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All taxonomy terms: Butch Harmon, Dustin Johnson, Golf
Path: /golf/effortless-power-dustin-johnson

The athletic Dustin Johnson is known for being one of the longest hitters in the game today. His smooth, rhythmic swing produced an average driving distance of 305.8 yards in 2013, a number that ranked second on the PGA Tour. His 140 measured drives soared a total of 24.3 miles, but not as a result of hard, aggressive swinging. Here, Dustin and his instructor, top-ranked teacher Butch Harmon, share Dustin's secrets for producing those jaw-dropping tee shots.



If I feel like I have to try to hit one far, then I'm not swinging correctly. Butch Harmon and I always talk about effortless power, instead of power with effort.

When I'm on the launch monitor, when I'm swinging really hard — which I never do on a golf course — I can get one 330-335 in the air. A normal swing, when I'm on the golf course, it's going to fly maybe 300. Anywhere between 290 and 300. Obviously, I can step it up once in a while and maybe fly one 310. But I never like swinging with that mindset. I don't want to hit it hard. Maybe when I'm on the driving range and just goofing around I'll smash 'em sometimes for fun. But on a golf course, I might swing 85 to 90 percent at the highest.

My keys to effortless power:

• Obviously, keeping my right knee flexed, letting my arms get back down in front of the clubhead — those things slow me down a little bit and keep me from over-swinging. Some of the longest drives I've ever hit are ones that I felt like I hit easy and smooth.

Great balance. I'm never coming out of my shoes. If I'm swinging correctly, I'm in balance. You'll notice that if I'm not swinging well, if I've gotta work to hit one far, then I'm not going to be in balance. When I'm swinging correctly, I'm going to hit it even further, and I'm going to stay balanced.

Butch Harmon's Take:

What I want amateurs to notice about Dustin's swing on the tee is his beautiful rhythm and balance. The middle of the clubhead makes contact with the ball with a nice, smooth tempo, and he has a balanced finish.

That rhythm and balance allow Dustin to make a good, aggressive, confident swing without over-swinging. Dustin has tremendous self-confidence with the driver, and that confidence is required on the tight driving holes of the PGA Tour.

Other things to notice:

• Dustin maintains an unusual bowed left wrist at the top of his backswing. I haven't worked to fix that, because it works for him.

• His flexibility and athleticism allow him to use a strong, fast unwind as he approaches the impact position. That allows him to unleash tremendous power on the golf ball.

• Dustin's head rotates through as his body unwinds, and that allows him to generate clubhead speed.

• Two keys: We've worked on a level shoulder turn, and we've worked especially hard on keeping the flex in his right leg.

This article appears in the 2014 issue of Athlon's Golf Annual. .

Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 14:21
Path: /college-football/new-helmets-coming-texas-tech-2014

Texas Tech unveiled a few tweaks and new designs for its uniforms in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s debut last year.

And it appears the Red Raiders will have a two new helmet designs on the way for 2014.

Check out these tweets from two Texas Tech coaches on a black and a red alternate helmet design:

New Helmets Coming for Texas Tech in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 13:14
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-27-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 27.

. This is like Joe Montana calling out Tom Brady.

• Optical illusion of the day: .



• Weapons-grade cuteness alert: .

• Kliff Kingsbury is more than a heartthrob. .

. A favorite: If anyone refers to Martin Scorsese as "Marty", you can ask them to leave. Another way to enhance your Academy Awards enjoyment: .


• This is pretty scary: . Better enjoy sports now, while we have them.

• The new season of Survivor includes a couple of sports figures. .

• Jose Reyes can bust some pretty dope rhymes. Did I say that right? No?


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

Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 10:34
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/best-baseball-players-35-and-over-2014

Everyone knows that Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and others are the future of baseball, but that doesn’t mean three aren’t any All-Star-caliber “old” guys still getting the job done on the diamond. Even with Mariano Rivera retired, one could put together a pretty competitive team of MLB players who are at least 35 years old.

Here is Athlon Sports’ list of the top players in the game who are or will be at least 35 years old as of Opening Day (March 31). After all, age is just a number.

Age as of Opening Day (March 31) listed in parentheses

1. David Ortiz, DH/1B, Boston (38)
He doesn’t really need to even bring a glove to the ballpark any more, but as long as Big Papi hits like he did last season, he will head up this list. Ortiz hit .309 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs for the Red Sox, earning his ninth All-Star invite, sixth Silver Slugger award (at DH) and helping Boston win its third World Series title in 10 seasons. He finished 10th in the AL MVP voting and as long as Ortiz stays healthy, he should have several more productive seasons left in that bat of his.

2. Cliff Lee, P, Philadelphia (35)
One of the best lefties in the game, Lee went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA for the Phillies last season. He struck out as many batters (222) as innings pitched (222 2/3) and earned his fourth All-Star Game invite in the process. He has pitched 200 or more innings in six straight seasons, while compiling a collective ERA of 2.89 during this span. The last time he gave up more hits than innings pitched was in 2009 and he’s issued a total of 163 walks over the past five seasons combined.

3. Carlos Beltran, OF, St. Louis (36)
After two productive seasons in St. Louis, Beltran signed a three-year contract to join the Yankees. A return to the American League and the opportunity to DH on occasion should only help extend Beltran’s career, not that there’s any concern when he’s manning right field either. Beltran’s run production decreased last season compared to 2012, but he still hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 while batting .296 for the NL champion Cardinals.

4. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees (39)
Granted Jeter played a grand total of 17 games last year and batted a woeful .190 in them, but I’m willing to give the Yankee captain a break due to injuries. Jeter has already announced that this, his 20th season, will be his last in pinstripes and there’s nothing he can do to hurt his Hall of Fame legacy. Don’t forget that two seasons ago, Jeter batted .316 with an MLB-best 216 hits and 99 runs scored, as he finished seventh in the AL MVP voting.

5. Alfonso Soriano, OF, New York Yankees (38)
All Soriano has done the past two seasons is post consecutive 30-100 campaigns, which is pretty good for any player, let alone a guy who is closer to his 40s than 30s. Now in the last year of his much-discussed and equally criticized contract, Soriano appears to be making a push for one more payday, as he hit 17 home runs with 50 RBIs in just 58 games for the Yankees last season after being traded from the Cubs in late July.

Although it probably won’t happen, Soriano is just 12 stolen bases away from posting 2,000 hits, 1,100 runs, 400 home runs and 300 steals in his career. The only others one to accomplish this feat in baseball history are Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.

6. Koji Uehara, P, Boston (38)
Uehara went from a set-up guy to closer after injuries shook up the Red Sox’ bullpen last season. The Japanese reliever thrived in his new role, saving 21 games in the regular season and seven more in October to help his team win the World Series. Uehara was practically unhittable, giving up just 35 knocks in 79 total innings pitched with 104 strikeouts and a total of nine walks. He also didn’t allow a single run in 10 appearances (10 2/3 IP) in the ALCS and World Series combined.

7. Torii Hunter, OF, Detroit (38)
Maybe we should start calling Hunter “Bat-Man” instead of “Spider-Man.” The nine-time Gold Glove recipient has been a hitting machine in recent seasons, including a .304 average for the Tigers in 2013. Still a valuable defender in the outfield, Hunter won his second Silver Slugger award and received his fifth All-Star Game invite in his first season in Detroit. He also eclipsed the 300-home run plateau last season, while scoring 90 runs and driving in 84 for the AL Central champs.

8. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia (35)
After missing significant parts of each of the previous three seasons due to knee issues and other injuries, Utley rebounded nicely in 2013. Playing in 131 games, his most since 2009, the former perennial All-Star batted .284 with 18 home runs and 69 RBIs. The power (217 career home runs, 298 doubles) is still there, it’s just a matter of Utley being able to stay in the lineup and on the field on a consistent basis.

9. R.A. Dickey, P, Toronto (39)
The 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner’s first season north of the border wasn’t near as successful, but Dickey still won 14 games and a Gold Glove with the Blue Jays. He was more effective after the All-Star break, going 6-3 with a 3.56 ERA in the second half, as the knuckleballer got a little more acclimated to his new league and pitching environments. While he may not get back to his 2012 form, expect Dickey to continue to confound hitters with his array of unpredictable pitches.

10. Joe Nathan, P, Detroit (39)
Nathan has moved on from Texas, where he saved 80 games in two seasons and was an All-Star both times. Now with the Tigers, Nathan should benefit from both Detroit’s offense and the more pitcher-friendly dimensions of Comerica Park, compared to the bandbox that is the newly minted Globe Life Pak in Arlington, Texas. Then again, if Nathan comes close to matching his 1.39 ERA from last season, it won’t matter what stadium he’s pitching in.

11. Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Colorado (35)
Cuddyer will turn 35 a few days before Opening Day, and if last season was any indication, he appears set to age gracefully. The NL batting champion with a .331 average, Cuddyer posted his best numbers in four seasons with 20 home runs, 31 doubles, 84 RBIs, while also contributing 10 stolen bases. He earned his second All-Star Game invite and also won his first Silver Slugger award. Not bad for a guy who was in his 13th season in the majors.

12. Jason Grilli, P, Pittsburgh (37)
Grilli fared quite well in his first shot as a closer, saving 33 games and helping his Pirates get to the postseason for the first time in 20 years. A first-time All-Star, the only negative aspect to his 2013 campaign was a forearm issue that caused him to miss some time. Grilli made it back before the playoffs, however, and was his usual effective self; pitching 3 1/3 scoreless innings before Pittsburgh was eliminated by St. Louis in the NLDS.

13. Hiroki Kuroda, P, New York Yankees (39)
Fellow countryman Masahiro Tanaka is getting all of the attention, but all Kuroda has done for the Yankees these past two seasons is take the mound when it’s his turn and keep his team in the game. Even though he went 11-13 last season, Kuroda posted a 3.31 ERA in 201 1/3 innings. He has good control (43 BB, 150 SO) and provided a quality start 19 of the 32 times he got the ball.

14. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee (35)
A knee injury limited Ramirez to just 92 games and sapped his power (12 HR) last season, but when healthy this is still a guy capable of hitting more than 25 homers and driving in 90 runs. He did have surgery in December to remove a non-cancerous polyp from his colon, which will probably result in him missing the first few games of Cactus League action in spring training, but he should be batting cleanup for the Brewers by Opening Day. 

15. Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit (35)
After missing all of the 2012 season, Martinez returned to the Tigers’ lineup last year and batted .301 as their primary DH. Still capable enough of filling in behind the plate or at first on occasion, Martinez’ main job is to hit. And as a .303 career hitter who is basically a lock for double-digit home runs and 80-plus RBIs when he plays a full season, it’s a task he has handled very well.

16. A.J. Burnett, P, Philadelphia (37)
His divorce from Pittsburgh may have been messy, but Burnett won’t have to travel far for his new home. More importantly, the hope is that his performance on the mound, which included a career-best 3.30 ERA and 209 strikeouts for the NL Wild Card-winning Pirates, makes the trip from the Steel City to the City of Brotherly Love as well. While the wins may not have been there (10-11 last season), Burnett has been pretty reliable, making at least 30 starts and pitching 186 innings or more in each of the past six seasons.

17. Grant Balfour, P, Tampa Bay (36)
A failed physical negated a potential free-agent deal with Baltimore, so instead Balfour will re-join the Rays’ bullpen. More of a set-up guy his previous stint in Tampa (2007-10), the Australian moved on to Oakland where he eventually ascended to the closer role. A first-time All-Star last season after registering 38 saves for the AL West champs, Balfour has posted an ERA of 2.59 or lower in each of his past four campaigns.

18. Fernando Rodney, P, Seattle (37)
Another closer on the move this offseason, Rodney saved 85 games for Tampa Bay over the last two seasons. An All-Star and Cy Young candidate (finished 5th) in 2012, Rodney saw his ERA jump from 0.60 to 3.38 last season, although it was just 2.45 from June on. Still, with 172 career saves under his belt and nearly as many strikeouts (551) as innings pitched (571 1/3), Rodney should be a reliable late-game option for new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon.

19. A.J. Pierzynski, C, Boston (37)
The notably prickly, yet productive backstop is with his third team in as many seasons, joining the defending World Series champs after one season with Texas, A career .283 hitter, Pierzynski managed a .272 average with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs for the Rangers despite sharing the full-time catching duties. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia now with the Marlins, Pierzynski should get more than his share of at-bats for the Red Sox with Fenway Park (.322 career hitter there) being a nice fit for his left-handed swing.

20. Bronson Arroyo, P, Arizona (37)
There’s nothing flashy about him, but Arroyo is as consistent as they come. During his eight-year run in Cincinnati, Arroyo averaged 13 wins and 211 innings per season and posted a collective 4.05 ERA. He’s not going to strike out a ton of batters, but he’s the kind of reliable, innings-eater that will keep you in ball games more times than not while taking some of the strain off of your bullpen. All of these are reasons why the Diamondbacks signed the veteran to a two-year contract (with team option in 2016) in February rather than inking or trading for a younger arm.

Best of the rest (alphabetical order)

Marlon Byrd, OF, Philadelphia (36)
Byrd smashed a career-high 24 home runs and batted .291 while playing for both the Mets and Pirates last season. The free agent parlayed that success into a two-year deal (with vesting option in 2016) with the Phillies this offseason.

Bartolo Colon, P, New York Mets (40)
The seemingly ageless veteran won 18 games for Oakland last season, finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. Now he returns to the NL for the first time since 2002, as Colon will try to help the Mets overcome the absence of Matt Harvey (Tommy John surgery) in their starting rotation this season.

John Lackey, P, Boston (35)
Lackey won 10 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs for the World Series champs in 2013, his first year back after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Now the veteran will look to extend his run of double-digit-win seasons to 11 in a row.

Kyle Lohse, P, Milwaukee (35)
A late free-agent signee last March, Lohse ended up being one of the Brewers’ most consistent starters in 2013. He won 11 games, while posting a 3.35 ERA with fewer hits allowed (196) than innings pitched while giving up just 36 walks.

Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia (35)
His MVP days are long past him, but Rollins is still getting the job done at the plate (36 2B, 22 SB in 2013) and with the glove (just 11 errors) as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter and shortstop.

Ichiro Suzuki, OF, New York Yankees (40)
Suzuki (above, right) needs just 258 hits to reach the 3,000 plateau in his Hall of Fame career, but he may be hard-pressed to get there. With the additions of the aforementioned Beltran and Ellsbury, along with the presence of Soriano and Brett Gardner, Suzuki is probably relegated to fifth outfielder status this season.

Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota (35)
Knee surgery pretty much defined Willingham’s 2013 campaign, as he hit just 14 home runs and batted .208 in 389 at-bats. Before that, however, Willingham averaged 32 home runs the previous two seasons and, if healthy, should be able to produce around 30 in 2014.

Best Baseball Players 35 and Over
Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/top-10-sec-offensive-linemen-bcs-era

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

The SEC is all about running the football, playing great defense and winning championships. How do you run the ball and/or stop a great defense? With great hog mollies. The big uglies in the SEC are among the greatest of any conference and its why the SEC has been so successful in the BCS Championship Game. In particular, one school in Alabama has been a factory of sorts during the BCS Era for blockers.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Barrett Jones, Alabama (2009-12)
No offensive lineman during the BCS Era was more decorated than the Memphis native. He started at right guard and earned freshman All-American honors for the 2009 BCS champs. He slid out to left tackle by 2011 and won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman for the 2011 BCS champs. Jones then manned the pivot and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center for the 2012 BCS champs. The two-time consensus All-American won three national titles at three different positions while graduating with a Master’s Degree and 4.0 GPA. Jones might not be the most physically gifted player to ever play in the SEC but he pretty much dominated college.

2. Chris Samuels, Alabama (1996-99, pictured)
The massive 'Bama blocker earned every award possible for an offensive tackle. Samuels claimed the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and earned the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman in 1999 as a senior. He helped Alabama to its first SEC championship since 1992 and was a consensus All-American. He entered the starting lineup during his freshman season and proceeded to start 42 straight games — without allowing a sack. Samuels was picked third overall by the Redskins in the 2000 NFL Draft and went to six Pro Bowls.

3. Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M (2011-12)
The supremely talented Joeckel helped lead the Aggies from the Big 12 to the SEC seamlessly due in large part to his blocking. In three full seasons, Joeckel started all 39 possible career games at left tackle for Texas A&M. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s top blocker. He was an all-conference pick in two different conferences and a consensus All-American. The TAMU star was the No. 2 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2013 NFL Draft.

4. Shawn Andrews, Arkansas (2001-03)
A two-time consensus All-American, Andrews was an Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award finalist in 2003. He earned back-to-back Jacobs Blocking Awards as the SEC’s top lineman in 2002-03 — the only SEC player to win the award twice during the BCS Era and the first since Florida’s Jason Odom in 1994-95. Andrews was the No. 16 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Eagles and was invited to three Pro Bowls during his seven years in the NFL.

5. Andre Smith, Alabama (2006-08)
Smith was a five-star prospect from Birmingham before dominating the SEC for three seasons at Alabama. As a junior, Smith won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman and was a consensus All-American. He left school early or else would have been a part of the 2009 BCS championship team. Still, Smith gets credit for helping to rebuild Alabama and was a two-time, first-team All-SEC selection. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Bengals in the 2009 NFL Draft.

6. Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas (2005-08)
The Razorbacks’ pivot for Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis and Felix Jones was a three-time, first-team All-SEC performer. Luigs was a two-time Rimington finalist, winning the award given to the nation’s top center in 2007. He also was a consensus All-American in '07 and a fourth-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He ended his collegiate career with 49 consecutive starts and was a major part of one of the only two Arkansas teams to be ranked in the top five of the AP poll during the BCS Era (2006, '11).

7. Michael Oher, Ole Miss (2005-08)
One of the most high-profile linemen during the BCS Era, Oher was a consensus All-American, a two-time, first-team All-SEC selection and the SEC’s top offensive lineman in 2008 (Jacobs Trophy). The Outland finalist was a freshman All-American in 2005 and helped take a team with three straight losing seasons to a nine-win campaign and a Cotton Bowl berth as a senior. Oher was a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL Draft.

8. Marcus McNeil, Auburn (2002-05)
The All-American started 28 games in his four-year career, helping lead the Tigers to an unbeaten SEC championship season in 2004 (13-0). He was again an All-American as a senior in 2005, paving the way for one of the most talented backfields in SEC history. McNeil was taken in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Chargers.

9. Ben Wilkerson, LSU (2001-04)
Starting for Nick Saban up front, Wilkerson helped lead LSU to two SEC championships and its first national title (2003) in over 50 years. After winning the BCS title as a junior, he was a consensus All-American in 2004 and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. He was a two-time Rimington finalist and went undrafted in 2005.

10. Maurkice Pouncey, Florida (2007-09)
There are no holes in Pouncey’s resume. He won the SEC and BCS National Championship in 2008 as the starting center as just a sophomore. He was a consensus All-American and Rimington Trophy winner in 2009. Pouncey was a first-round pick of the Steelers in 2010 and already has been to three Pro Bowls in his NFL career.

Just missed the cut:

11. Matt Stinchcomb, Georgia (1995-98)
The older Stinchcomb brother was a two-time All-American at Georgia as a junior and senior. He was awarded the Draddy Trophy, also known as the "Academic Heisman." Stinchcomb was a first-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in the 1999 NFL Draft.

12. Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (2010-13)
The son of NFL blocking legend Bruce Matthews, Jake paved his own impressive career path through both the Big 12 and SEC. He was a two-time All-American as an upperclassman blocking for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and won the Jacobs Trophy as a senior. He played right tackle for three years and switched to left for his senior season as Texas A&M won 36 games during his career.

13. Chance Warmack, Alabama (2009-12)
Warmack has three BCS National Championship rings from his four-year career at Alabama — two of them as a starting blocker in 2011-12. He was a unanimous All-American as a senior, an Outland Trophy finalist and first-round pick of the Titans in the 2013 NFL Draft. He started 39 games over his final three years paving the way for Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.

14. Lee Ziemba, Auburn (2007-10)
The Auburn blocker was a four-year starter for the Tigers, earning freshman All-American honors in his first year. He set the school record with 52 consecutive starts and his final game on a college field was the BCS National Championship victory over Oregon in 2010. Ziemba was a consensus All-American and Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner.

15. Andrew Whitworth, LSU (2002-05)
Along with Ziemba, Whitworth started all four seasons ending with 52 career starts (which was No. 2 in NCAA history at the time). He was a two-time All-SEC selection, a freshman All-American and helped LSU claim the BCS National Championship as a sophomore.

16. Brandon Burlsworth, Arkansas (1995-98)
For many reasons, Burlsworth is one of the greatest SEC linemen of all-time. The former walk-on worked his way from after thought on the depth chart to two-time, All-SEC first-teamer and an All-American as a senior. His No. 77 was just the second uniform ever retired by Arkansas and he was a four-time All-SEC Academic selection. His potential NFL career was cut short just 11 days after being drafted when he passed away in a car accident in 1999 at age 22. He was beloved by his fans and respected by his peers and is one of the SEC’s greatest walk-ons… ever.

17. Ciron Black, LSU (2006-09)
Picking up were Whitworth left off, Black started all four seasons while at LSU after Whitworth did the same in the previous four seasons. He led LSU to a BCS title in 2007 and a 40-13 overall record in 53 starts. He was a freshman All-American, three-time All-SEC selection and the Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner in 2009.

18. Kendall Simmons, Auburn (1997-01)
Simmons was a two-time, first-team All-SEC pick as an upperclassman in 2000 and '01. He played in every game as a true freshman and entered the starting lineup as a sophomore before missing all of the 1999 campaign. He returned to start for two years, earning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 2001 as the SEC’s best offensive lineman. He was a first-round pick of the Steelers in 2002.

19. Max Jean-Gilles, Georgia (2002-05)
MJG was a huge part of the return to SEC greatness for the Georgia Bulldogs. He played a significant role on two SEC championship teams as a freshman and senior. Jean-Gilles was named a consensus All-American and was a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2006.

20. Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State (2010-13)
Only one time in history has Mississippi State gone to four consecutive bowl games and Jackson was a part of all four teams. He was a four-year starter and three-time All-SEC pick from 2011-13.

Best of the rest:

21. Mike Pouncey, Florida (2007-10)
22. Ben Grubbs, Auburn (2003-06)
23. Kenyatta Walker, Florida (1998-00)
24. Wesley Britt, Alabama (2001-04)
25. Larry Warford, Kentucky (2009-12)
26. Michael Munoz, Tennessee (2000-04)
27. Aaron Sears, Tennessee (2003-06)
28. D.J. Fluker, Alabama (2010-12)
29. Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama (2011-13)
30. Greg Robinson, Auburn (2012-13)

Top 10 SEC Offensive Linemen of the BCS Era
Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-pac-12s-football-rosters-2014

Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.

So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.

When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.

Things are getting serious out West.

The level of competition in the Pac-12 has increased substantially over the last few seasons. Increased spending and dedication from administrations, a lucrative new TV contract and excellent new leadership, both at the league level (Larry Scott) and throughout the coaching ranks have led the Pac-12 charging into the Playoff Era.

All of these new facilities and spending, of course, is to lure better players to the West Coast. And it has worked to perfection as the Pac-12 has become the top challenger to the SEC when it comes to conference supremacy.

In fact, in 2014, there is a chance that the Pac-12 might be the best league in the country. That is not by accident.

Here is how the Pac-12 rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Pac-12 based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.

 Team '14'13'12'11'10RankW/LConf.
7.Arizona State234035653138.830-2221-15
10.Oregon State614544434647.824-2617-19
11.Washington State655458676060.815-348-28

What did we learn?

There’s a reason Lane Kiffin is in Alabama
USC’s roster is clearly the most talented in the conference. And while sanctions have kept USC from playing in the Pac-12 title game or postseason, the real reason Steve Sarkisian is now in Los Angeles is because this powerhouse program underachieved. The Trojans' roster is the sixth-best in the nation but the Men of Troy have performed significantly behind the Pac-12’s current power duo from the North. The good news is that Coach Sark has plenty of talent to work with, especially after winning National Signing Day in impressive fashion. The rest of the league be warned because it shouldn’t take too long for the most talented roster in the Pac-12 to return to title contention.

Balance of power shifting?
USC and UCLA have the No. 1- and No. 3-most talented rosters in the league and USC won a share of seven straight conference titles from 2002-08. However, the last five conference champions have come from either Eugene or Palo Alto. It hasn’t been just great coaching either, in fact, both teams lost an elite head coach to the NFL in the last few seasons. Mark Helfrich and David Shaw have maintained a level of success on the recruiting trail that both Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh established years ago at Oregon and Stanford respectively. The Ducks (No. 14) and Cardinal (No. 20) are in the top third in terms of talent in the Pac-12 and both rank in the top 20 nationally. And no team in the nation, not even Alabama, has won as many games as Oregon’s 47 over the last four years. Stanford is tied with Bama for No. 2 among power schools with 46 wins. The point is if fans expect a shift away from the North's two powerhouses in the Pac-12 anytime soon, it won’t be because of lack of talent.

According to Jim
Recruiting wasn’t Slick Rick’s problem at UCLA. It’s why Jim Mora has been able to compete in the Pac-12 right out of the gate, winning the division in his first season and posting 10 wins in his second. He has continued UCLA’s overall success on the trail as well, bringing in two top-20 hauls in his first two cycles. This is something he will have to continue to do in order to compete with Stanford and Oregon. UCLA lost 16 games the two years prior to Mora’s arrival and he has posted back-to-back nine-win seasons to start his Bruins tenure. With the third-best roster in the league entering 2014 (and Brett Hundley under center), Mora should have another great shot at UCLA’s first Pac-12 title since 1998.

Tempe Todd
It took just two seasons for Todd Graham to post the best record in the Pac-12 and earn a berth in the conference championship game. The Sun Devils aren’t without talent, but ASU will boast just the seventh-best roster in the league and the 38th-best roster overall in the nation entering 2014. It makes his 18-9 record and 10-win season that much more impressive over the last two years. With UCLA and USC entering ’14 with significantly better rosters, can Arizona State repeat as South Division champs?

Sonny side up
Cal has always had a strong recruiting presence on the West Coast. However, the Bears' recruiting trend might be concerning as the national recruiting ranking for Cal has dropped four years in row from 15th in 2011 to 48th in '14. Despite all of that talent, nine total wins in the league from 2010-12 is why Sonny Dykes is now in charge in Berkeley. This is still the sixth-best roster in the league, however, and it means that Dykes shouldn’t have to work miracles to get his Bears back on the winning track. But if Cal wants to compete with the likes of Oregon and Stanford, he will have to start by rebuilding his program’s image on the recruiting trail as well as on the field.

Long uphill climb
Kyle Whittingham elevated Utah from the Mountain West to the prestigious ranks of the Pac-12. Mike Leach and Mike MacIntrye were both hired in the last two seasons to lead once excellent programs back to relevance. And while all three coaches are very well respected and all three teams seemed improved in 2013, all three will be entering the ’14 season with three of the four worst rosters in the conference. Utah ranks significantly higher than both the Buffs and Cougs in terms of talent, sitting at 48th nationally. The climb will be tougher in Boulder and Pullman. Colorado ranks ahead of only Syracuse, Duke and Wake Forest nationally among Big 5 schools while Washington State ranks 62nd nationally in terms of talent.

Ranking the Pac-12's Football Rosters for 2014
Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/sec-east-2014-spring-preview-and-storylines

The SEC East should be one of the nation’s most intriguing conference title races to watch in 2014. Missouri is the defending champion, but South Carolina, Georgia and even Florida should be in the mix this season.

Missouri was defeated by Auburn in the SEC Championship last December, but Gary Pinkel’s team clearly showed it can compete in this conference after finishing 5-7 in 2012. Missouri has a few holes to fill, and new starting quarterback Maty Mauk needs more seasoning before this team is ready to win the East once again. However, the Tigers 12-2 mark and division title last year was no fluke.

Elsewhere in the East, this year’s spring practice session is a crucial point of Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida. The Gators have elite talent, and the defense was one of the best in the conference last year. However, the offense struggled mightily and changes to the staff were made at the end of the regular season. Did Muschamp make the right moves? If hiring Kurt Roper as the offensive coordinator and Mike Summers as the line coach backfires, Muschamp’s tenure in Gainesville will be in jeopardy.

Georgia and South Carolina will be picked near the top of the East this year, and both programs have question marks to answer on defense. The Gamecocks must replace three standouts from the defensive line, while the Bulldogs will be looking for answers across the board after a disappointing performance in 2013.

The intrigue extends to Tennessee, where the Volunteers and Commodores have plenty to work on this spring. Tennessee has a large signing class coming to Knoxville, and Butch Jones needs a handful of recruits to play right away this year. Vanderbilt will be adapting to new coach Derek Mason this spring, and the offense needs to develop a quarterback.

Kentucky is making progress under second-year coach Mark Stoops, and improvement should be noticeable from this team this spring.

Early NFL Draft DeparturesReturning Starters: OffenseReturning Starters: Defense
South Carolina5476

SEC East Spring Outlook


Starting over on offense:

After a 4-8 mark last season, Will Muschamp enters 2014 on the hot seat. The Gators’ defense held up their end of the bargain last year, as they allowed just 308.6 yards per game. But the offense was simply dreadful. It’s hard to find many positives on this unit after 2013, as Florida barely averaged over 300 yards per game in SEC action (312.5) and managed just 4.7 yards per play. Muschamp fired coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis and brought Kurt Roper from Duke to call the plays, while former Kentucky and USC assistant Mike Summers will coach the line. The staff moves were clearly necessary, and Muschamp appears to have made the right hires. But the bigger problem for the Gators is with the personnel. Is quarterback Jeff Driskel ready to take the next step in his development? Or will incoming freshman Will Grier push for the job? At running back, Kelvin Taylor is a future star. However, the offensive line is a concern. The Gators still lack proven options at receiver, but Andre Debose is back in the mix after missing all of last season with a knee injury. There’s no question Florida should be solid on defense next year. But Muschamp’s future in Gainesville will hinge on how far the offense develops this offseason.


Jeremy Pruitt’s first chance to work with the defense:

After one very successful year at Florida State, Pruitt left Tallahassee for a chance to call the defensive signals at Georgia. Pruitt is no stranger to the SEC, as he spent six seasons at Alabama prior to his one-year stint with the Seminoles. Even though Aaron Murray departs at quarterback, the Bulldogs are in good shape on offense with Todd Gurley returning at running back, along with new signal-caller Hutson Mason. But for Georgia to return to the SEC title game, it has to find some answers on defense. Youth was a factor in the struggles last season, with the Bulldogs allowing 31.8 points per game in SEC contests. With 10 starters back and another year for the young players to develop, Georgia’s defense is poised to make significant progress on the stat sheet. Now it’s up to Pruitt to take this defense to the next level. This spring is all about Pruitt putting his stamp on a defense and making the necessary changes after a disappointing effort last year.


Finding the right pieces on offense:

As expected, Mark Stoops’ first season in Lexington was a struggle. Kentucky won only two games and was held without a victory in SEC play. But despite the 2-10 mark last year, there’s plenty of positive momentum for Stoops and his staff. The Wildcats are recruiting well, and a handful of young players contributed in 2013. As Stoops looks ahead to 2014, both sides of the ball have concerns to address but improvement from the offense is essential after averaging just 14.8 points per game in SEC contests. Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow each threw for over 1,000 yards last season. However, both players will face competition from incoming freshman Drew Barker for the starting job. It’s tough to throw a true freshman in the lineup in the SEC, but Barker ranked as the No. 119 recruit in the 247Sports Composite, so there’s no doubt he has the talent to play right away. At running back, Kentucky should have an improved rushing attack with Jojo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard leading the way. And four players that caught at least 20 receptions last season are return at receiver. Coordinator Neal Brown has more talent to work with this spring. Can he begin to fit the pieces together? Or will the quarterback battle extend into the fall?


New faces on defense:

The defending SEC East champs return only nine starters from last year’s team. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and Missouri still has enough talent to challenge for the division crown. New quarterback Maty Mauk was impressive last season, while the skill positions are set with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy returning at running back, along with Dorial Green-Beckham and Bud Sasser at receiver. The offense will face a transition period, but there is little reason to be concerned about this unit. The defense figures to get the most attention from coach Gary Pinkel and coordinator Dave Steckel this spring. The Tigers are losing a handful of key players, including ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and cornerback E.J. Gaines. The line may not miss a beat assuming Markus Golden and Shane Ray continue to play at a high level. Replacing Gaines won’t be easy, but sophomores Aarion Penton (16 tackles) and John Gibson (14 tackles) played their share of snaps in 2013. Missouri may take a step back on defense next season with a handful of key performers departing. However, the drop-off may not be as great as some may suspect with a solid core of talent still in place in Columbia.

South Carolina

Rebuilding the defensive line:

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and line coach Deke Adams will have their hands full this spring. The Gamecocks lose three key performers from last year’s defensive line, including ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Quarles were both first-team All-SEC selections, and Sutton registered three sacks last season. South Carolina isn’t hurting for options in the trenches, but it’s hard to replace the talent that Clowney, Sutton and Quarles are taking to the NFL. Darius English has flashed potential in a backup role over the last two years and was listed as the backup to Clowney in 2013. Gerald Dixon and Mason Harris are slated to battle to replace Sutton, while J.T. Surratt will anchor the middle with Quarles departing. Other names to watch include Gerald Dixon Jr. and Kelsey Griffin at tackle, along with incoming junior college recruit Jhaustin Thomas. Dante Sawyer was expected to push for time in the fall, but the Georgia product will instead go to junior college. As we mentioned earlier, there’s certainly talent and potential here. However, it’s unrealistic to expect the same caliber of play of last year’s group. With matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia in the first few weeks of the season next year, this defensive line will be tested early in 2014.


Restocking the offensive line:

Losing five players at a particular position isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that unit struggles all season and can be replaced with more talent and upside the following year. However, that usually doesn’t hold true when discussing the offensive line. Tennessee loses all five starters in the trenches, including standout left tackle Antonio Richardson. There’s very little in the way of proven commodities for coach Butch Jones, as junior Mack Crowder made one start last season, and Marcus Jackson made five as a freshman in 2012. Considering the losses up front, it was no surprise Jones hit the recruiting trail hard for replacements. Junior college recruit Dontavius Blair is expected to push for time, while Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson enrolled early to compete this spring. It’s not easy to blend five new offensive line starters together in a short amount of time. But Jones and his coaching staff should be busy this spring trying different combinations and pairings to find the right mix up front. 


Patton Robinette or Johnny McCrary at quarterback?:

New coach Derek Mason will spend this spring implementing his schemes on both sides of the ball. The Commodores are coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, and the cupboard isn’t bare for Mason and his staff. The defense needs attention in the secondary, but most of the focus for Vanderbilt will be at quarterback. Patton Robinette started three games last year and will face a challenge from talented redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette threw for 642 yards and four touchdowns in limited action last year. However, his completion percentage was just 52.3 and he tossed five picks on 88 attempts. McCrary was a three-star prospect by 247Sports in the 2013 signing class and threw for 9,025 yards and 78 touchdowns in his high school career. One factor that might complicate the quarterback battle is the turnover at receiver. The Commodores lose standout Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause, leaving Jordan Cunningham (15 receptions) as the team’s leading receiver. The battle between Robinette and McCrary could extend into fall practice as Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell give both players a chance to lead the offense in 2014.

SEC East 2014 Spring Preview and Storylines
Post date: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /craziest-moments-2014-nfl-scouting-combine

The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine a.k.a. the “Underwear Olympics” may not have gotten as , but there were still plenty of memorable, GIF-able, troll-able moments at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — where all the powdered wigs and stop-watch watchers scouted the top prospects going harder, better, faster, stronger. These are a few of the more memorable crazy moments from the Combine.

Adam Muema’s exits early, “following God”
The San Diego State running back has gone AWOL, as a healthy scratch. Despite being invited to audition for the NFL’s millionaires club, Muema exited early, saying God told him he would go on to play for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks if he left. “(God) told me to sit down, be quiet, and enjoy the peace,” Muema told the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Michael Gehlken. Hopefully everything works out for Muema, but he’s crazy if he thinks he’ll be taking Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” carries anytime soon.

Warren Sapp’s reaction to Jadeveon Clowney
— a time that was unofficially sub-4.5 when first reported. That caused Hall of Fame, Super Bowl-winning, former Defensive Player of the Year turned NFL Network sideline dude Warren Sapp to lose his mind. “There’s something in the steroids. I mean, something in the milk. Something. Cause these kids are way bigger than I ever remember,” Sapp said. Clowney, for the record, weighed in at 6’5” and 266 pounds.

Internet trolls questioning Clowney’s “motor”
After watching the potential No. 1 overall pick tear up the track in Indianapolis, many took to their keyboards — which are presumably perched atop a very high horse — to question whether or not Clowney has the “motor” or “drive” or “will” or “love of the game” or, as the Ol’ Ball Coach Steve Spurrier infamously said, “work ethic” to succeed at the next level. Do you want Jadeveon Clowney on your favorite team? I do.

Michael Sam’s overcrowded press conference
Last year, Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o had a three-ring circus in Indy to discuss his imaginary girlfriend and love of phishing. This year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year , which was a non-event thanks to the prepared poise of Sam — but a crazy crowd all the same. Sam lived up to his “instant hero in the gay and lesbian community” status bestowed upon him by Commissioner Roger Goodell’s brother Michael, who also happens to be gay.

Mike Mayock’s No. 1 pick? Khalil Mack!
Gelled hair Mel Kiper has been yelling about the NFL Draft for the longest, but the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock is the best in the business right now. So when Mayock says he’d take Buffalo’s Khalil Mack over Clowney, that sends shockwaves over the airwaves. “He’s explosive off the edge, he’s tough, he’s twitchy, he’s got a little edge about him,” Mayock said. “He dominated Ohio State like nobody I’ve ever seen dominate them. … You talk about a kid like (Jadeveon) Clowney, who’s just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid. And if I had a choice between the two, I think I’m taking Mack.”

Johnny Football’s height, hands and hype
Johnny Manziel’s larger-than-life persona Johnny Football may stand over six feet tall wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, but he’s only 5’11.75” in his underwear. After claiming to be 72 inches “on the dot” prior to being measured, Manziel was a shade under the six-foot mark in Indy. Johnny Football did have huge hands, however, measuring at 9 7/8”. Those big mits match his reportedly size 15 shoes. Look out, NFL. Johnny Extremity is coming to a town near you.


Chris Johnson’s tweets about Dri Archer
In 2008, Johnson skyrocketed up draft boards into the first round after running an electronically timed record 4.24 in the 40-yard dash. So CJ2K is all about CJ4.24 when the NFL Scouting Combine rolls around. Lately, he’s reached 1972 Miami Dolphins’ champagne-popping proportions. When the last 40-yard dash has been run, Chris Johnson almost certainly pops a bottle of Moet. Another year, another retained title belt. Although it was close. Kent State flash ran a 4.26 that had CJ sweating.

Rich Eisen’s personal best 40-yard dash
Sure CJ and Dri are fast. But NFL Network host Rich Eisen must be hailed as the victor of this year’s 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Michigan man ran his first sub-six-second 40 since his annual “running of the 40” took over the internet in 2005, when he ran a 6.77. Even in running shoes, however, the 44-year-old Eisen isn’t as fast as 331-pound nose tackle Louis Nix, who beat him by a solid five yards with a 5.42 compared to Eisen’s 5.98. Still, it’s a fun way to close out a crazy few days of football job interviews.

There were a few shocking moments at this year’s Underwear Olympics
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 17:02
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-are-you-north-carolina-believer

One of the main storylines early in the season was the unpredictability of North Carolina. The Tar Heels defeated Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky early in the year but also lost to UAB and Belmont — all before conference play started.

North Carolina was either going to have one of the strangest resumes for any team in the NCAA Tournament or some of the strongest wins for any program to land in the NIT.

Since Jan. 26, though, North Carolina has stabilized for eight consecutive wins heading into tonight’s game against NC State.

How much is that old North Carolina team still haunting the Tar Heels this season. We asked our editorial staff.

Weekly Tipoff: Are you a believer in North Carolina’s turnaround?

Mitch Light: North Carolina has proven to be a solid top-15-ish team that is capable of advancing to the Sweet 16, but I don’t believe this team is good enough to string four wins together in the NCAA Tournament and reach the Final Four. There have been some positive signs over the last month — Marcus Paige is playing well; Leslie McDonald has shown he can be a 20-point scorer; James Michael McAdoo has played with aggression — but this is still a flawed team that struggles to shoot the ball (especially from the foul line).  

David Fox: To me, the most telling moment of North Carolina’s run in the second half this season wasn’t the win over Duke. It was the 105–72 rout of Wake Forest two days later. Wake isn’t a great team, but the Demon Deacons were good enough to beat North Carolina in early January when the Tar Heels were searching for an identity. And after the Duke win, this was the kind of game Carolina would have dropped early in the season. The Heels responded with a convincing win. This isn’t one of Roy Williams’ finest teams in Chapel Hill, but at least it has dropped the Jekyll and Hyde act from early in the season.

Braden Gall: The 2013-14 Tar Heels might be the best coaching job Roy Williams has ever done. Jeff Goodman of ESPN told me last weekend that this is the least talented North Carolina team he has ever seen. While I don't agree with that entirely, it is hard to find the All-America talent that normally carries Williams’ teams deep into the tournament. Marcus Paige is excellent, and James Michael McAdoo is playing well. Leslie McDonald is a nice player as well. And this unit plays solid defense and hits the glass. However, it’s a bad shooting team both from outside the arc and from the free throw line.

Weekly Tipoff: Are you a North Carolina believer?
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 13:37
Path: /college-basketball/weekly-tipoff-does-wichita-state-deserve-no-1-seed

Wichita State is one game away from doing something that hasn’t been done in a decade and an Missouri Valley Tournament away from doing something that hasn’t been done since Jerry Tarkanian’s heyday at UNLV.

Yet for some reason, the Shockers’ record, run to 30-0 after Tuesday’s win over Bradley, isn’t impressive enough for a handful of fans who’d rather see four other teams occupy No. 1 seeds.

The Missouri Valley isn’t what it was from 1999-2006, in part because Creighton is off to the Big East. Unless Wichita State loses in the MVC tournament, the league will send only one team to the NCAA Tournament.

The lackluster schedule means Wichita State, ninth in RPI and seventh on KenPom, has only two top 50 wins — at Saint Louis and against BYU on a neutral court.

Other than the empty box in the loss column, Wichita State doesn’t have the typical profile of a No. 1 seed in the Tournament. If the Shockers get to Selection Sunday with an unblemished record, should they draw the near-automatic win over a No. 16 seed? We asked our editorial staff for their thoughts.

Weekly Tipoff: Do the Wichita State Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed?

Mitch Light: It’s easy to look at the Shockers’ gaudy record (30-0) and assume they will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s not that simple. Take a look at Wichita’s résumé: Gregg Marshall’s team has only one win against a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team — at Saint Louis on Dec. 1. The Shockers have a few other decent wins — vs. Tennessee, BYU, Alabama and Davidson — but only one of those teams (BYU) is ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. That being said, it will be difficult for Wichita State — assuming it remains undefeated — to not be a No. 1 seed because there aren’t many great teams in college basketball this season. The Shockers picked a good season to be great.  

David Fox: If Wichita State gets to Selection Sunday undefeated, no question the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed. And depending on what happens in other leagues, you could make a case a one-loss Wichita State should be a No. 1 seed. We saw last week how tough it is to remain perfect when Syracuse lost at home to an awful Boston College team. Since Wichita State’s scare against Missouri State on Jan. 11, the Shockers have defeated teams by an average of 15.5 points. Even teams like Florida and Arizona have played down to overmatched opponents in recent weeks. Even if the Missouri Valley isn’t as strong as it normally is, give credit to Wichita State for never even offering a glimmer of hope for an upset for most of the season.

Braden Gall: Do I think Wichita State is one of the best four teams in the nation? No. Do I think Wichita State will finish unbeaten in the regular season and conference tournament? Yes. And if the Shockers can finish the season unblemished then they will absolutely deserve the right to be a No. 1 seed. This team has depth, experience, talent and coaching, and it has non-conference wins over Saint Louis, BYU and Tennessee. Will I be picking WSU to make it back to the Final Four regardless of seeding? No. But an undefeated regular season is a special story that deserves a spot on the first line of the bracket.

Weekly Tipoff: Does Wichita State deserve a No. 1 seed?
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 13:19
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Utah Utes, Pac 12, News
Path: /college-football/former-oklahoma-qb-kendal-thompson-transfers-utah

Former Oklahoma quarterback Kendal Thompson will transfer to Utah. The news was officially announced by the school on Wednesday, and Thompson is eligible to play for the Utes in 2014.

With Trevor Knight expected to claim the top spot in Norman, playing time for Thompson was going to be limited at Oklahoma.

Thompson played sparingly in two years with the Sooners, throwing only 13 passes for 64 yards and one touchdown.

The addition of Thompson is another piece of good news for Utah’s quarterback situation heading into 2014. Travis Wilson was recently cleared to participate in non-contact drills this spring, but his status for the upcoming season is still in question.

Thompson doesn’t have a lot of experience, but with Wilson’s status uncertain, this is a good pickup for coach Kyle Whittingham. As an athletic quarterback, Thompson could help Utah’s offense in select packages and provides the staff with another arm in workouts this preseason.


Former Oklahoma QB Kendal Thompson Transfers to Utah
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 12:41
Path: /college-football/big-ten-football-2014-spring-preview-and-storylines

It’s tough to glean much from spring practice, but for the 14 teams in the Big Ten, these preseason workouts couldn’t get here fast enough. 2013 was a disappointing year for the conference, as only three teams – Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin – finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll. 

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the final poll, while the Buckeyes closed the season with back-to-back losses after a 12-0 start. Wisconsin finished Gary Andersen’s first year in Madison with a solid 9-4 record.

But the rest of the conference was largely a disappointment. Michigan entered 2013 with hopes of winning the Legends Division title. However, the Wolverines slumped to 7-6 and won just three Big Ten contests. Northwestern was pegged as a potential wildcard to watch in the division title picture, but the Wildcats finished 5-7.

The news wasn’t much better in the Leaders Division, as Indiana missed out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark, and Purdue struggled mightily in Darrell Hazell’s first season with a 1-11 record.

The Big Ten is set to grow by two teams with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this year, and the divisions have been shuffled once again. The balance of power seems to rest in the East with Ohio State and Michigan State. But the West features some intriguing teams, including Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

 Seniors LostEarly NFL DeparturesReturning Offensive StartersReturning Defensive Starters
Michigan State18065
Ohio State18257
Penn State17146

East Division Spring Outlook


Getting defensive in Bloomington:

One look at the stat sheet clearly shows where Indiana’s focus needs to be this spring. Despite averaging 489.1 yards and 38.4 points per game, Indiana finished 5-7 last year. Clearly, offense isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Wilson. But the defense? Well, that’s another story. The Hoosiers allowed a whopping 7.4 yards per play last season and gave up 41.9 points per contest (conference-only games). Wilson made changes to his staff, hiring well-traveled assistant Brian Knorr to call the defensive signals in 2014. Knorr ran a 3-4 attack last season at Wake Forest and could implement that scheme in Bloomington. The cupboard isn’t bare on defense, as cornerback Tim Bennett, linebacker T.J. Simmons and defensive tackle Darius Latham headline a core of young players poised to make strides with another preseason under their belt. After a dreadful 1-11 mark in 2011, Indiana is 9-15 over the last two years. Wilson is making progress but getting to a bowl largely depends on how far the defense progresses before the season opener.


Putting the pieces together on the offensive line:

The Terrapins were only a team with a 7-6 record last year, but entering spring practice, this squad doesn’t have a ton of glaring concerns. Sure, each side of the ball has room to improve. However, Maryland is in relatively good shape entering its first season in the Big Ten. With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out this spring due to injuries, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo will get an extended opportunity to work with quarterback C.J. Brown. But perhaps the biggest concern for coach Randy Edsall is an offensive line that allowed 2.4 sacks per game in ACC action. The Terrapins reeled in three potential impact recruits in Derwin Gray, Larry Mazyck and Damian Prince, and even if all three players don’t start, they should help improve the overall depth up front. Three starters return in the trenches for 2014, and the staff moved Evan Mulrooney to guard to bolster the depth there. Considering Prince won’t arrive until the fall, it’s unlikely the line will find stability until then. However, this spring is the first chance for Edsall to start sorting out his options in the trenches as Maryland officially becomes a Big Ten team. 


Developing an offensive line:

Yes, Michigan needs more consistency from quarterback Devin Gardner, and the rushing attack has to give Gardner more help, but the biggest question mark for coach Brady Hoke this spring is clearly the offensive line. This unit struggled with consistency last season, and the Wolverines recorded just 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten action. Making matters worse is the line loses tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield - easily the top two players on the unit in 2013. There is talent returning in the trenches, as Michigan reeled in back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes from 2012-13. The entire starting five is up for grabs. It’s time for players like Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch to emerge as the leaders for the offensive line.

Michigan State

New faces on defense:

Despite losing six starters, the Spartans should remain one of the best defenses in the nation in 2014. But there’s no question a transition period is ahead with the departure of cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover and safety Isaiah Lewis. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t hurting for talent, as end Shilique Calhoun is one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten, and cornerback Trae Waynes is poised to emerge as an All-Big Ten performer. This spring is all about Narduzzi getting the new faces acclimated into starting roles on the depth chart. Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons will be tasked with anchoring the interior of the line, while some shuffling is needed at linebacker with the departure of Bullough and Allen. At cornerback, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson were listed as the backup to Dennard last season. Will one of those players emerge as the starter? Or will Narduzzi take a look at Darian Hicks opposite of Waynes? This defense certainly has its share of question marks, but Narduzzi should find the right answers before the season opener.

Ohio State

Starting over on the offensive line:

Going into the 2013 season, the Buckeyes had one of the best offensive lines in the nation. What a difference a year makes. Ohio State is essentially starting over in the trenches with only one starter returning as the team is set to open spring practice on March 4. The list of departed players is heavy on all-conference performers, with center Corey Linsley, guard Andrew Norwell and tackle Jack Mewhort all taking home first-team honors last year. Guard Marcus Hall didn’t earn a first or second-team mention, but he garnered an honorable mention spot for the all-conference team. Ohio State recruits as well as any team in the nation, so talent won’t be an issue. However, it may take some time for the line to jell and develop consistency. Taylor Decker is the unit’s only returning starter and is expected to shift from right to left tackle this spring. Replacing Decker on the right side could be senior Darryl Baldwin, and guard Pat Elflein should be a starter at one of the guard spots. But who replaces Linsley at center? Will that be Jacoby Boren? Ohio State should have a spot among the top-10 teams in the nation in 2014. However, the Buckeyes won’t finish ahead of Michigan State in their division unless the line quickly emerges as a strength.

Penn State

Finding a go-to receiver for quarterback Christian Hackenberg:

Spring practice in Happy Valley is all about getting acclimated to the new surroundings and players for new coach James Franklin. The former Vanderbilt coach is inheriting a talented roster from Bill O’Brien, including rising star Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. As a true freshman last season, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his throws. Of Penn State’s 241 completions in 2013, 97 of those went to Allen Robinson. As expected, Robinson chose to leave early for the NFL in early January, leaving Eugene Lewis (18 receptions) as the team’s top returner at receiver. The Nittany Lions are loaded with talent at tight end, starting with Kyle Carter (18 receptions last year), Adam Breneman and Jesse James. But who will step up at receiver? Is Lewis ready to be the go-to guy? How much of an impact will incoming freshman De’Andre Thompkins make this spring? Answering the question marks at receiver, along with addressing the secondary are two key areas to watch for Penn State over the next few months.


Finding answers on defense:

The Scarlet Knights have question marks on both sides of the ball, but the defense is the bigger area of concern in a division with Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. Rutgers allowed 412.8 yards per game last season (5.7 yards per play) and gave up 34 points per game in eight American Athletic Conference contests. Youth played a role in the defensive struggles, as the Scarlet Knights lost a handful of key contributors from 2012. New coordinator Joe Rossi will have his hands full in 2014, but there are a few building blocks in place. The linebacking corps is solid with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder returning, while tackle Darius Hamilton could be an all-conference performer on the interior. The secondary took its share of lumps last season, but nearly everyone returns, including Anthony Cioffi who played in 12 games as a true freshman. Rossi coordinated the defense in the Pinstripe Bowl against Notre Dame, and the Scarlet Knights managed to hold the Fighting Irish to 5.5 yards per play. Don’t expect this unit to become a shutdown group by the season opener. But with Rossi calling the plays on a full-time basis and another offseason for the young talent to work with the staff, Rutgers should be able to find some improvement on defense this spring.

West Division Spring Outlook


Developing the defensive line:

We could pick a couple of storylines to watch for Illinois, but considering Bill Cubit’s track record of success, the Fighting Illini should be able to figure out a few answers in the receiving corps for new quarterback Wes Lunt. A bigger issue for third-year coach Tim Beckman is the defense, specifically the line. Opponents pounded Illinois’ defense for 277.6 rushing yards per game in Big Ten action, while this unit also allowed 24 scores on the ground in that span. Tim Kynard is the only significant loss on the line, but there’s also very little in the way of potential all-conference talent. To jumpstart the competition this spring, Beckman is bringing in two early enrollees to compete for time. Junior college recruit Joe Fotu had 2.5 sacks at Laney Community College last year, while incoming freshman Paul James III ranked as the No. 200 recruit in the nation by ESPN in 2013. More help is also on the way from junior college recruit Jihad Ward in the fall. Each unit on the defense has to improve for Illinois to make a bowl in 2014. Can Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks find a few answers this spring?


Finding replacements at linebacker:

Iowa usually finds quality linebackers, so this isn’t likely to be a glaring concern when the season begins. However, the Hawkeyes are losing three impact defenders at this position, so the spotlight will be on the new starters this spring. Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris each tallied over 100 stops last season and will be missed. Senior Quinton Alston is the unit’s most-experienced option, recording 24 stops over the last three years. Reggie Spearman is a name to remember after playing in 10 games as a true freshman, while Travis Perry should have the inside track to grab the third starting spot.


Mitch Leidner takes over as the No. 1 quarterback:

Shortly after the regular season ended, Philip Nelson decided to transfer from Minnesota to Rutgers, leaving Leidner as the top quarterback entering spring practice. The Minnesota native performed well in limited action last season, throwing for 619 yards and three touchdowns on 43 completions. Leidner also rushed for 407 yards, including 151 yards against San Jose State. With Nelson moving on, Leidner has a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. Working with the first-team offense should help the sophomore transition into the starting lineup, but the Golden Gophers also need to work on developing more options in the receiving corps. Drew Wolitarsky is the top returning wide receiver with 15 catches, while tight end Maxx Williams grabbed 25 passes last year. Leidner needs to prove he can consistently beat defenses with his arm, but his development will also hinge on improvement from the receiving corps.


Starting over on the offensive line:

It’s easy to pencil in the development of Tommy Armstrong here, but Nebraska’s biggest concern on offense should be the line. Four key players from last year are gone, including center Cole Pensick, tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale and guard Andrew Rodriguez. Left guard Jake Cotton is the only returning starter. Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy combined for five starts last season and should figure into the mix in 2014. But what happens at the tackle spots? Zach Sterup has the necessary size (6-foot-8, 315 pounds) to anchor the right side of the line, and he will have an opportunity to claim a starting spot this spring. Junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo redshirted last year and was a touted recruit in last year’s class. Will he factor into the rotation in the trenches? Or will junior Matt Finnin claim the left tackle job vacated by Qvale? Coordinator Tim Beck and line coaches Barney Cotton and John Garrison will be busy this spring as they look to find the right combination up front.


Trevor Siemian’s time at quarterback:

Northwestern’s five victories last season were the fewest under coach Pat Fitzgerald since a 4-8 mark in 2006. Injuries played a significant role in the disappointing win total, especially with the loss of standout running back Venric Mark early in the year. But 2014 is a new season, and the Wildcats return 16 starters that should help this team rebound back into bowl contention. Kain Colter departs at quarterback, and after sharing the job the last two years, Trevor Siemian is set to take the No. 1 job this spring. Siemian isn’t the runner that Colter was, but he threw for 3,461 yards over the last two years. But is he ready to be the full-time quarterback? Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, who is a dual-threat option that could work his way into the mix. This spring is Siemian’s chance to put his stamp on the starting job, as well as develop a rapport with a talented receiving corps.


Finding playmakers on offense:

In eight Big Ten contests last year, Purdue averaged just 4.4 yards per play and 13 points per game. Those numbers are a far cry from the Joe Tiller era in West Lafayette, and second-year coach Darrell Hazell opens spring practice looking for answers. Quarterback play is under the microscope after three players received snaps last year. Danny Etling took the majority of snaps and finished his freshman campaign by throwing 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns. Etling has room to improve, and he will be pushed by Austin Appleby and early enrollee David Blough. The question marks extend to the running backs, where leading rusher Akeem Hunt managed just 464 yards last year. And the Boilermakers need to more consistency from the receiving corps, as well as improved play from the offensive line (39 sacks allowed last season). This spring is Hazell and coordinator John Shoop’s first opportunity to find some answers before 2014.


Improving the passing attack:

The Badgers lose several key pieces from the defense, but the passing offense is expected to receive the most attention from coach Gary Andersen this spring. In eight Big Ten games last year, Wisconsin averaged only 201.9 yards per game and tossed nine picks to just 13 touchdowns. Joel Stave started all 13 games last season, but he will face competition from Tanner McEvoy, who is slated to return under center after spending time at safety in 2013. In addition to McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins are expected to get an extended look under center in the preseason. The Badgers’ passing concerns don’t stop at quarterback. Receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen have expired their eligibility, leaving the cupboard a little thin in proven options in the receiving corps. This spring presents a huge opportunity for players like Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright to make an impression at receiver.

Big Ten Football 2014 Spring Preview and Storylines
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 11:19
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-26-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 26.

• As the NHL skates back into action, enjoy .

• MLB photo days are just the best. .

• Wichita State is 30-0. Is that something? .



. I'm headed to the backyard as soon as I finish here.

• A feel-good palate cleanser to start your day: .

• In other high school action, .

• The high schoolers are taking over. .

. Just because.

is making the rounds this morning.

• Tom Izzo dances on a ladder in a strange new commercial.


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

Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 10:41
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-10-running-backs-rise-2014

With spring practice already underway for some college football teams, the countdown to the 2014 season has officially started. There’s still a long way to go before August and the season opener, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which players are ready for a big jump in production.

Earlier this spring, . Now, the focus shifts to the running backs. There always seems to be a couple of running backs who where relatively unknown heading into the year but finish among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards. That trend should continue in 2014, as there are plenty of talented backs on the cusp of a breakout year.

Florida State’s Karlos Williams flashed his big-play potential after moving from safety early in the season. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder leaving for the NFL, Williams - and touted true freshman Dalvin Cook - should handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield. Another player to keep an eye on is Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. With Carlos Hyde departing, Elliott is due to become the No. 1 back in Columbus. Can he record over 1,000 yards next year?

In addition to Williams and Elliott, here are a few other running backs that could be breakout stars in 2014.

College Football’s Top 10 Running Backs on the Rise for 2014

Tevin Coleman, Indiana
An ankle injury robbed Coleman of three games at the end of the season, and he finished the year just short of 1,000 yards (958). Coleman scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2013, averaged an impressive 7.3 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 193 yards. Despite playing in nine games, the Illinois native earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. The Hoosiers should have one of the Big Ten’s top passing attacks with Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson returning at quarterback, but Coleman should expect to see more opportunities in 2014. Prior to his injury, Coleman had back-to-back 100-yard efforts, including 215 yards against Illinois. If he stays healthy, Coleman will surpass 1,000 yards and could push for a spot on the first or second All-Big Ten team.

Ezekiel Elliott/Dontre Wilson, Ohio State
Keeping quarterback Braxton Miller upright and healthy is a huge part of Ohio State’s playoff hopes in 2014. The best way for the Buckeyes to accomplish that goal? Surround their Heisman Trophy candidate with a strong supporting cast. Carlos Hyde led the way on the ground last season, rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 attempts. Miller was the team second-leading rusher, recording 1,068 yards on 171 carries. Reducing Miller’s workload should be a priority, and Elliott appears to be poised to take over Hyde’s position as the top running back. The Missouri native was impressive in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 attempts. Elliott scored twice and averaged an impressive 8.7 yards per carry. It’s unrealistic to expect the sophomore to maintain that average with more attempts, but he possesses a good blend of size and speed to handle at least 200 carries for the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014. And while we mention the Ohio State backfield, don't forget about Wilson. As a true freshman last year, he averaged 8.1 yards per carry on 31 attempts. Elliott and Wilson should be a dynamic combination for the Buckeyes in 2014.

D.J. Foster, Arizona State
With Marion Grice dealing with a leg injury late in the year, Foster moved into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, and Arizona State’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat. In a 58-21 win over rival Arizona, Foster rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and he posted 132 yards on 20 attempts against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Even though Foster and Grice were similar in yards per carry last season, both brought something different to the table. Foster is more of an all-around threat, but he is likely to see his workload increase in 2014 with Grice expiring his eligibility. The Arizona native led the nation in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653) by a running back in 2013 and was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection. Foster may not handle 200 carries, but he’s a lock for at least 1,000 yards of total offense.

Leonard Fournette, LSU
High expectations surround Fournette heading into the 2014 season. As the No. 1 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings, the New Orleans native is expected to make an immediate impact, With Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue leaving early for the NFL, Fournette should have a clear path to significant carries as a true freshman. Fournette rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns during his high school career and earned the 2014 Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year award. With a young quarterback taking over, combined with one of the best offensive lines in the SEC returning to Baton Rouge, LSU should plan its offense around the ground attack. With Fournette and Terrence Magee handling the carries, the Tigers should have no trouble pushing for double-digit wins for the fifth consecutive season.

Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri
Missouri’s three-headed monster at running back (Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy and Hansbrough) helped the Tigers finish second in the SEC in rushing offense last year. Josey left for the NFL, but Missouri’s ground game won’t suffer too much with Hansbrough and Murphy returning for 2014. Hansbrough finished second to Josey by rushing for 685 yards and four touchdowns, with his best performance coming against Indiana (104 yards on 13 attempts). The Texas native was picked as the team’s Most Improved Tailback coming out of spring practice and certainly backed up that honor with his play last year. There’s no question Murphy is going to see plenty of opportunities in the backfield. But Hansbrough ranked second among Missouri running backs in carries last season and averaged a healthy six yards per attempt. With potentially 75 more carries on tap this year, Hansbrough should push for 1,000 yards.

Derrick Henry, Alabama
Considering Henry’s production in limited action, it’s probably fair to say the true freshman was underutilized by the coaching staff. 36 attempts isn’t enough of a sample size to determine value, but Henry averaged 10.6 yards per rush and took his only reception of the season (Oklahoma) for a 61-yard score. Even at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, it’s clear Henry is capable of providing some big-play ability outside of his usual thunder. T.J. Yeldon is set to assume the No. 1 spot in the backfield this year, but Henry is due for a significant bump in carries. And with a new quarterback taking over in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to build its offense around Yeldon and Henry’s production in 2014.

Shock Linwood, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be missed, but Art Briles isn’t hurting for options in the backfield. All-name teamer Shock Linwood is slated to be the No. 1 back this spring after a strong showing in 2013. With Seastrunk sidelined due to injury, Linwood rushed for 182 yards against Oklahoma and gashed Texas Tech for 187. The Texas native finished the year with 881 yards and eight touchdowns on 128 attempts. Linwood is a big-play threat in the backfield and should be a preseason first-team all-conference selection. Even though Linwood appears to be capable of handling 200-215 carries, Briles and coordinator Philip Montgomery will likely find a running mate for him this season. A potential candidate will be 220-pound sophomore Devin Chafin or 6-foot-3 incoming freshman Terence Williams. Regardless of the backup situation, Linwood is in for a monster year as Baylor’s No. 1 back.

Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
Roland played sparingly through the first six weeks of the season but provided a spark to Oklahoma State’s rushing attack in the second half of 2013. Roland gashed Iowa State for 219 yards and four touchdowns on 26 attempts and recorded 144 yards and two scores against Oklahoma in the regular season finale. The Cowboys have some turnover on offense to overcome this season, as quarterback Clint Chelf expired his eligibility, and line coach Joe Wickline left for Texas. But the changes should create more opportunities for Roland, as he will handle the bulk of the carries for Oklahoma State’s offense with Jeremy Smith departing. The Cowboys plan to involve junior college recruit Tyreek Hill, freshman Devon Thomas and sophomore Rennie Childs in the rushing attack, but all signs point to Roland emerging as a potential All-Big 12 candidate.

Dwayne Washington, Washington
Change is in the air in Seattle this spring. Steve Sarkisian left for USC, and the Huskies hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State to take the program to the next level. Petersen has a track record of success from his stint in Boise, and he is the right fit for a program that is on the cusp of a spot in the preseason top 25 this year. But Petersen certainly has some work to do this spring. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey depart, leaving big shoes to fill on offense. Sankey’s 1,870 yards won’t be easy to replace, and Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith could use multiple backs in 2014. Washington is a name to remember after he rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a backup role last season. He was a three-star recruit and redshirted in his first year on campus. Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier should factor into the mix, but the guess here is Washington emerges as the Huskies’ No. 1 back this preseason.

Karlos Williams, Florida State
Williams was a five-star talent out of high school and spent the first two years of his career on defense. But shortly after the win over Pittsburgh on Labor Day, the Florida State coaching staff moved Williams to offense, a move some believed should have taken place earlier in his career. As expected, Williams showcased his athleticism and speed in limited duty at running back in 2013, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 attempts. The Florida native averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per carry and is expected to open spring practice as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back. Williams won’t have to carry the entire workload for coach Jimbo Fisher, as top recruit Dalvin Cook will contribute right away, and Ryan Green and Mario Pender will be in the mix for snaps. Even if Williams doesn’t top 200 carries, it’s clear his athleticism and speed will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Look for Williams to have a huge breakout season as the top back in Tallahassee.

Other Names to Watch in 2014

Peyton Barber, Auburn
Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne return, but Barber should find a role in Auburn’s offense this season.

Greg Bryant, Notre Dame
Bryant played in three games (three attempts) before redshirting in 2013. The Florida native ranked as the No. 46 recruit in the 2013 signing class and is poised to take on a larger role in the Notre Dame backfield this year.

Devin Campbell/Anthone Taylor, Buffalo
Campbell rushed for 502 yards as a true freshman in 2012 but recorded only 11 attempts in 2013. Taylor was the top backup to Branden Oliver last season, rushing for 399 yards on 82 attempts. With five starters returning on the offensive line, Campbell or Taylor could emerge as an All-MAC performer.

James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner and Isaac Bennett will share carries once again in 2014, but Conner is due for a bump in opportunities after gashing Bowling Green for 229 yards and one touchdown in the Little Caesars Bowl.

Braylon Heard, Kentucky
Heard averaged 6.7 yards per rush on 52 attempts at Nebraska in 2012. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Heard should team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack.

Elijah Hood, North Carolina
The Tar Heels certainly aren’t hurting for options at running back. Khris Francis, T.J. Logan and Romar Morris combined for 1,065 rushing yards last season, but Larry Fedora and coordinator Seth Littrell will find a way to get Hood involved with the offense. And it may not be long before the true freshman assumes the No. 1 role in the backfield.

Kareem Hunt, Toledo
The Rockets have produced a 1,000-yard rusher for four consecutive years. Hunt should continue that streak in 2014 after rushing for 866 yards and six touchdowns on 137 attempts last year. He could be one of the top statistical backs outside of the BCS in 2014, especially with a solid offensive line leading the way in Toledo.

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Hurd ranked as the No. 40 recruit in the 2014 signing class by the 247Sports Composite rankings. At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Hurd is a physical specimen at running back with an intriguing blend of speed and power. The Tennessee native will have a chance to earn playing time this spring with the departure of Rajion Neal.

Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
The Sooners have a trio of talented options in the backfield. Keith Ford and Alex Ross played sparingly last season, but both players were big-time recruits. Mixon will join the competition this summer, and the California native was the No. 1 all-purpose back according to 247Sports. Ford and Ross will factor into the mix, but it will be tough to keep Mixon off the field in 2014.

Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Adam Muema made a surprising decision to leave San Diego State for the NFL, but the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Rocky Long. Pumphrey rushed for 752 yards and eight scores, while catching 22 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Pumphrey seems to be suited as part of a tandem approach in the backfield. However, he should approach at least 200 overall touches as a sophomore.

Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
, and his backfield mate deserves a mention here. Robinson has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over the last two years and rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries against Arkansas last season.

Barry Sanders, Stanford
Son of NFL great Barry Sanders was a top-100 recruit in the 2012 signing class and rushed for 52 yards on five attempts in his first taste of game action in 2013. With Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson departing, Sanders is due for an increased workload in what appears to be a backfield-by-committee approach for Stanford in 2014.

Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason is no stranger to a run-first mentality on offense after spending the last four years at Stanford. The Commodores may not copy that exact gameplan with former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell calling the plays, but the offensive line should be solid with four starters back, and the offense should lean to the run with two young quarterbacks (Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary) battling for time. Seymour is only 5-foot-7, but the Florida native led the team in attempts (164), yards (716) and touchdowns last year (14). With a few more attempts and a solid offensive line leading the way, Seymour should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.

Rushel Shell, West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen is known for his offenses, especially of the passing variety. But with a loaded backfield returning to Morgantown, the Mountaineers should lean on the ground in 2014. Dreamius Smith, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are in the mix, with Shell joining the action after sitting out 2013 as a transfer from Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native ranked as the No. 5 running back by Athlon Sports in the 2012 signing class. He may not win the job outright, but Shell will make a difference for the Mountaineers.

William Stanback, UCF
Storm Johnson bolted early for the NFL, but UCF’s backfield is set with Stanback returning after a solid freshman season. In 13 games, Stanback rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns on 105 attempts. His best performance came against Houston (74 yards), while also rushing for 65 yards against Louisville.

Kelvin Taylor, Florida
Taylor’s performance was one of the few bright spots in Florida’s dreadful offense last year. He rushed for 508 yards and four scores in his true freshman campaign, including 96 in a 19-14 loss to South Carolina. If the Gators can find some answers in the trenches, Taylor could approach 1,000 yards with the right opportunities.

Thomas Tyner, Oregon
Oregon certainly isn’t hurting for options in the backfield. Byron Marshall returns after rushing for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, while true freshman Royce Freeman is another weapon for coordinator Scott Frost. Tyner rushed for 711 yards and nine scores as a true freshman in 2013, and the Oregon native is the team’s top big-play threat in the backfield. Even though Marshall has earned his carries, and Freeman is due for a role, Tyner needs more carries this season.

Myles Willis, Boston College
The Eagles probably won’t replace Andre Williams with one player, but Willis proved to be a capable option in limited action last year. The Georgia native rushed for 346 yards on 60 attempts (5.8 ypc), including 70 on 17 attempts against Syracuse. With a solid offensive line returning to Chestnut Hill next year, Willis should find plenty of room to run in 2014.

Aaron Wimberly, Iowa State
New coordinator Mark Mangino is tasked with improving an Iowa State offense that finished eighth in the Big 12 last season. Getting the ball to Wimberly should be a priority after he rushed for 567 yards on 141 attempts in 2013, including an 117-yard performance against Texas.

College Football's Top 10 Running Backs on the Rise for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/top-10-acc-offensive-linemen-bcs-era

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

The ACC has been knocked for its overall lack of football talent in recent years. While it is hard to find elite running backs, for example, from the BCS Era, there is no lack of big-time talent along the offensive line. And most of it appears to come from either Florida State — six of the top 20 — or the state of Virginia — six of the top 15. And the overall theme for the best the ACC had to offer up front on offense appears to be longevity. There were more than a few four-year stalwarts along the offensive line from the conference during the BCS Era.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia (2002-05)
Ferguson started 49 games in his Virginia career — all at left tackle —  helping the Cavaliers to four straight bowl games. He was a two-time, first-team All-ACC selection and earned All-American honors in his final season in Charlottesville. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and has gone to three Pro Bowls.

2. Alex Barron, Florida State (2001-04)
The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder was Florida State’s top lineman of the BCS Era. He was a consensus All-American in 2003 and a unanimous All-American in 2004. Barron was an Outland Trophy finalist in his final season as well. His teams never won fewer than eight games, won two ACC titles and went 26-6 in conference play over that span. Barron was the 19th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Rams.

3. Steve Justice, Wake Forest (2004-07)
Few players have meant more to their school than Justice did to Wake Forest. After enduring two losing seasons as an underclassman, Justice was the first-team All-ACC pivot for arguably the greatest team in school history. He led the way on the 11-win, ACC championship squad of 2006. He came back for his senior year and earned his second first-team All-ACC nod and was a consensus All-American as well. Justice was a Rimington finalist and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC in ’07.

4. Rodney Hudson, Florida State (2007-10)
The mauler from Mobile was a three-time, first-team All-ACC selection, a two-time, first-team All-American and a two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC. He is one of only two guards to ever win the award twice (Elton Brown). He helped return Florida State to the ACC championship game as a senior in 2010 for the first time since '05. Hudson was a second-round pick of the Chiefs in 2011.

5. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina (2009-12)
The massive Tar Heels blocker was a three-time All-ACC performer and an Outland Trophy finalist in 2012. The unanimous All-American won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the league’s top lineman and eventually was the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. He paved the way for the ACC’s top running back (Gio Bernard).

6. Brett Williams, Florida State (1999-2002)
Williams stepped in midway through his freshman season in 1999 to help lead Florida State to a BCS National Championship in just his first season. He then started every game for a team that returned to the title game the following year (losing to Oklahoma). As an upperclassman, Williams earned back-to-back Jacobs Blocking awards as the ACC’s top lineman — one of three players to do so in the BCS Era. He was a three-time All-ACC pick (twice on the first team).

7. Elton Brown, Virginia (2001-04)
Brown was one of just four players in school history to earn consensus All-American honors at Virginia when he did so as a senior. He was awarded the Jacobs Blocking Trophy twice — one of three to do so during the BCS Era — and was an All-ACC player. Virginia went to three bowl games in his final three seasons, winning 25 games over that span. He was a fourth-round pick in 2005.

8. Branden Albert, Virginia (2005-07)
Albert became just the second true freshman to start for Virginia along the offensive line since 1972 when he entered the lineup in 2005, earning freshman All-American honors along the way. He started all 37 games for the Cavaliers during his three-year career and was named first-team All-ACC. Albert was a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and has been to the Pro Bowl.

9. Craig Page, Georgia Tech (1996-98)
After one season at Louisville, Page transferred to Tech and was a three-year star for the Yellow Jackets. He was the first Outland finalist in school history as a senior and earned consensus All-American honors as well as the Jacobs Trophy in 1998 for a team that won a share of the ACC championship. Page holds numerous weight lifting records at Tech and started 35 straight games at center for the Ramblin’ Wreck.

10. Kyle Young, Clemson (1998-01)
Young was a two-time All-American and two-time Rimington Finalist during his time at Clemson. He was a three-time, first-team All-ACC pick and was a part of three bowl teams for Clemson.

Just missed the cut:

11. Cameron Erving, Florida State (2011-present)
After playing every game in 2011 as a freshman defensive lineman, Erving moved to the O-line where he has started two full seasons on back-to-back ACC title teams. He was the Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner for the BCS National Champions in 2013 as he and linemate Bryan Stork headed up the protection of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Erving was an All-American and All-ACC selection.

12. Bryan Stork, Florida State (2010-13)
Stork worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman and then started for the final three years of his career. He led the way as the center on back-to-back ACC championship teams and the BCS National Champions as a senior. He was an All-American and Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center as a senior.

13. Eugene Monroe, Virginia (2005-08)
Learning from Ferguson, Monroe entered the starting lineup midway through his sophomore season. He was an All-ACC pick as a junior and didn’t allow a sack all season. He was first-team All-ACC as a senior and won the Jacobs Trophy as the league’s top offensive lineman. Monroe was the eighth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

14. Duane Brown, Virginia Tech (2004-07)
The Hokies won two ACC championships and played in another conference title game during his four-year run in Blacksburg. He switched from tight end as a freshman to offensive line and started their the rest of his career. He was an all-conference selection (second-team) in both of his upper class seasons and eventually was a first-round pick of the Texans in 2008. He’s been to two Pro Bowls.

15. Blake DeChristopher, Virginia Tech (2008-11)
DeChristopher was a huge part of two ACC championship teams and three division-winning teams at Tech. He was a first-team All-ACC pick and Jacobs Trophy winner — the first in school history — as a senior in 2011. He started every game but one in his final three seasons in Blacksburg.

16. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College (2008-11)
The big fella from Illinois was the first true freshman to start on the offensive line for Boston College since 1998 — and he did it on a team that went to the ACC championship game. He was a freshman All-American and two-time All-ACC pick as an upperclassman. He set the BC record with 54 consecutive starts and was a Rhodes Scholar nominee in 2010.

17. Chris Brown, Georgia Tech (1997-00)
A four-year starter, Brown got the nod in 43 of his 48 career games. He was named a consensus All-American as a senior and was part of a team that won 34 games, a share of an ACC title and went to four bowl games.

18. Eric Winston, Miami (2002-05)
Winston was a tight end on the 2002 team that lost to Ohio State in the BCS title game as a freshman. He then switched to O-line and was one of the team best blockers as just a sophomore before missing most of the ’04 season with a torn ACL. He returned for his final season to earn the Jacobs Blocking Trophy and All-ACC honors before getting selected in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft.

19. Josh Beekman, Boston College (2003-06)
Beekman started 37 straight games for the Eagles during his time in Chestnut Hill. He was an All-American as a senior and was named the ACC's top offensive lineman as the recipient of the Jacobs Trophy. He just missed playing in two ACC title games but helped build the foundation for those teams.

20. Tarlos Thomas, Florida State (1998-01)
He was a starter in every game on back-to-back ACC championship teams and in back-to-back BCS National Championship Games. He was the Jacobs Blocking Trophy recipient as the top ACC lineman on the the Noles team that won the national title in ’99. He tore his ACL and missed most of his senior season, however, otherwise he could have landed much higher on this list.

Top 10 ACC Offensive Linemen of the BCS Era
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-12-football-rosters-2014

Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.

So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.

When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.

When it comes to the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma stand above the rest — in all senses of football success. These two normally dominate the headlines, the standings and the recruiting trail. And one quick look at the last five years' worth of recruiting rankings indicate this is still very much the case in the Big 12. However, the rise of potential Big 12 powers in other Heartland outposts have flipped the conference standings upside down for the most part — which is why there is a new coach in Austin.

Here is how the Big 12 rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Big 12 based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.

 Team '14'13'12'11'10Avg.W/LConf.
3.Oklahoma State283232252728.839-1324-11
5.Texas Tech414625184434.830-2114-21
6.West Virginia363136493337.030-2116-16
9.Kansas State496174516760.436-1623-12
10.Iowa State566067596461.219-3111-24

What did we learn?

Charlie Strong has no excuses
Mack Brown is one of the nicest guys to ever coach in major college football and that might have been part of the problem. The Longhorns have the best roster in the Big 12 and the seventh-best roster in the nation heading into the 2014 season. Yet, Brown and the Horns are ahead of only Kansas (10) and Iowa State (19) in the Big 12 in overall wins in the last four seasons. The 18 conference wins over that span rank sixth in the Big 12 as well. The bottom line is that Charlie Strong enters a situation where he's taking over a team that has dramatically underachieved despite having the best players in the league, at least according to the recruiting rankings. There are no excuses for Strong, especially if he keeps Texas atop the Big 12 recruiting rankings as expected.

Bill Snyder doesn’t care about any of this
Let’s face it, there is really only one coach in college football who can take the 60th-best roster in America and consistently win 10 games a season and that is Bill Snyder. His roster ranks ahead of only Iowa State’s entering Big 12 play and just behind in-state “rival” Kansas. Yet, the Wildcats have 26 more overall wins and 21 more conference wins than the Jayhawks over the last four years. Snyder won the Big 12 title in 2012 and consistently beats more talented teams on a yearly basis. He lives on the edge with junior college players but he has proven that he is a unique motivator and one-of-a-kind head coach.

Emerging powers
Baylor and Oklahoma State have won the past two Big 12 championships, as both Mike Gundy and Art Briles have built powerhouses in Stillwater in Waco. The recruiting rankings bear this out as both the Cowboys and Bears are nipping on the heels of the two big boys from Norman and Austin. Gundy (39 wins) and Briles (36) are second and third in the league in wins and have slowly built rosters that are beginning to be comparable to Texas and Oklahoma. The drop off in overall recruiting talent is still a large one as both the Horns and Sooners reside in the top 10 nationally while both Okie State and Baylor are outside of the top 25. But as fans in the Big 12 have seen, few coaches level the playing field better with schematics than Briles and Gundy. And now, it appears those two programs are elevating their stock on the recruiting trail as well.

Welcome to the big time
Gary Patterson has an impressive 35-16 overall record and 22-12 conference record over the last four years. That, of course, is with two decidedly different seasons each in the Mountain West and two in the Big 12. All 12 of those conference losses have come in the last two seasons in the Big 12 and 14 of those 16 overall losses have come in the last two seasons. TCU has seen a strong surge on the recruiting trail — from 62nd in 2010 to an average of 34th nationally over the last four cycles. This seems to indicate that the Frogs will be able to compete in the Big 12 once they gain their footing. How soon that will happen remains to be seen.

Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia are in the same boat as TCU. After finishing atop the Big East standings nearly every year in recruiting, the Mountaineers now sit sixth in the Big 12 in terms of talent entering the '14 season. Both of these teams are adjusting to a massive step up in competition and it will take time to win at a rate that either experienced in their former leagues. But much like TCU, West Virginia has a comparable roster to teams like Baylor and Texas Tech and should be able to flourish in the Big 12 over the long haul.

Captain Skinny Jeans
Kliff Kingsbury’s first season at the helm was an interesting one in Lubbock. He won his first seven games over teams with lesser talent, lost his next five against teams with better talent and then pulled off the huge upset over Arizona State in the postseason. Texas Tech enters this season with the fifth-best roster in the league but is trending in the wrong direction in recruiting. After two classes ranked in the top 25 under Tommy Tuberville, Kingsbury’s first two hauls have ranked outside of the top 40. Does he need elite players to win with his unique offensive system? Probably not. But should he not regain some footing on the recruiting trail in short order, his depth chart could take a hit. This would more than likely translate to fewer Ws and more Ls on the field, especially in Big 12 play.

Ranking the Big 12 Football Rosters for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/pinpointing-coaches-year-every-major-college-basketball-conference

With a little more than two weeks to Selection Sunday, the college basketball season almost certainly has a few more surprises even before the NCAA Tournament.

Some of those, though, won’t be many of the best coaching jobs in each league. By now, we know the teams that have overachieved, teams that have faced some of the most adversity and teams that have thrived despite of limitations.

For the most part, we know who is in contention for coach of the year in every major conference even before the invitations to the NCAA Tournament.

Maybe other programs not listed here will catch a hot streak in the postseason. Maybe others will falter. But for many of these, we need little more information to declare the following coaches frontrunners for their league’s coach of the year honors.

Tony Bennett, Virginia

Saturday seemed to be the day the light bulb went off everywhere but Charlottesville: Virginia can win the ACC regular season title. The Cavaliers took up first place with Syracuse’s loss to Duke. Despite Syracuse’s undefeated start to the season, Jim Boeheim’s costly outburst against Duke may cost him coach of the year hardware. Bennett’s doing this on his own merits, though. The build, like Virginia’s playing style, has been methodical. The Cavs have increased their ACC win total each season under Bennett. The difference this season has been the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon as a scorer to complement Joe Harris. While the traditional metrics indicate a modest improvement in the offensive end to 65.9 points per game, Virginia is a top-50 team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating for the first time under Bennett.
Other challengers? North Carolina’s Roy Williams

Larry Brown, SMU

The hire of Brown at SMU was questionable two seasons ago as the then-72-year-old coach ventured back into college basketball for the first time since 1988. And beyond that, SMU was more than a decade removed from its last season with a winning record in conference play. To put that in further perspective, that was three coaches and two conferences ago. This didn't seem to be a job for a veteran coach nearing retirement. But after overhauling the roster in his first season, Brown has SMU on the brink of its first NCAA Tournament since 1993. The Mustangs aren’t totally feasting on the bottom half of the American, either. SMU has swept the season series against Connecticut and defeated Cincinnati and Memphis at home.
Other challengers? UConn’s Kevin Ollie

Atlantic 10
Jim Crews, Saint Louis

The tempting pick is Mark Lonergan of George Washington. Athlon picked the Colonials 10th in the conference, but they’re pushing for an NCAA bid. Sometimes, though, it helps not to overthink these selections. Crews, who was not named the permanent head coach until April, has Saint Louis undefeated in a surprisingly deep league. The Billikens are one of the top defensive teams in the country and count only two losses by single digits to Wisconsin and Wichita State.
Other challengers? George Washington’s Mark Lonergan, UMass’ Derek Kellogg, St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli

Big 12
Bill Self, Kansas

It seems too easy to pick the team that has already clinched at least a share of the conference title, but there’s more to this season for Self. The Jayhawks lost their entire starting five from last year, and although they added the best freshman class in the country, they played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. Andrew Wiggins started his career inconsistently, and point guard play was suspect early as well. Kansas indeed has the best roster in the league, but give Self credit for winning his 10th consecutive league title with more than week to go.
Other challengers? Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg

Big East
Jay Wright, Villanova

It would be a disservice to Villanova to boil its season down to the two lopsided losses to Creighton, the Wildcats’ only two losses in Big East play. This is still a team that defeated Kansas and Iowa early in the year. After an uneven 2012-13 and a losing season in 2011-12, Villanova is on its way to its best win total in four seasons.
Other contenders? Creighton’s Greg McDermott

Big Ten
John Beilein, Michigan

Just think of the adjustments Michigan has made this season: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left school early. Mitch McGary has played eight games all season. And then go-to scoring threat Nik Stauskas went into a midseason slump. The Wolverines have developed Caris LeVert into an impact player and freshman Derrick Walton into a Big Ten-caliber point guard. Michigan leads for the Big Ten title with arguably a better offensive team than a year ago.
Other contenders? Nebraska’s Tim Miles

Missouri Valley
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

The Shockers are making a bid to be the first team to enter the conference tournaments undefeated since St. Joseph’s in 2004 and first to be undefeated on Selection Sunday since UNLV in 1991. Case closed.

Mountain West
Steve Fisher, San Diego State

By the time New Mexico defeated San Diego State on Saturday, it was easy to forget that the Lobos were a near-unanimous pick to win the Mountain West. Meanwhile, San Diego State was picked fourth by Athlon and by the media in the preseason poll. The Aztecs had to replace Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, but the development of Xavier Thames enabled San Diego State to climb as high as No. 5 in the AP poll.
Other contenders? New Mexico’s Craig Neal

Tad Boyle, Colorado

Colorado has managed to keep its head above water despite the season-ending injury for Spencer Dinwiddie on Jan. 12. The Buffaloes are 5-5 since then, but haven’t lost to a team outside of the RPI top 50 without Dinwiddie starting. If Colorado can navigate these last three road games against Utah, Stanford and Cal, Boyle should have his team in the NCAA Tournament, a remarkable feat.
Other contenders? Arizona’s Sean Miller, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak

Billy Donovan, Florida

For the most part, the SEC has been lackluster this season. Not Florida, though. The Gators are doing things they haven’t done since winning back-to-back national titles, including reaching the No. 1 spot in the polls and defeating Kentucky and Tennessee on the road in the same season. Now, Donovan has his eyes set on Florida’s first perfect SEC record in school history.
Other contenders? Georgia’s Mark Fox

Pinpointing Coaches of the Year for Every Major College Basketball Conference
Post date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /15-most-athletic-freaks-nfl-combine-history

The NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 22-25) is crossing the finish line on another so-called “Underwear Olympics.” The Combine is just one step in the job interview process leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft (May 8-10). But make no mistake, millions of dollars are on the line during the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic test and BOD Pod tests.

With all 32 teams bringing a who’s who of owners, general managers, head coaches, coordinators and scouts to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, some players shrink in the spotlight. But these 15 prospects were workout warriors who aced their tests at the NFL Scouting Combine.

1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1985
The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.

2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989
In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006
Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.

4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995
After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.

5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012
The fastest quarterback in Combine history — faster than uber athlete Cam Newton and draft classmate Andrew Luck — RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL and commercial superstardom, with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.

6. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis – 2012
While the Heisman Trophy-winning RG3 was a high-profile, pretty boy quarterback looking like a million bucks in Indy, Poe was a relative unknown fat boy nose tackle making himself who knows how many millions with his effort at the Combine. The 6’4”, 346-pound heavyweight ran a 4.98 in the 40 and powered through 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

7. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008
Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride. CJ has not, however, been able to set up a race against Usain Bolt.

8. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989
The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.

9. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech –2007
With his draft stock holding strong near the top of the class, Johnson planned on kicking back and watching the festivities. But once the fireworks started, Megatron’s competitive juices started flowing and he decided he wanted to run after all. The only problem? He didn’t bring any track shoes. So Johnson borrowed a pair of spikes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney — then proceeded to run a blistering 4.32 in the 40.

10. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama – 2011
With everyone in the building looking for the “next Megatron,” Julio gave scouts a sneak peak at the new model of NFL wideout — weighing in at 6’3”, 220 pounds before flying for a 4.39 in the 40, skying for a 38.5” vertical and exploding for an 11’3” broad jump.

11. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011
In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6’5”, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

12. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma – 2013
A high school quarterback turned college tight end turned NFL top-5 pick offensive tackle, Johnson took an unorthodox route to the league. But the 6’6”, 303-pounder put on an incredible display of athleticism, with a tight end-style 4.72 in the 40, a 34” vertical and 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench.

13. Matt Jones, QB/WR, Arkansas – 2008
Another change-of-position guy (albeit with far less success), Jones was a 6’6”, 237-pound quarterback with questionable mental makeup but 4.37 speed in the 40. The Jaguars thought he could play wide receiver. As usual, Jacksonville was wrong.

14. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008
One of the main reasons teams remain skeptical of off-the-charts Combine stats, Gholston was the classic “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.” In shorts and a muscle shirt, Gholston ran a 4.67 in the 40, had 37 reps on the bench and lifted off for a 35.5” vertical and 10’5” broad jump.

15. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina – 2014
The ghost of Gholston haunts every team leery of every physical freak at the Combine. Clowney has a Julius Peppers meets Zeus frame of 6’5” and 266 pounds. After essentially taking off his junior season, Clowney came down from on high long enough to run a brilliant 4.53 — faster even than Johnny Football — and post a 37.5” vertical and 10’4” broad jump. His 21 reps of 225 pounds were a potential red flag, if only because the lower-than-expected number woke the trolls who question Clowney’s motor. No one questions his athletic ability.


The greatest athletes in the history of the "Underwear Olympics"
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 18:15
Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-daytona-500

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

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

America loves rankings, right? Ranking the drivers in this tantalizing crop can be maddening, especially considering we have just one week’s worth of a sample size to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, that sample was collected at Daytona. Although it’s The World Center of Racing, its restrictor plate racing style rears its head just four times over the course of the annual Cup Series calendar and isn’t indicative of everything a driver does in a single season.

Way too soon to rank the competitors? Perhaps. That’s why, to fill the many gaps, I have incorporated what we know of each driver dating back to their previous limited showings in the Cup Series in 2013 and their performance in NASCAR’s lower divisions.

For the top-ranked driver, consideration of his past performance does wonders because his Daytona 500 debut was one he’d be inclined to forget.

Kyle Larson1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 – In 2013, everything Larson touched turned to gold (except at Daytona, which we’ll get to in a second). He led NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars in and , though neither showed in Turner Scott Motorsports equipment. Though he failed to win a race, he did manage four runner-up finishes last season.

A last-lap accident in the Nationwide opener at Daytona last year resulted in him nearly going to the stands as part of a hellacious flip. This year’s effort at Daytona was less violent, but just as eventful. In total, he crashed three times during the 500. Though not all the incidents were of his doing, it didn’t do much to quell the notion that the rim-riding rookie is prone to crashing; his 0.36 in 2013 was the highest among Nationwide Series regulars.

Parker Kligerman2. Parker Kligerman, No. 30 – Kligerman’s practice session on the Wednesday prior to the Duel races resulted in him flipping onto his roof. A backup car from a shallow Swan Racing stable didn’t appear to have sufficient enough speed; he didn’t crack the top 10 in the running order once in the Daytona 500, a relatively random race from lap to lap. His reputation precedes him, though, considering his 2.114 ranked 10th overall and fourth among series regulars last year in the Nationwide Series. As he did for much of last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports’s hapless Nationwide arm, he’ll have to make lemonade out of lemons this year with the small Swan operation.

Austin Dillon3. Austin Dillon, No. 3 – Thank goodness for team support. Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing team built a car strong enough to put in the famous number’s return to Cup Series racing. After avoiding the competition in his Duel race — thus, conserving his car and starting spot — Dillon struggled in the 500, securing a minus-15 (48.12 ). Crew chief Gil Martin aptly short-pitted the car well enough on the evening’s first green-flag pit cycle to jump Dillon from 39th to 24th.

Triggering two accidents and missing his pit stall en route to a rookie-best eighth-place finish, Dillon admitted in his post-race interview that, “The yellow stripes on the bumper (signifying rookie status) showed a little bit tonight.”

Cole Whitt4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 – Whitt was involved in a crash during practice on Wednesday, but a Swan crew led by Whitt’s long-time wrench Randy Cox buffed out a lot of the cosmetic damage prior to his Duel race. Amazingly, he spent all but three laps of it running 15th (the final transfer position) or better. In the 500, he found himself close to the top 5 near the ends of pit cycles, which could have translated into a higher-than-expected finish had the race gone green for the duration. He ended up being one of the casualties of the same accident that bit fellow Swan driver Parker Kligerman.

Alex Bowman5. Alex Bowman, No. 23 – Outside of a pit road speeding penalty on lap 85, Bowman’s Cup Series race was relatively and pleasantly uneventful. He was one of two rookies to actually finish the race (his final spot was 23rd), carrying the flag for a BK Racing organization that failed to put one of its two machines in the show. A serviceable producer last season in the Nationwide Series, it might take Bowman emulating his isolated ability of 2013 in order to go far press on with a team still in search of speed.

Justin Allgaier6. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 – Allgaier’s 50 percent — meaning he passed the same number of times (in his case, 339) he got passed — was tops among rookies in last Sunday’s 500, but his inclusion in the lap 194 accident that set up the race’s final restart shattered his chances at a more desired finishing result. The 27th-place finish was three spots above the average result (30.2) he earned last season in four late-year starts for HScott Motorsports.


Michael Annett7. Michael Annett, No. 7 – In his Duel race, Annett was stymied by the side draft and eventually lost the lead pack altogether, relying on his qualifying time to make the Daytona 500. Once the feature race rolled around, Annett’s issue with the side draft was corrected. He was running ninth with less than 50 laps to go, before being caught up in an accident. If his ability to correct a foible was any indication, anticipate Annett’s second half of the season looking significantly stronger than his first.

Ryan Truex8. Ryan Truex, No. 83 – The biggest knock on Truex coming into this season was his lack of repetitions in smaller NASCAR divisions over the last few years. Missing the biggest race of the season does nothing to assuage that concern. If it can be considered a silver lining, he did manage to acquit himself well in a rare NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start, finishing fourth in last Friday’s season opener.


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


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A weekly ranking of the rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 16:40
Path: /golfs-mt-rushmore

All this talk about the Mt. Rushmore of this and the Mt. Rushmore of that reminded me that the concept works better for golf than any other sport, since golfers naturally organize themselves in groups of four. So who comprises golf's ultimate foursome?

In completing my list, I used two primary criteria: achievement and impact. Who won important golf tournaments, and who transcended the game while doing so?

Here, then, is my ultimate foursome — the four men who have had the greatest, most lasting impact on the game of golf. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong.

Tiger Woods

Rather than recite Tiger’s resume, I’d rather revisit the one moment that made Woods’ spot on golf’s Mount Rushmore an inevitability. In April 1997, Woods so dominated the most storied and tradition-steeped tournament in golf that the sport was changed forever.

We all remember the Masters-record 18-under par total that Woods shot in his first Masters as a pro. We remember his incredible 12-shot margin of victory. (Runner-up Tom Kite’s 282 total would have been good enough to win 17 previous Masters, but it only got him within 12 shots of Tiger.) We remember the way his mammoth drives turned the par-5s into pitch-and-putts. What many people don’t remember about the 1997 Masters is how badly Tiger started the tournament. On the front nine on Thursday, Woods went out in 40, leaving him 4-over par. That, apparently, is when the stars aligned and the golf gods smiled. Over the next 63 holes, Woods swept through Augusta National like a tornado, toying with the course and demoralizing the greatest players in the world. 

Tiger’s runaway, far from putting a crimp into the television ratings, instead gave golf its greatest ratings winner to date. In 1996, before Woods turned pro, the rating was 9.2 on Sunday. In 1997, when Woods won, the number jumped to 14.1.

The rest, as they say, is history — 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour wins, the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history, and, yes, scandal and disgrace. But the impact and the level of achievement are undeniable and unprecedented.

Jack Nicklaus

Nicklaus brought out greatness in his opponents — Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game through his physical skill and strength, his mental toughness, his sustained level of excellence and his genius for strategically dismantling golf courses around the world.

You know the litany of accomplishments. 18 major championships, more than Hogan and Palmer combined. A mind-boggling 37 top twos in majors.

And lest we think the Tour of the 21st Century outshines the Tour in Jack’s prime, consider this: Nicklaus fought many of the game’s greatest at their very peak and beat them all. And when he didn’t beat them, he coaxed their very best out of them.

As if to prove the point, at age 46, Nicklaus was able to muster enough of his old-time wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, Norman — all of them at the peak of their powers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986 in one of the greatest sports moments of all time.

In his golden years, the Golden Bear has continued to shape the game with his prolific golf course design company. 

Arnold Palmer

There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than the King, Arnold Palmer. He quadrupled purses, brought golf away from the country clubs and into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.

From 1958 to 1968, Palmer reigned amid the azaleas and pines of Augusta National, where Arnie’s Army first mustered. With the lone exception of 1963, he was in contention at every Masters during that epic stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once and fourth twice.

Although he made his reputation at The Masters — and made the tournament what it is today — it was the 1960 U.S. Open that truly captured the King at the peak of his powers. The leaderboard on that final day included a chubby 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus. It included a legend — the Hawk, Ben Hogan. The third member of this historic trio lit a cigarette, stalked to the tee of the 318-yard, par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills and drove the green on his way to a historic final-round 65, erasing a seven-stroke deficit for the greatest comeback in Open history.

Sam Snead

If winning is the standard for determining excellence, there is no greater player in golf history than Sam Snead.

Using a smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing, Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player — a staggering total of 81 PGA Tour titles, and anywhere from 135 to 165 victories worldwide, depending on whom you ask. He posted wins in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in that event), when he was 52 years old.

Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff triumph over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA Championships and a British Open.

There is one hole in the Slammer’s résumé that prevents him from staking a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in history. Somehow, Snead never won the one tournament that seemingly should have been his by birthright. He never won a U.S. Open. But his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish his accomplishments.

His swing was such an efficient device that it served him well into his golden years and remains the gold standard for golf swings. In 1979, he offered golf fans one final glimpse of his greatness, as he became the first player to score below his age, shooting 67 and 66 in the Quad Cities Open at the age of 67. By then, and for the rest of his life, Snead was a beloved ambassador and advocate for the game.


Ben Hogan is widely considered the greatest ball-striker in the game’s history, and he changed golf instruction forever with his Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Along with Nicklaus, Woods, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen, he’s one of five players to own a career Grand Slam. His courage in coming back from a near-fatal car crash added to his legend. His tough-to-love, prickly personality kept him distant from fans and keeps him off Mount Rushmore. Barely.

Gary Player was golf’s first global ambassador, winning tournaments all over the world, including nine major championships.

Seve Ballesteros was Europe’s version of Arnold Palmer, putting a sport on his back and selling it to an entire continent. Almost singlehandedly, he transformed the Ryder Cup into one of the greatest spectacles in sports.

Bobby Jones was the game’s breakthrough superstar who pulled off one of golf’s signature achievements with his 1930 Grand Slam — winning the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateurs in one season. Oh, and he founded The Masters.

Byron Nelson was golf’s greatest gentleman and the author of its greatest individual achievement — 11 wins in a row in 1945, a season in which he won 18 tournaments in all.

Tom Watson won eight majors and dominated golf’s oldest tournament, the British Open, like no one else, winning five times in a nine-year span and coming close to a historic sixth win in 2009 at age 59.  

<p> Who would make the list for professional golf's ultimate foursome?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 16:11
Path: /college-basketball/profiling-minnesota-ncaa-tournament-bubble-watch

Minnesota won an NCAA Tournament game last season, and Tubby Smith was shown the door.

The Gophers are flirting with the NCAA bubble, and first-year coach Richard Pitino has the Minnesota fanbase energized.

Pitino has a chance to be the first first-year coach to reach the Tournament since Bill Muselman in 1972, but the Gophers have to make a major statement this week. The Gophers picked up two major wins in January against Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Pitino’s team has been quiet since then.

As they enter a critical week, Minnesota will look to rediscover the magic from earlier this season. Here’s a look at the Gophers as they enter tonight’s key game against Iowa:

Remaining scheduleBy the numbers
Feb. 24: Iowa
March 1: at Michigan
March 9: Penn State
Record: 17-11, 6-9 Big Ten
RPI: 47
Strength of schedule: 42
KenPom: 58
Best win: Wisconsin at home
Worst loss: Purdue on the road

Why Minnesota could be in the Tournament
The Gophers were the taste of the Big Ten for a week or so in January just as Wisconsin and Ohio State started to slump. Minnesota played a major role in that, defeating the Buckeyes and Badgers in Minneapolis. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, Minnesota has two quick guards able to pick apart opposing defenses.

Why Minnesota could be left out
The Gophers’ best days were in January. Since the upset of Wisconsin, Minnesota is 2-6. That stretch has included losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — teams that are Big Ten Tournament or bust at this point. Minnesota doesn’t have the non-conference resume to force the selection committee to overlook a potential losing record in Big Ten play.

Minnesota needs to: Beat Iowa and/or Michigan this week
Unless Minnesota can defeat Iowa at home today or Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the Gophers’ pair of top-20 wins back in January will look like the exception not the rule. Minnesota’s best win away from home is Richmond on the road, so the Gophers could split the week and still need to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament.

Minnesota can’t afford: A loss to Penn State
Losing to Iowa and Michigan would almost certainly banish Minnesota to the NIT. Minnesota finishes the season with Penn State at home on March 9. A loss there may be NCAA Tournament Kryptonite no matter what happens this week.

Profiling Minnesota: NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 15:08
All taxonomy terms: Missouri Tigers, SEC, College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-bubble-watch-profiling-missouri

Hovering around .500 in the SEC is not great for an NCAA Tournament resume. Missouri could learn how damaging that could be as the Tigers sit on the bubble.

As the Tigers head into tonight’s game against Georgia, Missouri is entering the must-win territory of its schedule, especially after a loss to Alabama on Saturday. Georgia is not a threat to go to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs are comfortable with the spoiler role, defeating bubble teams like Ole Miss and LSU in Athens in February.

Athlon Sports is breaking down some of the most vulnerable bubble teams as the regular season draws to a close, starting today with Missouri as the Tigers head into a key game against Georgia.

Remaining scheduleBy the numbers
Feb. 25: at Georgia
March 1: Mississippi State
March 5: Texas A&M
March 8: at Tennessee
Record: 19-8, 7-7 SEC
RPI: 45
Strength of schedule: 62
KenPom: 54
Best win: UCLA at home
Worst loss: Alabama on the road

Why Missouri could be in the Tournament:
The Tigers have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league in transfers Jordan Clarkson (Tulsa), Jabari Brown (Oregon) and Earnest Ross (Auburn). The Tigers swept the season series against fellow bubble team Arkansas. Mizzou also is 10 days removed from a win over Tennessee. It’s tough to see the SEC garnering fewer than three NCAA Tournament bids, and Missouri has as much of a chance as any.

Why Missouri could be be left out:
Missouri’s team defense is dreadful. The Tigers rank last in defensive efficiency in SEC play on KenPom, a deficiency that led to Missouri’s worst losses of the season to Alabama, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia. Beyond a win over RPI no. 15 UCLA, Missouri does not have another win over a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. Facing Florida and Kentucky once apiece this season — Mizzou lost both — deprives the Tigers of a chance for a signature win.

Missouri needs: To beat Tennessee
A season sweep to Georgia wouldn’t be a great look, but the road trip to Knoxville could be the key game if the Tigers win the next three. A win over Tennessee on the road combined with one win in the SEC Tournament might be enough to keep the Tigers in the field.

Missouri can’t afford: Losses to Mississippi State or Texas A&M
The Tigers are three days removed from their worst loss of the season to RPI No. 117 Alabama. Another loss to a bad team this close to the NCAA Tournament would be a trend rather than an aberration.

Insight from the beat: , Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune
“Missouri missed opportunities to separate itself from all the middling teams in the SEC while too often coming up a little short on the road in league play. ... Missouri needs junior guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson at peak form down the stretch with only one other player (Earnest Ross) averaging more than 5.1 points in SEC play. The Tigers are also going to have to stop surrendering so many open looks from beyond the 3-point arc. They're giving up an average of 7.9 made 3-pointers during SEC play and have allowed five different opponents to make at least 10 against them.”

NCAA Tournament Bubble Watch: Profiling Missouri
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 13:29
All taxonomy terms: Funny, NFL
Path: /nfl/funny-faces-40-yard-dash-nfl-combine

No one said that running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was easy. And from the labored looks on the faces of the athletes running it, it's true. Enjoy this image gallery of the football players trying to grunt one out at the combine.  






No one said that running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was easy. And from the labored looks on the faces of the athletes running it, it's true.
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 12:57
Path: /nascar/earnhardt-win-daytona-500-puts-wind-nascar-sails


Thirteen years after tragedy and 10 years after triumph, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into Daytona 500 Victory Lane a second time. Emotions ran high in a race where a car with the slanted, stylized “3” made famous by his late father led the field to green hours earlier. No one would have blamed the driver if, soaking in the breadth of history, he simply broke down in tears.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Instead? He got up and cheered.

“WOOOO!!!!” That was Earnhardt’s scream in the media center, giddier than a five-year-old kid on Christmas after earning his first restrictor plate victory in over a decade. It was the big-stage moment that NASCAR’s most popular driver had been missing since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. The sport’s Super Bowl had signified falling short of expectations for Earnhardt, who notched three second-place finishes in the 500 over the last four years. Two victories in six seasons at HMS (both at Michigan) made it seem like he, the team’s highest-profile personality on a team full of high profile personalities, was the forgotten man. Perhaps, through that process of skidding downward, Earnhardt also forgot the confidence he once had in himself.

Steve Letarte was brought in as crew chief in 2011 to change all that, and the process has been spectacular to watch; for Earnhardt, it’s been growing up all over again. The chemistry between the two is a connection built on brotherly trust and support. While the results didn’t come right away, what had been missing for the driver the most — the fun factor — returned.

“We really all are best friends,” Earnhardt said of his No. 88 team. “(We) enjoy working with each other. We pull for each other. When you got great people around you, it just makes that whole experience so much more special.”

That’s why this win left fans and competitors alike so excited about its impact: With a Chase bid all but a certainty, this team has the freedom to run wild and loose, gambling for wins and pushing Earnhardt’s profile back towards lofty heights, attracting millions more to a sport that had drifted apart from them. In a sense, the Earnhardt bandwagon never truly left; but with no one believing Junior could eclipse his own teammates, it was hard to stay on board the ship.

Now, that ship has sails, as does NASCAR’s 2014 season. It would be hard to script an ending to Speedweeks any better.

“Through the Gears” we go …

FIRST GEAR: Hendrick teamwork proves key
It was a battle of heavy hitters down the stretch in this 500. Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth made a bid for the lead. Roush Fenway Racing was impressive; both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards took turns at the front. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for Penske Racing were right up there. But none of the duos were able to stay together like the three-man Hendrick Motorsports effort of Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in crunch time.

“Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key,” Earnhardt said of the green-white-checker restart that made the difference. “We timed that perfectly.” But it wasn’t just the final few moments. There was a time when, with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt pushed out in front while Johnson and Gordon, each leading separate lanes, blocked in much the same way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did when Michael Waltrip darted out ahead of the pack in 2001. It was clear HMS was pushing teamwork, aiming for that 1-2-3 finish and it was fine with the other two should Earnhardt win.

“Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014,” Gordon said. “That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one.

“The world is right, right now.”

Johnson, a man Earnhardt called “one of my biggest fans” in a marathon post-race presser, echoed the sentiment. “He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years,” said the six-time champ, who just beat the No. 88 to Victory Lane in the 2013 Daytona 500. “He got it done tonight. He did an awesome job.”’

It’s that genuine care for one another that separate the HMS teammates from those of other organizations. Love it or hate it, the team works together as one, and now with one of their own in the Chase after just one week, it gives them a head start on gathering info for the fall. Watch out.

SECOND GEAR: SHR flops in its first four-team effort  Danica Patrick
On a night where Hendrick shined, its sidekicks at Stewart-Haas Racing crashed and burned …  literally. Three of the four drivers wrecked, most notably Danica Patrick, whose car took a vicious hit to the outside wall after being slammed into by Aric Almirola. A 40th-place run was tough to swallow, considering this GoDaddy car might have been better than last year’s — a car show drove to a career-best eighth.

“It seemed like we could move forward,” she said. “But you know, that is the excitement of speedway racing. Anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident.”

Kurt Busch, meanwhile, was on the short end of NASCAR officiating after a wild spin with 10 laps left. Keeping it off the wall in Turn 4, Busch made a highlight reel save only to watch helplessly as the field kept going, still under green. Losing a lap after flat-spotting the tires, Busch got no caution but threw caution to the wind anyway en route to 21st. A five-minute rowdy radio rant best summarized as “#$(%($*%*$*##*@@*@!” would have left Howard Stern storming off in disgust.

Kevin Harvick, at ground zero of two wrecks that wiped out well over a dozen cars, didn’t have a much better night. His 13th place finish was actually the four-car highlight of the night, considering boss Tony Stewart never got much going. Running in the back of the pack by design, then necessity, due to fuel pickup problems, resulted in a 35th-place finish. His 0-for Daytona drought runs itself up to 16.

Could it have gone worse? Probably not. You’re dealing with the emotional walking wounded heading to Phoenix, short fuses that won’t take much to light up. Already, Harvick’s wife lost it on Twitter Sunday night:


DeLana Harvick Twitter


THIRD GEAR: The ups and downs of rookie racersNASCAR’s large rookie class was a big story to start Speedweeks for all the right reasons. On Sunday night, it was for all the wrong ones. Austin Dillon struggled, causing two wrecks and getting involved in a third while leading just one lap from the pole. In the end, he ran ninth but it was hardly the debut he expected. In one of those incidents, he even flat spun main rookie rival Kyle Larson.

“I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight,” he said. “But we made it through.”

The rest of the first-years weren’t so lucky. Larson wrecked just two laps in, fought all day to get back on the lead lap and found himself turned by Dillon before he did so. Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt were innocent victims of wrecks not of their making. Alex Bowman got caught for speeding, losing two laps and was never a factor. Even Brian Scott, in his second Cup start but not officially running for the award, stubbed his toe. A questionable side-draft of Harvick, which led to the two rubbing, quickly turned into the night’s first multi-car wreck.

Does it mean this first-year class is all hype and no substance? Far from it. On the contrary, Speedweeks showed us there’s more talent in these up-and-comers than we’ve had in years. But as the series moves to Phoenix, Las Vegas and beyond, expect more cautions and more torn-up sheet metal than 2013, across the board. Rookies have that name because they’re working on a learning curve; mistakes will be inevitable. It just so happened Sunday they were all at once.




FOURTH GEAR: The hard-fought 500, on track and on pit road  Daytona International SpeedwayFollowing his third-place showing, Brad Keselowski remarked that Sunday was one of the “hardest-raced 500s,” as far as he was concerned, as well as one of the best. He’s right. Once the monstrous six hour, 21-minute rain delay was over, every one of the 42 drivers remaining (Martin Truex Jr. lost an engine prior) ran like a bat out of hell. Thirty seven of the race’s 42 lead changes happened after that break, but it was the intensity of the competition that made the difference.

Lap after lap, three-wide drafting lanes snaked around the track that can’t often handle it (unlike Talladega). Cars were darting up and down, racing like it was the last lap even though there were 100 to go. Maybe it was the threat of weather. Maybe it was two weeks of perfecting the drafting package. Maybe it was drivers getting antsy after sitting through the equivalent of Noah’s flood (there were tornado warnings over Daytona at one point).

Who cares what the reason was. If NASCAR had races like that every week there would be zero competition-related complaints. That’s how you could tell the intensity was getting to the drivers: there were more pit road snafus than we often see. Favorites like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch ruined their chances by spinning and running over pit equipment, respectively. Several others got caught for speeding, missteps that automatically meant losing the draft and, especially during the race’s long green-flag run, losing a lap. The difference between winning and losing in this sport has turned razor-thin; Sunday night was an example of why that could make this year the most exciting one yet on all fronts.



Richard Childress took a close second to SHR in Speedweeks’ “Biggest Loser” category. Paul Menard led early, seemingly with a top-5 car until the Scott-Harvick wreck took him out. Then, a mistimed bump by Austin Dillon took out teammate Ryan Newman in their first race together. Add in affiliate Martin Truex Jr.’s blown engine, an ECR product handed to Furniture Row Racing, and there’s suddenly a lot of catch-up work to do. … Props go to Landon Cassill for a quiet, 12th-place finish at Daytona with underfunded Hillman Racing. It’s a nice recovery for a team that didn’t have a sponsor until the last minute, nor a driver who was fully healthy; a bike accident with a motorist left Cassill with several bruises on his face and road rash on his arms and legs. … A small group of NASCAR fans didn’t do themselves any favors on dropping the “redneck” moniker when they got confused during the rain delay. Despite a crawl making clear FOX was replaying the 2013 version of the Daytona 500, many took to Twitter thinking they were watching a live telecast. At least they weren’t alone; FOX News and KTXS were among several news stations that congratulated Jimmie Johnson on his second straight victory at the conclusion of the time-filler 500.

By Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:


Reaction to NASCAR's 56th annual Daytona 500 and race-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 10:41
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-february-25-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 25.

. I don't really know who Paula Patton is, but she seems to have good judgment.


• A kid tried for an Air Jordan logo haircut. .


• This is pretty scary: .

. At least J.R. Smith is still attempting to provide .

• I don't normally do politics in the Essential 11. .


. It's not working.

• Ali-Liston I was 50 years ago yesterday. .

• This Klay Thompson slam ended with Kyle Singler back-pedaling into the photogs.


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

Post date: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 10:36