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While an NFL defense may start up front with the linemen, the heart and soul of the unit is the linebackers. Not only are they responsible for making the bulk of the tackles, the most valuable linebackers are those that also can make plays in coverage.
Whether they are considered inside linebackers or outside, there are no lack of impact playmakers that make up Athlon Sports' rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. In fact leading the way is a tackling machine who already has an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume and a pass-rushing specialist who was named the MVP of Super Bowl 50.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL Inside Linebacker Rankings
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
The instinctive warhorse recorded 118 tackles in the regular season and added 29 more in the postseason.
2. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City
The 11-year veteran earned his fourth Pro Bowl bid by registering 116 tackles this past season. Has totaled 990 tackles and defended 68 passes over his career.
3. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Led the NFL in tackles during the 2015 season with 154 — a remarkable total after sitting out 2014 rehabbing from a severe knee injury.
4. Jerrell Freeman, Chicago
Signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason after ranking second on the Colts in tackles with 112.
5. Brandon Marshall, Denver
An instinctive player who plays with a good motor and hustle. A competitor who takes good angles in pursuit.
6. Danny Trevathan, Chicago
Earned his Super Bowl ring last year with the Broncos and signed as an unrestricted free agent along with Jerrell Freeman to bolster the linebacking corps.
7. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
Has collected 478 tackles in four years backing up the defensive front in Seattle. An impact hitter with great instincts.
8. Deone Bucannon, Arizona
An instinctive player who chases the ball and is physical at the point of attack. A rare combination of speed and power and the prototype for linebacker/safety hybrids of the future.
9. David Harris, New York Jets
The nine-year veteran is recognized as the defensive leader of the Jets and is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine.
10. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore
Has collected 250 tackles during his first two years on the job. A playmaker with quick hands and feet. Also shows good route awareness.
11. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati
12. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit
13. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville
14. Avery Williamson, Tennessee
15. D’Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis
16. Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh
17. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota
18. Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia
19. Christian Jones, Chicago
20. Brian Cushing, Houston
2016 NFL 3-4 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Von Miller, Denver
The Super Bowl MVP has been franchised by the Broncos as they work on a new long-term contract. In five years, Miller has gotten to the quarterback 60 times and has forced 16 fumbles.
2. Justin Houston, Kansas City
May miss part of the 2016 season rehabbing his knee from February surgery. He exploded with 22 sacks in 2014 after collecting 26.5 sacks in his previous three years in the league.
3. Jamie Collins, New England
Recorded eight tackles and sacked Peyton Manning twice in the AFC Championship Game at Denver. Forced five fumbles in 2015.
4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay
The dynamic Pro Bowl pass rusher added to his overall game by playing inside linebacker the past year-and-a-half and made all the defensive calls. He has 67.5 sacks in six years.
5. Tamba Hali, Kansas City
Has spent his entire 10-year career with the Chiefs, recording 86 sacks and forcing 32 fumbles. Started out as a 4-3 defensive end before moving to outside linebacker.
6. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
Took advantage of blockers’ attention to J.J. Watt and responded with 12 sacks. A relentless pass rusher with an explosive first step.
7. Melvin Ingram, San Diego
Overcame three previous years of injuries and ups and downs to break out with 10.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He also defended six passes and forced three fumbles.
8. Pernell McPhee, Chicago
Joined the Bears after four seasons with Baltimore as a rotate edge player with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Started 12 games in 2015 and collected 53 tackles and six sacks.
9. Jabaal Sheard, New England
Free-agent addition recorded eight sacks and forced four fumbles in his first season with the Patriots.
10. Chandler Jones, Arizona
Recorded 12.5 sacks among his 44 tackles last year with the Pats but was dealt to the Cardinals in the offseason.
11. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
12. Brian Orakpo, Tennessee
13. Aaron Lynch, San Francisco
14. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore
15. Trent Murphy, Washington
16. Jeremiah Attaochu, San Diego
17. Markus Golden, Arizona
18. Trent Cole, Indianapolis
19. Erik Walden, Indianapolis
20. Julius Peppers, Green Bay
2016 NFL 4-3 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Sean Lee, Dallas
The quarterback of the Cowboys’ defense was drafted to make the checks and adjustments from the middle linebacker post, but he now mans one of the outside spots.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
The run-and-hit weak-side linebacker has collected 577 tackles in his four-year career, including 147 stops in 2015. He also defended 13 passes and forced two fumbles last season.
3. K.J. Wright, Seattle
The weak-side impact linebacker forced four fumbles to go along with his 116 total tackles. An instinctive downhill player with good lateral quickness.
4. Thomas Davis, Carolina
The first-team All-Pro selection was second on the Panthers in tackles in 2015 but moved into first place in franchise history with 883 career tackles.
5. Mark Barron, Los Angeles
Was in on 88 tackles in 2015 after making a move to hybrid linebacker. He was moved around to take advantage of matchups, and he impressed as a blitzer, playing coverage and filling gaps.
6. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
Barr made a bunch of highlight-reel plays in 2015 en route to his first Pro Bowl invitation.
7. Malcolm Smith, Oakland
The former Super Bowl MVP for Seattle was everything the Raiders hoped for and more after signing as a free agent. He led the Silver and Black with 122 total tackles.
8. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
Had a breakout year and finished second on the Jaguars with 128 tackles from his weak-side linebacker position. His 232 tackles are the most ever by a Jaguar player in his first two seasons.
9. Josh Bynes, Detroit
Responded with a big year for the Lions after the injury to DeAndre Levy. The versatile linebacker contributed in a variety of defensive packages.
10. Bruce Irvin, Oakland
Signed with the Raiders to reunite with Ken Norton Jr., Oakland’s defensive coordinator who was Irvin’s linebackers coach in Seattle.
11. Koa Misi, Miami
12. Manny Lawson, Buffalo
13. Karlos Dansby, Cincinnati
14. Jelani Jenkins, Miami
15. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
16. Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia
17. Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay
18. Jonathan Casillas, New York Giants
19. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit
20. Shaq Thompson, Carolina
Quarterbacks may get most of the attention and the fame, but in the NFL the old adage still holds true: defense wins championships. Denver proved this last season, riding the league's No. 1 defense all the way to Super Bowl 50. Once there, the Broncos' defense overwhelmed MVP Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers' offense.
One of the big keys to Denver's defensive success was its relentless pressure on the quarterback, which started up front. To that end, here are Athlon Sports' defensive line rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. It should come as no surprise that J.J. Watt is No. 1 among 3-4 defensive ends.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL 3-4 Defensive End Rankings
1. J.J. Watt, Houston
Collected his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in four years after leading all defensive linemen in sacks (17.5), quarterback hits (50), tackles for a loss (29) and passes defended (eight).
2. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets
Registered 12 sacks and defended seven passes in 2015 en route to his first Pro Bowl berth.
3. Mike Daniels, Green Bay
Is one of the Packers’ featured interior rushers in the team’s nickel sub packages. The short but explosive leverage defender consistently pressures opponents’ quarterbacks.
4. Calais Campbell, Arizona
The angular but explosive edge defender has consistently been one of the top defensive linemen in passes defended over the past five years.
5. Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Impressed during his rookie season by collecting 63 tackles and garnered consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was tremendous against the run game and helped free up teammates to rush the passer.
6. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee
Is recognized among his peers as a high-effort competitor who has been consistent play-in and play-out. In 2015, he had a career-high 28 quarterback pressures and collected 54 tackles.
7. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh
The defensive team captain has played in 80 consecutive games since being drafted in 2011. Has recorded 19.5 sacks in the past three seasons.
8. Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh
Registered 54 tackles, including 6.5 sacks, in 2015. The country strong edge defender can press the pocket as a pass rusher or can stack the line of scrimmage in the run game.
9. Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets
An explosive player who consistently pushes the pocket and moves the guard back. Physical stuffing the run game. Uses his strong and quick hands to his advantage.
10. Chris Baker, Washington
Has come a long way from an undrafted free agent to a productive interior run stuffer who collected six sacks in 2015 as well as racking up 53 total stops.
11. Jaye Howard, Kansas City
12. DaQuan Jones, Tennessee
13. Kendall Langford, Indianapolis
14. Quinton Dial, San Francisco
15. Alan Branch, New England
16. Akiem Hicks, Chicago
17. Allen Bailey, Kansas City
18. Eddie Goldman, Chicago
19. Desmond Bryant, Cleveland
20. Timmy Jernigan, Baltimore
2016 NFL 4-3 Defensive End Rankings
1. Khalil Mack, Oakland
The first player named to the AP All-Pro first team at two different positions in the same season, linebacker and defensive end. Only J.J. Watt tallied more sacks than the versatile and explosive playmaker.
2. Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit
The relentless and talented ascending defender racked up 14.5 sacks on his way to his first Pro Bowl berth in 2015. He earned second-team All-Pro honors.
3. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
Led the Bengals with a career-best 13.5 sacks. The long-armed defender also earned a Special Teams’ Player of the Week award by blocking a key field-goal attempt versus the 49ers.
4. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
Has recorded 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons and earned his first Pro Bowl bid in 2015.
5. Michael Bennett, Seattle
Collected 10.5 sacks among his 44 total tackles in 2015. In the past four years, he has recorded 36 sacks.
6. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
For the second time in his Saints career, he posted at least 10 sacks. His productivity also landed him his second Pro Bowl invitation. He has started 79 of a possible 80 games.
7. Cliff Avril, Seattle
A consistent edge-pressure player for the Seahawks with long arms and an explosive first step. Had 47 tackles, including nine sacks, last season.
8. Olivier Vernon, New York Giants
Signed a lucrative contract with the Giants in the offseason. Had 7.5 sacks among his 61 total tackles last fall in his last season in Miami.
9. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia
The total package — can rush the passer, set the edge of a defense on run plays or drop into coverage.
10. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia
His seven forced fumbles over the last two regular seasons tied for third-most in the NFL. Set a career high with 51 tackles in 2015, including 6.5 sacks.
11. Robert Ayers, Tampa Bay
12. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo
13. Derrick Shelby, Atlanta
14. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas
15. William Hayes, Los Angeles
16. Mario Edwards Jr., Oakland
17. William Gholston, Tampa Bay
18. Jared Odrick, Jacksonville
19. Brian Robison, Minnesota
20. Charles Johnson, Carolina
2016 NFL Defensive Tackle Rankings
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles
The Pro Bowler was second among all interior defenders with 69 tackles, including 11 sacks. Has been a force since Day 1 in the league.
2. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
The quick-twitch and high-motor Atkins returned to form last season. Had 11 sacks, tying for the most in the league among interior linemen.
3. Kawann Short, Carolina
Worked and pushed his way to 55 tackles and 11 sacks last fall. The power player delivers an explosive jolt to the blocker with his hands.
4. Ndamukong Suh, Miami
After signing a huge contract in 2015, Suh had a large target on his back, but fought his way through double- and triple-teams to register 61 tackles and six sacks.
5. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
Will make a position scheme move from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 tackle. Regardless of the alignment, Cox closes off running lanes as an impact hitter and pressures the quarterback.
6. Linval Joseph, Minnesota
Is a huge, strong and athletic tackle with raw power. He presses the pocket and is a disruptive interior presence.
7. Derek Wolfe, Denver
Played a key role in the Broncos’ successful Super Bowl run, collecting 15 tackles, including 2.5 sacks, in the postseason.
8. Damon Harrison, New York Giants
Led all interior defenders with 72 tackles as a Jet, then signed as a free agent with the rival Giants. Harrison majors in stuffing the running lane.
9. Malik Jackson, Jacksonville
Signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Jaguars after earning a Super Bowl ring with the Broncos. He will be expected to pressure the quarterback as a 3-technique tackle like he did in Denver.
10. Marcell Dareus, Buffalo
The No. 3 overall pick out of Alabama in the 2011 draft pressured his way to 51 tackles in 2015. Earned Pro Bowl bids in 2013 and 2014.
11. Ian Williams, San Francisco
12. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
13. Brandon Williams, Baltimore
14. Dontari Poe, Kansas City
15. Dan Williams, Oakland
16. Denico Autry, Oakland
17. Corbin Bryant, Buffalo
18. Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota
19. Michael Brockers, Los Angeles
20. Haloti Ngata, Detroit
The skill position players get most of the credit and accolades, but that doesn't diminish the importance of a solid offensive line in today's NFL. Quarterbacks can't rack up all those yards throwing the ball and likewise the same on the ground for running backs if their line doesn't do its job in pass protection and run blocking.
All-Pro-caliber offensive linemen dominate the top of Athlon Sports' positional rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. So which teams can boast the top tackles, guards and centers as part of their first line of offense?
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL Tackle Rankings
1. Joe Thomas, Cleveland
A nine-time Pro Bowl player and a six time first-team All-Pro in his nine years in the NFL. A total package of size, flexibility and explosiveness.
2. Tyron Smith, Dallas
Was the first offensive lineman Jerry Jones selected in the first round since he purchased the Cowboys in 1989. The strong, athletic knee bender is the prototype for future NFL tackles.
3. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati
Has started 148 out of a possible 160 games over his 10-year career. Getting better with age. Named to his first All-Pro team in 2015.
4. Joe Staley, San Francisco
Is heading into his 10th NFL season. The five-time Pro Bowl pick plays flat-footed and can handle the best NFL two-move pass rushers.
5. Trent Williams, Washington
Elevated his game in 2015 with new line coach Bill Callahan. The long-torso tackle locks on a pass rusher and has the body control to redirect the defender’s path.
6. Jason Peters, Philadelphia
Age and time are catching up with the one-time archetype for NFL pass protectors. These days, the left tackle is a dominating zone run blocker.
7. Terron Armstead, New Orleans
The rangy blocker offers an outstanding combination of foot quickness and ease of movement.
8. Mitchell Schwartz, Kansas City
Made an immediate impression on the offensive line after signing as an unrestricted free agent. Excels in pass protection where he plays with good technique and foot quickness.
9. Cordy Glenn, Buffalo
Is an imposing physical specimen with long arms, a wide body and athletic feet. The Bills inked their left tackle for five years and $65 million dollars in early May.
10. Taylor Lewan, Tennessee
Is an ascending pass protector and physical run blocker similar to former Titan and Eagle Jon Runyan. Aggressive in his run blocking and a smooth-footed pass protector.
11. Donald Penn, Oakland
12. Duane Brown, Houston
13. Ryan Schraeder, Atlanta
14. Morgan Moses, Washington
15. Jared Veldheer. Arizona
16. Jake Matthews, Atlanta
17. Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis
18. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia
19. Zach Strief, New Orleans
20. Joe Barksdale, San Diego
2016 NFL Tackle Rankings
1. Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
An All-Pro the past two years and a five-time Pro Bowler, Yanda is an explosive run blocker and a skilled pass protector with good body control.
2. Zack Martin, Dallas
A mature leader and a consummate team player who concentrates and focuses on his job. The first Cowboy since Emmitt Smith to earn Pro Bowl bids his first two seasons.
3. David DeCastro, Pittsburgh
One of the best guards to enter the NFL since Steve Hutchinson in 2001. Intense, competitive and patient in pass protection. Excellent recoverability. Hands are strong and explosive.
4. Kelechi Osemele, Oakland
The former Raven signed a five-year, $58.5 million contract to join the Raiders in the offseason. The big, long-armed zone blocker is athletic and effortless in his play.
5. Mike Iupati, Arizona
An athletic and physical pass protector who plays with good technique. Flashes an explosive punch, then locks out and drives the defender. A mauler who gets push.
6. T.J. Lang, Green Bay
A consistent and competitive performer who is technique sound and effort proud. Adjusts well on the run and finishes plays downfield.
7. Josh Sitton, Green Bay
Agile, powerful and nasty in the run game. Strong and tough enough to cut off any inside pass rusher.
8. Evan Mathis, Arizona
Has played for six teams since entering the league in 2005. Won a Super Bowl with Denver in 2016. A battler who plays well on his feet.
9. Richie Incognito, Buffalo
An explosive knee bender who rolls his hips and has a strong lower body. Physical use of hands, punch and placement. A mauler who dominates his
opponent at times.
10. Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati
A physical and aggressive long-torso athlete with good balance and toughness. Locks on his target with strong hands.
11. Jack Mewhort, Indianapolis
12. Trai Turner, Carolina
13. Jeff Allen, Houston
14. Andrew Norwell, Carolina
15. Gabe Jackson, Oakland
16. Justin Pugh, New York Giants
17. Ramon Foster, Pittsburgh
18. James Carpenter, New York Jets
19. Andrew Tiller, San Francisco
20. Clint Boling, Cincinnati
2016 NFL Center Rankings
1. Travis Frederick, Dallas
The two-time Pro Bowl center is a smooth, aware and agile blocker who can handle both quickness and power in opposing linemen.
2. Ryan Kalil, Carolina
Was voted All-Pro for the second time and has been to five Pro Bowls over his nine-year career. The physical and intense competitor plays with outstanding first-step quickness.
3. Eric Wood, Buffalo
An athletic blocker who gets movement on the down defender with functional strength. Plays with a solid base in pass protection.
4. Weston Richburg, New York Giants
An athletic center who can pull and read on the run. Blocks any interior leakage or can kick out in perimeter support.
5. Alex Mack, Atlanta
A productive and consistent blocker who is mobile and powerful. Plays with good awareness. Signed with the Falcons after voiding the final three years of his contract with Cleveland.
6. Rodney Hudson, Oakland
Plays with rare foot quickness to execute a variety of blocks in the run game and in pass protection. Puts a hat on a hat and maintains contact.
7. Joe Berger, Minnesota
Had a breakout year in 2015 after a season-ending injury to starter John Sullivan. The 11-year veteran is a technician who is versatile, smart and crafty in his play.
8. Jason Kelce, Philadelphia
The undersized but light-footed Eagle is all about leverage and effective body control. Reacts quickly to pick up the blitz.
9. Max Unger, New Orleans
Brought stability to the interior of the Saints’ offensive line. The scrappy veteran has quick feet and the strength to cut off a penetrating gap nose tackle.
10. Nick Mangold, New York Jets
A long-time Pro Bowl player who plays with excellent body control and balance. Crafty, smart and alert.
11. Mike Pouncey, Miami
12. John Sullivan, Minnesota
13. Matt Slauson, San Diego
14. Corey Linsley, Green Bay
15. Jeremy Zuttah, Baltimore
16. Ben Jones, Tennessee
17. Manny Ramirez, Chicago
18. Mitch Morse, Kansas City
19. Kory Lichtensteiger, Washington
20. Matt Paradis, Denver
A lot has to happen in a championship season. Playing well on offense, defense, and special teams goes without saying, as does proper coaching. But an often-overlooked factor in projecting a national champion is the schedule.
A docket that features one powerhouse after another can be too tough for even the most talented teams to overcome. On the other hand, one that is loaded with cupcake after cupcake will fail to impress the College Football Playoff Committee. Somewhere in between is ideal.
In 2016, Clemson has a schedule that achieves that perfect balance. There is a stringent test right out of the gate for Dabo Swinney's team along with the annual battle for the Palmetto State to close the year. In between there are some sure wins that will allow for fine-tuning and other games that could prove to be a bit tricky. And there’s the trip to Tallahassee at the end of October.
Related: Clemson Tigers 2016 Preview and Prediction
From easiest to Florida State, here is how Clemson’s fall schedule stacks up.
12. Sept. 17 vs. South Carolina State
Quarterback Caleb York had a nice freshman season, leading the Bulldogs to a 6-4 record. But he has lost his top two receivers and his leading rusher. Plus, the chances of the FCS program slowing down the vaunted Clemson offense are slim and none.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Troy
The Trojans were 4-8 in 2015 and lose leading rusher Brandon Burks and leading receiver Teddy Ruben. They also must replace the 17 tackles for lost yardage and the 7.5 sacks accumulated by Tyler Roberts. Troy’s last winning record and bowl appearance was back in 2010 and the game in Death Valley will not help the Trojans get to bowl eligibility this fall.
10. Nov. 19 at Wake Forest
The Deacons return much of their offense, but it was a unit thanked ranked 120th nationally, averaging just 17.4 points per game. Checking in at No. 38 in the country, defense was one of the team’s strengths last season. However, Wake’s best defender, linebacker Brandon Chubb, is now a Los Angeles Ram.
9. Nov. 5 vs. Syracuse
New head coach Dino Babers inherits 15 starters and an emerging quarterback in Eric Dungey. The offense should improve under Babers’ tutelage though a defense that gave up 439 yards per game must be revamped. The Cuse should not be a major challenge for Clemson but the spot on the schedule – the week following Florida State – is a bit concerning.
8. Oct. 7 at Boston College
The Eagles of 2016 should look a lot like the Eagles of ‘15. Despite the departures of star linebacker Steven Daniels, nose tackle Connor Wujciak and safety Justin Simmons, Boston College will be stout on defense. Offense will still be a problem. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles is the likely quarterback and running back Jon Hilliman is expected to return from last season’s foot injury. But you won’t find many true playmakers on this offense.
7. Sept. 22 at Georgia Tech
No one has any idea what to expect from the Yellow Jackets this season. Head coach Paul Johnson will not stand for a repeat of last year’s 3-9 record and quarterback Justin Thomas will be motivated to prove that 2015 was a fluke. Plus, defending the option is always a challenge. But the truth is that Georgia Tech was a bad team last season. The Tigers have to go to Bobby Dodd Stadium on a Thursday night. But with South Carolina State the week before, the short week should not be an issue.
6. Nov. 26 vs. South Carolina
Who will be the Gamecocks' starting quarterback this season? Who will be the No. 1 receiver with Pharoh Cooper now in the NFL? How can linebacker Skai Moore’s season-ending injury be overcome? These are just three of many questions that face new head coach Will Muschamp. South Carolina should struggle this year and the only reason this game is ranked this highly is because of the rivalry’s passion.
5. Oct. 15 vs. NC State
The Wolfpack suffered substantial losses to their offense and see a few key components leave off the defense. But head coach Dave Doeren has a core group of rising juniors that spearheaded last year’s tough defense. Running back Matt Dayes will return this year after his season ended following a foot injury against Clemson on Halloween.
4. Nov 12 vs. Pittsburgh
Hopes are high in the Steel City now that star running back James Conner is cancer free. Even if he is not fully back to his ACC Player of the Year form of 2014, Conner and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison will churn up yardage behind a veteran offensive line led by All-American candidate Adam Bisnowaty. Defensive end Ejuan Price returns for a sixth year and sophomore defensive back Jordan Whitehead will be causing problems for the opposition on the other side of the ball.
3. Sept. 3 at Auburn
Jordan-Hare Stadium will be rocking for this Tiger vs. Tiger showdown in week one. Auburn will continue its quarterback competition into the fall but Gus Malzahn’s offense should have a solid running game featuring Jovon Robinson. Defensively, Carl Lawson at defensive end and Montravius Adams at defensive tackle are matchup problems for any team.
2. Oct. 1 vs. Louisville
After a slow start, Louisville ended 2015 with a flourish, culminated by a 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Sixteen starters return and quarterback Lamar Jackson should be even better as a sophomore now that he has settled in as the starter. Though defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is now in the NFL, Louisville brings back the bulk of its 18th-ranked defense.
1. Oct. 29 at Florida State
Athlon Sports has both Florida State and Clemson in its top four, so the result of this game will affect not only the ACC Atlantic Division race, but also the quest for a Playoff spot. Like the Tigers, FSU will be loaded on offense. If Dalvin Cook stays healthy, there’s a good chance that he will join Deshaun Watson at the Heisman Trophy presentation in December. Defensively, Jalen Ramsey departs, but sophomore Derwin James is the next guy up to headline a very deep Seminoles defense.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
It’s time for college football fans to prepare for the long, arduous trek through summer and look toward the future. That’s certainly what Nebraska fans are doing following last season’s 6-7 record. But what will Big Red backers see once they reach their seats on Sept. 3 in Memorial Stadium and beyond?
The Huskers’ schedule sets up to show that not only was last year’s stumble a fluke, but also that Mike Riley’s offense and Mark Banker’s defense can actually work in Lincoln. It also gives the Big Red plenty of opportunities to test new defensive line coach John Parrella’s skills as he works to retool a pass rush and the interior line.
Which teams pose the biggest threats to a successful 2016 campaign? Here are Nebraska's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degrees of difficulty from easiest to most potentially painful.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Fresno State
The Cornhuskers’ kickoff game looks to be the easiest contest on the slate. The Bulldogs are breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball following last year’s 3-9 campaign.
Quarterback Chason Virgil has taken his place as No. 1 on the quarterback depth chart for the Bulldogs ahead of redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson and West Virginia transfer Ford Childress.This appears to be the perfect test for Nebraska’s high-octane offense and question mark-laden defense.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Wyoming
The Cowboys’ 2-10 record from last season may seem like reason enough to give them the cellar spot. However, the Blackshirt run defense – perhaps the most vulnerable spot on the team – will be tested by running back Brian Hill. Hill averaged 135.9 yards rushing per game last season and if Craig Bohl’s team has any hope of victory, it’ll be thanks to No. 8.
10. Oct. 22 vs. Purdue
No, Nebraska shouldn’t have lost to Purdue last year and the Boilermakers certainly shouldn’t make it two in a row over the Big Red. Junior quarterback Austin Appleby transferred to Florida leaving Purdue with sophomore David Blough to likely take over.
Former Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els is the new defensive coordinator, but that doesn’t exactly concern Husker fans. Several were befuddled how he got the gig in the first place, especially with head coach Darrell Hazell squarely on the hot seat.
9. Nov. 12 vs. Maryland
The Cornhuskers and Terrapins meet for the first time as Big Ten football foes, but it doesn’t look good for the Old Line State visitors. This will be the last of a three-game stretch for Maryland that includes Michigan and Ohio State.
Talent alone should be enough to seal a victory for the Huskers against head coach D.J. Durkin in his first year.
8. Oct. 1 vs. Illinois
Lovie Smith visits Lincoln as the Illini’s head man with a familiar face at quarterback in Wes Lunt. Illinois also returns its leading rusher in Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who picked up 723 yards on the ground in 2015. The defensive line is solid, but the back seven could be exploited by Nebraska’s receiving corps.
If the Huskers can work around senior free safety Taylor Barton, this should be a conference win.
7. Oct. 15 at Indiana
Another first conference meeting on the Big Red’s slate, the Hoosiers should provide an entertaining game in Bloomington. Indiana’s offense has proven it can put up points in buckets under Kevin Wilson, chalking up an average of 36.5 per game in 2015. Just one problem for Indiana: the Hoosiers can’t defend to save their lives.
They also have to replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld who led the conference in passing yards and running back Jordan Howard who was third in rushing yardage. Depending how the Blackshirts are doing six games in, this one could be a shootout.
6. Nov. 25 at Iowa
A likely close game, All-Everything cornerback Desmond King returns for his senior season and quarterback C.J. Beathard should guide the offense expertly. The Hawkeyes do have to find a new receiving corps and despite King’s return, the defense does have to find a way to plug the hole that Drew Ott left.
Much like the Huskers, the Hawkeyes will be searching for a pass rush. This game may very well determine who represents the Big Ten West in the conference title game.
5. Sept. 24 at Northwestern
The Battle for NU is precariously placed for the Huskers this year. Not only does the Big Red’s conference slate begin in Evanston, Ill., but this game follows what will almost assuredly be an emotional home tilt versus Oregon win or lose.
To make matters worse, Justin Jackson – the Big Ten’s top returning rusher from last season – is back and could exploit the Blackshirts up the gut if they haven’t gelled quickly.
4. Nov. 12 vs. Minnesota
Another potential timing issue, Nebraska does get Goldy and his Gophers in Lincoln, but this comes after road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns and he’s proven to be a thorn in the Huskers’ sides, having passed for an average of 148 yards per meeting and scoring three times on the ground.
Sophomore running back Shannon Brooks also averaged nearly six yards per carry and seven touchdowns last season.
3. Oct 29 at Wisconsin
So close. Nebraska came so close to finally knocking off the Badgers last year, but a last-second field goal won the day for the visitors. The Huskers do catch a break as defensive coordinator supreme Dave Aranda headed to LSU and the Badgers need to find someone to replace Joel Stave at quarterback.
The stadium’s always jumping in Madison (get it?), so Nebraska will need to play a crisp, efficient game to silence the crowd and send the students home early.
2. Sept. 17 vs. Oregon
This is easily Nebraska’s biggest recruiting weekend of the season. There are barely enough stars in the sky to account for how many match the rankings of prospects expected at this contest. Oregon’s not as good as it used to be, but the Ducks still smoke the opposition with speed regularly.
The Huskers will find out just how good their rush defense is as they must go up against stud running back Royce Freeman. It’s a good thing Nebraska’s got someone on the coaching staff all too familiar with the Quack Attack in Riley.
1. Nov. 5 at Ohio State
Is it a realistic expectation for the Huskers to beat the Buckeyes at The Shoe? No. Should we still play the game to see if it happens? Sure. That said, the best Nebraska can likely ask for in this one is to keep the final score within a couple of touchdowns.
Staying competitive and showing that Ohio State simply has better talent is an acceptable outcome that the Huskers can take into their next game against Minnesota, but hey, you never know.
Having a wide receiver who has the ability to stretch the field and take the top off the defense is a must for passing attacks. These receivers have the unique ability to turn ordinary plays into paydirt and six points for the offense. They come in different shapes and sizes, but there are a few qualities each big-play receiver seems to possess - speed, acceleration and great hands. This spreadsheet below shows catches that went over 30, 40 and 50 yards in the 2015 season and these are the top big-play threats coming back this year. Without further ado, here are the most explosive receivers in college football.
CFB's 10 Most Explosive Receivers Returning for 2016
Taywan Taylor (WKU)
Shelton Gibson (WVU)
Thomas Sperbeck (BSU)
JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC)
Nicholas Norris (WKU)
James Washington (OSU)
Calvin Ridley (UA)
Corey Davis (WMU)
Kenny Golladay (NIU)
Penny Hart (GSU)
Taywan Taylor, 6’1, 195 lbs., Western Kentucky
Averaged 17.2 yards per catch in 2015 and racked up 1,467 receiving yards, which was No. 3 nationally.
Shelton Gibson, 5’11, 195 lbs., West Virginia
Ranked No. 1 in Big 12 and No. 2 in NCAA for yards per catch with 25.97.
Thomas Sperbeck, 6’0, 180 lbs., Boise State
Set Boise State's single-season record for receiving yards (1,412) last fall.
Juju Smith-Schuster, 6’2, 215 lbs., Southern California
Racked up eight 100-yard games and had one of the best stiff-arms of all-time.
Nicholas Norris, 5’9, 175 lbs., Western Kentucky
Arguably the most versatile receiver in the group by earning six rushes for 63 yards and a touchdown.
James Washington, 6’0, 205 lbs., Oklahoma State
Led the country with four 70-plus yard receptions and ranked 10th nationally with 20.5 yards per catch.
Calvin Ridley, 6’1, 188 lbs., Alabama
Broke Amari Cooper’s freshman receiving yards record with 1,045.
Corey Davis, 6’3, 213 lbs., Western Michigan
Active leading receiver in FBS with 3,785 career yards.
Kenny Golladay, 6’4, 213 lbs., Northern Illinois
Former FCS standout at North Dakota, Golladay was one of only 17 receivers to have a 70 catches, 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Penny Hart, 5’8, 170 lbs., Georgia State
Freshman All-American and the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year as the leading receiver in the conference as only a true freshman.
The talk about satellite camps will never go away.
Nick Saban said during a press conference Tuesday that the camps were "bad for college football." The Alabama head coach had a lot to say about the camps after initially deciding that he was not going to talk about them.
"This is the wild, wild west at its best," Saban said. "There have been no specific guideline relative to how we're managing control of this stuff. It's happening outside the normal evaluation window, which means we're taking time away from our players."
Saban spoke about the coach who has taken a great liking to the camps, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
"[Harbaugh] can do whatever he wants to do if he thinks that's what's best," Saban continued. "There needs to be somebody who looks out for what's best for the game, not the SEC or the Big Ten or Jim Harbaugh. But what's best for the game of college football."
Obviously the statements got back to Harbaugh and he went to his favorite social media platform... Twitter.
"Amazing" to me- Alabama broke NCAA rules & now their HC is lecturing us on the possibility of rules being broken at camps. Truly "amazing."— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) June 1, 2016
Saban didn't let it end there.
Nick Saban tells @ClowESPN about Harbaugh: “I don’t really care what he thinks or tweets. I say what I think is best for CFB & the players”— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) June 1, 2016
It would be a beautiful thing to see these two coaches face each other on the field at some point.
The tight end may still not be the most popular position in the NFL but it's certainly en vogue right now. Not only did four different tight ends eclipse 1,000 yards receiving last season, the same number as those that had done this the past three combined, but six wound up leading their team in receptions.
It should come as no surprise that Rob Gronkowski leads the way in Athlon Sports' rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. However, the names that come after Gronk may include a few you weren't expecting to see or at least their place in the rankings.
2016 NFL Tight End Rankings
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England
The unanimous first-team All-Pro had 72 catches for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. Tom Brady and Gronk have connected on 64 career touchdown passes, most by any pass-catch duo in team history.
2. Greg Olsen, Carolina
Dependable and consistent, Olsen caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. He has played in 142 consecutive games.
3. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati
Corralled 13 touchdown passes in 2015 despite missing significant time in games 12 through 15 due to injuries. Was third on the team with 52 receptions. Wins more than his share of 50/50 balls.
4. Delanie Walker, Tennessee
Was the go-to receiver for rookie Marcus Mariota in 2015, catching 94 passes for 1,088 yards and six touchdowns. A solid and consistent run blocker as well as a pass protector when not out on a route.
5. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia
A sure-handed pass catcher who runs fluid and sharp routes. The ex-Stanford Cardinal caught 75 passes and averaged 11.4 yards per catch in a time share with Brent Celek.
6. Jason Witten, Dallas
Is the leading pass catcher in Cowboy history, and his 1,020 career receptions are the second most for a tight end in NFL history. In 2015, despite a variety of quarterbacks, he caught 77 passes for 713 yards.
7. Jordan Reed, Washington
Former third-round pick enjoyed a breakthrough season, catching 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns to help the Redskins capture the NFC East title.
8. Maxx Williams, Baltimore
The rookie caught 32 passes in 2015, including six against the Bengals in the season finale. Was a solid run blocker and an ascending sure-handed chain mover for Joe Flacco.
9. Gary Barnidge, Cleveland
Very quietly had a productive year, catching 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. His previous highs were 13 catches, 242 yards and two TDs.
10. Jimmy Graham, Seattle
The prolific pass catcher in New Orleans was almost an afterthought in Seattle after being acquired by trade. His run blocking improved, but his 48 catches were the fewest since his rookie year.
11. Martellus Bennett, New England
12. Antonio Gates, San Diego
13. Coby Fleener, New Orleans
14. Crockett Gillmore, Baltimore
15. Charles Clay, Buffalo
16. Richard Rodgers, Green Bay
17. Ben Watson, Baltimore
18. Brent Celek, Philadelphia
19. Travis Kelce, Kansas City
20. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota
Braden Gall, David Fox and Mitch Light are back in the booth talking the latest in college football.
- Mitch's 14-year old daughter explains satellite camps in one sentence.
- What were our reactions when we found out Baylor fired Art Briles? What (or who) could be next for the Bears? Has Baylor done enough to keep the NCAA at bay and should the NCAA be involved at all? How does Jim Grobe fit in and how have our preseason projections changed on Baylor? How is this situation different than Tennessee?
- How should the NCAA handle the Ole Miss self-imposed sanctions and should fans expect more punishment? What is the right punishment for the Rebels? And how will this noise impact the season? The guys disagree on what could happen in Oxford this season.
- To lighen the mood, the guys argue about something much less important: When is the actual start of the college football season? The international date line comes into play, time zones, weekends and weekdays. Are we 86 days from kickoff or 87? And what would your dream road/private plane/police escort opening weekend look like?
- Lastly, we are all saying goodbye to broadcasting legend Uncle Verne.
Check out the Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25.
You can order your preseason Athlon Sports college football magazines here with Amazon.com.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
While there are plenty of differences when it comes to comparing an NFL wide receiver and running back, there also is one fairly significant similarity. The best at each position wear the same uniform.
Not only does Pittsburgh claim the best running back in the league in Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers also boast the No. 1 wide receiver. For the second year in a row, Antonio Brown leads Athlon Sports' rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine.
The reasons why are pretty obvious. Brown has led the NFL in catches each of the past two seasons, piling up an impressive 265 during that stretch for 3,532 yards, 23 touchdowns and a pair of first-team All-Pro nods for good measure. There are certainly a number of dynamic, difference-making wide receivers in the league, but Brown is clearly the current standard bearer for the position.
2016 NFL Wide Receiver Rankings
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh
Set single-season franchise records in receptions (136), yards (1,834), 100-yard receiving games (nine) and receiving yards per game (114.6). Set a franchise record with at least 110 catches three straight years.
2. Julio Jones, Atlanta
Earned his second straight Pro Bowl selection after leading the NFL with 1,871 yards and tying Antonio Brown with 136 receptions. He scored eight times.
3. A.J. Green, Cincinnati
Is the first Bengal to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons. Ranked eighth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,297, averaging 15.1 yards per reception.
4. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston
Has started 48 straight games since being drafted in 2013, recording 239 receptions, 3,533 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is averaging 14.8 yards per reception over his career. Earned first Pro Bowl berth in 2015.
5. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Backed up his record-setting rookie campaign with a more impressive second year. He had 96 receptions, 1,450 yards (15.1 per catch) and 13 touchdowns.
6. Demaryius Thomas, Denver
Joined Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with four consecutive years of at least 90 catches and 1,300 receiving yards.
7. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay
Totalled 183 receptions for 2,833 yards in 2013-14 but went down with a torn ACL prior to the 2015 season. A first-team All-Pro selection in 2014, Nelson has 49 TD catches in his seven seasons.
8. Dez Bryant, Dallas
Was limited to nine games last year due to injury. Had three straight seasons with 1,200-plus receiving yards from 2012-14. Has averaged 14.1 yards per catch in his career.
9. Jarvis Landry, Miami
Former LSU Tiger a franchise record in 2015 with 110 receptions, and he has 194 catches in two seasons — the most ever by a player in his first two years in the league. Only averaged 9.9 yards per catch.
10. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo
The speedy and athletic receiver seemed to be hitting his stride late in the 2015 season; he averaged 17.9 yards per catch and had eight touchdown catches in the Bills’ last 11 games.
11. Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
12. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona
13. Allen Robinson, Jacksonville
14. Doug Baldwin, Seattle
15. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay
16. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver
17. Eric Decker, New York Jets
18. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis
19. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago
20. Steve Smith Sr., Baltimore
21. Julian Edelman, New England
22. Kamar Aiken, Baltimore
23. Keenan Allen, San Diego
24. Allen Hurns, Jacksonville
25. Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City
26. Golden Tate, Detroit
27. John Brown, Arizona
28. Michael Floyd, Arizona
29. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay
30. Amari Cooper, Oakland
Father's Day is coming. How will you celebrate your dad this year? He taught you how to ride a bike, hit a baseball, and do your taxes, so he certainly deserves a day of relaxation and appreciation! Dads are notoriously hard to shop for, but we have an idea he's sure to love.
Enter our sweepstakes below, by signing up for our free newsletter for your chance to win an amazing grilling gift set for dad! One lucky winner will receive Dreamfarm BBQ Clongs, a set of Fire Wire Grilling Skewer, and a KitchenIQ Edge Grip Quick Prep Knife Sharpener & Paring Knife Combo. Want to increase your chances?
Follow us on Instagram at @AthlonSports and Twitter at @AthlonSports and mention us with the hashtag #ASDad for a second chance at the prizes. All entries must be submitted by June 10, 2016 at 12:00pm EST. Good luck!
The 2016 college football season is less than 100 days away, but the countdown to kickoff is officially underway. Athlon Sports’ 2016 College Football Preview annuals are already on newsstands across the county and available for order in the online store, hosted by Amazon. Each year, Athlon Sports produces regional preview magazines for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as a national edition with previews for all 128 teams.
Who will make the College Football Playoff and how will the 2016 season look by December? Athlon Sports has projected how the results will play out and ranked every team 1 to 128 based upon its finish for 2016. This ranking represents where we think teams will finish – not where they should start at the beginning of the season.
Athlon Sports Projected 128 Team Rankings for 2016
|Athlon Sports 2016 College Football 1-128 Team Rankings|
|1.||Alabama: The Crimson Tide suffered key losses on both sides of the ball, but this team reloads as well as any in the nation. Expect Nick Saban's team to lean on its defense and ground attack until the offense finds stability at quarterback.||Team
|2.||Florida State: After winning 10 games in a rebuilding season, FSU is poised to challenge for the title. Most of the roster returns intact, but the Seminoles have to find a QB and replace cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Dalvin Cook is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman.|
|3.||Ohio State: The Buckeyes have the fewest returning starters (six) of any Power 5 team. However, thanks to elite recruiting classes, Ohio State should be able to reload in a hurry. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Buckeyes can lean on J.T. Barrett until the rest of the pieces fall into place.|
|4.||Clemson: Even though the Tigers suffered heavy losses on defense, quarterback Deshaun Watson and the nation’s top receiving corps is more than enough to keep Clemson in the hunt for the national title.|
|5.||Michigan: Jim Harbaugh already has Michigan back among the nation’s top teams. The Wolverines have to find a quarterback, but this team can lean on its defense — led by new coordinator Don Brown — to push Ohio State for the Big Ten title.|
|6.||Oklahoma: The Sooners are a heavy favorite to win the Big 12, but there are potential landmines on a schedule that features road trips to TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia. If the voids on the offensive line and defense are filled, quarterback Baker Mayfield could carry Oklahoma to another playoff berth.|
|7.||Tennessee: The Volunteers have made steady improvement under coach Butch Jones, and the pieces are in place to challenge for the SEC title. Tennessee returns 18 starters, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and end Derek Barnett.|
|8.||Notre Dame: Brian Kelly’s team lost a handful of key players from last year’s 10-3 squad. But the Fighting Irish have a manageable schedule, two proven quarterbacks and enough of a foundation on both sides of the ball to push for 10 wins once again.|
|9.||LSU: After coaching drama surrounding Les Miles at the end of 2015, LSU is loaded for a run at a CFP berth. As usual, the Tigers will lean on their ground attack and defense to carry the team. However, Brandon Harris and the passing game have to improve to win the SEC.|
|10.||Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze must replace three first-round picks, but the Rebels have recruited well enough to prevent a huge drop off. Chad Kelly is the SEC’s top signal-caller and there’s no shortage of options at receiver.|
|11.||Washington: The Huskies are poised for a breakthrough year in Chris Petersen’s third season. Talented sophomores Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are two of the Pac-12’s top players on offense, while the defense returns eight starters from a unit that allowed only 18.8 points a game last year.|
|12.||Stanford: Stanford has won three of the last four Pac-12 titles, but David Shaw’s team was hit hard by personnel departures. However, the Cardinal still has enough returning talent to challenge for the conference title — especially with running back Christian McCaffrey leading the way.|
|13.||Michigan State: The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the last six years. Despite the loss of quarterback Connor Cook, end Shilique Calhoun and standout linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen, coach Mark Dantonio won’t allow Michigan State to slip too far in the rankings.|
|14.||UCLA: Similar to rival USC, UCLA enters 2016 with its share of questions. However, the Bruins return the Pac-12’s top quarterback in Josh Rosen, and the schedule is more manageable than the Trojans’ brutal slate. The defense returns eight starters, and standout end Eddie Vanderdoes is back from injury.|
|15.||Houston: The bar is set high for Houston after a 13-1 record in Tom Herman’s first season. The Cougars are the top Group of 5 team for 2016 and could climb into the playoff discussion with wins over Oklahoma and Louisville in non-conference games.|
|16.||Georgia: New coach Kirby Smart inherits a roster filled with promising talent and one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits in Jacob Eason. However, running back Nick Chubb is recovering from a serious knee injury, and the defense features a revamped front seven.|
|17.||TCU: TCU will be a dark horse contender in the Big 12. Only one starter returns on offense, but there’s a good foundation in place at the skill positions. The Horned Frogs are loaded on defense and return four key players who missed all or most of last year due to injury.|
|18.||Louisville: The Cardinals finished the 2015 season by winning six of their final seven games. Bobby Petrino’s team should build on that momentum in 2016 with 16 returning starters and the emergence of dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson.|
|19.||Iowa: The Hawkeyes were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2015 and open 2016 as the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten West. Quarterback C.J. Beathard leads the way on offense, while the defense returns eight starters.|
|20.||Florida: The defense is still among the best in the SEC, but Florida has to find some answers on offense after averaging 12.6 points over the final six games of 2015. Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is expected to start at quarterback.|
|21.||North Carolina: New quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a rising star, and the supporting cast is among the best in the ACC. The defense showed some improvement under new coordinator Gene Chizik last year but has to get tougher against the run.|
|22.||USC: Clay Helton’s first full season on the job features one of the nation’s toughest schedules, a quarterback battle and a completely revamped defensive line.|
|23.||Oregon: The Ducks hope another FCS transfer (Dakota Prukop) is the right answer at quarterback. There’s no shortage of skill talent on offense, but the line must replace three starters. Brady Hoke is tasked with improving a defense that surrendered 37.5 points a game.|
|24.||Oklahoma State: Mason Rudolph to James Washington should be one of the Big 12’s top quarterback-receiver combinations in 2016. However, for the Cowboys to match last year’s 10 wins, the offensive line and rushing attack have to improve.|
|25.||Baylor: The dismissal of Art Briles as the program's coach has added a layer of uncertainty to Baylor for 2016. The Bears still have plenty of talent, but question marks remain on the line of scrimmage. Will interim coach Jim Grobe keep this team in the hunt for the Big 12 title?|
|26.||Arkansas: Bret Bielema has to retool an offense that loses quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins and a handful of other key players. However, the defense should take a big step forward with nine starters back. If Austin Allen settles in at quarterback, Arkansas could be a top 25 team.|
|27.||Miami: Mark Richt's return to Miami is a much-needed boost for a program still looking for its first trip to the ACC Championship Game. Richt will handle the play-calling duties for the Hurricanes, and he inherits one of the nation's top quarterbacks in junior Brad Kaaya. With North Carolina and Florida State visiting Sun Life Stadium, Miami could surprise in Richt's debut.|
|28.||Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin needs to show the program is still on track after an 8-5 2015 campaign. The quarterback position took a hit with the transfer of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, but Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight should provide stability at the position. The defense took a step forward under first-year coordinator John Chavis last season and should be even better in 2016.|
|29.||Virginia Tech: The Hokies hit a home run with the Justin Fuente hire, and the first-year coach should immediately help an offense that has experienced its share of ups and downs in recent years. Coordinator Bud Foster needs to restock the trenches, but Virginia Tech could crack the top 25 with improvement by its offense.|
|30.||Washington State: Don't sleep on Mike Leach's Cougars in the Pac-12 North title race. Led by quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks, Washington State's offense will be one of the best in the nation. The defense showed progress under new coordinator Alex Grinch in 2015. With six starters back for 2016, another step forward is expected.|
|31.||Nebraska: After a season filled with bad luck and close losses, Nebraska is due for a change in fortune in 2016. With quarterback Tommy Armstrong and a deep group of receivers in place, scoring points won't be a problem for the Cornhuskers. However, coach Mike Riley's team has significant question marks in the trenches.|
|32.||Utah: The Utes will be a dangerous team in the Pac-12 South. Coach Kyle Whittingham's team is once again strong on defense and boasts a standout ground attack on offense. However, the passing game has to improve for Utah to win the division.|
|33.||Wisconsin: Paul Chryst had a solid debut (10-3) in his return to Madison, but the road to double-digit wins is much tougher in 2016. The Badgers face a brutal schedule, and enter the season with uncertainty at quarterback and a new play-caller on defense.|
|34.||Boise State: A year after winning the Mountain West and the Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos slipped to 9-4 in coach Bryan Harsin's second season. However, Boise State won't be down for long, as quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols anchor an explosive offense and provide enough firepower to win the Mountain West in 2016.|
|35.||Auburn: The Tigers were one of the nation's biggest disappointments in 2015. Is a rebound year in store for coach Gus Malzahn? Auburn needs to find an answer at quarterback, while new coordinator Kevin Steele is tasked with improving a defense that ranked near the bottom of the SEC last season.|
|36.||San Diego State: Rocky Long's Aztecs are the defending Mountain West champs and will be a tough out once again in 2016. Running back Donnel Pumphrey anchors the offense, while seven starters return from a standout defense. The Aztecs could win 11 games once again.|
|37.||South Florida: The Bulls showed marked progress in coach Willie Taggart's third year. USF finished 8-5 in 2015 and returns 14 starters for 2016, including running back Marlon Mack. The Bulls are the favorite to win the AAC East this fall.|
|38.||Pitt: Pat Narduzzi's first year in the Steel City was a success, and the Panthers are aiming even higher in 2016. Standout receiver Tyler Boyd must be replaced, but Pitt returns 16 starters, including standout safety Jordan Whitehead and senior quarterback Nathan Peterman. The combination of James Conner and Qadree Ollison is one of the nation's best backfield duos.|
|39.||Penn State: James Franklin has recruited well, but the Nittany Lions are still looking for a breakout season under their third-year coach. With scholarship sanctions ending, the depth and overall talent level is improving in Happy Valley. Franklin needs to find a new quarterback and replace a couple of key faces on defense.|
|40.||West Virginia: Is this a make-or-break year for coach Dana Holgorsen? With no long-term contract in place, Holgorsen is under a lot of pressure to win in 2016. The Mountaineers should have one of the Big 12's top offenses, but the defense features a revamped back seven.|
|41.||Mississippi State: Replacing the best player - Dak Prescott - in school history will be a challenge for coach Dan Mullen. However, Mullen has elevated this program, and the Bulldogs are better equipped to handle personnel losses than ever before.|
|42.||Texas Tech: Dynamic offense, questionable defense. A similar theme is setting up for the Red Raiders in 2016. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is one of the best in the nation, but the junior has to work behind a revamped offensive line. If the defense improves, Texas Tech could exceed last year's seven wins.|
|43.||Texas: The pressure is building on coach Charlie Strong, but the Longhorns have a promising core of young talent and some much-needed direction on offense under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. The development of true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele and front seven on defense are the keys to Texas' 2016 season.|
|44.||California: The addition of graduate transfer Davis Webb was huge for the Golden Bears in the post-Jared Goff era. With Webb in the mix, California gets a slight bump in Athlon's rankings for 2016.|
|45.||Northwestern: The Wildcats were one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises last year, claiming 10 victories for the second time in four seasons. Pat Fitzgerald's team needs to improve on offense to reach that level in 2016, but the defense should be strong once again with six returning starters.|
|46.||Arizona State: High expectations surrounded the Sun Devils last year, but the Sun Devils finished a disappointing 6-7. Todd Graham's team has a lot of question marks for 2016, as a new quarterback must emerge, and the defense has to get better against the pass.|
|47.||BYU: New coach Kalani Sitake faces a challenging schedule in his first year in Provo, but the Cougars return 12 starters, including two standout quarterbacks in Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill.|
|48.||Kansas State: Injuries hit Bill Snyder's team hard last year, but the Wildcats still managed to get six wins and a bowl trip. With better luck in the health department and more consistent play at quarterback, Kansas State will be a dangerous team to watch in the Big 12 this season.|
|49.||Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets had a surprising fall last season. After winning the Coastal Division and the Orange Bowl in 2014, Georgia Tech slumped to 3-9. Expect Paul Johnson's team to rebound back into a bowl and challenge for a winning record in 2016.|
|50.||Arizona: Last season's seven-win mark was the lowest by Arizona under coach Rich Rodriguez. And if the Wildcats want to top that total in 2016, it will have to be on the strength of an offense that averaged 37.4 points a game last year. Rodriguez hit the reset button on defense, and this unit is in need of repair after giving up 35.8 points a game in 2015.|
|51.||Air Force: With 13 returning starters, Air Force should challenge Boise State for the top spot in the Mountain West's Mountain Division. Coach Troy Calhoun has a deep stable of running backs at his disposal, and the defense should be strong with nine starters back.|
|52.||Temple: After tying the school record with 10 victories last year, what will Matt Rhule's Owls do for an encore? With 11 returning starters, including quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas, Temple should challenge for the American Athletic East Division title once again.|
|53.||Duke: The Blue Devils have made significant progress under coach David Cutcliffe, but getting to a fifth consecutive bowl game won't be easy. Quarterback Thomas Sirk's status is uncertain due to an offseason Achilles injury, and there's a challenging road slate ahead on the schedule.|
|54.||Cincinnati: After a disappointing seven-win season last year, the Bearcats hope to get back on track in 2016. Tommy Tuberville's team could show marked improvement just by having better luck in the turnover department (minus-19 in 2015). Quarterback Gunner Kiel also returns for his senior year.|
|55.||Indiana: Replacing quarterback Nate Sudfeld won't be easy, but the Hoosiers are on the right track under coach Kevin Wilson. New quarterback Richard Lagow inherits a strong supporting cast, and new coordinator Tom Allen should help the defense take a step forward.|
|56.||Kentucky: Mark Stoops' fourth year in Lexington is a critical one. The Wildcats have posted back-to-back 5-7 campaigns but are still looking for their first bowl trip under Stoops. With a favorable schedule and promising talent on both sides of the ball, Kentucky should be able to hit the six-win mark this fall.|
|57.||Vanderbilt: The Commodores showed progress in coach Derek Mason's second year, and a bowl game isn't out of the question for 2016. The strength of Mason's team is once again the defense, and quarterback Kyle Shurmur is expected to improve with a full offseason to work as the starter.|
|58.||Appalachian State: As last year's 11-win season showed, the Mountaineers made a quick transition to the FBS level. With 16 returning starters - including a deep stable of running backs - Scott Satterfield's team should edge Arkansas State for the Sun Belt title.|
|59.||NC State: Earning a third consecutive bowl trip won't be easy for the Wolfpack in 2016. In addition to finding a replacement for quarterback Jacoby Brissett, NC State's schedule is tough, highlighted by a non-conference game against Notre Dame and road trips to Clemson, North Carolina and Louisville.|
|60.||Minnesota: First-year (full-time) coach Tracy Claeys has a chance to make a good first impression on new athletic director Mark Coyle. With 14 returning starters and a favorable schedule, there's a good chance Minnesota exceeds last year's six wins.|
|61.||Colorado: The Buffaloes are trending in the right direction under coach Mike MacIntyre. However, the schedule isn't easy, and there's uncertainty at quarterback after Davis Webb decided to transfer to California. Will Sefo Liufau return to full strength by September?|
|62.||Missouri: The Tigers should be strong on defense once again. However, new coach Barry Odom's biggest task is generating improvement from an offense that averaged only 13.6 points a game in 2015.|
|63.||South Carolina: Will Muschamp has plenty of question marks to address in his second stint as a head coach in the SEC. The Gamecocks probably have more talent in the program than last year's 3-9 record would suggest, but only eight starters are back and both sides of the ball have significant holes to fill.|
|64.||Wake Forest: Expect the Demon Deacons to take a big step forward in Dave Clawson's third year. The overall depth and talent level has improved over the last two seasons, and the schedule is favorable enough to challenge for six wins.|
|65.||Boston College: Injuries hit Boston College hard last season, but the Eagles should rebound in 2016. The addition of Patrick Towles is an upgrade at quarterback, while the defense remains tough with six returning starters.|
|66.||Maryland: D.J. Durkin is a good hire, but expectations should be tempered in year one. The Terrapins have question marks at quarterback and suffered key losses at each level on defense.|
|67.||Navy: The Midshipmen lose a handful of key players - namely quarterback Keenan Reynolds - but Ken Niumatalolo's team will be in the mix for a finish near the top of the American Athletic Conference's West Division.|
|68.||Southern Miss: New coach Jay Hopson should keep Southern Miss at the top of Conference USA's West Division in 2016. Of course, it doesn't hurt the Golden Eagles return standout quarterback Nick Mullens and running back Ito Smith.|
|69.||Western Michigan: Led by quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis, Western Michigan is poised to threaten Northern Illinois' run at the top of the MAC West. The Broncos have a few voids to fill on defense, but NIU and Toledo must visit Kalamazoo.|
|70.||MTSU: The Blue Raiders could be poised for a breakthrough season under coach Rick Stockstill. Quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James form one of the top pass-catch combinations in the Group of 5 ranks. Also in MTSU's favor: No Southern Miss in crossover play and a home date against WKU.|
|71.||Iowa State: Matt Campbell was one of the offseason's best hires, and the first-year coach inherits two of the Big 12's top skill players in running back Mike Warren and receiver Allen Lazard. Campbell's biggest concern is an offensive line that's thin on depth and proven starters.|
|72.||Virginia: Bronco Mendenhall is an interesting fit at Virginia, and the former BYU coach inherits a roster with just 10 returning starters and question marks on both sides of the ball. Safety Quin Blanding should push for All-America honors.|
|73.||Marshall: The Thundering Herd will be looking for their fourth consecutive 10-win season in 2016. Sophomore quarterback Chase Litton and visits by WKU and MTSU to Huntington could be enough for Doc Holliday's team to win C-USA's East Division.|
|74.||Illinois: The Lovie Smith hire has created some much-needed energy around the program, but the first-year coach will have a tough time exceeding last season's five-win mark. The Fighting Illini have major voids to fill on defense, and top receiver Mike Dudek is out for the year due to a knee injury. Quarterback Wes Lunt should be one of the best in the Big Ten.|
|75.||Syracuse: Dino Babers is one of the top hires for 2016, but the first-year coach inherits a team with a lot of question marks. The offense is led by promising quarterback Eric Dungey and big-play threat Steve Ishmael at receiver. The defense - especially in the trenches - is Babers' biggest concern.|
|76.||WKU: Standout quarterback Brandon Doughty must be replaced, but the Hilltoppers are positioned for another run at the C-USA West Division title. A deep group of running backs leads the way for coach Jeff Brohm, and WKU boasts the conference's top offensive line.|
|77.||UConn: The Huskies took a step forward in coach Bob Diaco's second year last fall. Expect more improvement out of UConn in 2016, as 15 returning starters provide plenty of optimism for Diaco. Cornerback Jamar Summers is one of the nation's top cover men.|
|78.||Arkansas State: The Red Wolves return 13 starters from last year's Sun Belt title team, and coach Blake Anderson filled a few voids by adding a couple of talented transfers. Expect Arkansas State to push for the Sun Belt title once again.|
|79.||Toledo: New coach Jason Candle should keep the Rockets near the top of the MAC West. Toledo returns a dynamic backfield - led by senior Kareem Hunt - and a standout offensive line to lean on in 2016.|
|80.||Northern Illinois: With 12 returning starters and a healthy Drew Hare at quarterback, a seventh consecutive trip to the MAC Championship is within reach for Northern Illinois. A road trip to Western Michigan in early October could decide the winner of the MAC West Division.|
|81.||Georgia Southern: New coach Tyson Summers inherits a team capable of winning the Sun Belt title. But transitioning to a new staff and schemes is never easy. The Eagles own one of the nation's top ground attacks with the return of Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw at quarterback, along with Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby at running back.|
|82.||Utah State: Chuckie Keeton expired his eligibility, but the quarterback position for the Aggies is in good hands with Kent Myers. It's a good thing Utah State returns nine starters on offense, as there's a complete rebuilding effort (three starters returning) on defense in 2016.|
|83.||Memphis: Mike Norvell is a good hire at Memphis, but the first-year coach has a tough assignment this fall in finding a replacement for quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Tigers have a good collection of skill players and return eight starters on defense.|
|84.||Tulsa: Scoring points shouldn't be a problem for the Golden Hurricane. Second-year coach Philip Montgomery returns standout quarterback Dane Evans and one of the American Athletic Conference's top receiving corps. Surpassing last season's win total rests with generating improvement on a defense that gave up 39.8 points a game in 2015.|
|85.||Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs have big shoes to fill on offense with the departure of quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon. And there are plenty of voids to fill on defense with only three returning starters. Receiver Trent Taylor is one of the top players in Conference USA.|
|86.||Nevada: An overhauled front seven on defense will be a tough test for coach Brian Polian, but the Wolf Pack will be explosive on offense with the return of nine starters. The one-two punch of James Butler and Akeel Lynch at running back provides plenty of support for steady quarterback Tyler Stewart.|
|87.||Rutgers: Chris Ash looks like the right coach to help Rutgers take a step forward in the rugged Big Ten East Division. Year one is going to have its share of rough patches, as the Scarlet Knights have to find a quarterback and improve a defense that gave up 462 yards a game in 2015.|
|88.||Central Michigan: Quarterback Cooper Rush and a deep group of receivers should keep the Chippewas in the mix for the MAC West title. However, road trips to Northern Illinois and Toledo won't be easy.|
|89.||Colorado State: Mike Bobo's first season in Fort Collins resulted in a solid seven-win season. The Rams are aiming higher for 2016, but there's a lot of work to do on defense, and standout receiver Rashard Higgins left for the NFL.|
|90.||Oregon State: Year two of Gary Andersen's rebuilding project is underway in Corvallis. The Beavers could be more competitive in 2016, but it may not show too much in the win column. The addition of Utah State transfer Darell Garretson should provide stability at quarterback.|
|91.||Ohio: The MAC East is one of the toughest divisions to predict for 2016. When choosing a favorite amongst uncertainty, it's better to default to Ohio - a program that hasn't recorded a losing record since 2008. Linebacker Quentin Poling anchors a defense that should be among the best in the MAC.|
|92.||UTEP: Injuries hit UTEP hard last season, but the Miners should be poised for a quick rebound in Sean Kugler's fourth year. The return of running back Aaron Jones to full strength is a big boost for the offense, and a favorable schedule should allow for a trip to the postseason.|
|93.||New Mexico: The Lobos had a breakthrough year in 2015. In Bob Davie's fourth season, New Mexico finished 7-6 and went to a bowl for the first time since 2007. And with 14 returning starters, the Lobos should push for another bowl trip in 2016.|
|94.||East Carolina: The Pirates will be a team to watch under new coach Scottie Montgomery. Senior Isaiah Jones leads a dangerous group of skill players, and there's a solid foundation in place on defense with six returning starters.|
|95.||Purdue: With six wins in three seasons, coach Darrell Hazell is squarely on the hot seat for 2016. The return of 16 starters provides promise, but the Boilermakers need better play from quarterback David Blough and a struggling defense (36.5 points a game in 2015) to push for a winning season.|
|96.||San Jose State: Last year's six-win season and bowl victory was a step in the right direction for the Spartans. Standout running back Tyler Ervin must be replaced, but the Spartans return 15 starters, including an All-Mountain West candidate at quarterback in Kenny Potter.|
|97.||Bowling Green: New coach Mike Jinks has big shoes to fill in replacing Dino Babers. The Falcons have enough talent to win the MAC East for the fourth year in a row, but there's a lot of unknowns under Jinks - a coach who's never been a coordinator or head coach at the FBS level.|
|98.||Akron: 2015 was a record-breaking season for the Zips. Terry Bowden's team set a program-high with eight wins and also claimed the first bowl victory in Akron history. Only four starters return for 2016, but the Zips should push for another postseason trip.|
|99.||Kansas: David Beaty inherited a massive rebuilding project. The Jayhawks need another recruiting class or two to upgrade the program's overall talent level just to be competitive in the Big 12. Kansas should at least break into the win column in 2016.|
|100.||UCF: The Knights have more talent on the roster than last year's 0-12 record would suggest. New coach Scott Frost should provide a much-needed boost to the offense, and this unit returns plenty of talented pieces, including quarterback Justin Holman and receiver Tre'Quan Smith.|
|101.||SMU: Chad Morris has SMU on the right path, but the Mustangs are probably a year away from contending for a bowl game. The offense should be explosive behind quarterback Matt Davis and receiver Courtland Sutton.|
|102.||Troy: The Trojans could surprise in the Sun Belt. Troy only won four games last year but showed improvement under first-year coach Neal Brown. Quarterback Brandon Silvers is a name to remember.|
|103.||FAU: Despite back-to-back 3-9 seasons under Charlie Partridge, the Owls have a talented core of young players in place. End Trey Hendrickson recorded 13.5 sacks last year and anchors a defense that held opponents to 28.8 points a game in 2015.|
|104.||Old Dominion: With 16 returning starters, the Monarchs are poised to push for the program's first bowl trip. The defense has room to improve, but Old Dominion returns nine starters on offense and has two proven quarterbacks in Shuler Bentley and David Washington.|
|105.||FIU: Coach Ron Turner has to rebuild the defense, but the Panthers return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Alex McGough and running back Alex Gardner.|
|106.||UNLV: The Rebels showed progress under first-year coach Tony Sanchez in 2015. Don't be surprised if UNLV takes another step forward in 2016. Junior college recruit (and former Nebraska signal-caller) Johnny Stanton is an intriguing player to watch, and receiver Devonte Boyd is one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks.|
|107.||UL Lafayette: After four straight 9-4 seasons, the Ragin' Cajuns slipped to 4-8 and no postseason trip for the first time under coach Mark Hudspeth. Can Hudspeth get this program back on track? Running back Elijah McGuire is one of the Sun Belt's top players, but the bowl hopes of UL Lafayette rest with the development of the defense and quarterback Jordan Davis.|
|108.||Fresno State: After winning 11 games in 2013, the Bulldogs have won only nine contests over the last two years. There's pressure on coach Tim DeRuyter to show the program hasn't slipped in 2016. A revamped coaching staff provides some optimism, but the Bulldogs have big question marks on both sides of the ball.|
|109.||Rice: After missing out on a bowl for the first time in three years, Rice hopes the return of 15 starters will be enough for a trip to the postseason. The Owls have to break in a new quarterback, and the defense needs to show marked improvement after giving up 35.8 points a game in 2015.|
|110.||Georgia State: The Panthers took a big step forward in coach Trent Miles' third season with a 6-7 final record and the program's first bowl trip. The overall talent and depth has improved, but Georgia State has to replace standout quarterback Nick Arbuckle.|
|111.||Army West Point: The Black Knights have only two winning seasons since 1996, but they are improving under third-year coach Jeff Monken. With 14 returning starters - including two promising quarterbacks in Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter - Army could push for six wins.|
|112.||Miami, Ohio: The RedHawks are getting better under third-year coach Chuck Martin and could be a sleeper team to watch in the MAC East title picture. Martin needs to settle the quarterback battle between Gus Ragland and Billy Bahl, but Miami should have one of the MAC's top defenses in 2016.|
|113.||Buffalo: The Bulls return only two starters on offense and enter the year with uncertainty at quarterback, but coach Lance Leipold's team should be able to push for a bowl game on the strength of a defense that returns eight starters.|
|114.||Wyoming: Craig Bohl is the right coach to get Wyoming's program back on track. However, the Cowboys are in the midst of a youth movement and likely facing another uphill battle for wins in 2016. Running back Brian Hill is one of the top players in the Group of 5 ranks.|
|115.||South Alabama: The Jaguars were unable to build off the 2014 season, which saw the program earn its first bowl bid. A return to the postseason is possible in 2016, but South Alabama needs to find a quarterback and navigate a tough schedule to get to six wins.|
|116.||Ball State: New coach Mike Neu - a former Ball State quarterback - inherits some promising talent on offense, including quarterback Riley Neal and receiver KeVonn Mabon. The Cardinals could push for a winning record if the defense takes a step forward after giving up 35.8 points a game in 2015.|
|117.||Tulane: The Green Wave made one of the offseason's best hires in Willie Fritz. 2016 looks to be a rebuilding year for Fritz, as Tulane has major question marks on an offense that returns four starters and lacks a proven quarterback.|
|118.||Kent State: The Golden Flashes boasted a standout defense in 2015, but the offense averaged only 13.1 points a game. Coach Paul Haynes needs to find a spark for this unit or the temperature on the fourth-year coach's seat is only going to increase.|
|119.||Idaho: Last year's four-win campaign was Idaho's best since 2010. Quarterback Matt Linehan leads the way for an offense that returns eight starters. Improvement is needed from a defense that gave up 42.1 points a game last season.|
|120.||New Mexico State: The Aggies were more competitive in 2015 and should take another step forward in 2016. Running back Larry Rose is one of the nation's best in the Group of 5 ranks.|
|121.||Hawaii: Nick Rolovich is a good hire, but the former Hawaii quarterback inherits a team that won only three games last season (and zero in conference play). The Rainbow Warriors need to find a quarterback, but a challenging schedule won't be easy to overcome.|
|122.||Texas State: New coach Everett Withers inherits a team with only eight returning starters from last year's 3-9 team. However, the cupboard isn't entirely bare for Withers. Quarterback Tyler Jones is a capable triggerman for this offense, and there's probably more talent in the program than last season's record indicated.|
|123.||UTSA: Frank Wilson is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level. The Roadrunners have talent at the skill positions, and the addition of graduate transfer Jared Johnson should settle the quarterback spot.|
|124.||Eastern Michigan: The Eagles hope to show major progress in coach Chris Creighton's third season. With 15 starters back, EMU could equal its win total from the last two years (three). The return of end Pat O'Connor from injury should help a defense that gave up 42.1 points a game in 2015.|
|125.||Charlotte: The 49ers should show some progress in their second year at the FBS level. Running back Kalif Phillips and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi are two under-the-radar performers for coach Brad Lambert, while former Miami signal-caller Kevin Olsen takes over at quarterback.|
|126.||ULM: The Warhawks get high marks for the Matt Viator hire, but progress may be hard to find in 2016. The offense features talented sophomore quarterback Garrett Smith and one of the Sun Belt's top receiving corps. The defense must be overhauled with just two returning starters.|
|127.||UMass: Life as a FBS Independent isn't going to be easy for UMass. The Minutemen return only six starters from last season's 3-9 team. Junior college transfer quarterback Andrew Ford and running back Marquis Young provide hope on offense.|
|128.||North Texas: Seth Littrell is a good hire and should have the Mean Green competing for bowl trips over the next few years. However, there's a lot of work needed for 2016. Alabama transfer Alec Morris is an intriguing option at quarterback.|
NBA conspiracy theorist aren't going to let this one go.
While traveling on a Delta flight, NBA reporter Dave McMenamin noticed an interesting tidbit on the in-flight entertainment. The airlines already claims the Warriors will win the championship.
If Delta Airlines is correct, you have to wonder what other secrets they might know.
Not all games between major college football teams and their brothers in the lower division are created equal.
There’s plenty of evidence for this beyond just the handful of FCS-over-FBS upsets each year. Five-time FCS champion North Dakota State has a five-game winning streak against FBS competition that predates the Bison’s national title streak. One of the quarterbacks of those teams, Carson Wentz, went second in the NFL draft. FCS quarterbacks — like Vernon Adams and Dakota Prukop — have been coveted graduate transfers.
Then there is the other side of the coin: Power programs using FCS teams for easy wins, glorified scrimmages and schedule filler.
As usual, the games that make our most shameful game list are between Power 5 programs and clearly overmatched FCS opponents. Extra “shameful points” were awarded to FBS teams asking an FCS opponent to travel across state lines to do the deed.
It is also worth mentioning that we factored no extenuating circumstances in this ranking: We don’t care if this game falls in a tough part of the schedule or if the FBS school got into a bind making its schedule. These games are here and they’ll be ugly.
10. UC Davis at Oregon, Sept. 3
Scheduling out West can be tough, with only the Mountain West around for non-conference games. The Ducks are scraping the bottom of the barrel for a UC Davis team that is 4-18 the last two seasons. This will be a reunion of sorts — UC Davis coach Ron Gould is a former Oregon player and GA — but it won’t be an enjoyable one.
9. Missouri State at Kansas State, Sept. 24
Early in Bill Snyder’s tenure, Kansas State was renowned for its light non-conference schedules. Yet in recent years, Kansas State has faced Auburn, Miami (twice) and UCLA in September. The Wildcats open 2016 at Stanford. A game against Missouri State proves K-State can still find room for a patsy. Missouri State won only one game last season — against Division II Chadron State — and lost by a combined score of 140-14 to Memphis and Arkansas State.
8. Furman at Michigan State, Sept. 2
Furman went 4-7 last season but actually ranked higher in the Sagarin Ratings (No. 182) than Eastern Michigan (No. 184) last season. The shameful part of this game is Michigan State — winners of two of the last three Big Ten titles — importing an FCS team from South Carolina for a Friday night game to open the season.
T-7. Idaho State at Colorado, Sept. 10
T-7. Idaho State at Oregon State, Sept. 17
Idaho State is a regular for shameful games. And, yes, Oregon State and Colorado need all the wins they can get. Few wins are more automatic than Idaho State. The Bengals lost 52-0 to Boise State last season and 80-8 to UNLV a week later. Aside from an 8-4 season in 2014, Idaho State is 16-85 since 2006.
6. Austin Peay at Kentucky, Nov. 19
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops might need a game like this to get to bowl game and perhaps save his job. Of course, any sign of struggle against Austin Peay would be a red flag for Stoops. Austin Peay went 1-34 under former coach Kirby Cannon and replaced him with 30-year-old Will Healy.
5. Delaware State at Missouri, Sept. 24
Missouri brings in the second-best FCS team in Delaware for an easy September win. The Hornets have gone 3-20 the last two seasons. At least second-year coach Kenny Carter has plenty of major college experience as a former assistant at Louisville, Florida, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Pittsburgh and LSU.
4. Chattanooga at Alabama, Nov. 19
Chattanooga isn’t a bad team. Actually, the Mocs are pretty good. They’ve won three Southern Conference titles in a row and ranked No. 100 in the Sagarin Ratings last season — ahead of teams bowl teams like Akron, Colorado State, Nevada and Georgia State. The Mocs are a good enough team to upset a handful of FBS teams, and the SEC vs. FCS challenge in late November is a tradition at this point. But this is Alabama, and there’s nothing to gain from a game against an opponent the Tide beat by a combined score of 94-0 in 2009 and 2013.
3. Northwestern State at Baylor, Sept. 3
Northwestern State actually beat an FBS team in 2014, defeating Louisiana Tech 30-27 — a game that happened to be just two weeks after a 70-6 loss to Baylor. The result won’t be much different this year. Baylor can’t even grab a good FCS team for its annual routs against the lower division. Northwestern State has had just one winning season since 2004.
2. Nicholls State at Georgia, Sept. 10
Kirby Smart’s first six weeks as a head coach will be brutal: North Carolina, at Missouri, at Ole Miss, Tennessee and at South Carolina. The Nicholls State game is the breather his team will need, but it doesn’t make the game any less shameful. Nicholls State, a Southland Conference from Thibodaux, La., has lost 24 of its last 27 games. Five of its last six games against FBS competition have come by scores of 47-0 (ULM), 49-0 (Colorado), 77-3 (North Texas), 73-7 (Arkansas) and 70-7 (UL Lafayette).
1. Presbyterian at Florida, Nov. 19
If Steve Spurrier were to take a shot at Florida, it might go something like this: “You can’t spell BYE without Presbyterian.” Indeed, this game is a glorified bye week for the Gators in between the SEC finale against South Carolina and a road trip to Florida State. Presbyterian went 2-9 in 2015, finished 218th in the Sagarin Ratings, and scored more than 20 points only twice (23 against Campbell, 21 against Western Carolina) last season. Only two years ago, a decent Presbyterian team that finished 6-5 played three FBS teams, losing by a combined score of 145-3 to Northern Illinois, NC State and Ole Miss. Despite sharing a state with FAU, FIU, UCF and USF — not to mention a decent FCS program in Bethune-Cookman and legacy program in Florida A&M — Florida is importing a bad FCS team from South Carolina for an easy "W" in November.
Every day there's more and more talk about the Baylor sexual assault scandal. With more talk, comes more takes.
Detroit Sports 105.1 host Tom Mazawey talked a little about the scandal and how not too many people are talking about the victims' roles in this. Mazawey says in part if a woman is out drinking and heads home with a man, it's pretty much known that she will be sexually assaulted so don't be surprised if it happens.
Imagine going for a nice, relaxing game of golf and all of a sudden there's something right out of Jurassic Park roaming the course.
That's exactly what happened on this Florida golf course. Surprisingly the gator isn't new to the course, he shows up from time to time, and "doesn't bother anybody." It's about 15-16 feet long so the chances of it actually catching people is rather slim, but it's still an unsettling sight.
Sizing up BYU football in 2016 is an interesting proposition. BYU says goodbye to Bronco Mendenhall, who won a lot of games in his 11 years in Provo, and the Cougars then say hello to first-time head coach Kalani Sitake, who makes up for his lack of head coach experience in the fact that he knows the culture of BYU football.
As for what some publications think in regards to BYU’s prospects for this coming season, the Cougars come in at No. 47 in Athlon Sports’ rankings of all 128 FBS programs.
The last two seasons BYU has flown up the rankings after quick starts that had the nation buzzing about the Cougars potentially being a College Football Playoff crasher. Obviously, BYU didn’t get anyone near the Playoff in 2014 or ‘15, but the Cougars have been acquiring some nice talent at the top of their roster and looked primed to make a splash with a difficult schedule this fall.
With BYU falling outside of Athlon’s Top 25, here is a case for why the Cougars could end up there before all is said and done.
How many schools around the country can say they have two quarterbacks who they feel not only can win a lot of games but also win enough to say you’re a top 25 team? Not many. BYU, however, is one of those teams.
Both Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum would be quarterbacks that any school would love to have, BYU is blessed to have both and first-year offensive coordinator Ty Detmer will have the tall order of choosing who will be the starter during fall camp. Right now, Mangum has the upper hand because he was healthy during spring practices while Hill continues to recover from the foot injury he suffered in the season opener against Nebraska last year. If Hill is healthy in fall camp, I’d expect that he wins the job in camp and is BYU’s starter against Arizona on Sept. 3. Again, it’s a good problem to have.
When you look at BYU’s schedule in 2016, aside from the UCLA game, the Cougars have the edge at the quarterback position in every game. You also could make the case for BYU having the edge against UCLA as well. Mangum outplayed UCLA’s Josh Rosen in Pasadena a year ago. Rosen had his worst game as a Bruin against BYU.
BYU’s quarterbacks are as good as advertised and this alone might give BYU a strong enough case to be a top-25 team.
2. Foundation of winning and new energy
When Kalani Sitake took over he made it clear that BYU was not a program that was broken or needed fixing. Sitake knew that his current school had been winning a lot of games over the last 11 years under previous head coach Bronco Mendenhall. BYU is one of only 10 programs since 2005 to post a .500 record or better in all those seasons. Hard to ignore the success of the past plus a new excitement that BYU was sorely lacking in recent seasons.
3. Improved defensive line
BYU’s run defense last season was average at best. The Cougars gave up nearly 150 yards per game on the ground, and now BYU has to replace Bronson Kaufusi, who was taken in the third round by the Baltimore Ravens in last month’s NFL Draft. But don’t sleep on BYU’s defensive front, particularly the defensive line, this fall.
Ilaisa Tuiaki (aka “Coach E”) comes to BYU as the Cougars’ new defensive coordinator. Sitake brought Tuiaki with him from Oregon State. Tuiaki also had served as Sitake’s defensive line coach while the two were at Utah.
Sitake and Tuiaki have had success over the years, particularly at Utah, producing defensive linemen that went on to the NFL. BYU will be switching to a 4-3 scheme and the Cougars’ defensive linemen will be asked to do a lot more in Tuiaki’s defense, but the Cougars have the horses to do it. Travis Tuiloma is expected to man the middle and should flourish in this new scheme, and he will be paired with one of the nation’s top junior college transfers in Handsome Tanielu, who turned down the likes of Utah and Texas to play in Sitake and Tuiaki’s defense in Provo.
Any great college football team needs to be stout in the trenches and BYU should be much improved in that area this fall.
4. Schedule will pose great opportunities
BYU’s schedule in 2016 is a bear. It just is. The great thing for BYU assembling this difficult schedule in 2016 is that it’ll give the Cougars numerous opportunities to not only start the season like they have the past few seasons in the top 25 but also bounce back in and potentially finish the year ranked. BYU hasn’t been a part of the final AP Top 25 since 2009 when the Cougars finished 12th.
BYU plays six Power Five teams and a pair of programs in Cincinnati and Boise State that are jockeying for and feel worthy of a spot in one of the major conferences. If there was ever a year where you could say BYU has a schedule similar to a P5 team, this would be the year.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com, and also is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, it should come as no surprise that the role and status of the running back has changed. Consider that last season seven players rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Just five years ago that number was 17. Also, when Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott was taken with the fourth overall pick of this year’s draft he represented just the third running back taken in the first round in the past four drafts combined.
That doesn’t running backs are no longer valuable, but the skill set and job description certainly has changed. Even though Le’Veon Bell is recovering from a torn ACL, he still claims the top spot in Athlon Sports’ running back rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. The main reason? Bell is just a much a weapon in the passing game as he is taking the hand off with 107 receptions for nearly 1,000 yards over the last two seasons (22 games).
2016 NFL Running Back Rankings
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
He missed the second half of the 2015 season with an MCL tear, but before the injury, the Pro Bowl-caliber back was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 92.7 yards per game.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
The workhorse led the NFL with 1,485 yards with over 20 carries per game. He scored 11 times and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
3. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
Re-signed with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent in 2016. Only Peterson rushed for than his 1,402 yards in 2015.
4. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
The explosive back has rushed for 7,220 yards and caught 283 passes heading into the 2016 season. Suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second time in his career in ‘15.
5. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles
Voted the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley exploded on the field with 146 yards on 19 carries during the fourth week of the season and hasn’t looked back.
6. Matt Forté, N.Y. Jets
Signed by the Jets in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. The 30-year-old back has been one of the most complete offensive players in the NFL the past eight years.
7. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
Led the Super Bowl runner-up with a career-high 242 carries. Ranks second in franchise history with 1,283 rushing attempts and 5,814 rushing yards.
8. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta
Earned his first Pro Bowl selection after rushing for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 73 passes and tallied three more scores in 2015.
9. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
Averaged 74.6 yards per game, fifth-best in the NFL in his first season in Buffalo. He added 32 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy has 332 receptions in six-year career.
10. Lamar Miller, Houston
Averaged 4.6 yards per carry in Miami and was signed by the Texans as an unrestricted free agent. Miller has a lot of tread left on those tires, getting only 12.1 carries per game last season.
11. Chris Ivory, Jacksonville
12. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
13. Frank Gore, Indianapolis
14. Latavius Murray, Oakland
15. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
16. Darren McFadden, Dallas
17. C.J. Anderson, Denver
18. David Johnson, Arizona
19. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
20. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee
21. Ronnie Hillman, Denver
22. Alfred Morris, Dallas
23. DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh
24. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville
25. Dion Lewis, New England
26. Rashad Jennings, N.Y. Giants
27. Karlos Williams, Buffalo
28. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
29. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland
30. Duke Johnson, Cleveland
2016 NFL Fullback Rankings
1. Mike Tolbert, Carolina
Was voted first-team All-Pro as the lead blocker for Jonathan Stewart and pass protector for Cam Newton. The utility back can do it all, including carry the ball and catch passes out of the backfield.
2. Patrick DiMarco, Atlanta
The second-team All Pro paved the way for Devonta Freeman’s success in 2015. He also caught 13 passes for 110 yards and scored twice.
3. Bruce Miller, San Francisco
Was a Pro Bowl-caliber player during the Jim Harbaugh era but was used only in spot duty in 2015. He excelled on special teams. Miller caught 10 passes for 135 yards last fall.
4. Marcel Reece, Oakland
Will start out the 2016 season on the suspension list for PEDs. When on the field, the ex-Washington Huskie catches the ball well and has good run-after-catch ability. He is a three-time Pro Bowl player.
5. John Kuhn, Free Agent
The road grader of a fullback has signed one-year deals with the Packers the last two years and has been an integral part of the special teams and Aaron Rodgers’ protector.
Bets are always fun... unless you're on the losing side.
One Cavaliers fan found out the hard way when he bet against the Warriors in their series against the Thunder. Reddit user, PARTYXDIRTYDAN said he would eat his shirt if the Thunder didn't win and we all know what happened in Game 7.
Being a good sport, he owned up to the bet and dipped the shirt in some barbeque sauce. Yummy.
Make no mistake, quarterback remains the “it” position in the NFL. Not only is it the most popular one, it’s also the most scrutinized and arguably the most important when it comes to team success.
For poof of this, look no further than this year’s quarterback rankings. Athlon Sports’ rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine, are headlined by a trio of signal-callers who have two things in common – each has won a league MVP award and has led his team to the Super Bowl. In fact, the latter accomplishment applies to each of the top six on our list, a group that has combined to win nine times out 14 Super Sunday appearances.
2016 NFL Quarterback Rankings
1. Cam Newton, Carolina
Collected 48 of 50 votes to win the NFL’s MVP award for the 2015 season. The athletic competitor passed for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more scores.
2. Tom Brady, New England
The future NFL Hall of Famer and 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback responded in the face of adversity with 4,770 yards passing and 36 touchdowns. He was intercepted only seven times. He is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.
3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Had a blip on the career radar in 2015 after losing prime target Jordy Nelson. His 60.7 completion percentage was the lowest in his eight years as a starter.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
With Antonio Brown and a healthy Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers can score on anyone. Big Ben holds numerous career franchise passing records.
5. Drew Brees, New Orleans
The 15-year veteran averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and had 10 games of over 300 yards passing. It was the fifth time in his career he has done so.
6. Russell Wilson, Seattle
Wilson has won 46 regular season games, more than any quarterback in his first four years in NFL history.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego
Rivers is the franchise leader in career completion percentage and passer rating. He completed a career-high 437 passes in 2015.
8. Carson Palmer, Arizona
Was voted to the second-team All-Pro squad after passing for a career-high 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt.
9. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
Became the fifth-fastest quarterback to pass for 30,000 yards, accomplishing the feat in his 117th game. One of four passers to throw for 4,000 yards in each of the last five seasons.
10. Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants
Has not missed a start in 11 years. He is the franchise leader in passing attempts, completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and interceptions.
11. Tony Romo, Dallas
12. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
13. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
14. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
15. Kirk Cousins, Washington
16. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
17. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
18. Jay Cutler, Chicago
19. Alex Smith, Kansas City
20. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo
21. Sam Bradford, Philadelphia
22. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
23. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
24. Derek Carr, Oakland
25. Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota
26. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee
27. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Free Agent
28. Brock Osweiler, Houston
29. Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco
30. Josh McCown, Cleveland
The NFL season never really stops as the league bounces from the regular season, the postseason, free agency, the draft, OTAs, minicamps, training camps and back to the regular season again.
We’re a month removed from the draft, most rookies have reported, and rosters are starting to be evaluated through the league.
Athlon has done its share of evaluation, too, and we’re ready to get you ready for the season ahead with the release of the Athlon Sports 2016 Pro Football Preview, available in our online store hosted by Amazon.
To celebrate the arrival of this year’s NFL preview magazines, we’re releasing our division-by-division and playoff picks for the 2016 season.
All of Athlon’s 2016 previews are available now online and will be available on newsstands on June 7.
|AFC East||NFC East|
|AFC North||NFC North|
|AFC South||NFC South|
|AFC West||NFC West|
|AFC Playoffs||NFC Playoffs|
|Wild Card||Wild Card|
|Divisional Round||Divisional Round|
|AFC Championship||NFC Championship|
|Super Bowl LI|
NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 was once a grueling endurance test, a marathon of attrition in which step one toward Victory Lane was making sure your engine didn’t blow. But despite being the sport’s longest race by 100 miles, the four-hour marathon that blends into the night isn’t the DNF land mine it used to be.
Let’s compare. A little over 20 years ago, Ken Schrader had the best car in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600 only to blow his motor down the stretch. That was part of 14 DNFs spread over 42 cars – one-third of the field – in a race that produced a first-time winner, Bobby Labonte. Just three cars wound up on the lead lap in an event that produced only seven cautions despite its longevity.
Last season, Labonte’s former organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, captured the Coca-Cola 600 trophy again with Carl Edwards. But Edwards presided over a race that saw 39 of its 43 cars make it to the finish line. Of those four that wound up in the garage, just three were due to engine failure (and none by a Chase-contending team.) A whopping 16 cars still ended up on the lead lap despite a similar number of caution flags compared to 1995 (eight this time around).
The evolution of technology, it seems has changed the game. While the extra 100 miles certainly produces a mental test for the driver, providing an edge to the veterans who have been through that type of grueling marathon, crew chiefs are breathing a little easier these days. Chances are if your favorite stumbles down the stretch on Sunday it’ll be his own fault, or perhaps poor strategy, instead of a random piece that broke in half.
2016 Coca-Cola 600
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, NC)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
On Memorial Day Weekend a year ago, Logano and his Team Penske No. 22 Ford were sitting pretty. The youngster already had a Daytona 500 win to this credit, sat third in the standings and was looked at as a championship contender. This year, he’s gotten off to a bit of a slow start, leading just 113 laps to date and sitting winless, eighth in the standings. But Logano prevailed during the sport’s great exhibition last weekend, the Sprint All-Star Race, amidst confusing rules and a hard-fought battle with Kyle Larson. That produced momentum, resulting in a front-row starting spot (second) for Sunday’s race. And did I mention Logano won the last race held at Charlotte in the fall?
Honorable mention goes to the pole sitter, Martin Truex Jr., who had the best car at the sport’s last intermediate track race (Kansas) and is anxious to get that first win of 2016. Both drivers aren’t listed in the fantasy section this week but are great alternate picks for Sunday’s roster.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Charlotte was once called Lowe’s Motor Speedway and for good reason: Johnson was dominant there. His seven career victories include three Coca-Cola 600s in a row at one point (2003-05) along with a fourth added in 2014. But Johnson ran 40th in this race last year and enters the weekend sputtering. He’s run 22nd, 17th and 25th in the last three points-paying events, was a virtual non-factor down the stretch in the All-Star Race, and caused a multi-car wreck at Dover after a weird transmission issue where the car stuck in gear. Hendrick Motorsports appears a step, maybe two behind Joe Gibbs Racing and they won’t make up that ground until their flagship team, the No. 48, gets back on track.
After extensive deliberation and voting Wednesday NASCAR’s 2017 Hall of Fame Class was announced. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons will be enshrined in a January ceremony at the Hall in Charlotte. Former Martinsville Speedway owner H. Clay Earles was honored with the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions in NASCAR.
Among the five, three are car owners (Hendrick, Childress and Parks). Martin, the sport’s perennial runner-up, finished second in the championship standings five times and was second in the infamous 2007 Daytona 500. He’s not the bridesmaid this time, though joining a class where 18 Cup car owner championships are represented by the trio above along with a 1973 Cup Series driver’s title won by Parsons. Parsons, who later went on to have a successful broadcasting career with ESPN/ABC, NBC, and TNT, was a former taxi driver who went on to win 21 times at the Cup level, including the 1975 Daytona 500.
Just four months into the new rules package NASCAR is tweaking with aerodynamics once again. Another package will be tested during two regular season races, Michigan in two weeks and Kentucky in early July. The changes reduce the spoiler height from 3.5 to 2.5 inches along with a reduction in splitter size to try and reduce downforce and increase passing in the turns. By all accounts, major teams have caught up on the offseason adjustments and their progress may have produced a more mundane event held at Kansas earlier this month. Despite the difficulty of making in-season rule changes NASCAR is trying to remain vigilant with the realization less grip is promoting more exciting competition.
No NASCAR drivers will participate in the vaunted “Indy double” this season. The 100th edition of that open-wheel race will run with minimal NASCAR connections. In the past, drivers like Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, and the now-retired John Andretti were among those to try 1,100 miles of racing in one day. Brian Vickers, who subbed for Stewart earlier this year, was seeking an Indy ride but sponsorship did not materialize for the event.
Celebrity Sighting: New Hall of Famer Mark Martin will drive the pace car before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Martin, who last won the big race in 2002, will be making his first public appearance since Wednesday’s announcement of his upcoming induction.
NASCAR By The Numbers
Driver to win from the pole this season in 12 races. Carl Edwards was the only one to accomplish the feat at Bristol earlier in the spring.
Cars that failed to finish at Dover. Only Talladega (12) produced a higher number of DNFs so far this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Defending Coca-Cola 600 winner Carl Edwards may not come in running on all eight cylinders after getting spun out at Dover two weeks ago. But in the past nine Charlotte races he’s finished no lower than 11th, including that 2015 win in the sport’s 600-miler, and a whopping six consecutive races with one lap led. That bonus point could make the difference for you when it comes down to a league nail-biter at the end of your segment.
Once upon a time, Charlotte was one of Kevin Harvick’s worst tracks but the tune has changed significantly since an alignment with Stewart-Haas Racing. Since moving to the No. 4 car in 2014, Harvick has raced here six times, coming up with two victories and no finish worse than ninth. It’s become perhaps the most dependable track to start him these days outside of Phoenix.
Jamie McMurray wrecked in last week’s All-Star Race and hasn’t shown a ton of speed thus far in Charlotte. That said, he’s earned seven straight top-20 finishes at this track during points-paying events and it’s an oval that produced his first ever Cup Series victory back in 2002. With teammate Kyle Larson red hot lately it’s only a matter of time in this team-driven environment before that information slips over into the No. 1 camp and significantly helps them. I think he’s a safe pick for Sunday.
Don’t trust past results when looking at whether to start Trevor Bayne. The Roush Fenway Racing driver hasn’t earned a career top 10 at Charlotte but his No. 6 Ford is suddenly showing speed and taking major steps forward each week toward becoming a contender. Winning the first segment of the Sprint Showdown last week, Bayne showed a little aggression and is gaining confidence with better setups. He’s a good dark horse selection to score a top 10 if you need a week off from counting on superstar rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch all have 6/1 odds according to the Sporting News. Defending Coca-Cola 600 champion Edwards stands at 8/1.
What I Think
Martin Truex, Jr. had the best car a few weeks ago, plagued at Kansas by a loose wheel. It’s about time the No. 78 team stops shooting themselves in the foot and this 600-miler has a tendency to produce surprise winners. I’m going Truex.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
Amid the Baylor/Art Briles scandal and before the Memorial Day weekend, Ole Miss decided to drop some news.
The Rebels have self-imposed a postseason ban in women's basketball and reduced scholarships for football by double digits. Ole Miss officials stated, in a 154-page response to the NCAA, that the school "accepted responsibility for the violations that occurred and self-imposed meaningful penalties."
According to the report, "The terminations of four coaches, including the only two involved head coaches still employed when the violations were discovered; the disassociation of every involved booster; a post-season ban in women's basketball; a double-digit reduction of scholarships in the football program; a significant reduction in off-campus evaluation days and official and unofficial visits in football and track and field; violation-specific rules education across all involved sports; and a $159,325.000 financial penalty."
Among the first four allegations against Ole Miss, three are Level 1 accusations against the football program within he Hugh Freeze era— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) May 27, 2016
Maurice Harris, Chris Kiffin and Derrick Nix are all current assistants named for some level of violation.— Hugh Kellenberger (@HKellenbergerCL) May 27, 2016
Ole Miss was accused of 28 NCAA violations back in January. The school also asked to delay its NCAA COI after the Laremy Tunsil draft night drama.
The quarterback position is the most scrutinized position in football, but the answer as to who assumes it for Florida State might not be known until the late parts of fall camp.
FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has been lauded for his ability to develop quarterbacks. Since becoming the school’s head man in Tallahassee in 2010, Fisher has had three different signal-callers go on to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. That list includes 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston.
For the second straight offseason however, who occupies that position is largely unknown. Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson got the nod early last season, but Sean Maguire had overtaken him by the end of the year. Will Maguire ultimately be Fisher’s guy come Labor Day this year or will Fisher look to a younger face? Here’s the case for and against each of the Seminoles vying to start under center:
Sean Maguire (Redshirt senior)
The case for: Maguire has the experience edge over each of his fellow competitors and he has won big games for the Seminoles. For his career, Maguire has completed nearly 58 percent of his passes and is averaging a respectable 7.6 yards per attempt.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2014, Maguire rallied FSU past Clemson in a nationally televised contest by passing for more than 300 yards and a touchdown in place of the suspended Winston. Maguire was the starter for the Seminoles last season in a 27-2 rivalry victory at Florida. Maguire has the arm strength and the respect of his teammates, but whether or not that’s enough to get the starting nod remains to be seen.
The case against: Despite the big arm and big edge experience, Maguire is a virtual statue in the pocket. Though his career interception rate isn’t extraordinarily high, Maguire has a tendency to force passes into tight coverage. Although he was playing on a bad ankle, Maguire left a bad taste in Seminole fans’ mouths with four interceptions in the 38-24 Peach Bowl loss to Houston.
In the three biggest games Maguire started last season (Clemson, Florida, Houston), the now redshirt senior was a combined 52-for-101 (51 percent completion rate) with three touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Deondre Francois (Redshirt freshman)
The case for: Francois is probably the best athlete at the quarterback position and he had the chance to show off his wheels during the spring game, rushing for 37 yards on six carries.
While Francois would provide some mobility, his biggest strength is still his right arm. Francois is incredibly poised for a redshirt freshman and throws with good accuracy and touch. In April’s spring game, François finished 20-for-33 passing for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The case against: Though most were left impressed with Francois’ spring game performance, he did throw two interceptions that were clearly avoidable, including one in the end zone. Francois also had a fumble overturned against an FSU defense that wasn’t completely made up of scholarship players.
Francois also lacks experience is the shortest (6-1) of Florida State’s four scholarship quarterbacks. The Seminoles open the 2016 season against four bowl teams from a season ago in the first five games with three of them coming away from Tallahassee. Against a tough slate, FSU may want to go to the more experienced signal-caller. It’s true that Jameis Winston led the Seminoles to a national championship as a redshirt freshman, but players of the Heisman winner’s caliber don’t come around every day.
Malik Henry (Freshman)
The case for: An early enrollee this spring, Henry had the best spring game passing performance of any Florida State quarterback. Henry completed 15 of his 22 attempts for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Henry also has a strong arm and throws a beautiful ball. Henry seems to be a heady kid as well, showing no ill effects of picking up what’s a fairly complex offense in a fairly timely manner.
The case against: Henry might be too raw when it comes to playing quarterback for head coach Jimbo Fisher. In fact, the Seminoles haven’t started a true freshman under center since 1985 and it’s not like that decision has come back to hurt them. At only 185 pounds, Henry also is a bit on the lean side and might not hold up over the long haul of the season.
J.J. Consentino (Redshirt sophomore)
The case for: Consentino might be the biggest long shot for Florida State, but at 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, he has size and arm strength similar to Jameis Winston. Consentino is 5-for-10 passing for 27 yards in his career.
The case against: With Everett Golson not traveling with the team and Sean Maguire temporarily sidelined with a foot injury, Consentino had the look of a deer in the headlights during Florida State’s Peach Bowl loss to Houston – his first real meaningful action. Consentino didn’t seem to have much pocket awareness and looked hesitant to make throws. The fact that this is Consentino’s third year in the system and that he has fallen behind younger players at the position also is troubling.
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It's always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for the Sun Belt:
Ranking the Sun Belt's College Football Coaches for 2016
1. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State
Replacing a coaching legend like Jerry Moore wasn’t easy for Satterfield, but the former Appalachian State quarterback has settled in and emerged as the top coach in the Sun Belt. Satterfield went 4-8 in his debut with the Mountaineers in 2013 but guided the program to a 7-5 mark in its first year at the FBS level. Appalachian State fell just short of a Sun Belt title last season with an 11-2 record and also earned the program’s first bowl victory with a 31-29 win over Ohio in the Camellia Bowl. Prior to taking over as the head coach at Appalachian State, Satterfield worked from 1998-08 as an assistant under Moore and also had short stints at Toledo (2009) and FIU (2010-11).
2. Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth opened his tenure at UL Lafayette with four straight 9-4 campaigns and four consecutive trips to the New Orleans Bowl. Even though the Ragin’ Cajuns had personnel losses to overcome for 2015, this program wasn’t expected to suffer too much in the win column. However, Hudspeth’s team slipped to 4-8 and finished the year with a four-game losing streak. Was 2015 just a small speed bump for Hudspeth? The guess here is yes, as the Ragin’ Cajuns should rebound back into a bowl this fall.
3. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
After cycling through four different full-time head coaches in four years, Arkansas State has stability at the top. Anderson enters his third season with the Red Wolves and has guided the program to back-to-back bowl appearances and a 16-10 record. Arkansas State claimed the Sun Belt title last season and begins 2016 as one of the favorites to win the league crown once again. Prior to Arkansas State, Anderson worked for two years under Larry Fedora at North Carolina and also has stops on his resume as an assistant from Southern Miss, UL Lafayette, MTSU and New Mexico.
4. Trent Miles, Georgia State
Georgia State is the second program Miles has brought significant improvement to in a short amount of time. He took over at Indiana State in 2008, and after a 1-22 mark through the first two years, Miles guided the Sycamores to 19 wins from 2010-12. Miles was picked as the second coach in Georgia State program history and inherited a team in need of major repair. The Panthers were still transitioning to the FBS level and were short on depth and overall talent. This program has made significant strides over the last three seasons, as Miles guided Georgia State to a 6-7 record last season and an appearance in the Cure Bowl. Even though Miles’ record in Atlanta is just 7-30, he’s a coach on the rise for 2016.
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 for 2016
5. Joey Jones, South Alabama
Jones was instrumental in getting South Alabama’s football program started and also guided the Jaguars to the FBS ranks in 2012. South Alabama went 7-0 in its first season in 2009 and finished 16-4 over the next two years. The Jaguars moved to the FBS ranks in 2012 and struggled to a 2-11 finish. However, Jones quickly brought the program up to a competitive level, recording back-to-back six-win seasons from 2013-14, including the program’s first bowl trip in 2014. The Jaguars slipped to 5-7 last year, but Jones should have this team back in the mix for a winning mark in 2016.
6. Neal Brown, Troy
Expect to see Brown move up this list over the next few seasons. In his debut at Troy, there were signs of progress for the Trojans, as this team finished 4-8 overall and 3-5 in league play. Brown is a disciple of the Air Raid offense and learned under two of the best offensive minds in Mike Leach and Tony Franklin. Prior to taking over as the head coach at Troy, Brown spent two years as Kentucky’s play-caller (2013-14) and three seasons as Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator (2010-12). Additionally, he also worked as an assistant under Larry Blakeney at Troy from 2006-09. Brown’s first year was promising, and more progress should be notable in 2016.
7. Matt Viator, ULM
ULM quietly made one of the best coaching hires of offseason in Viator. The Louisiana native takes over in Monroe after a successful 10-year run at McNeese State. From 2006-15, Viator guided the Cowboys to a 78-33 record and five appearances in the FCS playoffs. Additionally, McNeese State did not have a losing record in Viator's tenure and posted three seasons of double-digit victories. 2016 could be a struggle for ULM, but Viator should help this program take a step forward over the next few years.
8. Everett Withers, Texas State
Withers was a long-time assistant at a handful of stops before landing his first full-time head coaching opportunity at James Madison in 2014. Over the last two years, Withers guided the Dukes to an 18-7 record and led the program to back-to-back playoff berths. Prior to James Madison, Withers worked as an assistant under Urban Meyer for two years at Ohio State and also worked as the interim coach at North Carolina in 2011. He also has stops as an assistant at Minnesota, Texas, Southern Miss, Louisville and in the NFL with the Titans. Texas State finished 3-9 last year, but there’s a lot of promise for this program with Withers at the helm.
9. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern
Willie Fritz set the bar high for Tyson Summers. Fritz helped Georgia Southern transition to the FBS level, as the Eagles finished 18-7 over the last two years and lost only two conference games in that span. Summers has never been a head coach at the FBS level, but he’s a Georgia native and has previous coaching experience at the school as an assistant (2006). Summers also has stops on his resume from stints at UAB, UCF and Colorado State. Georgia Southern returns a strong core of talent for 2016, so Summers will be expected to keep this team near the top of the Sun Belt.
10. Paul Petrino, Idaho
Idaho has made some progress under Petrino’s watch. After winning two games from 2013-14, the Vandals finished 4-8 last season and could push for a .500 record in 2016. Petrino’s also deserves credit for the developing the offense, which averaged 30.3 points a game in 2015. However, Petrino’s job isn’t going to get any easier over the next two years, as the Vandals are dropping to the FCS level after the 2017 campaign.
11. Doug Martin, New Mexico State
This is a tough job, and Martin’s outlook at New Mexico State is only getting tougher with conference uncertainty. The Aggies are slated to be a FBS Independent in 2018, which is not an easy road for a program that has only one winning record since 2000. Martin is 7-29 in three seasons at New Mexico State, but there was progress in 2015. The Aggies finished 3-9 overall but won three games in conference play and lost four by nine points or less. With 11 returning starters – including one of the nation’s top running backs in junior Larry Rose – the Aggies could push for a .500 mark in league play.