or Kansas State: Who Finishes Higher in the Big 12 in 2014?
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-tens-quarterbacks-2014

The Big Ten isn’t particularly deep at quarterback this season, but there’s plenty to like at the top.

Ohio State’s Braxton Miller takes the No. 1 spot in the quarterback rankings, and the senior is expected to be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. Miller threw for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores in 12 games. The Buckeyes will feature a deep group of receivers and running backs to help Miller, but the departure of four starters on the line is a concern for coach Urban Meyer.

After Miller, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and Michigan State’s Connor Cook take the next two spots. Hackenberg was outstanding as a freshman in 2013, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 scores. He also completed 58.9 percent of his throws and should thrive under new coach James Franklin. The Spartans entered last season with uncertainty under center, but Cook eventually claimed the top spot over Andrew Maxwell. Cook threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan State’s Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.

Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld/Tre Roberson are other intriguing names to watch in 2014. Gardner has a new coordinator (Doug Nussmeier), but for the Wolverines’ passing game to take a step forward, the offensive line has to develop after struggling in 2014.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Writeups compiled by Braden Gall ( and Steven Lassan ().

Ranking the Big Ten's Starting Quarterbacks for 2014

1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State (SR)
There is no doubt about Miller’s overall talent. He is explosive, versatile, accurate, tough and always seems to make the big play when Ohio State has needed one. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year enters his final season with eyes on finally winning a conference title after going 24-0 as a starter in the regular season the last two years. Miller has thrown for 5,292 yards, rushed for 3,054 yards and scored 84 total touchdowns (52 pass, 32 rush) in 36 career games. He needs to prove he can stay healthy, as Ohio State is a national title contender with No. 5 under center. But without him, the Buckeyes wouldn't be the favorite to win the division.

2. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (SO)
From a pure NFL talent perspective, only Jameis Winston is in the same category as Hackenberg. As a true freshman, he set all types of Penn State passing records and will only continue to get better as his career progresses. The Virginia native lost QB guru Bill O'Brien and star safety blanket Allen Robinson at receiver, but gained uber-coach James Franklin and has an elite collection of tight ends and running backs at his disposal. The offensive line will be a concern, but Hackenberg should easily improve on his freshman statline of 2,955 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs.

3. Connor Cook, Michigan State (JR)
Michigan State opened last season with major question marks under center, as Andrew Maxwell entered his second year as the tentative starter. By the third week of the season, Cook had wrestled the starting job from all other contenders by throwing four touchdowns and 202 yards in an easy win over Youngstown State. Cook lost only once in his first year as Michigan State’s No. 1 quarterback and finished with a sterling 2,755-yard, 22-TD, 6-INT statline. And he saved his best for the biggest stage, throwing for over 300 yards in both the Big Ten Championship game win over Ohio State and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. Cook has the chance to mix the talent of Drew Stanton with the leadership and poise of Kirk Cousins — a scary combination for the rest of the league.

4. Devin Gardner, Michigan (SR)
Gardner is perhaps the toughest quarterback to rank in the Big Ten for 2014. While Gardner didn’t meet the lofty preseason expectations, his numbers in conference play weren’t bad. In eight Big Ten games, Gardner led the conference by averaging 269.9 passing yards per contest. He also threw only three interceptions in Big Ten contests last year. Gardner finished the year on a high note by throwing for 451 yards and four touchdowns against rival Ohio State but missed the bowl game due to injury. While Gardner had his share of struggles, he wasn’t exactly awful. But in order for the Michigan native to take the next step in his development, Gardner needs more help from a struggling supporting cast.

5. Nate Sudfeld (JR)/Tre Roberson (JR), Indiana
Normally, only one name is supposed to be listed here, but Kevin Wilson has talked openly about using a two-quarterback system. And since the Hoosiers' duo complements each other so well, both make the list. Roberson is the better athlete who can make things happen outside of the pocket with the ball in his hands. Sudfeld is the accomplished pocket passer with better over accuracy and touch. Wilson ran the Big Ten's top passing offense a year ago and the league's No. 2 overall unit, so no one can really doubt what is normally a very questionable strategy under center.

6. C.J. Brown, Maryland (SR)
Heading into 2013, no Terrapin had passed for more than 1,700 yards since 2010. However, that was until Brown finally proved he could stay relatively healthy (he still missed two games). He finished with 2,242 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, making his 135.90 passer rating the highest for a Maryland starter since Chris Turner in 2007. While his arm was better than anticipated, his real value was on the ground as he rushed for 576 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. A repeat of that performance would make him one of the more productive players in the Big Ten in 2014.

7. Jake Rudock, Iowa (JR)
Prior to last season, Rudock had yet to take a snap in a regular season game in an Iowa uniform. However, the Florida native quietly had a solid debut, throwing for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns on 204 completions. Rudock tossed 13 picks but completed 59 percent of his throws and added 218 yards and five scores on the ground. Helping Rudock’s cause in 2014 will be a strong offensive line, three steady options at running back, and the return of No. 1 receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Rudock won’t post huge numbers in Iowa’s offensive scheme, but the junior is due to improve on the stat sheet in 2014 and could approach 3,000 passing yards.

8. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska (SO)
Armstrong was placed into a difficult role last year, taking over as Nebraska’s starting quarterback after Taylor Martinez was lost for the year due to a foot injury. Despite the lack of experience and difficult circumstances, Armstrong held up relatively well in his first taste of FBS action. The Texas native completed 68 of 131 passes for 966 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 202 yards and two scores on the ground. With the starting job in hand this offseason, Armstrong will benefit from the opportunity to work with the No. 1 offense in preseason practices. A completion percentage of 51.9 is a potential trouble spot, but Armstrong should be more comfortable in his second year under center. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he will have potential All-Big Ten candidates in receiver Kenny Bell and running back Ameer Abdullah returning in 2014.

9. Joel Stave, Wisconsin (JR)
Stave is coming off a solid 2013 campaign, throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns on 208 completions. However, his spot on the top of Wisconsin’s depth chart is far from certain. The junior suffered a shoulder injury in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and was shut down for the final week of spring practice to allow him time to rehab for the fall. But even if Stave returns at full strength, he isn’t guaranteed to take the first snap of the year against LSU. Junior college recruit Tanner McEvoy had a solid spring and is expected to push Stave again in the fall. McEvoy started his career at South Carolina but transferred to Arizona Western College to play in 2012. McEvoy played some snaps at safety last season but is moving back to quarterback. Wisconsin ranked No. 8 last year in the Big Ten (conference-only games) in passing offense, so whether it’s Stave or McEvoy under center, the Badgers need more out of the passing attack. If we knew who the starter was, they would probably rank a little higher on this list.

10. Wes Lunt, Illinois (SO)
The Illinois’ coaching staff won’t hand out the official starter designation until the fall, but all signs point to Lunt as the No. 1 quarterback. In 2012, Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns on 81 completions at Oklahoma State. The Illinois native transferred from Stillwater after 2012 and spent last season as a redshirt for the Fighting Illini. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Lunt has all of the physical tools necessary to succeed under center. But with less than a season of experience under his belt, Lunt will have a few growing pains at Illinois. However, as a four-star prospect, the future looks bright for Lunt, and with a struggling defense, he could be forced to win plenty of shootouts for the Fighting Illini this year.

11. Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (SR)
Siemian has shared the quarterback duties over the last two years with Kain Colter, but the Florida native is set to assume the No. 1 spot on the depth chart this season. Over the last two years, Siemian has thrown for 3,461 yards and 17 touchdowns and tossed 12 picks. In the season finale against Illinois in 2013, Siemian torched the Fighting Illini defense for 414 yards and four scores. And he also threw for 308 yards against Indiana in 2012. Perhaps dropping the two-quarterback system and allowing Siemian to take all of the snaps will help Northwestern’s offense, especially since he won’t have to look over his shoulder waiting to be removed from the game or wonder when the next snap may happen. Siemian has plenty of talent to work with and should help Northwestern rebound into a bowl in 2014.

12. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota (SO)
With Philip Nelson transferring to Rutgers, Leidner will take control of the Minnesota offense. Although losing a starting quarterback is always a setback, the Golden Gophers’ offense shouldn’t suffer much of a drop in production with Leidner under center. Last season, the Minnesota native completed 43 of 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns. Leidner also added 407 yards and seven scores on the ground last year. Considering coach Jerry Kill’s background at Northern Illinois and how Minnesota used Nelson over the last two years, it’s safe to say Leidner could approach 700 rushing yards this season. But the bigger concerns for coaching staff are improving the passing attack, which averaged only 148.1 yards per game last year. If he develops as a passer, Leidner should move up this list by the end of the season.

13. Danny Etling, Purdue (SO)
The Boilermakers struggled mightily in Darrell Hazell’s first season, finishing 1-11 with its only victory coming against FCS opponent Indiana State. You have to look hard to find bright spots in a one-win season, but Etling was one of the few promising players for Hazell to build around in 2014. The Indiana native finished 2013 with 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns and completed 55.8 percent of his throws. Etling closed the year on a high note by throwing for 485 yards and four scores against rival Indiana. Although Etling has to make strides as a passer, he also needs more help from his supporting cast. Of the four players that caught at least 25 passes in 2013, only one averaged more than 11.5 yards per catch. The Boilermakers also allowed a whopping 32 sacks in eight Big Ten contests. Etling certainly has upside and should improve with a full offseason to work as the No. 1. However, his upside will be limited until Hazell improves the supporting cast through recruiting or player development.

14. Gary Nova, Rutgers (SR)
Nova threw for fewer yards (2,159), fewer touchdowns (18), a lower completion percentage (54.5%) and nearly as many interceptions (14) in 2013 as he did in 2012 (2,695 yards, 22 TDs, 57.0%, 16 INTs). He was benched for the final three games of 2013 and will need to hold onto the job throughout the offseason if he wants to have the chance to reverse the concerning trend in his production. If he's not going to produce on the ground — Nova has minus-251 career rushing yards and has never had more than minus-44 yards in a season — he has to be excellent through the air. Although the numbers so far are concerning for coach Kyle Flood, the addition of play-caller Ralph Friedgen should help Nova’s development in 2014.

Ranking the Big Ten's Quarterbacks for 2014
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/athlon-sports-interview-auburn-basketball-coach-bruce-pearl

On Saturday, the state of Alabama will celebrate perhaps its favorite sport second only to college football — spring football. Even on A-Day at Auburn, the Tigers have reason for optimism beyond the team that reached the BCS Championship Game in January.

Auburn basketball made the biggest splash, so far, in the 2014 coaching carousel by hiring Bruce Pearl after his three-year exile from college sports. The former Tennessee coach brings to Auburn what it has lacked for a decade in college basketball — an established coach and a sorely needed injection of excitement for a program with new facilities and renewed commitment to competing in the SEC.

The hire isn’t without questions, though. Pearl was fired at Tennessee after he admitted to lying to NCAA investigators regarding recruiting violations. The penalties will continue to hamper him early in his tenure at Auburn.

Athlon Sports’ Braden Gall sat down with Pearl to discuss:

• Pearl’s return to college coaching: “It's just me being myself and not having a very high 'edit button,' if you will. We need to engage our students on a college campus.”

• His challenges at Auburn with his NCAA show-cause penalty: “Last weekend, we had an official visitor on campus. I left town just because at this time I've got to be really careful and really diligent about being compliant with my show-cause.”

• His thoughts on Cuonzo Martin’s departure from Tennessee to Cal: “I wish him nothing but success at Cal and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there.”

[Disclosure: Gall hosts college basketball programming on SiriusXM where Pearl was his co-host periodically during the last three years.]

Athlon Sports: While you were out of coaching, you were an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. Is there anything you learned from the other side with your time in the media that can help you in coaching?

Bruce Pearl: No, because I've always been very accessible to the media, so that's not been an issue. People say when you watch practices and you watch basketball, that when you get back into coaching it helped them. But for me all I saw was everybody running the same offenses, everybody running the same defenses and everybody guarding the ball screens the exact same way, and I just know that's not how I want to coach. I've always run different systems and tried to be a little unique. That's one thing I know I won't do; Our team won't look like everybody else's.

Athlon: You are already up to your old tricks with the , gaining publicity for your program. How does your personality and energy level set you apart from a lot of other coaches?

Pearl: When I left Dr. Tom Davis after being with him at Boston College, Stanford and Iowa, and it was time for me to go become a head coach. He told me, “Look, do what we do. This is what you know and how to teach and as long as you stay with this and make it your own, you will be successful.” And he was right. But he (also) said, "don't try to be me. Be yourself because you can duplicate that." So whether it's tricks or being out there in the community or having our student-athletes being involved in different things, being out there, truly, it's just me being myself and not having a very high “edit button” if you will. We need to engage our students on a college campus. We need to be involved in the things that they are involved in. What they are doing has got to be important to us because I need them to come to our basketball games to create a homecourt advantage where we can be be successful. And I can't ask them to serve me if I'm not willing, in some ways, to serve them.

Athlon: You were a big part of the changes that took place at Thompson-Boling Arena during your time at Tennessee, making the arena smaller and more intimate, giving the fans a better experience. What do you have to work with at Auburn?

Pearl: It's one of the nicest facilities in the country — 9,100 seats and not a bad seat in the house. The students are right down on the floor. It looks like it was built yesterday, but it's a few years old. They take unbelievable care of it, and it was done so right. The offices are all here. Two practice facilities are here. The weight room is right off the practice facility. The locker rooms are incredible. I think what Auburn understands is how to treat student-athletes. This is a college town, a college campus, and there's not a ton to do here. There's not a lot of distractions, so therefore, if you are really serious about your books and your basketball, this is a great place, and they will love you to death. That might not be for everybody. They might want a bigger city, might want more clubs and more places to go and more things to do. And that's fine. But if you want to come train and you want to become great, this is a great spot.

Athlon: You talk about the community, the student-athletes and the Auburn family. Obviously, there's a spring game coming up this weekend for the football team, do you have any special plans to get the basketball program involved in the big celebration?

Pearl: Not at the spring game. My coaching staff and our families are going to go over to Coach (Gus) Malzahn's house. He's got a gathering on Friday night and then on Saturday morning, I'm going to attempt to ride 22 miles with Bo Jackson and his crew. They bike around town, and so I'm going to get involved in that.

Athlon: Bo could probably still play, I imagine?

"I wish (Cuonzo Martin) nothing but success at Cal and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there."
Pearl: I would imagine Bo can do whatever he wants to do. I guarantee it. But you know because of my show-cause that is still in effect as far as recruiting is concerned until Aug. 24 of this year, we will have prospects on campus, but I won't be anywhere near them. I won't be seeing them. I won't be able to talk with them or communicate with them. I am going to be really guarded. Last weekend, we had an official visitor on campus. I left town just because at this time you've got to be really careful and really diligent about being compliant with my show-cause. So I will be probably be a little less visible because of it.

Athlon: It certainly creates some unique challenges heading into your first season. You are here, you're the head coach, but there are certain things you cannot do.

Pearl: When you first take over a program, there are a couple of things you need to do. Number one, you got to work with the players that are returning, and hopefully the guys will look different with the way we are trying to condition them. That's the first goal. That's not a guarantee, but that's what we strive for. The second thing you have to do when you take over is re-work the roster and try to rebuild the roster a little bit. That's something I can't do from a standpoint of evaluating talent or talking to prospects and communicating with them right now. So our record has to speak for itself. This place has to sell itself. My assistant coaches have got to be the ones who are out there communicating. It will be a challenge, but when we win, it will make it all the more gratifying.

Athlon: You are a Northeast guy but you have come back to the SEC. What are some of the challenges with returning to a "football school?”

Pearl: First of all, if you don't have a product to sell you're not going sell much of that product. So right now I'm selling Auburn football. Right now, I'm selling Auburn's fast and no-huddle and everything that Coach Malzahn is doing. I'm selling the other programs, both men and women, how successful they are. But you're right. Football is the bottom line and people are excited about it. Auburn hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years, and I've been there 17 times in the last 19 years. I don't know how quickly we will get it turned around, but we will get it turned around.

Athlon: What kind of style are we going to see from you? Similar stuff from what we've seen from you in the past or will there be some new wrinkles or tweaks you've developed?

Pearl: There are always tweaks every year based on your personnel, but we are going to play fast. We're going to attack in transition. We're going to try to turn people over with our defense. And based on our personnel, and what they're strengths and weaknesses are — something I won't know until the fall — then we will adjust accordingly. But you can't change your system. It is what it is. And we'll plug that in. How fast we make you go, how much we extend the floor will depend on the talent and the depth of the roster.

Athlon: Auburn will lose a couple of really big scorers and that has to be at the top of the list of needs that you need to address.

Pearl: Even in a public setting, when I'm talking about our players, I really can't even talk about our needs and what we need to address because it would sort of be like a form of recruiting. But, yeah, we lost three seniors who played a lot of basketball and scored a lot of points. And so obviously those guys need to be replaced, and there's opportunity. You've got to build a strong foundation, you can't be in a rush. One of the things you do is be patient. Make sure you take guys that can get you to where you need to be in order to be competitive in the upper division of the SEC. That's what our goal is.

Athlon: You've been very open in talking about your experience over the last three years from an emotional and personal level, what have you learned and how have you grown?

Pearl: First of all, the way to handle what we did is to be accountable for it. Apologize for it and ask for their forgiveness and grace but obviously to move forward as well. This isn't a story about sin, this is a story about redemption. I became the vice president of a $4 billion company, the HT Hackey Company, not many guys can say that they did that and I was able to do it. God put it in front of me and I took advantage of it, and I was blessed for that. And then to work with SiriusXM and ESPN. Just keep moving forward. And now to be back in college basketball again, understanding that I was a coach for 33 years, a head coach for 19 years and almost all of them were really good. We run clean programs and I don't mind saying that to anyone. Look them right in the eye and say we run a clean program. We made some mistakes and we paid dearly for it but it is a story about redemption and I am blessed and humbled to have the opportunity to be here at Auburn.

Athlon: I know games are a long way off and the show-cause still has some time to go, but it seems like you're having some fun.

Pearl: It's great to be back. It's a great town and I think my family is going to be really happy here. I am assembling a great staff. Tony Jones, my right-hand man, came with me. Steven Pearl, my son, who played for me, is going to be coaching with me. Todd Golden, who played for me in Israel and played at Saint Mary's for Randy Bennett, (is here). Chuck Person, the Rifleman, has returned to the Plains. I couldn't have hired a better guy to recruit this part of the country. He's been here and done that and believes in this place. He knows what Auburn basketball is supposed to look like. We are not going to settle. We are putting a great group together, and I'm pretty excited about the challenge. We got a lot a work to do now because we are way, way behind a lot of the other clubs in this league, but we will catch up.

Athlon: As far as the SEC as a whole, it took its lumps in the regular season last year, but in the NCAA Tournament things were very different with Florida and Kentucky making it to the Final Four.

Pearl: And Tennessee getting to the Sweet 16 and almost beating Michigan to get to the Elite Eight. I think that there were some definite misconceptions. The one thing the SEC has to be accountable for is we did not do our work in November and December in the nonconference. And that's been the case for the last several years, and as a result, we set ourselves behind the other conferences. I don't know with Kentucky being such a young team early in the year, you couldn't really expect them to do what they did but they had some losses — to Baylor, who actually turned out to be a pretty good team. Florida did everything they could early in the year. They were injured, and Billy Donovan did an amazing job this year and could have been national coach of the year with his injuries and suspensions and things early in the year. The only two teams they lost to were UConn and Wisconsin, two teams in the Final Four. Just an incredible job. Tennessee had a disappointing regular season, and they should have carried the banner a little bit better. Look at how they played late in the year. There are a few other clubs that were capable that didn't get enough done in the preseason. Once that happens, you’ll see way more than three teams in the NCAA Tournament from the SEC, and I think the success Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee had in the Tournament will sit on the committee's mind as related to maybe the league being better than what they got credit for.

Athlon: What were your thoughts when you saw the news that Cuonzo Martin went to Cal?

Pearl: I wasn't surprised. I wasn't. Cuonzo didn't seem to be happy there. I know they talked about the fact that he had to overcome following me, and I understand that we had success, but they still had 18,000 people come to every single game. Overcome that or not, they got great support in Knoxville, great facilities, great university. The embracing needs to work both ways, so I'm happy for Coach Martin. He maintained a level of success that we worked really hard to create. I'm grateful to Coach Martin as a former Tennessee head basketball coach, and a Vol for life, I'm grateful for the job he did because he kept it going. I wish him nothing but success at Cal, and if he wasn't happy there and he didn't feel appreciated there, then I'm glad he's not there because I want somebody there that wants to be there. So I appreciate the job he did and I'm happy for him and his family that they got a chance to move on.

Athlon Sports Interview: Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: MLB
Path: /chicken
No one will ever know which came first, the chicken or the egg. But one thing we do know: Before the Phillie Phanatic and the Suns Gorilla and Bernie Brewer, there was the San Diego Chicken. In 1974, when Ted Giannoulas first crawled into that fowl costume of his, no one ever imagined that a 5'4" kid from Ontario, Canada, would change the way we like to be amused between plays forever. “I’ve been telling people for years to stop laughing — it just encourages me,” says Giannoulas. Forty years after he hatched, we asked the Chicken to come out of his shell, so to speak.
San Diego ChickenSo were feathers and a beak a lifelong dream?
In 1974, radio station KGB in San Diego sent a rep over to my college station at San Diego State. I was hanging out with friends and this guy walked in and said, “We need somebody to hand out Easter eggs this Sunday at the zoo. Any volunteers?” We all raised our hands. Then he said, “Oh, and you need to wear a chicken costume.” We all still kept our hands in the air. He looked around the room, saw me and said, “You, short guy, you’ll fit the costume best. I’ll see you at the zoo tomorrow.” The whole thing took less than 60 seconds.
Why a chicken? Why not a monkey or a turkey or a goat?
I asked my boss at the station the exact same question. He just said, “I don’t know, there’s something inherently funny about a chicken.” The irony is, this was supposed to be a one-time thing at the zoo. Then right after Easter, I knew Opening Day for the Padres was coming up and I figured it might be a way to get in for free. So I asked the station management about me going to the game as the Chicken. I literally went to the stadium in the costume and bought a ticket. I sat there as a fan, did a couple of silly things — a soft shoe dance, a little voodoo on the other team. It created some great chaos, and I was on the front page of the newspaper the next day. The station loved it, obviously, because ostensibly, I was a walking billboard. The Padres loved it, too. Ray Kroc, the team owner, had a great sense of humor, and he was delighted because the fans loved it.
How many times have you put the costume on?
At least 10,000 times. At least. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make six to eight appearances a day, especially during ratings cycles for the station. 
So are you inherently a comedian?
I always wanted to be a comedy writer. I wrote and produced plays in school — it was always a part of me. I was never the class clown, but I always sat next to them.
What’s your favorite baseball play?
As a fan, I love watching a long throw from right field to third. There’s nothing more majestic than that. As a chicken, my favorite play is the balk, obviously. Balk. Balk. Balk.

When did you know you truly made it?
The 1978 All Star game in San Diego really put me on the map nationally. But the moment I really knew it was bigger than I ever imagined happened in 1979. I was sitting at home watching the seventh game of the World Series and a commercial promoting Major League baseball came on. Instead of showing some great plays, the entire commercial was me being hatched out of a giant Styrofoam egg. I sat there and thought, “Holy cow, I’ve arrived.”
How did you tell your parents donning a chicken costume was going to be your career path?
Honestly, my dad was really upset. He wanted me to be a doctor, engineer. Something. He was a hard-working Greek immigrant. Old school. He didn’t want me to wear a chicken suit — he was embarrassed. My mom loved it and even made my costumes. He never even saw me do my thing until about three months before he passed away; he finally came to see me at a Clippers game. He was taken aback at how much people were entertained. It was really a moving moment. 
What are your thoughts on today’s mascots?
I think they’re all designed by corporate committees. They obviously don’t have the leeway I did. I tried to fashion it as a comic, and to me, today’s mascots are more benign corporate symbols.
Your favorite mascots of all time, present company excluded?
I love the Florida Gator — those kids do good stuff and have a lot of fun. And the Kansas City Royals used to have a mascot called Slugger. He was a mountain lion. Very fun and creative.
What’s your favorite kind of chicken?
Chicken wings. Hot and zesty. Buffalo style. Eating chicken wings also helps me eliminate the competition. If you can’t beat 'em, eat 'em.
What's your all time favorite non-sports experience?
I was at an Elvis concert for the station in 1976. It was the year before he died, so y’know, it was Fat Elvis. Anyway, I wanted to do something fun but I was a little nervous, the audience was a little older and well, it was Elvis. All of a sudden he broke into Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On”, and there’s a lyric in the song about “a chicken in the barn.” I knew this was my chance. I walked down the concourse, right in front of the stage and started dancing like a nut. He saw me, he dropped to one knee, and then he stopped singing because he was laughing so hard. The next thing I know, the band started playing softly and his doctor ran out on stage--they thought he was having a stroke. He finally regained his composure, finished the song and said, “I want to apologize for that, folks. There was a chicken dancing in front of me.” Everybody laughed and then he delivered a great line. He said, “I hope that chicken realizes my manager is the Colonel.” I turned around and starting sprinting out of the arena. It was great fun.
Did you ever lose your costume?
One time I lost it going to a minor league hockey game in Wichita. My head and tail were with me, though. So I went out on the ice with my head and my tail and promised I’d be back the next week. And I was.
Your three favorite players ever?
Oh jeez, I could name a ton. Bert Blyleven had a great sense of humor. Pete Rose was always great with me, too — he was fan of the Chicken before it was cool to be a fan of the Chicken. Johnny Bench was terrific, too. I did a TV show with him for a few years. David Wells. Don Sutton. There are literally hundreds of players throughout the years who have been fabulous, including umpires and NBA refs. 
What's your funniest interaction with a player?
One time Ron Guidry of the Yankees asked me to do something with him because his wife loved me, so we set this whole shtick up. Right before we were ready to do our thing, Lou Piniella struck out to end the inning—and he wasn’t very happy. As we all know, Lou had a bit of a temper. Of course I’m not paying attention, so I jumped off the dugout and started goofing around with Guidry for a few seconds on the mound. Next thing I know, a glove comes whistling by my ear. It’s Piniella. He’s screaming at me. “Get away from my guy!” Then he started chasing me. The fans were cracking up thinking it’s an act and it’s totally real. 
Do you lose weight during a game?
I lose a little and it definitely keeps me in shape. I did a game in Texas once and Bobby Valentine did a team pool to see how much I’d lose. It was about 105 degrees, and I lost seven pounds. Not a whole lot of chicken meat that night.
So when will the Chicken rest?
I’m 60 years old. I didn’t think I’d be doing this for 40 days, let alone 40 years. To quote Satchel Paige: “If you didn’t know how old you are, how old would you be?” I’m just going to keep going until it’s not fun anymore.
Do you belong in the Hall of Fame?
One of my costumes is in the Hall, and I’m thrilled about that. But to me, the Hall of Fame is about stats, not lore. My Hall of Fame is when I’m out there performing and people are laughing — I’m in the Hall of Fame of their memory. For me, crowd response is what makes this matter. Having said that, Cooperstown has a players’ wing and a broadcasters’ wing. Maybe one day they’ll have a chicken wing.
No one will ever know which came first, the chicken or the egg. But one thing we do know: Before the Phillie Phanatic and the Suns Gorilla and Bernie Brewer, there was the San Diego Chicken. In 1974, when Ted Giannoulas first crawled into that fowl costume of his, no one ever imagined that a 5'4" kid from Ontario, Canada, would change the way we like to be amused between plays forever. “I’ve been telling people for years to stop laughing — it just encourages me,” says Giannoulas. Forty years after he hatched, we asked the Chicken to come out of his shell, so to speak.
Post date: Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 16:15
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-17-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 17.


. Working his way back up, I guess.



• The Canadiens are carrying the hopes of an entire nation in these NHL playoffs.


. Actual meatballs.

• Still not had enough Paulina Gretzky? .

. That'll leave a mark.


• Here's an amusing promo for the new movie "Neighbors" featuring Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Aaron Rodgers.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 12:41
Path: /college-football/uniform-upgrades-coming-illinois-2014

Illinois joined the new uniform release party this spring, unveiling helmets and jerseys for 2014 on Wednesday night.

The program is switching to a power “I” design on the helmets, which is a needed change from the simple Illinois underlined on the helmets.

And the overall design of the jerseys is pretty solid. White, orange and blue will be the three jersey colors, and the Fighting Illini will also have three different helmets to choose from.

Check out the photos below:

Uniform Upgrades Coming for Illinois in 2014
Post date: Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/ranking-secs-quarterbacks-2014

The SEC was home to some of college football’s top quarterbacks in the nation last year. However, one offseason later, and the conference is essentially rebuilding from scratch at the quarterback spot.

The list of names departing is heavy: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Missouri’s James Franklin, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Georgia’s Aaron Murray.

After one of the best seasons from the quarterback spot in recent years for the SEC, it will be tough for the league to match that production in 2014. However, the cupboard isn’t entirely bare, as Auburn’s Nick Marshall is a fringe candidate for All-America honors, and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott are primed for big seasons.

The conference also has several intriguing options in Alabama’s Jacob Coker, Vanderbilt’s Stephen Rivers, Kentucky’s Drew Barker and LSU’s Brandon Harris.

To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2014. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks based on accomplishments so far. 

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Writeups compiled by Braden Gall ( and Steven Lassan ().

Ranking the SEC's Starting Quarterbacks for 2014

1. Nick Marshall, Auburn (SR)
Marshall’s career path is one of the most interesting stories for a starting quarterback on the FBS level. After playing at Georgia as a defensive back in 2011, he was dismissed from the team and landed at Garden City Community College in 2012. And after one season on the junior college ranks, Marshall landed at Auburn and led the Tigers to a berth in the national championship game against Florida State. Marshall finished 2013 by throwing for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding 1,068 yards and 12 scores on the ground – all impressive totals when you consider that was his first taste of action on the FBS level. With another offseason to work under offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn, look for Marshall to take the top spot in the SEC quarterback rankings this year.

2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss (SR)
With 14 starters back, there is plenty of buzz surrounding this Ole Miss team in 2014. With LSU, Alabama and Auburn each losing some key personnel from last year’s teams, the door is open for the Rebels to make some noise in the SEC West. In order for Ole Miss to climb in the division standings, Wallace has to have a huge season. The Tennessee native threw for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and added 355 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior has thrown for 40 touchdowns over the last two years but has also tossed 27 picks during that span. Finding more overall consistency as a passer, along with eliminating the turnovers will be a key to watch for Wallace in 2014. Of course, it should help that he is now a full year removed from shoulder surgery (see Missouri’s James Franklin in 2013).

3. Maty Mauk, Missouri (SO)
Mauk owns every major high school passing record from his days in Ohio, and his short time under center as a freshman a year ago proved his gaudy prep numbers were no fluke. He isn’t the largest quarterback - cut more from the Aaron Murray cloth rather than the Zach Mettenberger mold - but he has loads of confidence, moxie, leadership and even some athletic ability. He was thrust into a nasty situation on the road against Georgia and delivered a huge win before leading his team to easy wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Mauk finished his freshman season with 1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and 229 yards rushing. In Gary Pinkel’s system, Mauk has a chance to blossom into one of the SEC’s best.

4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (JR)
After coming off the bench to lead Mississippi State to an Egg Bowl victory over rival Ole Miss, and a standout performance in the Liberty Bowl, Prescott is poised for a breakout year. The Louisiana native threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and added 829 yards and 13 scores. Prescott averaged 269.3 total yards per game through eight SEC contests and should build off of those totals with a full offseason to recover from a shoulder injury. There’s a ton of upside with Prescott in 2014, especially with a strong supporting cast at his disposal. If all of the pieces come together at Mississippi State, there’s a good chance Prescott ranks higher on this list at the end of the year.

5. Jacob Coker, Alabama (JR)
Despite not taking a snap in an Alabama uniform until this summer, all signs point to Coker as the frontrunner to replace AJ McCarron in Tuscaloosa. Coker graduated from Florida State this spring, and with Jameis Winston entrenched as the starter, he decided to transfer and play immediately at another school. In two years as a backup with the Seminoles, Coker threw for 295 yards and one touchdown on 21 completions. The Alabama native isn’t short on all of the physical attributes coaches are looking for in a quarterback. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Coker is ready to handle the rigors of the SEC. Despite the lack of overall experience, Coker has the talent to make an instant impact at Alabama. And if he fails to claim the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, look for Blake Sims or Cooper Bateman to start in the opener against West Virginia.

6. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina (SR)
Much like Mason at Georgia, Thompson has been in the Gamecocks system for years and is ready to take over as the starter after sitting behind a historically great player. Thompson got a few starts behind Connor Shaw, and his big arm fits the downfield gameplan Steve Spurrier so desperately enjoys. The South Carolina native threw 127 passes in 2012 and 89 a year ago with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in spot duty for South Carolina. He has an elite O-Line returning in front of him and a great back in Mike Davis behind him, so success should find the first-year starter in Columbia.

7. Hutson Mason, Georgia (SR)
Mark Richt was very clear when Aaron Murray was lost for the season against Kentucky with one regular season game left to play: Mason has been ready to be a starter for quite sometime. And after a very shaky start to the Georgia Tech game, Mason proved his coach right by leading a miraculous comeback to top the Dawgs rival in overtime. In his two starts, the Marietta (Ga.) Lassiter senior averaged over 300 yards passing per game and completed over 60-percent of his passes. With a supporting cast that should be even healthier and more talented in ’14, Mason could be poised to pick up right where Murray left off.

8. Jeff Driskel, Florida (JR)
Driskel is obviously not as good as his five-star ranking indicated when he signed with Florida out of Oviedo, Fla. But he also isn’t as bad as fans like to think. He’s dealing with his third offensive coordinator during his college career and has shown the ability to make big plays outside of the pocket (ask Tennessee) — something the new offensive system will foster rather than discourage. Driskel was completing nearly 70 percent of his passes when he was lost for the year in the third game of last season. So if he can prove to stay healthy, his dynamic skillset should flourish in Kurt Roper’s up-tempo, spread scheme.

9. Kyle Allen, Texas A&M (FR)
With Matt Joeckel’s decision to transfer, combined with Kenny Hill’s suspension in the spring, Allen appears to be the likely starter for Texas A&M when it opens the year against South Carolina. Breaking in a true freshman quarterback on the road is never easy, but Allen will have one of the SEC’s top offensive lines blocking for him, along with a talented group of skill players. The Arizona native ranked as the No. 10 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete this spring. Expect a few ups and downs as a true freshman. However, the future looks bright in College Station with Allen leading the offense.

10. Justin Worley, Tennessee (SR)
There is little doubt that Worley will be the starter in Week 1 against a talented and upset-minded Utah State squad. He is the most experienced and poised quarterback on the Tennessee roster. That said, he will have to play well against a brutal early schedule to keep his job. Riley Ferguson is regarded as the best pure passer on the roster, but he has yet to play a snap in a college game, while Joshua Dobbs is easily the best combination of athletic ability and maturity. Dobbs' poise, polish, intelligence and work ethic make him a darkhorse to win the job sometime in the first half of the season. Much like last year, fans in Knoxville should expect two — maybe three — starting quarterbacks in 2014.

11. Brandon Allen, Arkansas (JR)
Allen had his share of struggles in his first season as Arkansas’ No. 1 quarterback, but he also didn’t have much help from an inexperienced receiving corps and remodeled offensive line. Allen’s final totals weren’t particularly impressive, as he threw for 1,552 yards and 13 touchdowns on 128 completions. He also tossed 10 picks and completed just 49.6 percent of his passes – two numbers that have to improve in 2014. With another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, combined with the development of the offensive line and rushing attack, Allen figures to have more help from his supporting cast and improvement should be noticeable. However, if he struggles, touted freshman Rafe Peavey will be a name to watch this fall.

12. Brandon Harris, LSU (FR)
It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot in Baton Rouge. Anthony Jennings has the edge over Harris in experience, but he didn’t claim the starting spot in the spring, so the battle will continue into the fall. Harris – a true freshman – enrolled early to compete in spring practice. And the Louisiana native showed plenty of promise, completing 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards in LSU’s spring game. Jennings didn’t play well in the spring game but guided the Tigers to a touchdown in the final minute to beat Arkansas and helped LSU win the Outback Bowl against Iowa. If neither quarterback claims the job this fall, it’s possible both will see a lot of playing time this year. We will take the upside and list Harris here, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jennings take the opening snap. 

13. Drew Barker, Kentucky (FR)
Barker is a highly-touted four-star early enrollee who had offers from Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisville, Miami and both Magnolia State schools from the SEC. Needless to say, he is a gifted athlete. And his showing in Kentucky’s spring practice thus far has generated plenty of buzz about his ability to handle the rigors of the SEC as just a true freshman. The 6-foot-4 in-state talent will battle with former starter Maxwell Smith and rising sophomore Patrick Towles for the reigns of Neal Brown’s offense in Lexington (Jalen Whitlow has transferred). Barker has the most upside and raw physical talent of the group but is lacking in experience. Should his maturity, confidence and poise develop quickly, he could become one of the nation’s better true freshman signal-callers.

14. Stephen Rivers, Vanderbilt (JR)
Assuming all of his T’s and I’s are correct at LSU, Rivers will show up in Nashville this summer as the frontrunner to start at Vanderbilt. The Athens, Ala., prospect has very little experience, playing just four games in his Tigers career but has graduated in three years and will transfer to West End with the best combination of experience and talent on the roster. Derek Mason will give a long look to talented redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, who has loads of talent but has yet to take an SEC snap, while Patton Robinette proved last year that his upside is fairly limited despite winning games for the Dores down the stretch.

Ranking the SEC's Quarterbacks for 2014
Post date: Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/who-sleeper-team-watch-pac-12-2014

The SEC is still college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has closed the gap in recent years.

And the Pac-12 is expected to remain a close No. 2 in the conference hierarchy for 2014, as Oregon, UCLA, USC and Stanford could all begin this season as top-10 teams. Defending Pac-12 South champions Arizona State isn’t far behind, while the rest of the conference features an interesting group of teams in the next tier.

Washington could surprise with new coach Chris Petersen leading the way, especially with a defense that returns seven starters and could be among the best in the conference. The Huskies aren’t the only sleeper team to watch, as Oregon State is always a darkhorse to watch in the North. The Beavers return quarterback Sean Mannion and one of the top linebacking corps in the Pac-12.

Outside of Washington and Oregon State, keep a close eye on Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The Buffaloes should show significant improvement in Mike MacIntyre’s second season, and the Utes are expected to regain the services of quarterback Travis Wilson in 2014. Arizona is a bit of a mystery, especially with uncertainty at quarterback and running back.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the Pac-12 in 2014?

Steven Lassan ()
It’s tough to call Washington a sleeper team since it finished No. 25 in the final Associated Press poll last year, but I think the Huskies have a chance to challenge either Oregon or Stanford for the No. 2 spot in the North. Chris Petersen comes to Seattle after a successful stint at Boise State, and while he has to prove he can maintain that success at a higher level, Washington seems to have upgraded its head coach position with this hire. Quarterback Cyler Miles did not participate in spring practice due to an off-the-field incident, but he is expected to return by the fall. If Miles continues to build off his solid performance in limited action from 2013, the Huskies should have no trouble scoring points with a solid offensive line and a group of talented receivers. And with seven starters back, the defense could be among the best in the conference. Also, the schedule sets up favorably for Petersen’s debut year. Washington hosts Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State and should go 4-0 in non-conference play. The Huskies do have some personnel departures to address, but they finished two games behind Stanford/Oregon in the North last year. With both of those teams losing a couple of key pieces, Washington has a chance to make a move in the North in 2014.

Mark Ross
With Oregon and Stanford expected to go head-to-head for Pac-12 North supremacy once again and a Chris Petersen-led Washington team lurking, I think it's safe to say that many would be "surprised" should Oregon State end up crashing the party. After all this is a Beavers team that ended last season losing five of their last six games and also will be without all-conference performers wide receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive end Scott Crichton and cornerback Rashaad Reynolds. However, there is still reason for optimism for Mike Riley's team, thanks in large part to the return of quarterback Sean Mannion, who threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2013. If talented yet oft-injured running back Storm Woods can stay healthy, a rebuilt offensive line can keep Mannion upright and some reliable pass-catchers can emerge, Oregon State should be in decent shape offensively. I realize that's a lot of "ifs," but with Mannion running the show, I think the Beavers have at least a fighting chance. The defense lost some key pieces, but it also returns six players, including all three linebackers and both safeties. This unit has plenty of room for improvement, but also gets a slight break schedule-wise by drawing Colorado and Utah in crossover play, while avoiding projected South Division frontrunner UCLA. Road dates at USC and Stanford will be tough, as well as the Civil War regular-season finale against Oregon, but Riley's team gave the archrival Ducks a fight last season in Eugene before losing by one and then finished up its 2013 campaign with an impressive 38-23 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. Even with the personnel losses and questions on both sides of the ball, bowl eligibility shouldn't be a problem this fall. That said, if some new faces step up and the Beavers get a few bounces or breaks to go their way, the fans in Corvallis could be in store for a surprising season.

Kyle Kensing, (), and
After consecutive 7-win regular-season finishes in each of his first two years at Arizona, Rich Rodriguez just might have the Wildcats ready to take another step. Losing All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey obviously leaves a void, but Rodriguez's offense helps foster productive ball-carriers. To that end, it's worth noting Carey was himself unproven commodity before his breakout performance in the system in 2012.

The Wildcats are again replacing a starting quarterback, perhaps more of a concern than the change at running back. But with the return of Austin Hill to lead a talented wide receiving corps and an experienced offensive line, the learning curve is somewhat shortened.

Arizona's defense made considerable strides in its second year under Jeff Casteel, and should continue to improve in 2014. Linebacker Scooby Wright is a star in the making, Jonathan McKnight is among the Pac-12's most dynamic playmakers in the secondary.

Arizona is not quite ready to compete for the division – preseason favorite UCLA should be as good as advertised – but a favorable schedule means the Wildcats should get past that seven regular-season win plateau. With the right breaks (and a surprise star-turn out of the new quarterback), Arizona could steal nine wins.

Braden Gall ()
Since this league is so deep and is possibly the best in the nation, it's extremely difficult to pick a true sleeper. Arizona, Washington State and Utah could all make bowl games and all three could finish outside of the top seven in the league and outside of the Top 25 nationally. So that makes Washington the truest sleeper in the Pac-12. The Huskies are a team talented enough to make a push for a division crown but not perceived to be good enough to be ranked in the top 10-15 nationally in the preseason. The Dawgs have a great new coach, a loaded roster of developed defensive talent and an offense led by an extremely gifted but unproven signal caller in Cyler Miles. The schedule isn't easy, but the Huskies possess the necessary combination of talent, coaching, leadership and experience to make legit waves out West this fall.

David Fox ()
The spoiler in the Pac-12 may end up being the same team it’s been for a few years — Arizona. The Wildcats have a knack for scoring the big upset. They did it against Oregon last year and USC a year before that. Arizona under Rich Rodriguez is classic spoiler material: Good enough to beat a good team on a bad day but not consistent enough to carry it through the season. This year, Arizona is a bit of a mystery, especially on offense. Transfers from USC, Texas and LSU via junior college plus a redshirt freshman are all in the mix at quarterback. The possible starter at running back didn’t play in the spring. And the top receiver is coming back from a torn ACL. None of that is great, but Rich Rodriguez should find an answer. On defense, this group returns six starters, but the Wildcats have improved in each of the last three seasons. No, this team isn’t going to contend for the South, but Arizona is good enough to knock a team out — again. 

Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the Pac-12 in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 07:15