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This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 8:
• According to her Instagram account, Bar Refaeli spent the weekend jumping around in a bikini.
• Ever wanted to see Prince Fielder naked? The new ESPN Body Issue is scratching that particular itch. To borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, that's not good naked.
• A fan shown sleeping at a Yankees game is suing ESPN for $10 million. In his defense, it really wasn't a flattering image. Wonder if I'm risking a subpoena by linking to it?
• This is old, but still funny: The White Sox had a white poncho giveaway, and a Klan rally broke out.
• Something for the nerds: J.K. Rowling published a new Harry Potter story on her website.
• The cops are out of control. This one prevented Hunter Pence from catching a foul ball.
• That crafty old Derek Jeter is getting by on his wits these days.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2014. Athlon Sports has teamed with Joe DiSalvo of thecffsite.com to provide the latest rankings for the upcoming year.
Thecffsite.com is the No. 1 place for college fantasy news, rankings and weekly projections during the year.
Below is the projected top 20 fantasy quarterbacks for 2014. Want to go deeper? Check out thecffsite.com’s draft kit, which contains keeper league information, more rankings and analysis.
Scoring system rankings based upon:
All draft values are based on a 12-team, 20-round draft using the following scoring system:
Passing — 25 pass yds = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing — 10 rushing yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receiving — .5 points per reception, 10 receiving yards = 1 point, Receiving TDs = 6 points
Updated: July 4, 2014, by Joe DiSalvo (@theCFFsite)
Visit Fantrax.com to play college fantasy football in 2014.
Note: This is not a list of the best players in college football. This is a ranking of the best players in terms of fantasy value (players who will have the best numbers in college football for 2014).
College Fantasy Football: Top 20 Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
4. Rakeem Cato, Marshall
5. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
6. Davis Webb, Texas Tech
7. Taysom Hill, BYU
8. Keenan Reynolds, Navy
9. Jameis Winston, Florida State
10. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
11. Shane Carden, East Carolina
12. Nick Marshall, Auburn
13. Brett Hundley, UCLA
14. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
15. Cody Fajardo, Nevada
16. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
17. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
18. John O’Korn, Houston
19. Marquise Williams, North Carolina
20. Maty Mauk, Missouri
Coaching changes are a big part of any college football offseason, and several big names switched addresses.
And whether it was coaching moves in the SEC or the Sun Belt, this offseason wasn’t short on impact additions or subtractions among teams. Several of these coordinator hires could help a team win a couple of extra games in 2014.
Utah and Rutgers were two of the biggest winners in the coordinator carousel, as the Utes added former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen as their offensive play-caller, while the Scarlet Knights hired Ralph Friedgen as their offensive coordinator.
Georgia also made one of the top hires of the offseason by pulling defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State.
Athlon examines the top 15 coordinator hires for 2014, as well as some of the other notable moves from the offseason.
College Football’s Top 15 Coordinator Hires for 2014
Chris Ash, Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Fixing the defense is a priority for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes allowed 24 points a game last year (conference-only games) and allowed 34 or more points in each of the last three contests. Ash returns to the Big Ten after a season at Arkansas, and he is expected to help coordinate the defense with Luke Fickell. Ash’s specialty is coaching defensive backs, which is a specific area of need for the Buckeyes after this unit gave up 20 passing scores in Big Ten games in 2013. Ash isn’t the only key addition to Ohio State’s coaching staff, as former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. was also hired in the offseason.
Dave Christensen, Offensive Coordinator, Utah
The former Wyoming coach takes over the reins of a Utah offense that averaged less than five yards per play in conference games in two out of the last three years. Prior to his stint as Wyoming’s head coach, Christensen worked as the play-caller for Missouri from 2001-08 and at Toledo from 1997-2000. The veteran assistant is tasked with fixing an offense that has struggled to find consistency since joining the Pac-12. Christensen wants to speed up the tempo, and in order for that to happen, he needs to help quarterback Travis Wilson take the next step in his development.
Ralph Friedgen, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers
Friedgen is easily one of the top – if not No. 1 – coordinator hires for 2014. Rutgers has not averaged more than 5.2 yards per play in a season since 2008, and the Scarlet Knights lost 30 turnovers in 2013. Friedgen has been out of coaching since 2010, but he had a strong track record of success at Georgia Tech and Maryland as a play-caller. The New York native has a tough assignment to fix Rutgers’ offense, but there is talent at the skill positions and an experienced quarterback in Gary Nova returning.
Art Kaufman, Defensive Coordinator, California
Injuries played a role in California’s defensive struggles in 2013, but this unit needed a change at coordinator. In steps Kaufman, who was surprisingly fired after a solid 2013 season at Cincinnati. And prior to his one year with the Bearcats, Kaufman’s defense at Texas Tech allowed 5.4 yards per play in 2012. Kaufman’s arrival should immediately help the Golden Bears take a step forward on defense, but it’s unrealistic to expect a quick turnaround to finish as one of the Pac-12’s best defenses for 2014.
Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Without question, Kiffin is the most polarizing coordinator hire of the offseason. After a failed stint as USC’s coach, Kiffin will attempt to rebuild his resume with a stop at Alabama. Although Kiffin’s shortcomings are documented, this role is a good landing spot for the embattled coach. Yes, Kiffin’s offenses were criticized at USC, but he should be able to put the Crimson Tide’s playmakers in position to succeed. Also, Kiffin’s recruiting ability should shine in Tuscaloosa.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Coaches on the hot seat, on the rise and top coordinator hires for 2014:
Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Coordinator, Washington
Kwiatkowski followed Chris Petersen from Boise State to Washington and inherits a defense that ranked fourth in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 22.8 points per game in 2013. Kwiatkowski called the plays for Petersen’s defense in Boise from 2010-13, and the Broncos did not finish a season by allowing more than 25 points per game. There’s plenty of talent returning to Seattle, and Kwatkowski’s track record suggests Washington’s defense will be among the best in the Pac-12 in 2014.
Seth Littrell, Offensive Coordinator, North Carolina
Littrell was an excellent addition for coach Larry Fedora. The Oklahoma native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Mark Mangino at Kansas and spent time at Texas Tech under Mike Leach from 2005-08. Littrell worked under Mike Stoops at Arizona from 2009-11 and left for Indiana in 2012. Over the last two seasons, the Hoosiers have averaged at least 30 points per game and led the Big Ten (conference-only matchups) in 2013 with 22 touchdown tosses. Littrell’s background in developing passing attacks should be a huge boost for quarterback Marquise Williams.
Mark Mangino, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa State
Mangino returns to the Big 12 after a four-year absence. After he was forced out at Kansas (50 wins in eight years), Mangino did not coach on the collegiate level from 2010-12 and landed at Youngstown State in 2013. He is tasked with fixing an Iowa State offense that managed just 4.7 yards per play in conference games and averaged just 24.8 points per game in 2013. Mangino has a strong track record of success from stops at Oklahoma and Kansas as a play-caller, and Iowa State’s offense should be better in 2014.
Doug Meacham, Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham shares the offensive coordinator title with former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie, but the former Houston and Oklahoma State assistant will call the plays. Meacham worked from 2005-12 as an assistant under Mike Gundy in Stillwater and served as Houston’s play-caller in 2013. The Cougars averaged 33.2 points a game last year and had 14 passing plays that went 40 yards or more – with a true freshman at quarterback (John O’Korn).
Doug Nussmeier, Offensive Coordinator, Michigan
Not only is Nussmeier one of the top coordinator hires for 2014, but he’s also one of the play-callers under the most pressure in the nation this year. Michigan’s offense averaged only 5.4 yards per play in 2013, which was the team’s lowest mark since 2008 when the offense averaged just 4.4 yards per play. Nussmeier comes to Ann Arbor after two seasons with Alabama, where the Crimson Tide averaged 7.4 yards per play in SEC games in 2013. And he also had a stint as Fresno State’s play-caller in 2008 and at Washington from 2009-11.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt inherited a veteran defense at Florida State and certainly made all of the right calls in 2013. The Seminoles’ defense allowed only 4.1 yards per play and only two opponents scored more than 20 points, as Florida State closed out the BCS era with a national championship. Prior to his one-year stint in Tallahassee, Pruitt worked under Nick Saban at Alabama and plans to implement a similar 3-4 approach in Athens. Pruitt has work to do this offseason, as Georgia allowed 31.8 points per game in eight SEC contests in 2013. The Bulldogs aren’t as strong in the secondary as Florida State was last year, but this team should be set in the front seven in 2014. Expect Pruitt to make a big impact on Georgia's defense this year.
Kurt Roper, Offensive Coordinator, Florida
Roper is a pivotal hire for Florida coach Will Muschamp. After the Gators finished 4-8 and averaged only 18.8 points per game last season, Muschamp needs a big year or there could be a coaching change in Gainesville at the end of 2014. Roper plans to speed up Florida’s tempo and allow quarterback Jeff Driskel to work more out of the shotgun. Under Roper’s direction, Duke’s offense averaged at least 30 points per game in 2012-13. Roper also has experience in the SEC, spending 1999-04 as an assistant on David Cutcliffe’s staff at Ole Miss.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Most of new Penn State coach James Franklin’s staff followed him to Happy Valley from Vanderbilt, including Shoop who worked as the defensive coordinator for the Commodores for the last three years. Vanderbilt’s defense was underrated during Shoop’s watch, as the Commodores ranked fifth in the SEC in 2012 by holding opponents to 18.7 points per game. Vanderbilt also twice ranked among the top-five teams in the SEC against the run from 2011-13. Shoop inherits a Penn State defense that is short on depth, but the starting unit could be one of the best in the Big Ten.
Joe Wickline, Offensive Coordinator, Texas
Wickline carries the offensive coordinator title, but Shawn Watson is expected to call plays. Even though Wickline won’t be calling the plays, he remains a key piece of new coach Charlie Strong’s staff. Wickline is regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, which is a valuable asset for a Texas team that has struggled to develop talent in the trenches in recent years and has not had a lineman drafted since 2008.
Justin Wilcox, Defensive Coordinator, USC
Wilcox followed Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC, and the former Oregon safety is a rising star in the coaching ranks. Wilcox started his coaching career in 2001 at Boise State and made a stop at California from 2003-05 before returning to work with Chris Petersen. From 2006-09, Wilcox worked as Boise State’s defensive coordinator and later spent two seasons (2010-11) at Tennessee. Washington’s defense finished No. 4 in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed in 2012 and allowed only 4.9 yards per play in 2013. In the year prior to Wilcox’s arrival (2011), Washington ranked No. 11 in the Pac-12 in total defense. Wilcox made a huge impact with the Huskies in just two years, and he should coordinate one of the nation’s top defenses at USC in 2014.
Other Key Coordinator Hires for 2014
Lance Anderson, Defensive Coordinator, Stanford
Much like Pac-12 North rival Oregon, Stanford stayed in-house to fill a vacancy at defensive coordinator. Derek Mason left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt, and David Shaw promoted Anderson to play-caller. Anderson has worked on Stanford’s staff since 2007.
Manny Diaz, Defensive Coordinator, Louisiana Tech
Solid hire for Skip Holtz, as Diaz looks to rebound after a rough stint as Texas’ defensive coordinator.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
Elko followed coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green to Wake Forest. Under Elko’s direction, the Falcons defense led the MAC in fewest points allowed for two consecutive seasons (2012-13).
Hank Hughes, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Cincinnati
Hughes will share the defensive coordinator title with Robert Prunty, and the New York native joins Cincinnati’s staff after spending the 2001-11 seasons at UConn.
Charles Kelly, Defensive Coordinator, Florida State
Kelly was promoted to call the defensive signals in Tallahassee after Jeremy Pruitt left for Georgia. Kelly has a wealth of experience as an assistant, including stops at Jacksonville State, Henderson State, Nicholls State and Georgia Tech. Kelly has been regarded as an excellent teacher, and he should ensure Florida State’s defense will continue to rank among the best in the ACC.
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
A rising star in the coaching ranks, Montgomery takes control of the offensive coordinator role for the Blue Devils.
Don Pellum, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
Coach Mark Helfrich stayed in-house to replace veteran defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Pellum has over 20 years of coaching experience in Eugene, but this will be his first chance to coordinate the Ducks’ defense.
John Reagan, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas
Coach Charlie Weis plans to hand the play-calling duties to Reagan, who returns to Lawrence after four years at Rice. Reagan helped coordinate an offense that averaged 31.4 points per game in C-USA play last season.
Mike Sanford, Offensive Coordinator, Boise State
Sanford is known as an ace recruiter and joins Bryan Harsin’s coaching staff after spending the last three years at Stanford.
John Thompson, Defensive Coordinator, Texas State
A key pickup for Texas State and coach Dennis Franchione. Thompson has a wealth of experience in the coordinator ranks and coordinated an Arkansas State defense that led the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed in 2012.
Brian VanGorder, Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
VanGorder is a well traveled assistant, as his defensive coordinator assignment will be his third job in three years. Prior to taking over the Notre Dame defense, VanGorder worked as the Jets’ linebackers coach in 2013 and coordinated Auburn’s defense in 2012. VanGorder worked with coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1989-91.
Brent Vigen, Offensive Coordinator, Wyoming
Vigen followed Craig Bohl from North Dakota State to Wyoming after coordinating one of the top offenses in the FCS in 2013. The Bison averaged 38.7 points per game last year. Vigen was the play-caller for each of North Dakota State’s three FCS titles.
Paul Wulff, Offensive Coordinator, USF
Wulff returns to the college ranks after two years with the 49ers. The former Washington State coach will help Willie Taggart ignite a USF offense that averaged just 13.4 points per game in American Athletic games last season.
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Pac-12 is top heavy at quarterback in 2014, featuring Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly. But there’s room for some of the names to move around in the middle of the quarterback rankings, including Colorado’s Sefo Liufau or California’s Jared Goff.
On the defensive side, keep an eye on players like Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, USC’s Delvon Simmons and Arizona State’s Salamo Fiso.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Pac-12 Breakout Players for 2014
Devon Allen, WR, Oregon
With a knee injury expected to sideline Bralon Addison for the 2014 season, the Ducks need new targets to emerge for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Addison isn’t the only loss at receiver in Eugene, as Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins (85 receptions in 2013) have expired their eligibility. Allen closed out a breakout spring with two catches for 94 yards and two scores in the spring game. And the gridiron isn’t the only place Allen is making news this offseason. He won the U.S. track title in 110 hurdles in late June and won USA Track & Field athlete of the week honors in early July. Allen has the speed and athleticism to become one of the Ducks’ top playmakers in 2014.
Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks earned the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s No. 1 receiver last season, so Bolden and the other Oregon State receivers have big shoes to fill in 2014. Despite the loss of Cooks, the Beavers still have options in the passing game. Junior Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes last season, and tight end Connor Hamlett is back after grabbing 40 catches in 2013. Bolden caught only six passes for 62 yards, but he averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return. The sophomore is projected for a bigger role in the passing game in 2014, and his explosiveness will help quarterback Sean Mannion stretch the field this year.
Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
Booker has traveled an interesting route to Utah, as he signed with Washington State out of high school but failed to qualify. After a stint at American River College, Booker is finally in Salt Lake City. The Sacramento native capped a breakout offseason with 103 yards and two scores on 19 attempts in the spring game. Utah averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in Pac-12 contests last year. Booker should help that total in 2014 and will push Bubba Poole for the starting job this fall.
DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
New coordinator Don Pellum’s first assignment this offseason was to solidify the defensive line after the departures of Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi. The Ducks still need to bolster the depth in the trenches, but Pellum’s starting trio could be among the best in the Pac-12. Buckner played in all 13 contests in 2013 and recorded 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. After starting the final eight games last season, Buckner is still developing as a player but continued to progress with a sack and a forced fumble in the spring game. We mentioned Buckner as a breakout player here, but junior Arik Armstead is another name to remember. Entering his junior year, Buckner is poised to emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive ends.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens was one of the top defensive players in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. And as a true freshman, Cravens certainly didn’t disappoint last year. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after recording 52 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens should benefit from the addition of coordinator Justin Wilcox, as well as another year to participate in offseason practices. Expect Cravens to push for All-America honors this year.
Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State
Fiso was a standout freshman performer for Arizona State last season, recording 71 stops and three sacks in 14 games. Fiso only got better throughout the 2013 campaign and is one of just two returning starters for the Sun Devils in 2014. Fiso will anchor a linebacking corps that is talented, but inexperienced. The sophomore should be in the mix for all-conference honors and could lead the team in tackles after finishing third on the stat sheet last year. Another Arizona State linebacker to keep in mind for this list: D.J. Calhoun.
Joshua Garnett/Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Four starters depart from a Stanford offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. However, there’s not much concern from coach David Shaw about the protection for quarterback Kevin Hogan. Left tackle Andrus Peat is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2014, and the line has breakout players like Garnett and Murphy ready to emerge. Murphy played in 13 contests last year, while Garnett made an appearance in 14 and started against Washington State. Both Garnett and Murphy should push for All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Some may not consider Goff a breakout player after he threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. However, with California expected to improve overall in the second year under coach Sonny Dykes, along with the return of a talented receiving corps, Goff could approach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. As expected with any freshman quarterback, Goff had his share of ups and downs last season. He threw for 336 yards and one touchdown against Washington and completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards against Washington State. Goff finished the year by throwing for less than 200 yards in back-to-back games against Colorado and Stanford. With another offseason under his belt, look for Goff to take a step forward in his development and show a better overall command of the offense.
Tahaan Goodman, S, UCLA
We could pick a number of UCLA defenders here, but let’s go with Goodman as the breakout player from Jim Mora’s defense. Goodman ranked as the No. 65 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and played in 13 games as a true freshman. The California native recorded only 12 tackles and one forced fumble last season, but he is primed for a bigger role in UCLA’s secondary. With Fabian Moreau returning at cornerback, along with talented players like senior Anthony Jefferson, junior Randall Goforth and sophomore Priest Willis, the Bruins’ secondary should be one of the best in the Pac-12 this season.
Sefo Liufau, QB, Colorado
It’s not easy being a true freshman quarterback in the Pac-12, but Liufau was thrown into the fire in 2013 and performed well in his first season in Boulder. Liufau finished with 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns on 149 completions. The Washington native threw for 364 yards and three scores against California and finished the season by completing 23 of 46 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns against Utah. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and coordinator Brian Lindgren helped to turn David Fales from a two-star junior college quarterback into one of the top passers in the WAC/Mountain West. Top receiver Paul Richardson will be missed, but MacIntyre and Lindgren should help Liufau take a step forward in his development in 2014.
Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State
With quarterback Connor Halliday and one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps returning, the Cougars’ offense will be tough to stop in 2014. Washington State led the nation with 756 pass attempts last year, so there’s plenty of opportunities for players like Mayle to catch passes. Gabe Marks led the team with 74 receptions last season, but Mayle is a name to remember after finishing his first season in Pullman with 42 catches for 539 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot-3 target slimmed down during the offseason, and all signs point to Mayle becoming a more prominent target for Halliday.
Cyler Miles, QB, Washington
Miles was suspended for spring practice due to an off-the-field incident but was reinstated to the team in May. The sophomore is behind Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams in learning Washington’s new offense, but Miles is expected to claim the starting job by the season opener. The Colorado native ranked as the No. 105 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and worked as the backup to Keith Price in 2013. Price missed time against UCLA due to injury, and Miles completed 15 of 22 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in relief. A week later, Miles threw for 162 yards and one score in a 69-27 victory over Oregon State. The sophomore has plenty of upside, and with an ability to hurt defenses through the air or on the ground with his legs, Miles is a quarterback to watch in 2014.
DaVonte’ Neal, WR, Arizona
After a one-year stint at Notre Dame, Neal transferred to Arizona and sat out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Neal didn’t make a huge impact in his one year with the Fighting Irish, but he’s poised to emerge as a key contributor for the Wildcats. Arizona is loaded with talent at receiver, including senior Austin Hill who returns after missing all of last season due to a torn ACL. In addition to Hill, the Wildcats return Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Trey Griffey in the receiving corps. With a crowded receiving corps, expect Arizona coaches to use Neal some in the backfield to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
The Ducks have a few holes to fill in the secondary, but this unit is headlined by All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Three starting spots were up for grabs this spring, with Robinson in the mix at the safety position. The California native ranked as the No. 150 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year in his first season on campus. At 6-foot-4, Robinson has the size and athleticism to be a future star in Oregon’s secondary.
Delvon Simmons, DL, USC
With Leonard Williams on one side, and Simmons expected to emerge at the other end position, USC’s defensive line will be among the best in the nation. Simmons sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules but recorded 27 tackles (six for a loss) at Texas Tech in 2012. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive end should help to anchor USC’s 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Other Breakout Players to Watch
Budda Baker, CB, Washington
Baker was a huge pickup for new coach Chris Petersen. The Washington native ranked as the No. 55 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and has the athleticism to line up at defensive back or on offense at receiver. Marcus Peters is the only proven commodity in the secondary, which means three jobs will be up for grabs in the fall. Expect Baker to push for time at cornerback or safety.
Marcus Ball, S, Arizona State
Ball was expected to play a significant role in the Arizona State secondary last season, but a shoulder injury forced him to take a redshirt year. The Ohio native is poised to start in 2014, as the Sun Devils have a significant amount of turnover on defense this year. Ball has the necessary speed and athleticism to quickly blossom into one of the top freshman defensive backs in the Pac-12.
Bryce Bobo, WR, Colorado
The Buffaloes are searching for a new No. 1 receiver after the departure of Paul Richardson to the NFL. Bobo and teammate Nelson Spruce appear to be up to the task, as this trio combined for 13 receptions in the spring game. Bobo’s eligibility is a concern, but all signs point to him playing in the opening game against Colorado State in August.
Daquawn Brown, CB, Washington State
Washington State’s secondary must be revamped after the departure of four starters, including standout safety Deone Bucannon. Brown should be the headliner for the Cougars’ secondary after playing in 13 games as a true freshman last year. Brown recorded 50 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups in 2013 and is poised for an even bigger sophomore campaign.
Thomas Duarte, WR, UCLA
Duarte played in 13 games as a true freshman last season and caught 16 passes for 214 yards and three scores. Expect Duarte to be an even bigger part of the passing attack this year, especially if UCLA’s offensive line plays with more consistency and gives junior quarterback Brett Hundley more time to throw.
Gionni Paul, LB, Utah
Miami transfer was slated to play a significant role at linebacker for the Utes in 2014. However, Paul suffered a broken foot in April and is expected to miss at least five months. If Paul returns to full strength in time for the season opener, he should be able to regain a spot in Utah’s starting 11 on defense.
John Ross, WR, Washington
With Kasen Williams returning from a leg injury, along with the departure of Damore’ea Stringfellow, Ross is primed for a bigger role in Washington’s offense in 2014. As a true freshman last year, he caught 16 passes for 208 yards and one score. Ross also averaged 23.2 yards per kickoff return in 2013.
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
There’s not much in the way of proven options in Arizona’s running back stable for 2014. Ka’Deem Carey left early for the NFL, and Pierre Cormier retired due to a medical condition. Wilson and fellow freshmen Zach Green and Jonathan Haden will compete for carries this fall, but Wilson – the No. 246 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – could emerge as the No. 1 back.
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting ACC statistics you need to know about in 2014:
0-0: ACC teams in BCS title game not named Florida State
Much like Ohio State and the Big Ten, the ACC sent only one team to the top of the college football mountain. Florida State is the only ACC team that played in the BCS National Championship Game during the 16-year BCS Era. The Noles played in the first three games (1998-2000), losing two and winning the 1999 title. The league went without a team securing a berth in the title game until those very same Seminoles bookended the era with an ACC championship last year. Much like the Big Ten, the ACC needs other programs to develop into national contenders around Florida State in order to keep up with the best leagues in the nation (ahem, the SEC). As a whole, the ACC went 5-13 in BCS bowls with two of those wins coming last year.
41-9: Bobby Petrino at Louisville
As a college head coach, there can be no doubting Bobby Petrino’s ability to win games on the field. In four full seasons as the Cardinals' head coach from 2003-06, Petrino won 41 games, including two seasons with at least 11 wins and the school's first BCS bowl berth and victory (Charlie Strong beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl two years ago in the only other BCS appearance by Louisville). The two highest finishes for the Cards in school history are No. 6 in the final AP poll in 2004 and '06. His off-the-field decisions and abrasive personality aside, the bottom line is Petrino wins games and he is likely to make Louisville the best new addition to the league in very short order.
42.3: Avg. margin of victory for Florida State
In 13 regular season games, the Florida State Seminoles not only defeated, but obliterated their opponents by an average score of 42.3 points. Jimbo Fisher's squad outscored its 13 regular season opponents 689-139 for an average margin of victory of more than six touchdowns per game. Again, that's more than six touchdowns per game. Even with the tightly-played, three-point win over Auburn in the BCS national title game, Florida State still crushed all 14 opponents last year by an average of 39.5 points per game.
73.4: Yards/game Duke was outgained in ACC play
Despite posting the best season in school history, winning the Coastal Division and finishing 6-2 in the regular season, the Duke Blue Devils were still statistically much worse than their opponents. In nine ACC games, Duke produced just 377.7 yards per game of offense while allowing 451.0 yards per game on defense. This means the Blue Devils were outgained by a per game average of 73.4 yards. It’s hard to repeat when the opposition is dramatically out-producing the offense on a regular basis in a league with so much balance.
19: Georgia Tech seasons without a losing ACC record
The Yellow Jackets went 1-10 overall and 0-8 in ACC play in 1994 under Bill Lewis. It was his last year in Atlanta and it marked the last time Georgia Tech posted a losing record in ACC play. Since then George O’Leary (7 years), Chan Gailey (6) and Paul Johnson (6) have each kept Tech from a losing ACC record. Johnson has been to a bowl game in all six of his season in charge of the Ramblin’ Wreck.
96.8: Yards rushing per game after Duke Johnson got hurt
Miami averaged 214.7 yards rushing per game through the first seven games of last season. The Canes were 7-0 and had scored 19 rushing touchdowns behind the elite play of star tailback Duke Johnson. When Johnson got hurt in the blowout loss to Florida State, the Canes rushing attack went into the tank. Over the last six games of the year, Miami rushed for just 96.8 yards per game, scored six total rushing touchdowns and lost four times. On a team with major quarterback issues, a healthy Johnson is a must if Miami is going to contend in the wide open Coastal Division.
5: Miami losses/year since joining the ACC
Speaking of the Hurricanes moving from the Big East to the ACC, here are some staggering numbers to consider about The U. Miami went 46-4 in the four years prior to joining the ACC and 96-25 in the 10 years prior to landing in their new home. In the 10 years since joining the ACC, Miami is 75-50 and has lost an average of five games per season. By comparison, Miami lost five games in a season just once (1997) between 1985 and 2003. The Canes have yet to post a 10-win season since joining the league after posting seven such seasons in 13 years as a member of the Big East.
8.3: Yards to go on third down by Virginia Tech opponents
No one in the nation got their opponents into tougher third down situations than the Hokies last fall. Virginia Tech’s opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down in 2013, the highest average in the nation. The defense in Blacksburg should once again be dominant so something must be done about an offense that ranked 102nd in the nation a year ago at only 356.0 yards per game if Tech wants to win the Coastal.
17.2%: Clemson’s total returning offense
Clemson’s offense produced 6,611 total yards a year ago, ranking ninth in the nation at 508.5 yards per game. With a departing quarterback, running back and two star wide receivers, the Tigers lose 82.8 percent of their total offensive production from 2013. Cole Stoudt (471 yards of total offense), Zac Brooks (246), D.J. Howard (213) and C.J. Davidson (155) are the only four returning players on the team with more than 100 yards of total offense to their name a year ago. Everyone believes that Chad Morris will have the Clemson offense humming again in ’14 at some point, but losing 5,471 yards of total offense off any roster is tough to overcome.
1997: Last time North Carolina lost fewer than 3 ACC games
In Mack Brown’s final season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels won 11 games, went 7-1 in the ACC and finished sixth in the AP poll — the second-highest finish in school history to only the 1948 North Carolina squad that finished third. Since then, North Carolina has finished above .500 in the ACC only four times (1998, 2001, '04, '12) and has yet to post fewer than three losses in any season. Larry Fedora is the fifth coach to lead the Tar Heels program since Brown left for Texas and he is looking to end a season in Chapel Hill ranked for the first time since ’97.
27: Total TDs scored by Virginia in 2013
Virginia was 110th in scoring offense last year at just 19.8 points per game but managed an ACC-low 27 total touchdowns scored. Among all Big 5 schools, only Kansas (22) and Purdue (23) reached the end zone fewer times than Virginia. The Cavaliers were 113th nationally in total touchdowns scored and both Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs scored more touchdowns individually (31) than the Wahoos did as an entire football team. Mike London could use an offensive spark in 2014.
As Steve Sarkisian packed up his boxes in Seattle to take the USC job, the former Washington coach closed the door on another part of his life — his 30s.
Sarkisian attained one of the best positions in college football before his 40th birthday, but just barely. Sarkisian turned 40 three months after taking the USC job, taking him off our annual list of college football coaches under the age of 40.
Even without Sarkisian, this year’s list still features some notable names. Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, despite a rocky finish to last season, claims our top spot for the final time before he joins Sark in the 40-and-up club.
Who will be poised to be the top coach under 40 next season? Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech would be a good candidate after his stock rose after one season as a head coach. A number of assistant coaches are also worth watching this season and as their careers progress in the coming years.
*ages are as of Sept. 1, 2014.
1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern head coach
Buzz: The 2013 season ended in a tailspin as the Wildcats lost seven in a row starting with a fourth-quarter collapse against Ohio State. That’s not going to take Fitzgerald off this list in his final year of eligibility before hitting the big 4-0. The 5-7 mark in 2013 was an aberration. Just a year earlier, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a 10-3 season, a top-20 finish and the Wildcats’ first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. With its recruiting limitations, Northwestern rarely will contend for the Big Ten title, but Fitz has the formula for reaching bowl games at Northwestern down to a science.
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Buzz: Kingsbury’s first team may never have been as good as its 7-0 start suggested. Texas Tech lost five in a row to close the regular season before a 37-23 win over Pac-12 South champion Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Considering the revolving door at quarterback, Kingsbury had a solid debut as a head coach. As one of the youngest coaches in the FBS, Kingsbury brings the cool factor to Lubbock, but also one of the nation’s most productive offenses. Texas Tech led the nation in plays per game last season (87.3).
3. Willie Taggart, USF head coach
Buzz: Taggart’s record in his first season at USF was ugly at 2-10. Until further notice, Taggart should get the benefit of the doubt. He inherited a team short on talent, especially on offense. Still, USF found a way to beat Cincinnati in October and allowed 4.7 yards per play in the last four games. There's reason to believe he'll get USF turned around. Taggart also started 2-10 at Western Kentucky before building the Hilltoppers into a viable FBS program.
4. Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach
Buzz: In two seasons under Campbell, Toledo continues to be one of the MAC’s top programs and a regular fixture in those mid-week shootouts in November. Even though Toledo missed a bowl game last season, the Rockets finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the MAC. Toledo also has averaged better than six yards per play in four of five seasons with Campbell has offensive coordinator or head coach.
5. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
Buzz: With how much Smart’s name has been in the rumor mill, it may be tough to believe he’s still in the under-40 crowd. That’s what happens when you go from the playing field to a full-time gig for Nick Saban in six years. Smart has spent all but one season of the last decade working for Saban — the exception being one year as running backs coach at his alma mater Georgia. Saban gets his share of the credit for the defense, but he’s also made Smart the second-highest paid assistant in the country. That has to count for something.
6. Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach
Buzz: The record is not impressive at 7-17 in two seasons at Memphis, but it's a long way from where the Tigers were. Indeed, the Tigers have had a long climb from the 5-31 mark the three seasons before Fuente arrived. The Tigers are becoming more competitive, especially on defense. Memphis has lost six one-score games the last two seasons, including a 24-17 loss to Fiesta Bowl winner UCF.
7. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
Buzz: Harsin became the third one-and-done head coach at Arkansas State, joining Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn with a short-lived tenure in Jonesboro. Programs are gobbling up Arkansas State coaches with good reason. Arkansas State earned a share of the Sun Belt title under Harsin to reach a third consecutive bowl game. Harsin returns to Boise State where the Broncos went 84-8 when he was an assistant under Chris Petersen.
8. Justin Wilcox, USC defensive coordinator
Buzz: Wilcox helped remake the Washington defense under Steve Sarkisian the last two seasons. The Huskies improved from 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per play the year before Wilcox arrived to tied for third last season. For the first time since he was at Boise State, Wilcox won’t be starting from scratch at a new job. USC returns eight defensive starters — surely a different situation than what Wilcox inherited at his last two stops at Washington and Tennessee.
9. Tom Herman, Ohio State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Even though Urban Meyer remains a spread option guru, his offensive coordinator merits attention. Herman has coached an offense that has gone 24-2 the last two seasons, despite an injury to Braxton Miller and a work-in-progress offensive line. Before that, Herman was offensive coordinator for the Iowa State team that upset Oklahoma State’s BCS championship game bid in 2011 and a Rice team that won 10 games. As a bonus, he’s a former Mensa member.
10. Scott Frost, Oregon offensive coordinator
Buzz: Frost is only a year into his job as offensive coordinator, but this post at Oregon has a pretty good track record for head coaches, including Jeff Tedford, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. Scott doesn’t have as long a coaching resume as some of the names on this list, partly because he was in the NFL until 2003. He’s made up for it as an assistant coach in four BCS games.
11. Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Todd Graham is usually associated with the offensive side of the ball even though he has a defensive background. That’s because Graham has hired Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris to run his offense. Norvell has been at the position ever since Graham went to Pittsburgh.
12. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin defensive coordinator
Buzz: Aranda is finally getting the attention he deserves now that he’s in the Big Ten. Aranda installed a 3-4 defense at Wisconsin last season as the Badgers finished second in the league in rush defense and third in total defense. Before Wisconsin, Aranda led big play-happy defenses at Utah State and Hawaii.
13. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn offensive coordinator
Buzz: Gus Malzahn received plenty of credit for Auburn’s offenses in 2013 and 2010, but it would be tough to find anyone more steeped in Malzahn’s hurry-up no-huddle than Lashlee. The 30-year-old played for Malzahn at Springdale (Ark.) and worked with him at Arkansas, Arkansas State and now Auburn.
14. D.J. Durkin, Florida defensive coordinator
Buzz: Florida’s struggles might not cut into Durkin’s career goals. He’s a standout defensive coordinator and one of the Gators’ top recruiters. His resume also goes back to Bowling Green with Urban Meyer.
15. Lincoln Riley, East Carolina offensive coordinator
Buzz: Perhaps the lowest-profile name on this list, Riley may be a target for an offensive coordinator for a major program in short order. His four seasons have produced the top four passing seasons in school history. He started his career as Texas Tech’s wide receivers coach under Mike Leach, a job that has proven to put assistants on the fast track.
Thirty years ago, everything lined up just right for NASCAR.
The 1984 Fourth of July weekend witnessed the sport’s all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty, score his milestone 200th win. He did so at stock car racing’s cathedral, Daytona International Speedway in a near photo finish — and as if it needed a kicker, with the President of the United States in attendance.
Who could have foreseen then that it would be three decades before Petty’s No. 43 would once again grace Daytona’s famed victory circle — a location it had visited nine times prior?
History shows that was indeed the case, as on Sunday, 30 years after Petty’s final NASCAR victory, Aric Almirola drove the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 machine to his first Cup Series win in the rain-delayed and rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at the “World Center of Speed.”
In all honesty, though, Petty’s 1984 triumph and Almirola’s 2014 victory have little in common. Yes, the stylized number survives, but little else remains. In ’84, Petty drove a Pontiac; today, Almirola sports a Ford. The iconic STP logo and paint scheme adorned Petty’s ride; Almirola was cloaked in a fitting Air Force blue hue.
Maybe the most glaring difference lies in the team itself: Petty didn’t win No. 200 under the Petty Enterprises banner; that season, he took his number and sponsor to a team fielded by Mike Curb before returning in 1986 to Level Cross, N.C. Almirola didn’t hang one for Petty Enterprises, either. The winningest organization in NASCAR history was no more following the 2008 season when it evolved, thanks to a series of mergers and investors, into what is known today as Richard Petty Motorsports. “The King” has his minority stake in the operation — and is still as passionate about the sport as ever, at the track nearly every weekend — but is largely a figurehead for the team.
Unlike that July Fourth weekend 30 years ago, nothing could go right for NASCAR at Daytona this year. It battled sporadic rain from the moment the circus hit the beach on Thursday. That rain forced the postponement, cancellation and delay of nearly every planned event — from practice and qualifying sessions to the Cup race itself.
Even when the green flag dropped, it seemed NASCAR could not catch a break. A grinding 16-car wreck eliminated many heavy hitters just prior to the 20-lap mark. Another, on lap 99, thinned the field further. By the time the race was mercifully red-flagged for rain on lap 112, 36 of the 43 cars had officially been involved in one (or both) of the melees.
But, now as then, one constant rose above all else on these two very different weekends: The silhouette of NASCAR, Richard Petty — complete with Charlie 1 Horse, wrap-around shades and tea-cup-sized belt buckle — gave the weekend its appropriate send-off. In 1984, he himself reached an unreachable number. In 2014, his driver, Almirola, achieved the life-long goal he’d set forth: to win at NASCAR’s highest level.
And in the process, he drove the sport’s most famous car number onto the sport’s most hallowed slab of real estate: Daytona’s Victory Lane.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place to get my first win,” Almirola said following a soggy victory celebration. “Of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona because I grew up two hours away. I’ve sat in these grandstands — the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400s. As a young kid, coming over here and watching, (I) dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack.
“Not only have I done that, I’ve went to Victory Lane. I’m very appreciative of that — I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend. It’s 30 years to the weekend that ‘The King’ won his 200th race with the president here. That’s really special.”
“Well, 30 years ago is history and today is today,” Petty said. “So to be able to win the race, win it for the Air Force, Fourth of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.”
With that in mind, maybe this year’s long, soggy July Fourth weekend lined up better for NASCAR than originally thought.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.Google
For years, Aric Almirola’s name in the record books has come with a weird asterisk. In 2007 at Milwaukee, he was just a part-time Nationwide (then Busch) Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing trying to make a name for himself. Pegged as a backup for Denny Hamlin, Almirola was pressed into a start when the Cup driver’s helicopter ran late. Although running from the pole and dominating early, JGR chose to replace Almirola once Hamlin arrived. Hamlin slid in and rode on to an easy victory.
Almirola, who “earned” the trophy by starting the car has not won in the series since, and was 0-for-124 to begin his Sprint Cup career. So for many, he remains a relative unknown despite driving one of the most iconic cars in all of motorsports, the No. 43 formerly driven by “The King” Richard Petty. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, his low-key personality matches a soft track record: four career top-5 Cup finishes and just 15 career top 10s entering Sunday.
Now that stat line moves up just a tick after a “wild card” victory at Daytona made him an unlikely Chase candidate. How did it happen? Multiple red flags, two crashes totaling 35 cars in a race ultimately shortened by rain after ending nearly 20 hours after its original Saturday evening start time. Almirola’s car was fast, yes, but the No. 43 earned checkers more through a game of Survivor than anything else.
It’s a good moment for a good man, but somehow, the storybook sounds fitting. Maybe Almirola’s role in this sport is simply to be the man holding the asterisk.
“Through the Gears” we go after the last restrictor plate race of the regular season …
FIRST GEAR: The long and winding road for Richard Petty Motorsports
Almirola’s victory shouldn’t be completely understated; his car was fast, leading 14 laps on Sunday and the Richard Petty Motorsports program has been improving. The two-car operation, which likely earned its first Chase bid in five years, produced a storybook ending 30 years after Petty himself won his 200th and final Cup race at Daytona.
“Man, of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona because I grew up two hours away,” said Almirola, a Tampa native. “I've sat in these grandstands and watched the Daytona 500. I've watched the Firecracker 400s. Me and my family have loaded up every Christmas night after we'd eat Christmas dinner and we'd drive over here and get ready for Kart Week from the time I was eight years old until I was probably 16. That's what everybody always talked about, and as a young kid, coming over here and watching — (I) just dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level.”
The No. 43 car, earning its first victory since 1999 (John Andretti, Martinsville) made co-owner Petty proud, although he had already left the racetrack — he had to enjoy the win from home in North Carolina and phoned in for the post-race presser. His presence is important, but it’s new crew chief Trent Owens who came over from the Nationwide Series this season that’s worked wonders in getting a young driver and a growing team on the same page. Almirola, at just 29 years of age, has plenty of time to work out the kinks if they get it together. Congratulations came from all sides, including former Nationwide Series owner and current Cup rival Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Will RPM’s playoff bid result in a first-round exit? Most likely. But by simply making the field, this rare middle-class operation is taking a step in the right direction while keeping itself relevant for all nine months.
“Our sponsors, U.S. Air Force and Smithfield Foods and all the brands that they have and STP and GoBowling.com, all those people put in a lot of money to sponsor our race car,” Almirola added. “To be able to go and race for a championship and get that added exposure … everybody knows that sits in here, if you're not in the Chase during those 10 weeks, you don't even get talked about unless you're winning a race.”
SECOND GEAR: The plate race that would never end
Plate racing, for everyone connected to NASCAR, is an acquired taste. There is no neutrality, whether you’re a fan, driver or crewman; those four-holed squares dole out some high-level emotions of love and hate. On one side, three-wide, white-knuckle action for three hours produces some of the closest competition in any racing series you’ll ever see. Photo finishes are the norm, not the exception.
But the other side, shown through a myriad of rain delays, can make everyone want to tear their hair out. Only a half-dozen cars avoided some type of wreck Sunday, with two “Big Ones” tearing up the field and turning tempers high. The first incident, started among Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, left several heavy hitters inside the garage and smoke steaming out of Stewart’s ears.
“I guess is was just Stenhouse being an idiot,” he said. “It didn’t make much sense when we’re coming to the (competition) caution (on lap 20). We’re like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution and he does something stupid. It tore up a lot of people’s cars and a lot of people’s days.”
But others were blaming plate racing, either on camera, on the radio or in private once most media backed off. The drum beat louder after the second wreck, involving 26 cars and turning Kyle Busch upside down. Thankfully, all involved were OK but the damage for race teams will easily top seven figures.
“Just felt like a slow carnival ride,” said Busch, who was an innocent victim after Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle made contact. “I guess that’s fitting for the Fourth of July weekend — but not here in Daytona.”
In some ways, that statement could apply to all parts of this restrictor plate weekend. The race, filled with stops and starts, never developed a rhythm between Mother Nature’s interference and the major incidents. Fans, only some of whom stayed the extra day, wound up witnessing one of the weirder events in recent memory.
What’s so funny about how it all played out? The Daytona 500, after its own rain delay, wound up being one of the best plate races we’ve seen in years. When it works, it definitely works. But when it doesn’t, the cries over potential driver injury, a “forced” way for 43 cars to race together in a pack and possible plate removal grow louder. Will there be rule changes? I doubt it, for now at least. But no matter what NASCAR does, what we saw on Sunday is a possible product of this style of racing. You want four-wide at the checkers? Then you’re going to get an occasional clunky, weird, Demolition Derby where nothing appears to make any sense. That’s just part of it — the controversy which, in NASCAR’s mind, generates ratings and attention.
THIRD GEAR: Sorting through the wreckage
Behind Almirola, nice runs were checked in by Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch and Casey Mears, all of whom clocked in top-5 finishes. Vickers, for obvious reasons, wanted the race to restart but after a multiple delays (plus the criticism after February’s 500 ran 12-plus hours) NASCAR made the right call. The second-place finisher will always scoff at a race called early — that’s just the natural reaction of a competitive athlete. Vickers will recover, though. He logged a solid run at the perfect time, heading to a race he won last year in Loudon, N.H., this Sunday.
But suddenly, the guy to watch is Busch, who notched a fifth straight top-15 finish that all but assures him of a place inside the top 30 in points. Stewart-Haas Racing (though Kevin Harvick has clearly shown the speed to be competitive) is suffering from normal expansion growing pains. Busch bore the brunt of that, as bad luck combined with mechanical failures has found him on a roller-coaster of a ride. Through it all, though, the No. 41 team has earned its spot in the Chase. Remember Stewart a few years ago, barely clawing his way into the postseason field before turning it on behind the No. 14 and charging towards a third championship? If Busch keeps running like he did Sunday, posting consistent results, he could go a bit deeper than an expected first-round exit.
FOURTH GEAR: Can a lucky break turn Dillon’s season around?
NASCAR’s 2014 rookie battle has devolved into a story about one driver only: Kyle Larson. The other six candidates, in various stages of development, have all been a step or more behind since Austin Dillon snared the pole and a ninth-place effort in February’s Daytona 500. For Dillon, it’s been a disappointing effort, driving a car that was top 5 last year and collecting no other top-10 finishes entering Daytona’s July race.
But one thing you can say about Dillon is that he’s consistent, as he’s completing all but 11 laps on the year. That means a fifth-place effort, after dodging all the wrecks Sunday, left him 13th in points and his Chase hopes alive. That’s an ace card that rival Larson, whose season has been a bit of a roller coaster as well, simply does not have at the moment. In fact, all three cars at Richard Childress Racing (Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman) would make the Chase if the season ended today.
It’s a great boost for Dillon going forward into Loudon and then the final off week knowing that despite a sub-par effort, his team is still in it. The last half of the season, when rookies visit tracks for a second time, is often when we see the most improvement from freshmen; can Dillon step up and make a serious drive for the Chase?
Kudos to Michael McDowell, whose seventh was a career best for not only him but small-time Leavine Family Racing. The No. 95, which is running a limited schedule this season, has been notably improved from recent years. … Terry Labonte, who ran 11th, also deserves credit, running his second-to-last race in the Cup Series for the No. 32 Go FAS Racing team. The veteran is expected to retire following one final plate start, at Talladega in October. … David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson and Landon Cassill were one of the most unlikely trios to start at the front in NASCAR history, put there after a wild, rain-shortened qualifying session in which the underdogs used “suck-up” drafts to post higher speeds. Running up front early, their presence increased aggression at the front of the field as they raced with drivers not used to them being there. Combining to lead 14 laps amongst themselves, each should be commended for his effort, but plate racing is a cruel mistress; wrecks left them all outside the top 30 by race’s end.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 7:
• Judging from her Instagram account, Amanda Dufner enjoyed her Fourth of July weekend.
• Here's Johnny Football appearing to roll up a $20 bill in a Vegas restroom. A rolled-up $20 no doubt has many uses. I just can't think of them.
• King James' agent is giving Cavs fans hope that LBJ could be lured back to Cleveland. If it doesn't happen now, that's just cruel. If it does happen, we need to credit this Ohio cupcake shop with breaking the news on Twitter.
• We saw some vintage Federer at Wimbledon. Guy's still the GOAT.
• Got 16 seconds? Watch Ronda Rousey destroy Alexis Davis.
• Bryce Harper learned the hard way that if you're going to try to break your bat over your knee, you better succeed, or you look stupid and get linked to.
• Don Draper makes his pitch to LeBron to come back to Cleveland.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
If there ever was any doubt about the importance of the quarterback on an NFL team, look no further than the five Super Bowl MVPs among the top 10 at the position. And that group doesn’t include Russell Wilson, who led the Seahawks to the world title this past season, just his second in the league. Don’t overlook the NFC North either, as three of its four signal-callers crack Ourlads’ top 10.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Quarterbacks
1. Peyton Manning, Denver
The reigning NFL MVP threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns with the second-highest passer rating (115.1) in the league. His arm strength is not what it has been in the past, but his anticipation and ability to get out of a bad play are unparalleled.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Was derailed for seven games with a broken collarbone but came back to lead the Packers on a late run for the division title. Continues with his outstanding accuracy and decision-making. Good timing and touch on passes. Has vision, feel and natural running ability.
3. Tom Brady, New England
The consummate pro overcame a leaky line, a young receiving corps and a depleted stable of tight ends to play in the AFC Championship Game. Age has not slowed his quick release and accuracy. Poised and confident.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans
Turned 35 in January, but is coming off a year in which he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 39 touchdowns and won a road playoff game. Slides away from the rush and throws well on the move. Has outstanding touch and timing to keep receivers on their routes.
5. Philip Rivers, San Diego
Cut down on his interceptions while maintaining his gunslinger style and passed for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2013. Plays with great patience, intelligence and confidence. A good improviser.
6. Russell Wilson, Seattle
Has now officially answered all of the questions about his height, arm strength and the ability to win from the pocket. Threw for more than 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in his Super Bowl-winning season.
7. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
Cut down on interceptions and continued to grow in his second season. He proved that he could win the game in the pocket but is mobile and athletic enough to avoid a rush to extend a play.
8. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Is 32 years old and had a solid season in which he played all 16 games for the first time since 2008. He almost pulled out a playoff berth with a late-season run. A playmaker who can extend a play and pressure the defense.
9. Jay Cutler, Chicago
Battled injury and still passed for 2,621 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. A competitive leader who can take a hit and throw under duress. Adjusts his throws well under pressure.
10. Matthew Stafford, Lions
Completed 2013 with 4,650 yards passing with 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He is physically gifted with excellent arm strength. A streaky passer who is more on than off.
11. Tony Romo, Dallas
12. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
13. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
14. Cam Newton, Carolina
15. Nick Foles, Philadelphia
16. Sam Bradford, St. Louis
17. Alex Smith, Kansas City
18. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
19. Jake Locker, Tennessee
20. Eli Manning, NY Giants
21. Josh McCown, Tampa Bay
22. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
23. Carson Palmer, Arizona
24. Robert Griffin III, Washington
25. Michael Vick, NY Jets
26. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
27. Geno Smith, NY Jets
28. Matt Cassel, Minnesota
29. EJ Manuel, Buffalo
30. Matt Schaub, Oakland
It has been a rapid rise for Jeremy Pruitt from high school assistant coach to anointed savior of a major college football program.
Eight years ago, he was a defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High School. Five years ago, he was a non-coaching quality control assistant at Alabama. As late as last year, few fans of college football knew who he was.
But when Pruitt walked into a team meeting at Georgia in January, minutes after being hired as defensive coordinator, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for his credentials, though by then many players were aware of them. It was more because he represented a new start, something Georgia’s defense desperately needed.
“A lot of guys probably needed a fresh start,” senior cornerback Damian Swann says.
Before getting into why Pruitt is seen as the right guy at Georgia, it’s important to know the state of the defense — both playing-wise and emotionally — after last season.
Todd Grantham had his good moments in four years as defensive coordinator, especially the first two. He brought a much-needed fire to the defense, which was one of the best in the nation in 2011. But the unit struggled the following season, which was a surprise given all its talent, and last year it struggled even more, crippled by youth and inexperience.
After the regular season, head coach Mark Richt said Grantham would be retained, citing the need for coaching stability, and Grantham said he thought “the arrow was up” on his defense, due to returning all but one starter. But when Louisville came calling in January with a lucrative offer to Grantham, Richt and Georgia didn’t match it.
There was a sense around Georgia — fans and media, and some within the program — that Grantham’s act had worn thin. His self-assured attitude and fiery demeanor were great when the defense was doing well, especially in 2011. But when the unit struggled, Grantham rarely took personal blame. And given his NFL background, Grantham was also reluctant to simplify his scheme or go deep into his bench.
When Grantham bolted, Richt’s phone started lighting up, with plenty of coaches eager to get involved in the search. But the most important phone call was taking place between Pruitt and Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who were roommates at Alabama and remained close friends.
Pruitt has only been a college defensive coordinator one year. But it was a very good year: Florida State ranked first nationally in scoring defense, third in yards allowed, and, oh by the way, won the national championship. He also helped win two national titles as Alabama’s secondary coach.
Friend lobbied Pruitt to join him in Athens. Richt secured the promise of a big raise. And within 48 hours, Pruitt was in.
“If you follow this business, there’s highs and lows everywhere,” Pruitt says. “For the seven years prior to this year the SEC has won national championships and FSU’s on top right now, so there’s never an easy time to leave a place, especially a place where you have such good friends and the place that gave you an opportunity. But the opportunity to come to the University of Georgia and the opportunity to work with Coach Richt — well, there’s a lot of folks who would like to be sitting in this chair today.”
But Georgia players, without ripping into their former coach, made it clear during the spring that there was more benefit to them.
“It’s a fresh start. But it feels like it’s a different vibe around here,” junior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins says. “Guys want to be holding everyone else accountable for something. We’re not letting guys get away with the small stuff, and the coaches certainly aren’t either. They’re getting on us. I feel like we’re doing a lot of the small things now. We’re doing the technique work. … The coaches really just want to see us succeed. They’re always available for us. They’re just going the extra mile, compared to last year.”
Georgia was eighth in the SEC in total defense last year, yielding 375.5 yards per game, the most of the Richt era.
The pass defense was mostly at fault: It yielded 227.4 yards per game, ninth in the SEC. (Georgia’s run defense was a respectable sixth in the league, and actually improved over 2012.)
Georgia also didn’t force turnovers, getting just 15 in 13 games, the second-worst rate in the conference.
Grantham-to-Pruitt doesn’t actually mean a sea change in defensive philosophy: Both run the 3-4 as a base defense, and both come from the Nick Saban coaching tree.
But Pruitt began making smaller changes in the spring:
• He asked players to drop weight, in order to form a lighter and quicker defense, one with speed more suited to defend no-huddle offenses. (Such as Clemson, the season-opening opponent.) Grantham preferred big, physical nose guards and even bigger defensive backs.
• Pruitt vowed to sub more, and use different packages. Grantham rarely employed a dime package last year.
• And perhaps most important, Pruitt simplified the defensive playbook. Last season, Georgia’s young players were clearly confused on the field.
“It’s a lot more easy,” senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said this spring.
Pruitt came up through the ranks as a high school coach, so it’s not surprising he would go that way. Teaching technique and fundamentals is central to his philosophy.
“There are a lot of details to it that I think get overlooked, and I think with my background in high school you’re sitting there teaching junior high kids about the fundamentals of how to play the game and how to get in a stance,” Pruitt says. “That’s how I’ll coach, and that’s my approach, so I think when you put emphasis on turnovers, hopefully you get the results.”
Pruitt owns three national championship rings, but he doesn’t wear them. He says he has them in a safe deposit box and doesn’t touch them.
But Pruitt didn’t have to wear the rings for his new players to be aware of them.
“He’s a smart guy. He’s got rings for a reason,” sophomore cornerback J.J. Green says.
“So his defense is gonna work.”
On Signing Day, a fan tried to bait Richt into saying something about Grantham, asking if Richt would thank Bobby Petrino for hiring Grantham away. The Georgia coach declined to answer the question, but as he walked away decided to say something.
“I’ll say this,” Richt said, looking at no one in particular, “I’m as excited and as energized as I’ve been in a long time. This whole thing has turned out to be quite a good thing for Georgia.”
Written by Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
It’s a cliché for a reason and it’s survived more than 2,000 years for a reason.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — which some say first originated in 3rd century B.C. — applies to most subjective arguments hundreds of years later. Especially, when it comes to ranking things in the college football world.
Ranking past teams, current coaches, logos, uniforms and pretty much anything else that can be bantered about on a message board is, by definition, subjective. Part of what makes college football great (in my opinion) is a vibrant college campus on Saturdays in the fall. Nowhere else in sports is the pageantry, passion and connectivity of a sports team and its fans more obvious than at a great college football game.
Colorful tailgating with eclectic menus, picturesque college towns, massive ear-shattering crowds, unique and historic traditions all make college football games special. And varied.
Fans can float to a game in Seattle or Knoxville, eat anything under the sun in Baton Rouge, watch an entire team touch a small stone before sprinting down a hill in Clemson and so much more.
Athlon has polled 15 experts in an effort to rank the best college football stadiums and game day atmospheres in the nation. Some, like me, value the tailgating experience, the surrounding area and the intimidation factor of the crowd. Others value the traditions steeped in decades of experience. While others only care about home-field advantage.
There is no right or wrong answer. Athlon tabulated the ballots, giving each No. 1 vote 10 points all the way to one point for a No. 10 vote. Here is what we learned:
Tim Brando, SiriusXM/Fox Sports
Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports
Dave Revsine, Big Ten Network
Stewart Mandel, Fox Sports
Dan Rubenstein, SB Nation
Bryan Fischer, NFL.com
Travis Haney, ESPN
Zac Ellis, Sports Illustrated
Mike Huguenin, NFL.com
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports/SiriusXM
|1. Tiger Stadium||120||13|
|2. Ohio Stadium||105||15|
|3. Autzen Stadium||64||12|
|4. Kyle Field||61||9|
|5. Bryant-Denny Stadium||48||7|
|6. Notre Dame Stadium||47||9|
|7. Neyland Stadium||43||6|
|8. Sanford Stadium||42||12|
|9. Husky Stadium||36||7|
|10. Beaver Stadium||31||7|
ORV: UCLA (30), Auburn (30), Clemson (30), Florida (28), Michigan (28), Wisconsin (23), Army (19), Nebraska (13), USC (11), Oklahoma (5), Virginia Tech (4), Texas (3), Air Force (2), BYU (1), South Carolina (1), Stanford (1)
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What we learned:
• LSU’s Tiger Stadium, which is going through a major upgrade this offseason, was on all but two ballots and ran away with top billing. Death Valley received seven first-place votes, the most of any team in the nation by a wide margin. Notre Dame Stadium and Neyland Stadium were the only other buildings to receive more than one first-place vote. Tiger Stadium was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on 11 of the 15 ballots.
• Ohio Stadium, affectionately known as The Horseshoe, was the only stadium to be on every single ballot. The Buckeyes' home turf was a clear No. 2 and was the only building even close to LSU. It only got one first-place vote from the panel but was no lower than seventh on any ballot.
• Kyle Field in College Station could easily become the best place to watch a college football game in the very near future. The Aggies' home venue finished fourth, well behind OSU and LSU and just behind Oregon, but with new renovations underway to make it one of the largest buildings in the nation, Texas A&M could easily jump to the top of this list. It was a fantastic place to see a game well before TAMU joined the SEC or upgraded the building.
• Oregon and Washington have underrated venues among most fans but these media experts don’t think so. Both the Ducks' and Huskies' fabulous, high-tech digs landed in the top 10 among experts, ranking third and ninth nationally. Both are extremely scenic and both have produced big winners in the past. Oregon finishing third in the overall rankings might be the biggest surprise of the voting.
• S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C. People are tired of hearing it but part of the reason the SEC is the best conference in football is the venues. Five of the top 10 and seven of the top 13 hail from the SEC while eight total stadiums received at least one vote. Interestingly enough, Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was on less than half of the ballots but was no lower than fifth, while Georgia’s Sanford Stadium was on 12 ballots but was higher than seventh only twice. Florida, South Carolina and Auburn also received votes.
• Small(er) stadiums can be charming for a variety of a reasons and Army’s Michie Stadium is a perfect example. It only seats 38,000 people but it landed on three ballots and got one first-place vote for reasons mostly other than football. Overlooking the Hudson River, there are few sights in college football like the West Point cadets marching into a football game on a fall Saturday.
• Seven different buildings got a first-place vote. LSU (7), Tennessee (2) and Notre Dame (2) got the majority of the votes but The Rose Bowl, Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ohio Stadium in Columbus and Michie each got one first-place vote as well.
• Where is the ACC? Clemson was voted as the top choice to catch a game in the ACC but was tied for 11th overall nationally. Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium was the only other ACC venue to receive a vote (21st).
• Nebraska and Oklahoma seem to be the most "underrated" buildings to receive a vote but there are some names I was surprised not to see in the voting. The buildings I was most surprised to see go without a single vote: Doak Campbell (Florida State), Razorback Stadium (Arkansas) and Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium (Ole Miss).
College football’s postseason format has changed significantly last year, with 2014 the first season of a four-team playoff.
As a result of the new playoff format, the changes in the postseason extended to the bowl games.
Whether it was a change in date or conference affiliation, nearly every bowl game was impacted by the new format.
While there will be an adjustment period on remembering all of the new tie-ins and bowl affiliations, the bowl lineup for 2014 and beyond has improved.
Counting the three playoff games, there will be 39 bowl games for 2014. The postseason is set to start on Dec. 20, with five games scheduled to take place, starting with the New Orleans Bowl between the Sun Belt and Mountain West.
Listen to the latest Athlon Sports' Cover 2 College Football Podcast:
Related Content: Everything You Need to Know About the College Football Playoff
Conference Predictions: ACC | American | Big 12 | Big Ten | C-USA | MAC | MW | Pac-12 | SEC | Sun Belt
College Football's 2014 Bowl Projections
Bowl Date Tie-In Projection New Orleans
Dec. 20 Sun Belt vs.
UL Lafayette vs.
New Mexico Dec. 20 C-USA vs.
North Texas vs.
San Diego State
Las Vegas Dec. 20 Mountain West
vs. Pac-12 No. 6
Famous Idaho Potato Dec. 20 MAC vs.
Ball State vs.
Camellia Dec. 20 MAC vs.
Arkansas State vs.
Miami Beach Dec. 23 American vs.
Boca Raton Dec. 23 C-USA vs.
Poinsettia Dec. 23 Mountain West vs.
Fresno State vs.
Bahamas Dec. 24 C-USA vs.
Hawaii Dec. 24 C-USA vs.
Colorado State vs.
Heart of Dallas Dec. 26 Big Ten vs.
Bitcoin St. Petersburg Dec. 26 ACC No. 10 vs.
Georgia Tech vs.
Military Dec. 27 ACC No. 7-9 vs.
Sun Dec. 27 ACC No. 3-6 vs.
Pac-12 No. 5
Pinstripe Dec. 27 ACC No. 3-6 vs.
Big Ten No. 5-7
Independence Dec. 27 ACC No. 7-9 vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Holiday Dec. 27 Big Ten No. 2-4 vs.
Pac-12 No. 3
Liberty Dec. 29 Big 12 No. 5 vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Oklahoma State vs.
Russell Athletic Dec. 29 ACC No. 2 vs.
Big 12 No. 3
Notre Dame vs.
Texas Dec. 29 Big 12 No. 4 vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Texas A&M vs.
Detroit Dec. 30 ACC No. 7-9 vs.
Belk Dec. 30 ACC No. 3-6 vs.
SEC No. 3-8
San Francisco Dec. 30 Big Ten No. 5-7 vs.
Pac-12 No. 4
Arizona State vs.
Music City Dec. 30 ACC/Big Ten vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Capital One Jan. 1 SEC No. 2 vs
Ohio State vs.
Outback Jan. 1 Big Ten No. 2-4 vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Armed Forces Jan. 2 American/Army vs.
Big 12 No. 7
TaxSlayer Jan. 2 ACC/Big Ten vs.
SEC No. 3-8
Virginia Tech vs.
Alamo Jan. 2 Big 12 No. 2 vs.
Pac-12 No. 2
Cactus Jan. 2 Big 12 No. 6 vs.
Pac-12 No. 7
Texas Tech vs.
Birmingham Jan. 3 American vs.
SEC No. 9
GoDaddy Jan. 4 MAC vs.
Bowling Green vs.
Related Content: Everything You Need to Know About the College Football Playoff
New Year's Bowls
Chick-fil-A Peach Dec. 31 At-large vs.
Fiesta Dec. 31 At-large vs.
Orange Dec. 31 ACC No. 1 vs.
Cotton Jan. 1 At-large vs.
Michigan State vs.
College Football Playoff
Rose Jan. 1 Playoff Semifinal Alabama vs.
Sugar Jan. 1 Playoff Semifinal Florida State vs.
CFB Championship Jan. 12 Semifinal Winner vs.
Florida State over
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Big Ten statistics you need to know about in 2014:
0-0: Big Ten teams in the BCS title game not named Ohio State
Nebraska's 2001 national championship game appearance doesn't count for the Big Ten (although, the Big Ten would probably be fine with the Big 12 keeping that one). So other than Ohio State's BCS win in 2002 and losses in 2006 and '07, no other Big Ten team made a showing in the BCS National Championship Game. Some compare conferences by overall depth, focusing on the top of the standings, be it quantity or quality. But at the end of the year, only one conference can be called a champion and the Big Ten did it one time during the BCS' 16-year run. Five different SEC teams made 11 total national title appearances during the BCS Era. Other teams around Ohio State need to elevate themselves to national contention if the Big Ten wants to keep pace with the nation's best. Hiring coaches like James Franklin at Penn State is a great start.
$44.5 million: Projected new Big Ten payout
Recently, the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier reported that the projected payout to Big Ten schools each year from the conference will be a staggering $44.5 million in 2017-18. That's nearly double the league's current and nation-leading $25.7 million payout. Jim Delany added both Maryland and Rutgers not to improve the play on the field immediately but to grow the Big Ten's footprint into population-rich areas. He knows his league is facing stagnant population growth — by far the worst of the major five leagues — and by expanding east into talent-rich areas of the country, he hopes his league will be able to elevate both the Terps and Knights to a new level of competition.
5.4%: Population growth in the Big Ten footprint
Before moving to Fox Sports recently, Stewart Mandel reported in Sports Illustrated that the Big Ten's biggest obstacle isn't Nick Saban or the SEC but rather slowed regional population growth. The Big Ten footprint is slated to grow by just 5.4 percent in population by 2030, a number well behind the other four major conferences. The Pac-12 is projected to grow the most, projecting a whopping 28.9 percent growth by 2030. The SEC is second at a projected 25.9 percent growth. The Big 12 isn't far behind at 22.4 percent and the ACC is fourth at 18.6 percent growth. As CFBMatrix.com shows, overall population is directly tied to recruiting base as well as TV contracts. Any way the numbers are sliced, the Big Ten is lagging significantly behind the other major leagues in one of the most crucial statistical categories.
42: Wins for Michigan State in the last four years
Among Big 5 schools, only Oregon (47), Stanford (46), Alabama (46), Florida State (45), LSU (44) and Oklahoma (43) have won more games over the last four years than the Spartans. That's more wins than Clemson, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame or Auburn, to name a few, and the same number as Ohio State and South Carolina. Mark Dantonio finally broke through last fall, winning a school-record 13 games and claiming both the Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships. Replacing over half of his defensive production will be a tall order, especially with massive road showdowns in Eugene and Happy Valley looming (as well as a visit from OSU), but fans around the country shouldn't expect a significant step back from Sparty in 2014. If anything, Dantonio has proven he can plug holes quickly on both sides of the ball.
Listen to the latest Cover 2 College Football podcast:
18-8: James Franklin's record the last two years
People are obsessed with James Franklin moving from the SEC to the Big Ten and Athlon Sports might be just as guilty as anyone. Penn State made it into the preseason Top 25 and is picked to win 10 games behind the leadership of its new head coach. The detractors will point to offensive line issues in Happy Valley — a concern that is warranted — and that Franklin has yet to prove himself on the biggest of stages. However, the latter argument holds no water. Franklin led Vanderbilt to unprecedented levels of success. The Commodores had never been to three consecutive bowl games, hadn't won eight games in back-to-back seasons since 1926-27 and hadn't ever beaten Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. Franklin did all of that in Nashville during his three seasons leading Vanderbilt. Now, he comes home to The Keystone State where his charismatic persona, progressive thinking and verbal sparring matches will transform Penn State from a traditional program with elite history to a forward-thinking national powerhouse. Franklin's is a personality that the Big Ten desperately needs.
48.7%: Wisconsin's opponents winning percentage from 2013
Only two Big Ten teams will play a schedule in 2014 that posted a combined record under .500 a year ago. Wisconsin (48.7%) and Iowa (49.3%) play, statistically, the worst schedules in the Big Ten this fall as both will avoid Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State in crossover play. Using last year's win-loss records to determine overall strength of schedule has many flaws, one of which is the volatile nature of college football rosters, but there is a reason why Athlon Sports is projecting the Badgers and Hawkeyes to finish 1-2 in the Big Ten West Division. Both have extremely manageable schedules that set up very well for a run at a Big Ten title game.
6,584 and 64: Braxton Miller total yards and TDs under Urban Meyer
Few players fit into their coach's scheme better than Braxton Miller does with Urban Meyer's spread. In each of the last two seasons under Meyer, Miller has thrown for at least 2,000 yards, rushed for at least 1,000 yards, scored 64 total touchdowns and led his team to a 24-0 record in the regular season. Miller's passer rating, completion percentage and yards per carry has gone up in three consecutive seasons. For his career, Miller has accounted for 84 total touchdowns and has thrown just 17 interceptions. Should he stay healthy and continue his developmental trend, Miller has a shot to land in New York at season's end.
3.3: Yards per carry for Michigan's rushing offense
Rich Rodriguez and Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per carry on offense — good for fifth in the nation — during his final season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines' rushing proficiency has gotten worse every season since he departed. In his first year, Brady Hoke's offense averaged 5.2 yards per carry (16th nationally). That number dropped to 4.8 yards per carry in 2012 (38th nationally) and plummeted to 3.3 yards per carry a year ago. Michigan ranked 115h nationally last year in rushing average, ahead of only Purdue in the Big Ten and only a few other Big 5 teams (Virginia Tech, Washington State, Wake Forest). Hoke's top two returning rushers are Devin Gardner (2.9 ypc) and Derrick Green (3.3 ypc). Needless to say, Doug Nussmeier's first order of business is to fix the Maize and Blue rushing attack.
4: Nebraska's losses every year under Bo Pelini
How could it be any other number? Sure, Ameer Abdullah is the nation's leading returning rusher from a year ago at 130.0 yards per game, but that's boring compared to Bo Pelini's remarkable streak of six consecutive seasons with exactly four losses. To lose exactly four games in each of his six seasons at Nebraska seems borderline impossible in the volatile modern college football landscape. And Pelini has done it every way imaginable. He went 6-1 down the stretch and nearly beat national runner-up Texas in the Big 12 title game in 2009. He won the last four and six of seven in his first year in '08 as well. He lost the final two games of the year in '12 in ugly fashion and three out of the last four in '10. He methodically alternated wins and losses down the stretch in both '11 and '13. Most teams in the nation would take nine or 10 wins every season. But expectations in Lincoln have been of the national championship variety for decades, so the relationship between Pelini and his fan base will once again be one of the most fascinating to watch in the nation. Especially, if the Huskers finish third in the division with an 8-4 record this fall.
15.9: Yards per touch for Stefon Diggs
Maryland's receiving corps could be the best in the Big Ten — if it stays healthy. Both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long were lost to season-ending injuries last fall and both are slated to return this summer to full strength. Long is a solid player who was averaging nearly 70 yards receiving per game through seven contests but getting Diggs back could mean the difference in a bowl game or not for the Terps. On 176 career touches, Diggs is averaging 15.9 yards per play and has totaled 2,808 all-purpose yards in just 18 career games. He catches passes (88 rec.), runs the ball (27 att.) and returns both kickoffs (37 att.) and punts (24 att.). Randy Edsall needs his star playmaker in the lineup for a full season.
527.9: Yards allowed per game by Indiana
Kevin Wilson has led the Big Ten in passing in each of the last two seasons, averaging over 300 yards per game in both seasons. No Big Ten team had topped 300 yards passing per game for a season since Northwestern and Purdue did it in 2007. So offense isn't Wilson's problem entering a critical fourth season in Bloomington. The defense ranked 123rd in the nation last year at over 527.9 yards allowed per game — ahead of only Cal (529.6) and New Mexico State (549.5). Indiana hasn't been to a bowl since 2007 and hasn't won a bowl since '91, so if Wilson expects to end those droughts this season, he and his revamped defensive staff will have to make major strides with a unit that allowed 6.7 yards per play last year (117th nationally).
“Finally, the poo-bahs of major college football have seen the light. Smelled the money. They’ve broken from the past, from almost a century of polls and bowls, and embraced a national playoff.”
Those sentences appeared in Athlon Sports’ 1995 preseason annual as the conferences and the bowls began work on agreements for an updated postseason. The whiff of a college football playoff was in the air as Athlon contributor Steve Wieberg — who is now on the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee — wrote about a hypothetical single-elimination tournament for the 1997 season.
We didn’t get the playoff then. We got the BCS.
After 15 years of confusion and hand-wringing over polls and computer rankings, the BCS has come to an end. The conferences, schools and bowls will join the rest of civilized sporting society and determine a champion through a playoff this season.
The name itself is designed to be a tribute to its simplicity: The College Football Playoff. From the same power structure that brought a Bowl Alliance (that didn’t include the Rose Bowl) and a Bowl Championship Series (that wasn’t a “series” at all) comes a title that says exactly what it is.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock wants the process of selecting teams to be just as simple.
“The term we are using is ‘the best teams,’” Hancock says. “We are not getting into the nuance of the debate of ‘best’ and ‘most deserving.’ We think ‘best’ says it all.”
The name is simple. The goals and execution of the CFP are not. All the Playoff needs to accomplish is to be all things to all people. Yep, that’s it.
The Playoff needs to have the legitimacy of crowning a true, one and only, national champion for the first time in the history of the college football postseason. It needs to preserve the excitement on college campuses during the shortest regular season in major sports.
The Playoff, perhaps to the chagrin of some fans, also needs to preserve the traditional bowl system that has existed since 1902.
Most important, the Playoff is meant to restore teeth to college football’s presence during the New Year’s holiday. Beyond expanding the field of teams that can play for a national championship from two to four, the new format aims to reclaim the New Year’s holiday for college football.
Not that college football was ever absent from Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, but the title game the following week and BCS games throughout the week diluted the teams and matchups for what traditionally has been college football’s signature day.
That won’t be the case in the next three seasons, with Jan. 1 hosting the national semifinals this season and New Year’s Eve hosting the semifinals following the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
This is supposed to be a solution to a postseason that’s been unsatisfying for many fans even before the BCS era. Take the four best teams, have them play during a national holiday and have two of them meet for a national championship roughly a week later.
What could go wrong?
Here are some F.A.Q.’s about the new system and some straightforward answers (where they’re available).
What is the least I need to know about this Playoff?
Here’s How the Postseason Might Look With Our Rankings As a Template
Step 1: The selection committee ranks and assigns teams to the semifinals.
Let’s say the top four is: No. 1 Florida State (ACC champion), No. 2 Alabama (SEC champion), No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champion) and No. 4 Oklahoma (Big 12 champion):
Sugar Bowl semifinal:
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Rose Bowl semifinal:
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State
Step 2: The contract bowls fill their spots.
The Orange Bowl fulfills its contract with the ACC by selecting No. 21 Clemson, the best available team from the ACC, to replace Florida State, and No. 5 Auburn, the highest-ranked team remaining among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl is not necessarily obligated to select the highest-ranked remaining team from the ACC, however.
Step 3: The pool of teams for the six remaining bowl slots is determined.
The Pac-12 champion, contracted to play in the Rose Bowl in non-Playoff years, is guaranteed a slot in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach since it is not part of the Playoff. In our rankings, that team is No. 6 Oregon. The committee also determines the highest-ranked team outside of the “Group of Five,” which is guaranteed a bid. In our rankings, that team is No. 40 Marshall. The final four spots — the at-large bids, if you will — go to the highest-ranked remaining teams: No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Georgia, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Baylor.
Step 4: The selection committee assigns the remaining six spots in the New Year’s Day bowls with the best remaining teams in the rankings, being mindful of geography and avoiding rematches or repeat trips to a bowl. The selection committee may assign bowls as follows:
Fiesta: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 9 South Carolina
Cotton: No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Baylor
Peach: No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 40 Marshall
Who hosts the championship game and semifinals?
The championship game will rotate among locations, starting with AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for 2014-15, University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in 2015-16 and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in 2016-17.
The answer for the semifinals is a little more complicated. Six bowl games will rotate between hosting semifinals and premier New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve bowl games. In 2014-15, the Sugar and Rose bowls will host semifinals on Jan. 1 while the Cotton (Jan. 1) and Orange, Peach and Fiesta bowls (Dec. 31) host other top games determined by the Playoff Selection Committee. In 2015-16, the Orange and Cotton bowls will host the semifinals before passing the baton to the Peach and Fiesta bowls in 2016-17. The College Football Playoff brass is calling the semifinals and other four premier bowls the “New Year’s Six.” Think of the non-Playoff bowls as the non-championship “BCS” games under a new name.
What will the selection committee do?
The selection committee will rank the top-25 teams in the country and assign the top four in the semifinals. After that, it will place the next group of at-large teams into the New Year’s Day bowls and identify the top teams from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. In essence, the selection committee is picking the field for the championship (the Playoff) and the consolation prizes (the best non-Playoff bowls).
What criteria will the selection committee use to rank teams?
That’s not clear. In basketball, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has established benchmarks — top-50 wins, bad losses, strength of schedule and the RPI. The football selection committee has no precedent, so it’s not clear what metrics will be used to determine the “best” teams. The Playoff has retained a company called SportSource Analytics to provide statistical data to aid the committee in comparing teams. What that entails is not clear, but it will include opponents’ record, opponents’ opponents’ record and other unspecified data.
“The selection committee’s charge is to use common sense and to consider strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head, results against common opponents,” Hancock says. “Those are the four overarching standards.”
Hancock also says the committee will not dictate how leagues structure their conference schedules. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 will play nine-game schedules in the Playoff era. The ACC will play eight games plus a five-team deal with Notre Dame. The SEC will play eight league games while requiring teams to play at least one game against a team from the other four major conferences. The Big 12 is the only league among the major conferences without a title game.
Why not include tools like college basketball’s RPI?
Remember how much you hated the BCS computers? The Playoff took note. “We intentionally did not create one single metric because we had that in the BCS,” Hancock says. “We created the selection committee because we wanted the human factor to be involved, for human judgment to be involved. Committee members will be able to say Team X lost in the second week of the season, but let’s remember that their left tackle didn’t play and now he’s back.”
How will the committee handle conflicts of interest?
The first selection committee will include five sitting athletic directors. At some point, a selection committee member likely will be in a position to vote for his or her own program into the semifinals. The Playoff established a policy that will recuse committee members if they or an immediate family member receives compensation from the school or has a professional relationship with the program. Recused committee members may not vote or be present during deliberations involving their schools.
What are the logistics of ranking teams?
The committee will meet in person in Dallas on Mondays and Tuesdays starting in late October. Each committee member will devise a top 25. Through a step-by-step process, the committee will whittle its pool of teams under consideration into groups of six and then groups of three until it arrives at a consensus top 25.
How will this change my weekly football routine?
Remember that Sunday night BCS rankings show? That in essence moves to Tuesdays, when the selection committee will release its top 25 on ESPN.
How is this process an improvement over the last one?
The rankings process appears to be more deliberate and rigorous than the BCS system, if only because the committee has three days to analyze Saturday’s games and two days to deliberate. No more AP voters on deadline or coaches (or athletic department staffers) filing top-25 ballots Saturday night. The committee members’ individual ballots and votes will not be made public.
What are the potential problems?
Releasing a weekly poll every week starting in late October is an admirable attempt at transparency. Selection committee chair Jeff Long also will appear on ESPN to explain the rankings. But transparency will come at price when, inevitably, a team continues to win yet drops in the rankings, perhaps out of a Playoff spot. Coaches and athletic directors will be asked to defend — or stump for — their seasons throughout November until the final rankings after the conference title games. The Playoff may soon learn why the basketball committee doesn’t tip its hand until Selection Sunday.
What kind of turnover will there be on the selection committee?
Who is on this selection committee?
The 13-person selection committee, picked by the FBS conference commissioners, is designed to be a cross section of luminaries from college athletics, higher education and government. The selection committee for 2014 will consist of:
• Jeff Long Arkansas athletic director and chair of the committee
• Barry Alvarez Wisconsin athletic director and former coach
• Mike Gould former superintendent at the Air Force Academy
• Pat Haden USC athletic director
• Tom Jernstedt former NCAA executive vice president
• Oliver Luck West Virginia athletic director
• Archie Manning former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback
• Tom Osborne former coach and athletic director at Nebraska
• Dan Radakovich Clemson athletic director
• Condoleezza Rice former Secretary of State and Stanford provost
• Mike Tranghese former Big East commissioner
• Steve Wieberg retired USA Today college football reporter
• Tyrone Willingham former coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington
Term limits haven’t been set, but committee members generally will serve three seasons. Members of the first committee, though, will have variable terms to achieve a rotation for future years.
What does “assign” the Playoff teams mean?
Hancock says the Playoff will match the selection committee’s No. 1 vs. No. 4 team and the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team. At the same time, he says the No. 1 team will be protected. It seems those goals might not always coincide, right? What if LSU is a No. 4 seed in a potential semifinal at the Sugar Bowl? Or USC or UCLA at the Rose Bowl? Or Georgia in the Peach Bowl? Could the selection committee negate a regional advantage for the No. 1 seed by placing them into the backyard of the No. 4 seed? Or will the selection committee slyly shift a team up a seed line to give a No. 1 seed a more pronounced home-field advantage? We may find out.
Is there a limit to how many teams from a particular conference can go to the Playoff?
No. Conceivably, one conference could send four teams to the playoff, though that seems unlikely. No conference is guaranteed a bid in the semifinal, and no conference is barred. Although conference championships are mentioned as a factor for the selection committee, the Playoff doesn’t require a team to win its league or even its division to be selected for a spot in the semifinal.
What about those other big-time bowl games that aren’t part of the Playoff? Are there automatic bids to these bowl games?
Yes and no. There are no automatic berths to the Playoff for conference champions. However, the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls (aka, the “contract bowls”) have their traditional conference tie-ins during years they are not hosting the semifinals. In years major conference champions aren’t in the Playoff, those teams will head to their traditional destinations: the Big Ten and Pac-12 to the Rose, the SEC and Big 12 to the Sugar and the ACC to the Orange. The only change is the Big 12’s contract with the Sugar rather than the Fiesta.
When a “contract bowl” loses a conference champion, the selection committee assigns the next highest-ranked team from that league to the bowl game. So, if Florida State wins the ACC and earns a bid to the Playoff this season, the Orange Bowl will take the next highest-ranked ACC team as an automatic bid.
The Playoff means that the traditional bowl pairings will occur on an inconsistent basis. Meetings of conference champions will be even more rare. When the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, for example, it will only have a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions if those teams happen to be in the Rose Bowl’s portion of the bracket. When the Rose Bowl isn’t hosting a semifinal, the game still will have a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup, but a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions seems unlikely, as one or the other (or both) would likely be in the playoff.
The selection committee then will fill the remaining three New Year’s Six bowls — the Cotton, the Fiesta and the Peach — with the highest-ranked teams remaining once the semifinals and contract spots in the Rose, Orange and Sugar are filled.
There are other stipulations: The highest-ranked champion from the so-called “Group of Five” — the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt — is guaranteed a bid to one of these three bowls. The Orange Bowl’s second spot opposite the ACC team will be the highest-ranked remaining team from the Big Ten or SEC or Notre Dame.
When assigning these games, the selection committee will tend to favor geographic fit while attempting to avoid rematches or sending the same teams to the same bowl game.
How has the Rose Bowl managed to be stubborn in all of this?
The Rose Bowl is losing some its traditional role in the college football world but not all of it. The Rose Bowl will still be played at 5 p.m. Eastern on New Year’s Day, whether it is hosting a playoff or not. That means when the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, the semis will be on New Year’s Day. When the Rose Bowl does not host a Playoff game, the semifinals will be on New Year’s Eve.
What about Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is in the mix for the Orange Bowl spot opposite an ACC opponent. The Orange Bowl will select the highest-ranked team available among Notre Dame, a team from the Big Ten or a team from the SEC. The Orange Bowl is obligated to take three teams each from the Big Ten and SEC during the next 12 years.
What happens to the rest of the bowl games?
The rest of the bowl structure — the Capital One, the Holiday, the Outback and so on — will continue independent of the Playoff structure other than the provision that they won’t be played at the same time as a semifinal. So the Capital One Bowl can still feature an SEC/Big Ten matchup on New Year’s Day, just not at the same time as a Playoff game in the Sugar or Rose bowls.
What about the money?
The 10 conferences and Notre Dame will split an average of $470 million over the course of the rights deal with ESPN, according to a report from USA Today. The ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will split roughly 71.5 percent of the revenue after expenses, while the “Group of Five” will split 27 percent. Notre Dame receives less than one percent.
The Playoff contract between the conferences and the bowls lasts for 12 years, so at minimum this four-team playoff will last until 2024-25.
Where can I watch this thing?
The College Football Playoff will be aired on ESPN.
On Sunday night, July 6, MLB will announce the All-Star teams for the big game at Minneapolis on July 15. As always, fan voting will determine the starting position players for each league. Players vote for reserves and pitchers with managers filling out the teams. Rosters consist of 34 players — that’s right, 34 — and each club must be represented. In advance of the big announcement, here are my selections for the two rosters.
2B Dee Gordon, Los Angeles
Proving to be a demon on the basepaths, Gordon already has 40 steals and 11 triples.
RF Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles
You never really know what to expect from Mr. Excitement.
CF Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
The reigning NL MVP is having another MVP-type season.
SS Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
If his body holds up, Tulo could be a runaway choice for MVP honors.
LF Giancarlo Stanton, Miami
No one hits more tape-measure shots than Stanton, which makes him a fun participant in the Home Run Derby.
1B Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona
Goldschmidt is seventh in OPS, third in RBIs, second in runs and first in doubles.
DH Anthony Rizzo, Chicago
There is no overwhelming choice at DH for the NL, and Rizzo is having a fine season.
C Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee
With his .334 batting average and 28 doubles, Lucroy is finally able to unseat Yadier Molina.
3B Todd Frazier, Cincinnati
Frazier has been the big producer in Cincinnati.
SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
Kershaw has no peers.
C Evan Gattis, Atlanta
The Atlanta catcher recently went on the DL, but he leads NL catchers with 16 bombs and is hitting .345 against NL East rival Washington and hit .353 in June.
C Yadier Molina, St. Louis
Offensively, Molina has slipped of late, but no catcher controls the running game or guides pitchers any better.
1B Matt Adams, St. Louis
Very little has gone right for the Redbirds’ offense this season, but Big City leads NL first basemen with a .318 average. But with only nine homers and eight walks, he’s sixth in OPS.
1B Adam LaRoche, Washington
His .906 OPS is second to Goldschmidt among first basemen.
2B Daniel Murphy, New York
The Mets must be represented and Murphy is their lone .300 hitter. The decision is either Scooter Gennett of Milwaukee at second and Bartolo Colon as the Mets’ rep. I think Murph makes more sense.
2B Chase Utley, Philadelphia
Utley is the lone Phillie, but is deserving in his own right with a .287 average the best WAR at the position.
3B Anthony Rendon, Washington
With Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman both healthy now, Rendon may see more time at second base in the second half, but he’s been solid both offensively and defensively for the Nats at the hot corner.
3B Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee
Ramirez, who has spent some time on the DL, has the third-best OPS behind Frazier and Rendon.
SS Starlin Castro, Chicago
This may be the easiest position to call. Tulo is clearly the starter and there’s little competition for the backup.
OF Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee
Gomez is without a doubt the fourth-best outfielder in the NL so far this season.
OF Corey Dickerson, Colorado
Teammate Charlie Blackmon appeared to have a spot nailed down earlier, but Dickerson is among the top six in average, RBIs and runs among NL OFs.
PR Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati
His overall stats may not be worthy, but he turned a corner offensively with a .327 average in June. And there isn’t a better choice for a late-inning pinch-runner.
SP Adam Wainwright, St. Louis
One of the league’s two 11-game winners leads the senior circuit with a 1.89 ERA.
SP Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati
The Reds’ ace has led the NL in ERA up until his last start this week. His current 1.99 ERA is the highest it has been since April 11.
SP Josh Beckett, Los Angeles
The author of the Dodgers’ first no-hitter this season is fifth in the league with a 2.37 ERA.
SP Tim Hudson, San Francisco
The veteran has been a huge lift for the Giants this season.
SP Julio Teheran, Atlanta
Quickly and quietly, Teheran has become the Braves’ latest ace.
SP Jason Hammel, Chicago
He may be wearing a different uniform by the time the All-Stars congregate in Minneapolis.
SP Zack Greinke, Los Angeles
The righthander is tied with Wainwright with 11 wins and is seventh in ERA.
RP Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee
K-Rod was looking for a job just before spring training, and now he leads the league with 27 saves. His 0.897 WHIP is the best of his career.
RP Huston Street, San Diego
The only full-time closer without a blown save, Street owns a 0.77 WHIP and 0.90 ERA.
RP Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta
Kimbrel has 59 Ks and just 33 hits and walks combined.
RP Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati
He’s whiffed more than half of the batters he’s faced this season.
RP Tony Watson, Pittsburgh
Every bullpen needs an extra lefty and left-handed hitters are slugging just .263 against Watson.
2B Jose Altuve, Houston
Robinson Cano is having a solid season for the Mariners, but Altuve leads the league in batting, hits and steals.
CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles
His stats are as eye-popping as his talent would suggest, but he’s still outperformed AL outfielders.
1B Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
Miggy is on pace for an eight-year low in homers, but a career best in doubles. Could be a sign of a decline in power.
DH Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto
The Jays’ first baseman is really a DH and makes perfect sense to start against the left-handed Kershaw.
RF Nelson Cruz, Baltimore
A critical signing for Baltimore, Cruz is among the league leaders in home runs and RBIs.
3B Josh Donaldson, Oakland
The AL leader among third basemen in homers, runs and RBIs narrowly edges Adrian Beltre, who had a short DL stint early in the season.
LF Michael Brantley, Cleveland
The leftfielder is second among AL outfielders with a .312 average and is perfect in nine stolen base attempts.
C Sal Perez, Kansas City
Adept behind the plate as well as at the plate, Perez leads AL backstops with 26 extra-base hits.
SS Erick Aybar, Los Angeles
A close call between Aybar and Alexei Ramirez, but Aybar has batted .313 over the past month and a half, while Ramirez has slumped to .230 in June.
SP Felix Hernandez, Seattle
We’ll give King Felix the nod slightly over Masahiro Tanaka.
C Derek Norris, Oakland
He has fewer at-bats than most AL catchers, but his average is better than .300, his OBP tops .400 and his SLG is higher than .500.
1B Jose Abreu, Chicago
Prior to his injury, Abreu was in line for serious MVP consideration.
2B Robinson Cano, Seattle
His .323/.382/.447 slash line looks very good — until it is compared to Altuve’s.
2B Ian Kinsler, Detroit
laying with a chip on his shoulder after his trade from Texas over the winter, Kinsler is fourth in the league in hits and second in runs.
2B Brian Dozier Minnesota
The relatively unknown second baseman leads the AL with 61 runs. He should receive the loudest ovation during player introductions.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall, Cleveland
He’s a little shy of the necessary plate appearances to qualify, but his .344 average and .960 OPS are easily best among AL third basemen.
3B Adrian Beltre, Texas
He leads his position with 90 hits and is slugging better than .500.
3B Kyle Seager, Seattle
Four third basemen seems like overkill, but we couldn’t leave Seager off the team.
SS Alexei Ramirez, Chicago
A month ago, Ramirez would have been my guy at short, but a recent slump relegates him to the bench.
OF Jose Bautista, Toronto
The Blue Jays’ slugger narrowly missed the starting assignment over Cruz.
OF Adam Jones, Baltimore
Jones leads AL outfielders with 107 hits.
OF Melky Cabrera, Toronto
The former All-Star Game MVP is second to Jones with 106 knocks.
SP Masahiro Tanaka, New York
Likely to be the favorite of most fans to start, I think Hernandez is more deserving.
SP Mark Buehrle, Toronto
The wily vet is having the best first half of his stellar career.
SP Scott Kazmir, Oakland
The one-time ace of the Rays made five dismal minor league starts in 2011 and one in the majors before settling for an Independent league in 2012. It’s an amazing story that he’s back in the majors, let alone performing at an All-Star level.
SP Yu Darvish, Texas
He’s third in the league with a 2.42 ERA.
SP Chris Sale, Chicago
He missed a month earlier this season, but is 7-1 with a sparkling 2.30 ERA.
SP David Price, Tampa Bay
Likely to be traded at any moment, Price leads the AL with 131 innings and 153 strikeouts. Amazingly, he’s walked just 17 batters.
RP Koji Uehara, Boston
The Boston closer hasn’t been as lights out as he was in the second half last season, but he’s still performed at an All-Star level.
RP Greg Holland, Kansas City
The Royals’ closer has blown just one of his 24 save opportunities.
RP Dellin Betances, New York
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has made Betances an integral part of the club’s bullpen. He’s given up 21 hits, walked 16 and struck out 78 — more than twice as many Ks and hits and walks combined.
RP Sean Doolittle, Oakland
He was drafted out of Virginia as a first baseman, made it to the majors as a lefty specialist out of the pen and is now one of the best closers in the league with 0.67 WHIP.
RP Wade Davis, Kansas City
A reliable setup man in front of Holland, Davis has 16 holds and more Ks than baserunners allowed.
RP Zach Britton, Baltimore
The Orioles’ third-round draft pick in 2006 was considered a high-level prospect as a starter. But he’s found a home in the Baltimore bullpen where he’s held opponents to a .181 batting average, and lefties have a .386 OPS.
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the added SAFER Barriers, Denny Hamlin’s 2014 plate-racing success, Jeff Gordon’s consistency and a needed tweak to the qualifying format highlight the storylines leading up to the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Daytona SAFER Barrier addition nice, but where’s the rest?
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said in February that he felt his facility was “on the right path” when it came to fan and driver safety a year after a violent crash injured scores of fans in the grandstands. That path has now included an additional 2,400 feet of SAFER Barrier on the competitive side of the fence.
The crash energy-reducing barrier already lined the corners of NASCAR’s most famous track, in addition to the outside of the front stretch tri-oval and several interior walls. Now, it runs continuous along the outside wall from the entrance of Turn 3 to the exit of Turn 1 — lessening the risk of routine impacts in each of the track’s short chutes.
It’s a great, smart move. But it’s also a change that leaves questions as to why the entirety of the track’s wall surface hasn’t been plastered with the stuff.
Consider this: A report from USA Today indicated that the SAFER Barrier system costs around $500 per foot these days. To finish the job — including Daytona’s backstretch outside wall (around 3,000 feet) and numerous interior walls (a rough guess of 5,000 feet) still uncovered — would presumably seem to cost around $4 million.
Meanwhile, right on the other side of the fence, the track is pouring $400 million in a grandstand renovation.
With 2014 success, Denny Hamlin a Daytona favorite
For reasons likely held very, very close to the vest of the No. 11 team, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota Camrys have been lightning quick on restrictor plate tracks in 2014. The results are telling: Hamlin has finished first in three races (the Sprint Unlimited, a Budweiser Duel and the spring race at Talladega) and second in the fourth (February’s Daytona 500).
It may have been a clean sweep had Hamlin’s car radio not failed during The Great American Race.
Why has Hamlin — easily a favorite this weekend — been so good? First, he credited the car. But a close second on his list is a smarter strategy.
“I think I have learned a lot about that style of racing over the years,” Hamlin says. “I was always the guy that tried to start a new line and make something happen, and it didn’t always work out for me. I think this year I have been a little more patient and let the race come to me a bit more.”
It’s a good thing that Hamlin has learned the new trick. Without the Talladega win, Hamlin is closer to 20th in points than 10th and facing a lot more heat over his Chase chances.
Restrictor plate group qualifying already in need of revision
I don’t even have to watch Friday’s sure-to-be-wild Sprint Cup group qualifying session to know that a system I was initially so excited for already needs a change. It was all laid bare at Talladega in the spring when Brian Scott won the pole from the back of a drafting pack.
Without a doubt, multiple cars on track at once for restrictor-plate track qualifying is the right move. It’s great, too, to force the drivers who want to be up front to essentially “qualify” three times. But the process of getting there — only turning a fastest lap within a time slot — just doesn’t past the sniff test of competition in pack racing. The driver eighth to the line after the clock hits zero just should never be the one taking the honors.
Instead, restrictor-plate track qualifying should be reorganized to a heat race format. I propose three races: two 25-lap dashes with half of the prospective field in each and a third with the top-8 finishers from each heat race. This process puts focus on drivers scrambling to make the race during the first two heats and then forces the drivers up front to jockey for position in the “pole race.” Plus, taking eight cars from each heat likely prevents drivers from settling for an easy finish in the heats.
Better solutions likely exist. Anything, save for solo qualifying of power-sapped race cars, would be better than where we’ve arrived.
Where is Jeff Gordon’s 2014 heading?
Seven years ago, Jeff Gordon put together a season that set a NASCAR modern-era record for top-10 finishes. Twenty-one of those 30 top 10s were top-5 showings, and six of them converted to wins. Yet when the Chase for the Sprint Cup came, Gordon was simply outmatched down the stretch by teammate and eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.
Is that the ultimate destiny of Gordon’s 2014 campaign?
As the season turns over to its second half following Saturday night’s race, Gordon is on a similar pace of consistency. He has 13 top-10 finishes in 17 starts, six top-5 finishes and nabbed a win at Kansas Speedway. He also leads the regular season point standings.
But Gordon has shown at several points this season that he often can’t match the speed of his competitors when it comes to winning time. His restarts have remained a liability and he has led 1,001 fewer laps than second-place Johnson.
The new Chase format means winning races — and by default, coming through on inevitable late restarts — will determine the sport’s champion. Gordon is a master of near-front consistency, but not so much a master of late-race heroics. Together, it all seems to make Gordon’s point lead look like a misnomer of what is to come.
Daytona winner likely to be leading at white flag
In five competitive races with Sprint Cup cars on restrictor-plate tracks this season, a trend has become clear: the driver leading at the white flag has a substantial advantage over those trying to overtake.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Hamlin jumped to the lead coming to the white flag and drove away from the scrambling pack behind him. Hamlin held the field at bay again in winning his Daytona qualifying race, and then teammate Matt Kenseth was able to hold off a late charge from Kevin Harvick to win the second one — a move largely made possibly by Kenseth running the high lane on the last lap. In the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. held a two car-length lead at the white flag and Hamlin was only able to get to his bumper at the checkered flag.
The outlier in the five events was the finish at Talladega. Hamlin, leading comfortably again, was halfway down the backstretch when a caution flag waved on the final lap to end the race. Regardless, that chance of an immediate end to a race still rewards the driver up front.
“In the Daytona 500, we were just a little too far back on the last lap and made it up to second,” Hamlin says. “I knew at Talladega that I wanted to be the one out front holding people off. I think that has been the preferred position in the last few plate races.”
With that chance of an unexpected end combined with a realized advantage of leading at the white flag, Saturday night’s race winner will likely be making the most aggressive moves before the flagman gets busy.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Former Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham has officially landed at Oklahoma. Green-Beckham was dismissed at Missouri after an off-the-field incident in April and will have to sit out the 2014 season as a result of NCAA transfer rules.
Green-Beckham was regarded as one of the top receivers in the nation in 2013, catching 59 passes for 883 yards and 12 scores. As a junior entering 2014, Green-Beckham was expected to be a first-team All-American and the top target for new Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk.
There’s no question Green-Beckham comes with baggage. His dismissal at Missouri stemmed from an incident where he allegedly pushed a woman down the stairs. He also had two marijuana arrests during his time with the Tigers, but charges from the first arrest were never filed.
Bringing Green-Beckham to Oklahoma is a big risk for coach Bob Stoops. But considering Green-Beckham’s talent level and upside, it’s a risk that could pay off.
The Sooners are a young team in 2014 and could have only five or six senior starters this year.
Barring a surprise win on his waiver for eligibility, Green-Beckham will have to sit out the 2014 season. Add Green-Beckham to an offense that features quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Sterling Shepard and it’s easy to think Oklahoma could be picked near the top of most preseason polls in 2015.
Of course, this move could backfire for Oklahoma. If Green-Beckham lands in trouble again, this move will be a hit in public relations for Stoops. But there’s also a solid support system in place in Norman, including Stoops and receivers coach Jay Norvell.
If Green-Beckham manages to stay out of trouble in 2014 and has a huge season, it will go a long way to improving his draft stock that took a hit after the dismissal in April.
Oklahoma announces Dorial Green-Beckham has been added to the Sooners roster.— CollegeFootballTalk (@CFTalk) July 3, 2014
DGB in release: "The university has made the expectations clear and I want to live up to them and be a positive part of the campus and team"— Guerin Emig (@GuerinEmig) July 3, 2014
After last week's league-by-league look at quarterbacks, the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Team did the same examination of coaches through each of the five major conferences. We picked coaches on the hot seat for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC and pinpointed the assistants you need to watch and the impact coordinators in each league.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 3:
• Robin Lopez took a selfie next to Sideshow Bob. Yes, Robin, we see the resemblance.
• Mark Mulder live-tweeted his initial viewing of the movie "Moneyball." Interesting stuff.
• Serena Williams blamed her bizarre Wimbledon exit on a virus. Martina Navratilova ain't buying it.
• An American hero died today at age 97. RIP, Louis Zamperini.
• A heroic beer vendor caught a foul ball in his bucket and thwarted a couple of obnoxious ladies' attempts to grab it from him, giving it instead to a little girl. Can we all agree that adults who go after foul balls are just the worst?
• An exception to that last rule: This woman who caught a foul ball and put it in her bra for safe keeping. Solid move.
• The perils of live television: Jerry Remy lost a tooth while on the air.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Big Ten is well-stocked with talent at running back for 2014. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is a projected first-team All-American, while Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah isn’t far behind. Gordon and Abdullah each averaged over six yards per carry in Big Ten games last year.
The depth at running back extends beyond Gordon and Abdullah with Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, Northwestern’s Venric Mark and a rising star in Indiana’s Tevin Coleman.
To help prepare for the 2014 season, Athlon Sports has ranked the top 20 running backs in the Big Ten.
How were the rankings compiled? Glad you asked.
Something important to remember: This is not a career ranking heading into the 2014 season. Instead, several factors were considered. How the player projects in 2014, value to the team, overall talent level and production so far in his career. Past performance is critical, but a large portion of the rankings was based on what we think these running backs will do in 2014. And a slight bump in ranking was handed to the projected starter of a team.
Ranking the Big Ten's Running Backs for 2014
|1||Melvin Gordon||Gordon will assume the No. 1 role in the Wisconsin backfield after sharing time with James White last year. In 125 carries during conference play, Gordon rushed for 903 yards and eight scores. He finished No. 2 in the Big Ten with a 7.8 yards per carry and recorded six runs of 40 yards or more.|
|2||Ameer Abdullah||If Melvin Gordon is No. 1, then Abdullah is No. 1A. In eight Big Ten games last season, Abdullah finished No. 2 in the conference with 1,103 yards. Abdullah scored only five times in conference play but showcased his versatility by finishing 2013 with 26 catches.|
|3||Jeremy Langford||The emergence of Langford and quarterback Connor Cook were a big reason why Michigan State claimed the Big Ten title. Langford rushed for 1,070 yards in nine Big Ten contests and led all backs within the conference with 292 carries in 14 games.|
|4||Venric Mark||Mark was expected to be one of the top running backs in the Big Ten last season, but his 2013 campaign never got on track due to injury. Mark finished with just 97 rushing yards and earned a medical hardship after missing nine games. When healthy, Mark is one of the Big Ten's most explosive runners and is a valuable asset on returns.|
|5||Tevin Coleman||Coleman was on his way to a 1,000-yard season when an ankle injury forced him to miss the final three games. In 131 carries, Coleman averaged a healthy 7.3 yards per carry and led the Big Ten with eight runs of 40 yards or more.|
|6||Ezekiel Elliott||Since we are all about projecting what will happen in 2014, it's safe to say Elliott is in for a breakout year. As a backup to Carlos Hyde last season, Elliott rushed for 262 yards and two scores. Elliott was a top-100 recruit in the 2013 signing class and has the skill-set to thrive in Urban Meyer's offense. Yes, Elliott needs to prove he can handle 220-250 carries in a season, but the potential is there for a huge year.|
|7||David Cobb||With Abdullah, Hyde, Gordon, Langford and James White stealing the headlines in the Big Ten last year, Cobb's numbers were overlooked. The Minnesota back rushed for 1,202 yards, seven scores and posted six 100-yard performances.|
|8||Mark Weisman||Weisman started 2013 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts and rushed for 147 yards on 24 attempts against Minnesota in late September. However, Weisman did not record a 100-yard performance the rest of the way and fell just short of a 1,000-yard season. Weisman leads a deep Iowa backfield that includes Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock.|
|9||Corey Clement||Clement impressed in limited action last season, averaging 8.2 yards per carry on 67 attempts. With James White departing, Clement is set to be the top backup to Melvin Gordon in 2014. Clement will likely see at least 150 carries in this role, and all signs point to this sophomore becoming a star in Madison over the next two years.|
|10||Zach Zwinak||It's a tossup for the No. 1 spot in the Penn State backfield. Zwinak, Belton and Akeel Lynch are all in the mix. Zwinak rushed for 692 yards and four scores in Big Ten play and finished the year by recording four consecutive 100-yard efforts. If new coach James Franklin settles on one running back, the leading rusher could finish higher on this list.|
|11||Bill Belton||Belton finished just 186 yards behind Zach Zwinak in last year's rushing totals and should push for a split in carries in 2014. Belton recorded only 20 carries through his first three games in 2013 but rushed for 201 yards against Illinois and 98 against Ohio State. The senior had a good spring and appears poised to build off his best statistical season.|
|12||Josh Ferguson||Considering Illinois won only six games over the last two years, Ferguson has been overlooked at times among the stable of Big Ten running backs. But after finishing with back-to-back 100-yard efforts in 2013, the junior is primed for a breakout year in 2014. In addition to his solid 5.5 yards per carry, Ferguson is one of the team's top receivers (50 catches in 2013).|
|13||Imani Cross||Cross is one of the top backup running backs in the Big Ten. The 230-pound I-back scored 10 touchdowns and rushed for 447 yards on 85 attempts last season. Cross will work as the backup to Ameer Abdullah once again but should see his share of carries (85-100) in 2014.|
|14||Derrick Green||If Michigan's offense wants to take a step forward in 2014, improving the rushing attack is a priority. The Wolverines averaged only 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten play and had only one run of 40 yards or more the entire season. Green was a huge recruit for coach Brady Hoke and managed only 270 yards in his debut. Even though Green has the talent to be a 1,000-yard rusher, he needs more help from the offensive line to reach that potential in 2014.|
|15||Wes Brown||Upside is the keyword to remember here. Brown rushed for 382 yards on 90 attempts as a freshman in 2012 but was suspended for all of 2013. The Baltimore native was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and showed plenty of promise by recording a 100-yard effort against NC State and a 74-yard effort against UConn as a freshman. Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Vei will also factor in the mix with Brown.|
|16||Paul James||James has an interesting backstory, starting at Rutgers as a walk-on and eventually moving into the starting lineup last season. Despite missing three games, he rushed for 881 yards and nine scores on 156 attempts. If James can stay healthy, and regains the form that led him to three 100-yard efforts to start 2013, he will rank higher on this list in December.|
|17||Jordan Canzeri||Canzeri will team with Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock to form one of the Big Ten's top backfields in 2014. The New York native missed 2012 due to a torn ACL but quickly rebounded in 2013 by recording 481 yards and two touchdowns. Canzeri averaged 6.5 yards per carry and gashed Purdue for 165 yards.|
|18||Rod Smith||Smith was regarded as a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but he's yet to rush for more than 215 yards in a season. Could that change in 2014? With Carlos Hyde departing, the Buckeyes will turn to Ezekiel Elliott and another running back to carry the workload. At 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, Smith has the talent and size to produce when called upon in 2014.|
|19||Damon Bullock||Bullock is the third Iowa back to make this list. He's rushed for at least 460 yards in each of the last two years and recorded 85 yards on 10 carries against Purdue in 2013. Bullock is also a solid receiver out of the backfield (39 catches in three years).|
|20||Akeem Hunt||Considering Purdue was often playing from behind last year, the Boilermakers never had a chance to establish the run. However, coach Darrell Hazell has two intriguing options in Hunt and Raheem Mostert. Hunt averaged at least eight yards per carry in 2011 and 2012 but managed only 3.8 yards per rush in 2013.|
|Others to Watch: Raheem Mostert, Purdue; Nick Hill, Michigan State; Bri'onte Dunn, Ohio State; Warren Ball, Ohio State; Akeel Lynch, Penn State; Brandon Ross, Maryland; Trevyon Green, Northwestern; De'Veon Smith, Michigan; Delton Williams, Michigan State|
Note: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State was considered a wide receiver for this article
The 2013 Auburn Tigers storybook season was one for the ages.
Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, went from worst to first in the SEC, played in a thrilling and heartbreaking BCS National Championship Game and most believe the offense could be even better in 2014.
Just don’t use the word “lucky” around War Eagle fans. But that is what Auburn was last year en route to two rivalry wins and an SEC championship. In fact, almost every championship team in every sport needed some factor of luck to win its title.
So the offense could be just as good and the defense — which gave up over 420 yards per game last year and over 35 points per game in November — could show improvement. But will the bounces go the Tigers’ way again?
With a dramatically improved schedule, a repeat as SEC champs will be extremely difficult but isn’t out of the question.
2014 Auburn Schedule Analysis
2014 Auburn Schedule
The Auburn Tigers should be 2-0 heading into the first off weekend of the year on Sept. 13. The developing rivalry between Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema is fun to watch off of the field but likely won’t be very competitive on it. So Auburn figures to be 2-0 with extra time to prepare for a brutal road trip to Big 12 outpost Kansas State. The Xs and Os coaching chess match between Malzahn and Bill Snyder figures to be fascinating to watch on a Thursday night in primetime. This game will teach fans of both teams a lot about their team very early on.
In the heart of the schedule, Auburn will get three marquee SEC showdowns at home. LSU (Week 6), South Carolina (Week 9) and Texas A&M (Week 11) will all have to visit The Plains in a span of five games. The Tigers are looking for revenge of their own against LSU and will get an extra week to prepare for South Carolina with a bye weekend in Week 8. Both will be physical bouts where the last guy standing will win. And getting the Aggies late in the year isn’t an enviable position to be in for any SEC team, as Texas A&M should be one of the more improved teams over the course of the season.
Magnolia State Swing
There may not be a team in the nation that plays a tougher road schedule in the country than the Auburn Tigers. The tricky test in Manhattan is one of the tougher non-conference games the SEC will play all season. But package that with four tremendously difficult road games in the SEC and the Tigers will be lucky to stay in playoff contention. Two road trips to the Magnolia State to face both Mississippi State (Week 7) and Ole Miss (Week 10) come on the heels of physically taxing games against LSU and South Carolina. A 3-0 record in the first three road trips of the year would be a huge success for Malzahn.
After three already tough road games, Auburn will have to face Georgia and Alabama on the road over the final three weeks of the season. Malzahn will be very aware of the revenge that will be at stake in both games and both will come away from the friendly and fortunate confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. There is no telling what the standings will look like when these two games roll around, but fans can bet these rematches will carry significant weight in both the SEC and potential national championship races.
Related: 2014 Auburn Tigers Team Preview
Auburn could be better in 2014 and still not win the SEC title. The road slate is one of (if not the) toughest slate in the nation with five potential top 25 games taking place away from The Loveliest Village. The offense should be as good, if not better, and the defense should take small steps forward. But to repeat as SEC champs and earn a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Tigers will likely need a few more lucky bounces. It may not be reasonable to expect more fortuitous breaks like Auburn got last year, but they may need them to repeat as SEC champs this fall.
There are some who believe the Bruins will be playing for the national championship come January.
Should UCLA earn a playoff berth in the debut edition of the College Football Playoff, there will have been no doubt about its merit. The Bruins are poised to play at least six preseason Top 25 teams with a shot at playing possibly three top 10 teams by season’s end.
The offense is still led by all-everything quarterback Brett Hundley and should some playmakers develop around him, the Bruins should once again be one of the top offensive units in the nation. The defense is incredibly talented and maturing every month.
With coaching stability and a talented returning corps, UCLA should be ready to face one of the toughest schedules in the nation this fall.
2014 UCLA Schedule Analysis
2014 UCLA Schedule
Leaving the West Coast
Virginia was bad last year. Like, really bad. But they also upset BYU in Week 1 at home in bad conditions. UCLA should roll through the Cavaliers (and Memphis in Week 2) but Mora is likely looking for crisp performances in both games before a Texas-sized showdown in the Lone Star State in Week 3. The Bruins should expect a heavy Burnt Orange crowd in Arlington when UCLA faces Texas. The Horns will have already faced BYU and will be battle-tested under new coach Charlie Strong. A win for either could vault that program into the national spotlight very quickly while a loss could end all playoff hopes for the other. No pressure.
Early Pac-12 tests
Before UCLA gets doormats Cal and Colorado at the end of October, the Bruins will have to face a three-game stretch against the defending South Division champs on the road and the preseason Pac-12 favorite at home. The road team has won the first two meetings between Mora and Arizona State and a visit to Tempe won’t be an easy way to break into conference play. Should the Bruins return victorious — and beat Utah at home — then a potential top-5 matchup with Oregon in the Rose Bowl could steal national headlines. Once again, UCLA could be facing a playoff elimination game.
Not an easy November
After facing Texas, Arizona State and Oregon in the first two months, UCLA gets no breaks in the month of November. Arizona at home is manageable but the other three tests will be especially difficult. A road trip to Washington has “letdown alert” or “looking ahead” written all over it, as crosstown rival and South Division contender USC comes to town the next game. To top it off, UCLA will have to face two-time defending Pac-12 champ Stanford at home in the season finale. The only comfort for Mora over the final month is that three of the four games come at home and that there is an off weekend before the brutal two-game stretch to end the season.
Related: 2014 UCLA Bruins Team Preview
The Bruins could be sitting at 10-0 with four or five marquee Top 25 wins entering the final two weeks of the season. And it all could be for naught. The margin for error in the Pac-12 this year is going to be razor thin and a two-loss team may not reach the playoffs. UCLA has the talent, the leadership and the coaching to be one of the best teams in the nation, but surviving this incredibly perilous slate unscathed seems rather impossible. However, an 11-win regular season and Pac-12 title is well within reach.
The 2014 World Cup abruptly ended for the U.S. Men’s National Team on Tuesday in Brazil. With a 2-1 OT loss to Belgium in the knockout round, the Americans will return home with the knowledge that one or two more capitalized opportunities could have changed everything. Although many players are understandably disappointed with the outcome, there are many positives to take away from the United States’ unlikely run.
A short list of accomplishments from 2014: Defying expectations, escaping the “group of death”, and most importantly increasing the popularity of soccer in the U.S.
The 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia, far-removed from 2014’s Brazil. Sochi, the highly scrutinized host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is a site for many games. In addition, Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, and other large Russian cities will serve as temporary homes for teams of 32 nations from around the world. The 2018 tournament will start on June 8th and end July 8th, lasting exactly one month. Only two stadiums have been fully constructed thus far, but competing countries are more worried about the building of their own rosters than the building of the venues.
After qualifying for the last seven tournaments and drawing worldwide attention, it’s almost a sure thing that there will be a U.S. presence in Russia in 2018. The real question now becomes, how far can the United States advance, and can we win it all? We’ve analyzed the probable roster, the coach, and America’s new attitude in search for answers. Here’s your primer for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Scared you will have to educate yourself about U.S. soccer all over again in June of 2018? No worries, there should be plenty of members of the cast returning to chase another world championship.
In late 2013, coach Jurgen Klinsmann signed a contract extension with the United States through the 2018 World Cup. Somehow, this doesn’t bind him to coach the American team in the future. After a stunning loss to Belgium in the round of 16, Klinsmann was asked whether he would stay with the U.S. in Russia. The coach’s response was, “I think so. Yes, I think so.” Not the most confident of statements, but remember, this is the same guy who declared his own team “cannot win” the World Cup before the tournament even began. Klinsmann did a remarkable job of keeping the Americans in every game and has become a household name in the states. Unless he’s offered a deal that he can’t refuse, expect to see the coach back on America’s sidelines in 2018.
At 35 years old, star goalie Tim Howard is quickly approaching the conclusion of his illustrious career. In what was likely his last game at the World Cup, Howard recorded 16 saves breaking the record for saves in a match in the tournament’s history. Other long-time contributors, including DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan will probably be excluded from the 2018 roster. The egos of these long-time veterans will obviously stir up controversy when the final cuts are made, but Klinsmann has proven that his way works. For the good of the nation, hopefully these aging stars will be able to sacrifice their pride.
It will be a sad day when these men are no longer able to represent their country at the highest level. However, there is no reason to fret. These players lit the torch to start the USMNT’s journey on the international stage, now it’s time for their heirs to finish the job. In 2018, Jozy Altidore will be right in the thick of his prime and hopefully won’t have to deal with any more injury problems. Other players like Michael Bradley, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler will certainly return to the roster, hoping to make major improvements in their international play.
As you can see, the future of soccer in the United States is bright. Four years away is a long time to be making predictions for. However, if there’s one factor to consider when thinking about the U.S. chances in the 2018 World Cup, it’s the development of youngsters Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin.
Just a little while ago, it was still an uncertainty whether or not the 19-year-old teenager Julian Green would play for the United States in the 2014 World Cup. After a first-touch goal in extra time against a stacked Belgium team, Green has become the USMNT’s most interesting asset moving forward to 2018. With said goal, Green became the youngest player to score a World Cup goal since a pretty decent player named Lionel Messi in 2006. Great score, even better company.
At 20 years old, DeAndre Yedlin provides another bright spot for the United States. Replacing the German-American Fabian Johnson in the 32nd minute due to a hamstring injury, Yedlin showed his eye-popping athleticism and aggressive tendencies on the field. He didn’t do anything too special when he had the ball. But after strong relieving performances against Portugal, Germany, and Belgium, it’s safe to say that in four years, Yedlin will be a hard man to contain if he progresses at a reasonable rate.
Criticism was abundant after Jurgen Klinsmann denied Landon Donovan a spot on the roster this year, instead opting for a younger team featuring a handful of players who were not supposed to even see the field. But the same young men that so many fans were uncertain about proved their worth in the 2014 World Cup. The future stars of the USMNT have shown ability, and now they’re experienced too.
If not for the performance of Belgium’s incredible Kevin De Bruyne, America may still be in contention for the cup. But this just wasn’t our year; the stars and stripes didn’t align quite right. Nonetheless, in just four years another opportunity will present itself. Under coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s lead, this time the United States will have the skill-set, the confidence, and the experience to compete with the world’s best.
2014 and 2010 were the first consecutive tournaments in which the United States reached the knockout round. Before then, the team had only reached that point three times in 80 years. At the same time, the end result in 2014 was the same as 2010. On paper, it would seem that no progress has been made. In 2018, a second-round appearance will be expected, while fans will cross their fingers in hopes of a longer lasting run to further rounds.
In Russia, we won’t be underdogs anymore. While this speaks to the growth of the USMNT in recent years, the Americans must be cautious in their approach. No longer will countries overlook the USA in the World Cup. Instead, we will more than likely be ranked as one of the top 10 teams in the world by FIFA. This means that soccer experts across the globe will be picking America to advance past the group stage. But learning lessons from 2014’s Italy and Spain will prove valuable. Anything can happen in 90 minutes between two high-level squads. 2018 will present the United States with better odds of winning the tournament. But odds are not good enough. The Americans must sustain their underdog mind-set in the 2018 World Cup, which means fighting for positioning and every loose ball there is.
The State of American Soccer
The 2014 World Cup brought new life to what is becoming one of America’s trendiest sports. The United States showcased the world’s biggest foreign fan base in Brazil cheering on the USMNT. Soccer is now officially the second most popular sport for Americans under the age of 25. The national team’s performance this year will only amplify these sentiments amongst the citizenry.
There goes another American appearance in the World Cup without a trophy coming home. But there’s a difference between returning empty-handed and failing. The United States lost, but at the same time inspired millions. In 2018, America will field an improved team, this time not with a dream, but with a belief that we can win it all.
Even though the Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seattle Seahawks, they still set the single-season record for points scored (606). This, of course, was fueled in large part by Peyton Manning’s record 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns.
Manning and the Broncos weren’t the only player or team that made history last season. And even in the AFC champions’ case, when it comes to record-setting moments during the 2013 season, some “firsts” are better left forgotten. As in what happened just 12 seconds in to Super Bowl XLVIII.
In 2013, for the first time in NFL history a team…
Featured a 450-yard passing game (Aaron Rodgers) and 125-yard rushing performance (James Starks) in the same game (Packers).
Allowed 25 points and committed at least three turnovers in each of its first six games (Giants).
Was pick-6’d in five consecutive contests (Texans).
Was favored by as many as 27 points in the Vegas line (Denver — which failed to cover — against Jacksonville).
Scored 17 touchdowns in its first eight games of a season, but none of them was rushing (Rams).
Scored on three rushes from 30 or more yards out in the same quarter (Eagles).
That won at least 12 games the previous season endured a 12-game losing streak in the next (Texans).
Gained 400 or more yards in 14 games (Broncos).
Rallied from as many as 28 points down to win a non-overtime playoff off game (Colts over Chiefs)
Won a postseason affair despite allowing 40 points and turning the ball over four times (Colts).
Scored on six consecutive drives of a conference championship game (Broncos).
Scored as quickly as 12 seconds into a Super Bowl (Seahawks).
Whose offense ranked more than 20 places higher in rushing than passing won a Super Bowl (Seahawks).
Threw 20 TD passes in a season before being intercepted (Peyton Manning).
Had an INT returned for a TD in four straight games (Matt Schaub).
Completed at least 25 passes in more than 10 consecutive games (Drew Brees).
Fired 16 TD passes in the first month of a season (Manning).
Scored on a run of longer than 80 yards (Terrelle Pryor).
Had a streak of more than 600 aerial attempts without completing one for a TD of longer than 20 yards (Christian Ponder).
Threw for multiple TDs in 21 consecutive home games (Brees).
Fired 359 TD passes for the same coach (Tom Brady for Bill Belichick).
Had 20 games with both a passing and rushing TD in the first three seasons of his career (Cam Newton).
Had a string of 16 TD passes in a single season that all came only in road games (Nick Foles).
Ran his career total of 300-yard/four-TD games to 23 (Brees).
Reached 50,000 aerial yards in fewer than 190 games (Brees).
Threw four or more TD passes in nine different games of a single season (Manning).
Flung 30 or more scoring passes in six straight campaigns (Brees).
Accounted for 8,000 total yards in his first two seasons (Andrew Luck).
Amassed more than 1,700 passing yards in a calendar month (Manning in December).
Started a postseason game for the 26th time (Brady).
Caught 100 yards worth of his passes in his first game with a third different team (Anquan Boldin).
Caught four TD passes in one game on plays that started in the red zone (Marvin Jones).
With at least 50 career TD receptions nabbed as many as 84 balls in a row without scoring (Andre Johnson).
Caught 774 yards worth of passes in a four-game span (Josh Gordon).
Caught 861 yards worth of passes in a five-game span (Calvin Johnson).
Recorded back-to-back 200-yard performances (Gordon).
Averaged 5.5 yards on his first 1,000 NFL carries (Jamaal Charles).
Ran for at least 125 yards and four TDs in a playoff contest (LaGarrette Blount).
Needed fewer than three carries to lead both teams in rushing in a Super Bowl (Percy Harvin).
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.