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You want to know why the United States never has a shot at winning the World Cup?
It has nothing to do with our love of capitalism or that many believe the sport is boring. It has nothing to do with our country lacking athletic ability or other nations simply being superior humans.
The answer is simple. With no disrespect to Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna, the best athletes in the country grow up dunking basketballs, hitting fastballs and tackling running backs.
So imagine what our Men’s National World Cup team would look like if this country’s greatest athletes had grown up kicking a soccer ball for hours everyday instead?
Assuming that no current men’s soccer players are eligible — because Howard would probably still make the starting line-up — Athlon Sports took a shot at projecting our starting line-up if everybody in the US played soccer and only soccer.
Men's National Team Starting Line-Up:
Full 23-man roster:
Starting Forward: LeBron James, F, Miami Heat
Starting Forward: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Back-up: A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Back-up: Justin Gatlin, Track & Field
Offensive Midfielder: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Offensive Midfielder: Mike Trout, OF, LA Angels
Offensive Midfielder: Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Back-up: Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Back-up: Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Back-up: Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
Defensive Midfielder: John Wall, G, Washington Wizards
Defensive Midfielder: Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Back-up: Patrick Peterson, DB, Arizona Cardinals
Back-up: Jon Jones, MMA
Back-up: Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Defender: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Defender: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
Defender: Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio Spurs
Back-up: Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Back-up: Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Bucs
Back-up: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Goalkeeper: Jonathan Quick, G, LA Kings
Back-up: Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 1:
• It was a solid month in sports-related ladies, thanks largely to the World Cup.
• While you pretend to work prior to today's knockout match with Belgium, read a primer on today's opponent.
• Another time-waster: Gaze on this photo of what one commenter calls "Mount Douchemore."
• Here's the story of that "I believe" chant, which came from the Naval Academy.
• Aaron Hernandez is Mr. July in this Florida Gators calendar. Available at Target.
• If it's July 1, that means that Bobby Bonilla just got another $1,193,248.20 from the Mets.
• One last piece of World Cup prep: this tasty hype video.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
NFL training camps don't open until later this month, but it's never too early to look ahead to the upcoming season of fantasy football. Twelve Athlon editors and fantasy contributors did just that in early May.
Keep in mind that since this was done more than a month ago, that the picks reflect rosters and teams as they stood then. For example, even though he was not drafted, Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ruptured Achilles) was healthy when this mock draft took place.
Below is a complete breakdown of the 12-team, 20-round IDP mock draft we conducted, along with some analysis of my own. This mock draft also can be found in this year's Fantasy Football Magazine, which also features 419 in-depth player reports including projected stats, a 280-player big board and team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers. Other content in this year's edition includes a "Who's No. 1?" and Johnny Manziel-centric debate, along with the introduction of a new advanced statistic, Opportunity-adjusted Touchdowns (OTD), courtesy of Pro Football Focus' Mike Clay, who also participated in this mock draft. And if that's not enough, there's also a rundown of potential breakout candidates, injury concerns and fantasy busts from 2013 who may or may not bounce back in '14.
12-team, 20-round serpentine-style mock draft based on Athlon Sports standard scoring (see below):
Starting lineup: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex (RB/WR), 1 K, 1 DEF/ST, 1 DL, 1 LB, 1 DB, 1 Flex IDP (DL/LB/DB), 6 bench spots
|1||1||Jamaal Charles||RB||KC||David Gonos||SI.com/FantasySports.about.com|
|2||2||Adrian Peterson||RB||MIN||Brandon Funston||Yahoo! Sports|
|3||3||LeSean McCoy||RB||PHI||Jamey Eisenberg||CBSSports.com|
|4||4||Matt Forte||RB||CHI||Matt Schauf||DraftSharks.com|
|5||5||Marshawn Lynch||RB||SEA||Nathan Rush||Athlon Sports|
|6||6||Eddie Lacy||RB||GB||Mark Ross||Athlon Sports|
|7||7||Calvin Johnson||WR||DET||Corby Yarbrough||Athlon Sports|
|8||8||Doug Martin||RB||TB||Steven Lassan||Athlon Sports|
|9||9||DeMarco Murray||RB||DAL||Eric Mack||Bleacher Report|
|10||10||Peyton Manning||QB||DEN||Braden Gall||Athlon Sports|
|11||11||Demaryius Thomas||WR||DEN||John Hansen||FantasyGuru.com|
|12||12||Jimmy Graham||TE||NO||Mike Clay||Pro Football Focus|
Round 1 Analysis: No real surprises here. If I was picking second, I would have gone LeSean McCoy over Adrian Peterson, but that’s just a matter of preference (think McCoy’s upside as a pass-catcher puts him ahead of Peterson). I thought about taking Megatron with the sixth pick, but figured Lacy would be the safer choice as I consider him a true workhorse RB, provided he stays healthy. I also have no issue with Braden being the only one to take a QB, although I certainly didn’t think at the time we wouldn’t see another come off of the board until Round 5.
|1||13||Dez Bryant||WR||DAL||Mike Clay|
|2||14||Le'Veon Bell||RB||PIT||John Hansen|
|3||15||Zac Stacy||RB||STL||Braden Gall|
|4||16||Alfred Morris||RB||WAS||Eric Mack|
|5||17||Giovani Bernard||RB||CIN||Steven Lassan|
|6||18||A.J. Green||WR||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||19||Julio Jones||WR||ATL||Mark Ross|
|8||20||Brandon Marshall||WR||CHI||Nathan Rush|
|9||21||Jordy Nelson||WR||GB||Matt Schauf|
|10||22||Montee Ball||RB||DEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||23||Alshon Jeffery||WR||CHI||Brandon Funston|
|12||24||Arian Foster||RB||HOU||David Gonos|
Round 2 Analysis: I prefer Giovani Bernard and Montee Ball over Zac Stacy and Alfred Morris, but the real wild card at RB in this round is Arian Foster. Everyone knows what Foster is capable of, when healthy, but he’s coming off of back surgery and will now operate in a different offense under new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. Combine those factors with the uncertainty at quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if Foster continued to slip in the rankings in the coming months.
|1||25||Antonio Brown||WR||PIT||David Gonos|
|2||26||Randall Cobb||WR||GB||Brandon Funston|
|3||27||Larry Fitzgerald||WR||ARI||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||28||C.J. Spiller||RB||BUF||Matt Schauf|
|5||29||Chris Johnson||RB||NYJ||Nathan Rush|
|6||30||Keenan Allen||WR||SD||Mark Ross|
|7||31||Rob Gronkowski||TE||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||32||Andre Johnson||WR||HOU||Steven Lassan|
|9||33||Pierre Garcon||WR||WAS||Eric Mack|
|10||34||Reggie Bush||RB||DET||Braden Gall|
|11||35||Shane Vereen||RB||NE||John Hansen|
|12||36||Andre Ellington||RB||ARI||Mike Clay|
Round 3 Analysis: The RBs and WRs continue to fly off the board with Rob Gronkowski the only outlier. As tantalizing and tempting a fantasy asset Gronk may be, I most likely won’t end up with him on any of my teams this season. Fourteen missed games over the last two seasons and the severity of his injuries are hard for me to overlook, especially when it comes to using a high draft pick on a TE not named Jimmy Graham. I’m also not expecting big things from Chris Johnson in a Jets uniform. For starters, he’s no lock for an RB1-worthy workload.
|1||37||Vincent Jackson||WR||TB||Mike Clay|
|2||38||Julius Thomas||TE||DEN||John Hansen|
|3||39||Vernon Davis||TE||SF||Braden Gall|
|4||40||Victor Cruz||WR||NYG||Eric Mack|
|5||41||Roddy White||WR||ATL||Steven Lassan|
|6||42||Ryan Mathews||RB||SD||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||43||Percy Harvin||WR||SEA||Mark Ross|
|8||44||Wes Welker||WR||DEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||45||Joique Bell||RB||DET||Matt Schauf|
|10||46||Bishop Sankey||RB||TEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||47||Cordarrelle Patterson||WR||MIN||Brandon Funston|
|12||48||Michael Crabtree||WR||SF||David Gonos|
Round 4 Analysis: Four rounds in and Corby finally takes a RB. He could certainly do worse than Ryan Mathews as his RB1, but I would encourage other fantasy GMs to think twice before employing a similar strategy. The top five RBs last season averaged 293.6 fantasy points (Athlon scoring). For nos. 5-10 that average plummets to 221.3. Mathews finished as the No. 12 fantasy RB in 2013 with 197.4 fantasy points. That said, Mathews is certainly safer than Bishop Sankey, who was the first rookie at any position to be taken. Sankey appears to have a great opportunity in Tennessee, but it’s not like highly touted rookies haven’t panned out before, right? Remember Tavon Austin or even Montee Ball last season?
|1||49||Aaron Rodgers||QB||GB||David Gonos|
|2||50||Rashad Jennings||RB||NYG||Brandon Funston|
|3||51||Julian Edelman||WR||NE||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||52||Michael Floyd||WR||ARI||Matt Schauf|
|5||53||Frank Gore||RB||SF||Nathan Rush|
|6||54||Drew Brees||QB||NO||Mark Ross|
|7||55||Ray Rice||RB||BAL||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||56||Ben Tate||RB||CLE||Steven Lassan|
|9||57||Andrew Luck||QB||IND||Eric Mack|
|10||58||T.Y. Hilton||WR||IND||Braden Gall|
|11||59||Jeremy Maclin||WR||PHI||John Hansen|
|12||60||DeSean Jackson||WR||WAS||Mike Clay|
Round 5 Analysis: Forty-nine picks in and we finally have a second quarterback taken! Credit to David for pouncing on Aaron Rodgers with the first pick here. I jumped next with Drew Brees, but Eric was the only other to follow suit (Andrew Luck). Has the general perception on QB value changed? Perhaps, but I still think there’s a clear distinction between the elite and next tier. Although Peyton Manning lapped the field with his record-breaking season, Brees still posted 435.7 fantasy points, which was 81.6 points more than the No. 3 scorer (Andy Dalton). And while 14 QBs averaged 20 or more fantasy points per game, only 10 of those played more than 13 games. Not saying you can’t wait on a QB, just don’t wait too long especially if Rodgers or Brees is still out there.
|1||61||Steven Jackson||RB||ATL||Mike Clay|
|2||62||Trent Richardson||RB||IND||John Hansen|
|3||63||Torrey Smith||WR||BAL||Braden Gall|
|4||64||Josh Gordon||WR||CLE||Eric Mack|
|5||65||Kendall Wright||WR||TEN||Steven Lassan|
|6||66||Matthew Stafford||QB||DET||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||67||Knowshon Moreno||RB||MIA||Mark Ross|
|8||68||Cam Newton||QB||CAR||Nathan Rush|
|9||69||Terrance Williams||WR||DAL||Matt Schauf|
|10||70||Golden Tate||WR||DET||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||71||Toby Gerhart||RB||JAC||Brandon Funston|
|12||72||Maurice Jones-Drew||RB||OAK||David Gonos|
Round 6 Analysis: A couple of more QBs go, but the proceedings continue to be dominated by RBs and WRs. RBs in particular have really thinned out by this point. I know Knowshon Moreno isn’t in Denver any more, but it’s not like he’s joining a crowded backfield in Miami and the Dolphins invested heavily in overhauling their offensive line. I’m also curious to see what Toby Gerhart does in Jacksonville with his first opportunity to be the top ball-carrier. Probably goes without saying, but Josh Gordon’s draft value will be tied directly to how many games he gets suspended. I for one will be very surprised if it’s no fewer than eight. After that it’s simply a matter of risk tolerance. Depending on how you used your previous picks, I have no issue with someone taking a chance on half a season of Gordon in Round 6.
|1||73||Jason Witten||TE||DAL||David Gonos|
|2||74||Jordan Cameron||TE||CLE||Brandon Funston|
|3||75||Stevan Ridley||RB||NE||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||76||Robert Griffin III||QB||WAS||Matt Schauf|
|5||77||Sammy Watkins||WR||BUF||Nathan Rush|
|6||78||Darren Sproles||RB||PHI||Mark Ross|
|7||79||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||DEN||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||80||DeAngelo Williams||RB||CAR||Steven Lassan|
|9||81||Eric Decker||WR||NYJ||Eric Mack|
|10||82||Carlos Hyde||RB||SF||Braden Gall|
|11||83||Pierre Thomas||RB||NO||John Hansen|
|12||84||Marques Colston||WR||NO||Mike Clay|
Round 7 Analysis: Two more rookies get their names called in this round. Sammy Watkins looks a lot like this year’s Tavon Austin – a dynamic, all-purpose threat who is expected to become a focal point of the offense right away. However, as has already been mentioned, that didn’t happen with Austin in 2013. Whether history will repeat itself with Watkins remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see his draft value fluctuate dramatically as we get closer to the start of the season. I am more bullish on Watkins as a rookie than Carlos Hyde. Frank Gore’s age and wear and tear notwithstanding, San Francisco doesn’t lack for options in its backfield. Don’t completely ignore Hyde, but don’t forget about Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James or even Marcus Lattimore either.
|1||85||Darren McFadden||RB||OAK||Mike Clay|
|2||86||Colin Kaepernick||QB||SF||John Hansen|
|3||87||Brandin Cooks||WR||NO||Braden Gall|
|4||88||Mike Wallace||WR||MIA||Eric Mack|
|5||89||Reggie Wayne||WR||IND||Steven Lassan|
|6||90||Mike Evans||WR||TB||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||91||Tavon Austin||WR||STL||Mark Ross|
|8||92||Anquan Boldin||WR||SF||Nathan Rush|
|9||93||J.J. Watt||DL||HOU||Matt Schauf|
|10||94||Matt Ryan||QB||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||95||Robert Quinn||DL||STL||Brandon Funston|
|12||96||Danny Woodhead||RB||SD||David Gonos|
Round 8 Analysis: The QBs continue to trickle out, but we also see the first IDPs taken. Not surprised that J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn are first two to go, but it’s usually pretty difficult for any IDP, but especially a DL, to perform well enough to justify such a lofty draft status. Just be willing to accept potentially less ROI should you consider being one of the first to pull the trigger. Also, count me in the camp that thinks Brandin Cooks could end up with the best fantasy numbers of any rookie wide receiver this season. The Biletnikoff winner appears to be an ideal fit for Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing attack.
|1||97||Luke Kuechly||LB||CAR||David Gonos|
|2||98||Cecil Shorts||WR||JAC||Brandon Funston|
|3||99||Dennis Pitta||TE||BAL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||100||Greg Olsen||TE||CAR||Matt Schauf|
|5||101||Antonio Gates||TE||SD||Nathan Rush|
|6||102||Jordan Reed||TE||WAS||Mark Ross|
|7||103||Chandler Jones||DL||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||104||Kyle Rudolph||TE||MIN||Steven Lassan|
|9||105||Lavonte David||LB||TB||Eric Mack|
|10||106||Khiry Robinson||RB||NO||Braden Gall|
|11||107||Kenny Stills||WR||NO||John Hansen|
|12||108||Dwayne Bowe||WR||KC||Mike Clay|
Round 9 Analysis: Luke Kuechly is the first LB to be drafted, which makes sense considering the Panthers’ tackling machine is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. However, similar to Patrick Willis, reputation and accolades don’t necessarily translate to fantasy success. Kuechly’s production is driven primarily by his tackle totals, but that I mean he’s not a lock to generate other plays (sacks, forced fumbles, INTs, etc.). This is just another factor to keep in mind when you put together your draft board. I also really like Saints RB Khiry Robinson as a sleeper this year, as the opportunity is certainly there with Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia.
|1||109||Nick Foles||QB||PHI||Mike Clay|
|2||110||Marvin Jones||WR||CIN||John Hansen|
|4||112||Tre Mason||RB||STL||Eric Mack|
|5||113||Vontaze Burfict||LB||CIN||Steven Lassan|
|6||114||Jeremy Hill||RB||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||115||Kiko Alonso||LB||BUF||Mark Ross|
|8||116||Tom Brady||QB||NE||Nathan Rush|
|9||117||Fred Jackson||RB||BUF||Matt Schauf|
|10||118||Greg Hardy||DL||CAR||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||119||Russell Wilson||QB||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|12||120||DeAndre Hopkins||WR||HOU||David Gonos|
Round 10 Analysis: Raise your hand if you pegged Tom Brady for a 10th-round pick. Yeah me neither. Tom Terrific’s numbers have certainly gone in the wrong direction, but track record has to count for something right? Well it’s just a matter of if you think the Patriots’ offense can get back to its past levels of success. Considering the only help Brady got in free agency was the addition of former Carolina WR Brandon LaFell and the uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski, the concerns of this occurring are well warranted. At the least, I would definitely lean Russell Wilson over Brady if both were still on the board. And while hindsight is certainly 20/20, I have some drafter’s remorse over making Kiko Alonso my first IDP taken. While I like Alonso just fine, I think I became smitten too much with his numbers and probably would have been better off taking someone more established like a Paul Poslusnzy or Karlos Dansby instead.
|1||121||Jason Pierre-Paul||DL||NYG||David Gonos|
|2||122||Bobby Wagner||LB||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|3||123||Devonta Freeman||RB||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||124||Paul Posluszny||LB||JAC||Matt Schauf|
|5||125||Patrick Peterson||DB||ARI||Nathan Rush|
|6||126||Alec Ogletree||LB||STL||Mark Ross|
|7||127||Hakeem Nicks||WR||IND||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||128||Tony Romo||QB||DAL||Steven Lassan|
|9||129||Terrance West||RB||CLE||Eric Mack|
|10||130||Jordan Matthews||WR||PHI||Braden Gall|
|11||131||Karlos Dansby||LB||CLE||John Hansen|
|12||132||Derrick Johnson||LB||KC||Mike Clay|
Round 11 Analysis: IDPs really coming into focus by this point, including the first DB off the board in Patrick Peterson. While I would not have made the same decision as Nathan, there’s no disputing Peterson’s talent, ability and upside. However, Peterson is a little too reliant on the big plays (turnovers in particular) for my tastes. I prefer a little more consistency when it comes to tackle numbers and across the board production. Also credit to Steven Lassan who was the last one to take a QB and still ended up with Tony Romo. Questions about his back aside, there’s nothing wrong with landing a potential top-10 QB in the 11th round.
|1||133||Riley Cooper||WR||PHI||Mike Clay|
|2||134||Justin Hunter||WR||TEN||John Hansen|
|3||135||Cameron Jordan||DL||NO||Braden Gall|
|4||136||Earl Thomas||DB||SEA||Eric Mack|
|5||137||Jay Cutler||QB||CHI||Steven Lassan|
|6||138||DeMeco Ryans||LB||PHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||139||Philip Rivers||QB||SD||Mark Ross|
|8||140||Patrick Willis||LB||SF||Nathan Rush|
|9||141||Kelvin Benjamin||WR||CAR||Matt Schauf|
|10||142||Brian Cushing||LB||HOU||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||143||Eric Berry||DB||KC||Brandon Funston|
|12||144||Markus Wheaton||WR||PIT||David Gonos|
Round 12 Analysis: Steven backs up his Tony Romo selection with Jay Cutler, another solid move, and I follow suit by taking Philip Rivers as my Drew Brees insurance. As important as RB and WR depth can be, if something happens to your No. 1 QB and you don’t have an adequate Plan B, your fantasy season could be ruined right then and there. Aaron Rodgers owners last season can certainly relate to this strategy.
|1||145||San Francisco||DST||SF||David Gonos|
|2||146||Ladarius Green||TE||SD||Brandon Funston|
|3||147||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||NYG||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||148||Danny Amendola||WR||NE||Matt Schauf|
|5||149||Martellus Bennett||TE||CHI||Nathan Rush|
|6||150||Eric Ebron||TE||DET||Mark Ross|
|7||151||Lamar Miller||RB||MIA||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||152||Muhammad Wilkerson||DL||NYJ||Steven Lassan|
|9||153||Coby Fleener||TE||IND||Eric Mack|
|10||154||Mark Ingram||RB||NO||Braden Gall|
|11||155||Harrison Smith||DB||MIN||John Hansen|
|12||156||James Laurinaitis||LB||STL||Mike Clay|
|1||157||Cameron Wake||DL||MIA||Mike Clay|
|2||158||Rob Ninkovich||DL||NE||John Hansen|
|3||159||Eric Reid||DB||SF||Braden Gall|
|4||160||Mario Williams||DL||BUF||Eric Mack|
|5||161||T.J. Ward||DB||DEN||Steven Lassan|
|6||162||Christine Michael||RB||SEA||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||163||Eric Weddle||DB||SD||Mark Ross|
|8||164||Bernard Pierce||RB||BAL||Nathan Rush|
|9||165||Dexter McCluster||WR||TEN||Matt Schauf|
|10||166||DeMarcus Ware||DL||DEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||167||Andre Brown||RB||HOU||Brandon Funston|
|12||168||David Wilson||RB||NYG||David Gonos|
Rounds 13 and 14 Analysis: Nearly half of the picks in these two rounds are used on IDPs, as the GMs work towards filling out their starting lineups. I particularly liked the Rob Ninkovich pick by John, as the Patriot is an underappreciated fantasy stud. Capable of playing both LB and DL, Ninkovich was one of five DL-eligible players to finish with more than 100 fantasy points last season. Once again, name recognition carries little, if any, value when it comes to putting together a championship-caliber fantasy team. I also particularly liked the selections of Harrison Smith (13th) and T.J. Ward (14th) from the DB ranks.
|1||169||Mark Barron||DB||TB||David Gonos|
|3||171||Bernard Pollard||DB||TEN||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||172||Jerod Mayo||LB||NE||Matt Schauf|
|6||174||Chris Ivory||RB||NYJ||Mark Ross|
|7||175||Zach Ertz||TE||PHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||176||Lawrence Timmons||LB||PIT||Steven Lassan|
|9||177||NaVorro Bowman||LB||SF||Eric Mack|
|10||178||Johnny Manziel||QB||CLE||Braden Gall|
|11||179||Tyler Eifert||TE||CIN||John Hansen|
|12||180||Morgan Burnett||DB||GB||Mike Clay|
|2||182||LeGarrette Blount||RB||PIT||John Hansen|
|3||183||Davante Adams||WR||GB||Braden Gall|
|4||184||Andy Dalton||QB||CIN||Eric Mack|
|6||186||St. Louis||DST||STL||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||187||Marqise Lee||WR||JAC||Mark Ross|
|8||188||Jadeveon Clowney||LB||HOU||Nathan Rush|
|9||189||Carson Palmer||QB||ARI||Matt Schauf|
|10||190||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||PIT||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||191||Eli Manning||QB||NYG||Brandon Funston|
|12||192||Stevie Johnson||WR||SF||David Gonos|
Rounds 15 and 16 Analysis: If he’s able to come back 100 percent from his torn pectoral, Matt has an absolute steal in getting Jerod Mayo in the 15th round. When he’s played 16 games, Mayo has been a fantasy stud. Plenty of risk associated with the NaVorro Bowman selection, as he’s a fairly safe bet to start the season on the PUP list, meaning he will miss the first six games at minimum. And even though he was drafted as a QB2, I wouldn’t have been the one to take Johnny Manziel. Not with Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton or Carson Palmer still on the board. For every Andrew Luck and Robert Griffn III that has come along there’s been just as many EJ Manuels and Geno Smiths when it comes to rookie quarterbacks.
|1||193||Knile Davis||RB||KC||David Gonos|
|2||194||Jarrett Boykin||WR||GB||Brandon Funston|
|3||195||Daryl Smith||LB||BAL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|4||196||Rueben Randle||WR||NYG||Matt Schauf|
|5||197||Steve Smith||WR||BAL||Nathan Rush|
|6||198||Calais Campbell||DL||ARI||Mark Ross|
|7||199||Aaron Dobson||WR||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||200||Roy Helu||RB||WAS||Steven Lassan|
|9||201||Isaiah Crowell||RB||CLE||Eric Mack|
|10||202||Mychal Kendricks||LB||PHI||Braden Gall|
|11||203||Ryan Tannehill||QB||MIA||John Hansen|
|12||204||Alex Smith||QB||KC||Mike Clay|
|1||205||Donald Brown||RB||SD||Mike Clay|
|2||206||Tampa Bay||DST||TB||John Hansen|
|3||207||Danny Trevathan||LB||DEN||Braden Gall|
|4||208||Kansas City||DST||KC||Eric Mack|
|5||209||Robert Woods||WR||BUF||Steven Lassan|
|6||210||Chad Greenway||LB||MIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||212||Shonn Greene||RB||TEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||213||New England||DST||NE||Matt Schauf|
|10||214||Rod Streater||WR||OAK||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||215||Jerrell Freeman||LB||IND||Brandon Funston|
|12||216||Charles Johnson||DL||CAR||David Gonos|
Rounds 17 and 18 Analysis: At this point in the draft, you are either filling out your starting lineup (except for kicker) or mining for diamonds in the rough. David wisely secured Kansas City’s backfield by grabbing Knile Davis after taking Jamaal Charles No. 1 overall. Jarrett Boykin fared well after Randall Cobb went down with an injury last season and now the No. 3 WR job in Green Bay is his for the taking with James Jones in Oakland. Roy Helu is more of pass-catching threat than Alfred Morris so he could carve out a nice role for himself in Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington. Isaiah Crowell, the undrafted rookie who started his college career at Georgia, seems to be a rather significant reach, but new lead back Ben Tate hasn’t exactly been durable in his career and the only other competition for carries in Cleveland seems to be fellow rookie Terrance West. Stranger things have happened. Among the IDP selections, I really like Danny Trevathan’s chances of breaking out this season with Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips no longer on the Broncos.
|1||217||Josh McCown||QB||TB||David Gonos|
|2||218||Matt Prater||K||DEN||Brandon Funston|
|4||220||Johnathan Cyprien||DB||JAC||Matt Schauf|
|5||221||Stephen Gostkowski||K||NE||Nathan Rush|
|6||222||Justin Tucker||K||BAL||Mark Ross|
|7||223||Antrel Rolle||DB||NYG||Corby Yarbrough|
|8||224||Andre Williams||RB||NYG||Steven Lassan|
|9||225||Jonathan Stewart||RB||CAR||Eric Mack|
|10||226||Steven Hauschka||K||SEA||Braden Gall|
|11||227||Phil Dawson||K||SF||John Hansen|
|12||228||Delanie Walker||TE||TEN||Mike Clay|
|1||229||Mason Crosby||K||GB||Mike Clay|
|2||230||Nick Roach||LB||OAK||John Hansen|
|3||231||Green Bay||DST||GB||Braden Gall|
|4||232||Blair Walsh||K||MIN||Eric Mack|
|5||233||Dan Bailey||K||DAL||Steven Lassan|
|6||234||Robbie Gould||K||CHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|7||235||Ka'Deem Carey||RB||CHI||Mark Ross|
|8||236||Jurrell Casey||DL||TEN||Nathan Rush|
|9||237||Shayne Graham||K||NO||Matt Schauf|
|10||238||Adam Vinatieri||K||IND||Jamey Eisenberg|
|11||239||Doug Baldwin||WR||SEA||Brandon Funston|
|12||240||Matt Bryant||K||ATL||David Gonos|
Rounds 19 and 20 Analysis: Finally the kickers come off the board, but we know no one cares about them. The last two rookies taken in this mock draft – Andre Williams (19th) and Ka’Deem Carey (20th) – are certainly worth keeping an eye on once training camps open. Williams could see significant carries sooner rather than later because of David Wilson’s uncertainty regarding his neck injury while Carey has a pretty clear path to serving as Matt Forté’s backup, especially considering he has a similar skill set. Believe it or not, but Delanie Walker was a borderline top-10 fantasy TE last season, while Doug Baldwin probably enters the season as the Seahawks’ No. 2 WR with Golden Tate now in Detroit. Both are very solid picks in the final two rounds of this mock draft.
A rocky period in college football has recently passed. Conference realignment seemingly dominated the headlines since 2011, forcing changes in membership for every league.
The Big East and WAC are no more in football, and the SEC, ACC and Big Ten have all expanded to 14 teams.
BYU decided to go Independent in football, while Notre Dame joined the ACC as a partial member.
Those are just a few of the changes that have taken place over the last few years.
What has the last few seasons in college football brought in realignment and what is the impact for the future? Let’s take a look at the changes, impact and grades for each of the Power 5 leagues in realignment over the last few years.
Grading College Football’s Conferences in Realignment
The Changes: The ACC added Louisville (2014), Syracuse and Pittsburgh (2013). Maryland left for the Big Ten (2014). Notre Dame joined as a member in all sports but football and hockey.
The Impact: Maryland was a founding member of the ACC, and the decision to leave for the Big Ten caught some off guard. However, Louisville is a solid all-around addition to the conference and ranks higher on Athlon’s program ranking (No. 29 for Cardinals, No. 40 for Terrapins). Syracuse and Pittsburgh help the ACC increase its footprint in the Northeast.
As a 14-team league, along with the Notre Dame affiliation, the ACC has stabilized after a period of uncertainty. The conference also has a solid bowl setup, including an agreement with the Orange Bowl. Having a period of 10-15 years without any changes would help the conference continue to develop its identity. The divisional alignment has been a source of debate in recent years, and there could be changes to the Atlantic-Coastal setup.
What’s Next: Will the ACC stay as a 14-team league? Unless there is a major shift again in conferences, the ACC seems unlikely to expand. Of course, if the ACC wanted to expand, Notre Dame would be its first call to become a full-time member. UConn was mentioned with Louisville as a possible replacement for Maryland, and if the ACC wanted to expand to 16, the Huskies would likely be in the mix again.
Grade: B. Losing a founding member was a surprise, but the ACC added three solid programs in Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Most importantly, the rumors about Florida State and Clemson possibly leaving the conference never came to fruition.
Related Content: History of ACC Realignment
The Changes: The Big Ten hasn’t seen many changes in its conference history. Penn State officially joined the league for football in 1993, but prior to that, the last addition to the conference was Michigan State in 1950. However, there have been three changes to the league's membership in the last four years. Nebraska joined in 2011, and Maryland and Rutgers will debut in the Big Ten in 2014.
The Impact: The reaction to the Big Ten’s additions were mixed. Nebraska – a top 25 program – was a huge positive for the conference on the gridiron. Maryland and Rutgers? Not so much excitement among college football fans. Since 2000, the Terrapins are 93-80, and the Scarlet Knights are 86-86. While both programs have upside, neither is expected to make a huge impact in terms of winning a national championship on a consistent basis. Instead, the additions of Rutgers and Maryland are a key component for the Big Ten’s Northeast/East Coast expansion. Even though success on the field matters, realignment isn’t necessarily about wins and losses. Media markets and expanding the footprint can be just as valuable for a conference.
What’s Next: Much like the ACC, the next question for the Big Ten is to stay at 14 or expand to 16? If a 16-team set up is in the Big Ten’s future, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia have been mentioned as possible candidates.
Grade: B. Again, not everything in conference realignment makes sense in terms of wins and losses. Adding Rutgers and Maryland adds two valuable media markets, along with a key recruiting area. Nebraska had one of the top dynasties of the Associated Press poll era and can be a consistent contender for the Big Ten title. Also, the additions of Rutgers and Maryland helped to align the Big Ten into an easier-to-remember East/West format.
Related Content: History of Big Ten Realignment
The Changes: The Big 12 has been reduced from 12 teams to 10. In 2011, Nebraska left for the Big Ten and Colorado departed for the Pac-12. Missouri and Texas A&M departed for the SEC in 2012. TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12 to bolster the league’s lineup to 10 teams.
The Impact: With Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri departing, the Big 12 has lost three top-30 programs. West Virginia and TCU are solid additions, but the conference no longer has some outstanding rivalry games between Texas A&M-Texas, Baylor-Texas A&M, Nebraska-Oklahoma and Missouri-Kansas. Not having a conference title game could hurt the Big 12 in the future, especially if that factors into the playoff committee’s criteria.
What’s Next: Expect the debate about the Big 12 and a 10- or 12-team set up to continue. The conference continues to insist it's content with a 10-team setup, but realignment rumors will never go away – at least from the fans. If the Big 12 does decide to expand in the future, it’s all about adding value. So which programs could do that? BYU and UCF? South Florida? Cincinnati? Perhaps the Big 12 would make a run at teams like Florida State and Clemson (igniting old message board rumors again). Adding East Coast teams to bridge the gap from West Virginia to the rest of the conference would seem to be a top priority – if the Big 12 expands.
Grade: C. The Big 12 has two things going for it. The conference seems to be stable – for now – and Oklahoma and Texas are still in the conference. Losing Texas A&M, Missouri and Nebraska was a setback, but West Virginia and TCU are good additions, especially after both programs have time to adjust to their new conference. The Big 12 probably isn’t as powerful as it once was. However, as long as Oklahoma and Texas are top-20 teams on a consistent basis, the conference should be in good shape.
Related Content: West Virginia Searches for Answers After Rocky Start in Big 12
The Changes: The Pac-12 didn’t lose a member and added Colorado and Utah to become a 12-team league in 2011.
The Impact: The Pac-12 is one of the biggest winners in college football over the last five years. Colorado and Utah haven’t experienced a ton of success so far, but the rest of the conference is on the rise. Thanks to an improved television deal, improved revenue and better facilities, the Pac-12 is now the No. 2 conference in college football. Expect Colorado and Utah to improve over the next few years, adding to what is one of the deepest conferences in the nation.
What’s Next: Further realignment seems unlikely, largely because there are few candidates that could join the conference. Remember the Pac-16 proposal that included Texas and Oklahoma? Maybe that’s a possibility in the future. However, the Pac-12 is stable and clearly entrenched as one of the premier conferences.
Grade: B+. We could easily upgrade this to an A. The Pac-12 has moved up the ladder in conference hierarchy, and Utah and Colorado will improve over time. Not much has gone wrong for the conference over the last few seasons.
The Changes: The SEC made its first changes in membership since 1991 by adding Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012. The league did not lose any members.
The Impact: The addition of the Aggies and Tigers gave the SEC two valuable media markets in Missouri (St. Louis/Kansas City) and Texas (Houston). And both programs also have experienced plenty of success over the last two years. Texas A&M is 20-6 since joining the SEC and had a Heisman winner in Johnny Manziel, while Missouri claimed the East Division title in 2013.
What’s Next: Just like the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, the only question surrounding the SEC in the future is whether or not the conference will expand to 16 teams. If the SEC does expand to 16 teams, there has been plenty of discussion that teams in Virginia and North Carolina are the next targets.
Grade: A+. The SEC was the No. 1 conference in the nation prior to realignment and solidified its place at the top with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri. The conference is deeper and has expanded its footprint into Texas – one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas.
Conference realignment reached a fever pitch a few years ago and it caused great headaches for fans and coaches across the nation.
The dollars and “sense” of conference realignment blazed a path through college football for a few years following the turn of the century, however, teams shifting leagues for greener pastures isn’t a new phenomenon.
Did you know that South Carolina was a founding member of the ACC or that the league was created as an offshoot of the Southern Conference? The ACC was created in 1953 and has gone through more changes in the last 10 years than any of the other major leagues. Since 2004, the ACC has added six new football programs to its ranks, including 2014 with the addition of Louisville and the subtraction of Maryland. And that doesn't include the partnership with Notre Dame, whose annual schedule includes five ACC opponents starting this season.
The point is conference realignment has been happening for over 100 years of college football, and, while the process escalated to dizzying speeds recently, it’s not even close to ending. Here is a complete look at the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference and how realignment has shaped the league over time.
James Weaver, 1954-70
Robert James 1971-87
Eugene Corrigan, 1987-97
John Swofford, 1997-present
1953: After losing a multitude of members to the SEC in 1932, the once massive (23-member) Southern Conference loses eight key members to the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The SoCon had a league-wide ban on postseason play and this is why many believe the ACC got started to begin with. Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and, a few months later, Virginia became the charter members.
1971: South Carolina decides to leave for independence, but would later join the SEC in 1991.
1978: After only containing seven teams for most of the '70s, Georgia Tech leaves the Metro Conference for the greener pastures of the ACC.
1991: Also from the Metro Conference, Florida State’s decision to join the ACC might have been the most important maneuver in ACC history. The Noles went on to dominate the league for the first decade and it played in the first three BCS National Championship Games (1998-2000). The league’s two national titles during the BCS Era (1999, 2013) and all four appearances in the game were produced by the Seminoles.
2004: Miami and Virginia Tech both officially join in the summer of 2004. Adding the two football powers gives the ACC two more viable national championship football programs to package with FSU.
2005: Boston College comes aboard, giving the ACC 12 teams and the opportunity to split the conference into two divisions and host a title game.
2011: In an effort to get out in front of the curve, John Swofford continues to stabilize his league by adding two more Big East powers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, to the group. The ACC technically expanded to 14 before any other major power conference.
2012: Founding member Maryland becomes the first such ACC program to jump ship in the modern rounds of realignment. The Terrapins desired more league stability and a much bigger payday and got both with the decision to move to the Big Ten. To counter the loss of Maryland, Swofford moves quickly to find a replacement and settles on Louisville. To top it off, the ACC also adds the highly coveted Notre Dame brand to the conference in all sports except football.
2013: In a shrewd legal move by the conference, the ACC signs a "Grant of Rights" deal locking in ownership of media rights for all member institutions. This is a simple but effective way to keep teams from leaving the ACC in the short term. From now until the end of the GOR contract (2027), if a school leaves the league, the ACC will retain the media rights, effectively rendering the move to another league fairly pointless. Additionally, Syracuse and Pittsburgh make their debuts in the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports while Notre Dame begins ACC play in every sport except football.
2014: The Maryland Terrapins officially begin play in the B1G while Louisville officially begins play in the ACC. Notre Dame will begin playing five games a year against ACC foes on the gridiron.
ACC’s BCS Bowl Record: 5-13
ACC’s BCS National Championships: 2-2
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After Portugal’s 2-1 victory over Ghana, the USMNT sneaks into the knockout round with a 1-1-1 record in the group stage. Belgium, America’s newest foe, is a dark horse to win it all this year. Can the USA earn a decisive trip to the round of 8?
When and Where to Watch
Tuesday, July 1st, 4:00 pm (eastern time) Live on ESPN. This match is being played at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil. You can also find the game online at ESPN.com by supplying your cable provider’s information. If that won’t work, you can find it online here.
Why You Should Watch
Here’s where things get really interesting. The previous three matches were breathtaking battles that proved the USA's worth amongst the big names in the soccer world. Now we start the actual tournament. No more point-differentials and tiebreaker scenarios. From here on out, it’s a single elimination bracket. One minor slip-up and your championship dreams are dashed in the blink of an eye. The remaining 16 teams have just four games to win in order to be crowned world champions.
Even if you’re just a patriotic denizen of the United States who’s interested in the World Cup, you should really be watching all of the World Cup games from here on out. Heavy favorite and host-nation Brazil narrowly escaped Chile during penalties on Sunday, one sample from a gluttony of premium-quality soccer matches. The teams weren't wearing red, white, and blue, but that doesn't mean their 90 minutes were any less entertaining than ours. Though you might not feel any emotional connection to other teams, you had better start educating yourself on the rest of the field in case the U.S. drops out of the tournament Tuesday.
Who to Watch for the United States
There is a wide variety of players to focus on, depending on the final roster that Klinsmann selects. If Jozy Altidore returns, Clint Dempsey will move back into a more supplementary striking role. Current reports signal that Altidore will not be available in his full form, so it’s almost a guarantee that Dempsey will be expected to carry the load once again this match. Jermaine Jones was one of the lone bright spots in a pathetic offensive performance against Germany. Stay alert when Jones touches the ball against Belgium.
On defense, Omar Gonzalez will likely start again after a stellar performance last week; the Belgians will test him early and often. The first step in the Americans' winning gameplan is for Gonzalez and counterpart Matt Besler to hold up. Elsewhere, Alejandro Bedoya will attempt to shake off his concussion scare from last week after a rough collision with Jermaine Jones. The USA will continue to play through Michael Bradley, whose game will hopefully return to normal at some point this tournament. In an elimination game, every player will be doing all he can to walk away with a victory. Jones, Dempsey, and Bradley are the most obvious calls to deliver against Belgium.
Why the U.S. Will Walk Away Victorious
Belgium won Group H by recording victories in each of its three games. Though the European country finished on top of its grouping, it certainly didn’t look unconquerable through 270+ minutes of observation. The team may have been looking past its early, unevenly balanced matches with its eyes on a greater goal – a championship. In its first World Cup appearance since 2002, Belgium entered the tournament as the fifth favorite to win the finals. The Red Devils set a record against South Korea, remaining unbeaten for 13 games for the first time in Belgium's football history – good reason for its players to be oozing confidence as they take the field to face the United States. So confident, in fact, that midfielder Marouane Fellaini has vowed to part ways with his iconic afro if Belgium wins the 2014 World Cup. But before Fellaini reaches for his clippers, Belgium will need to go through this scrappy U.S. squad first.
It’s a mighty challenge, but the Americans gain a slight advantage with an extra day of rest. That’s a huge gift in this situation, with Jozy Altidore recuperating from injury and multiple players needing acclimation time to the hot and humid Brazilian weather. In addition, stadium at Salvador will be the shortest trip that the USMNT has made to play a match during 2014 World Cup play. Still, because of its easy opening draw, Belgium was able to cruise through the group stage, being afforded the luxury of resting some of its featured players in the third game against South Korea.
The match should play out with a narrative that’s similar to the Germany game. Intensity, defense, and physicality are some buzzwords you’ll be hearing a lot on Tuesday. In a recent friendly, Belgium defeated the USA 4-2. But Ghana had America’s number before the tournament started, and now they watch from the sidelines. Health is once again going to be a major factor in this match's outcome. Belgian captain Vincent Kompany is dealing with a groin strain while Thomas Vermaelen’s hamstring problems make him doubtful to participate in the match. The Red Devils clearly have some injury issues, but that shouldn’t be too big of a problem considering the team’s seemingly endless depth. It won’t be all sunshine and rainbows for the United States, but with a bit of luck and determination, Belgium’s championship ambitions could be cut short.
Belgium: 2, USA: 1
I’d love to pick the USMNT to take home the W and advance through the tournament, but even Klinsmann acknowledged that this isn’t our year. Belgium will win its fourth consecutive game by a one-goal margin, barely staying afloat in the 2014 World Cup. A small glimmer of hope will be provided by Graham Zusi with an accurate and deft cross over the middle, finished by Dempsey for the 74th minute goal. Sadly, Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini will score before the Americans do.
If not for a horrific draw in the 2014 World Cup, things could have been different for the USA. Now, the Americans look ahead to 2018, a year that should elevate soccer’s place in the hierarchy of American sports.
Conference realignment reached a fever pitch a few years ago and it caused great headaches for fans and coaches across the nation.
The dollars and “sense” of conference realignment blazed a path through college football for a few years following the turn of the century, however, teams shifting leagues for greener pastures isn’t a new phenomenon.
The Big Ten was created in 1896, is the oldest Division I collegiate conference in the NCAA and is adding two new teams this July in Maryland and Rutgers. Did you know the University of Chicago was a founding member? Or that Michigan was kicked out of the league for a decade?
The point is conference realignment has been happening for over 100 years of college football, and, while the process escalated to dizzying speeds recently, it’s not even close to ending. Want some proof? Here is a complete look at the history of the Big Ten conference and how realignment has shaped the league over time.
John Griffith, 1922-44 (died in office)
Kenneth “Tug” Wilson, 1945-61
William Reed, 1961-71 (died in office)
Wayne Duke, 1971-89
Jim Delany, 1989-present
1896: The Big Ten is formed as the first major collegiate conference of universities. Purdue president James Smart is credited with spearheading the decision to regulate and control intercollegiate athletics. The seven founding members were the University of Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. Lake Forest College attended the 1895 meeting that eventually spawned what was then referred to as the Western Conference, but it did not join the league.
1899: Iowa and Indiana both join the Big Ten Conference three years after its inception. It was then commonly called the Big Nine. Both Iowa and Indiana would begin athletic competition the following year. Interestingly enough, Nebraska petitioned to join the league the same year (and would again request an invitation in 1911 to no avail).
1908: Michigan was voted out of the conference due to rules issues. The Wolverines failed to adhere to league-wide regulations and were subsequently ruled inactive.
1912: Ohio State joins the league.
1917: After Michigan was finally allowed back into the conference after its decade-long hiatus, the term Big Ten became an instantly popular way to refer to the conference.
1946: Due to the on-going World War in Europe, the University of Chicago had de-emphasized athletics in 1939 by discontinuing its football program. By 1946, Chicago withdrew from the league. The Big Ten went back to being referred to as the Big Nine.
1950: Michigan State is invited to join the Big Nine and does so to return the total number of league institutions to ten. The term Big Ten was re-adopted at this point. It would begin athletic competition in 1953.
1987: Technically, the league had been named the “Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives.” But since ICFR doesn’t roll off the tongue, the league officially changed its name to The Big Ten when it was incorporated as a non-profit business entity.
1990: After remaining unchanged for four decades of success, the Big Ten voted to expand to 11 schools and asked Penn State to join. The Nittany Lions, who were denied entrance into the Big East in 1982, were happy to oblige. It would begin Big Ten athletic competition in 1993.
2010-11: Nebraska applies for Big Ten membership and is unanimously approved as the league’s 12th institution. Nebraska played its first Big Ten conference schedule the following year and the league splits into two divisions to accommodate the Cornhuskers. Additionally, the Big Ten plays its first league championship game in Indianapolis.
2014: As the College Football Playoff Era begins, so too, does a new edition of the Big Ten. Maryland and Rutgers join the conference in all sports, pushing the league to a record 14 members. The divisions have been renamed the West and the East and will feature seven teams each. Both the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights will play in the East Division and both extend the B1G footprint into the coveted, population-rich Northeast. Lastly, Johns Hopkins University is actually joining the Big Ten as a men’s lacrosse member only. Officially, JHU has won 44 lacrosse national championships since being founded in 1883.
Big Ten's BCS Bowl Record: 13-15*
Big Ten's BCS National Championships: 1-2
* - including any vacated appearances
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Nothing encapsulates the big-money posturing of conference expansion more than two middling East Coast football programs joining a historically celebrated conference thanks to branding and TV viewership.
Commissioner Jim Delany sent ripples through college football when plucking the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights out of the ACC and Big East, respectively, in November 2012, creating instability for those two conferences while strengthening the Big Ten’s strategic ground.
Never mind that Maryland and Rutgers are a combined 61–65 in football since 2009, or that the campuses are 11-plus-hour drives from the Big Ten’s home office in Chicago, or that more long-standing rivalries will likely be severed as a result.
Conference realignment was never about all that. It’s about the projected $270 million for the Big Ten Network in 2013. It’s about commercial markets, where Maryland and Rutgers happen to be well positioned. Yes, it’s about tradition — Maryland and Rutgers were playing football in the 1800s.
But it’s also about something happening four hours north of Maryland’s campus — the Big Ten office that Delany is building in Manhattan.
Not only did the moves partner Penn State with two East Coast schools, but they also accentuate the notion that the conference can get away with this because of its deep alumni base coast-to-coast.
SEC fans are unmatched, particularly in the South, but the Big Ten’s list of donors from California to New York is impressive.
So when cash-strapped Maryland needed a financial boost and Rutgers saw a bleak future in the depleted Big East, they showcased their meticulous resource/facility investments to offset any lagging football results.
Maryland and Rutgers were willing to jump when others — such as North Carolina and Georgia Tech — apparently were not.
Their reward: Entering a conference that’s expected to distribute $25.7 million to each of its schools next year, mostly from a contract with ESPN/ABC and the joint BTN venture with FOX, which also has the East Coast-based YES Network.
With both sides consummating the marriage in July, what will this long-distance relationship look like? And what do the football programs of Maryland and Rutgers really offer?
Maryland and Rutgers On the Field
While the Big Ten gets Maryland at a relatively good time in the Terps’ transitional arc, Rutgers has work to do to avoid the bottom of the seven-team East division.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall survived a shaky two-year start and produced seven wins last year despite several key injuries offensively. When healthy, receiver Stefon Diggs is one of the country’s best playmakers. Diggs will return as a top target for C.J. Brown, a quarterback who won’t overwhelm but has impressed many ACC coaches with his football acumen.
Having two solid coordinators — Mike Locksley on offense and Brian Stewart on defense — eases the transition. Maryland has been stout at linebacker and defensive back under Stewart, who loses top corners Dexter McDougle and Isaac Goins.
Inexperience is an issue on the offensive line, but that’s why Maryland brought in former LSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, one of three new Terrapins coaches.
Maryland won’t dominate in Year 1 but comes in as a respectable ACC team with program improvements looming.
Rutgers seems to have the steeper climb of the two. That can change if the Knights prove they have a reasonable quarterback option. Gary Nova flashed brilliance but hampered the offense with 14 interceptions. Nova is one of several quarterbacks competing for the starting spot.
The firing of defensive coordinator Dave Cohen amid bullying accusations from a former player cost Rutgers several highly ranked recruits. Rutgers’ 2014 class dipped to a No. 60 ranking on Signing Day. With the problems of basketball coach Mike Rice, the school couldn’t tolerate similar allegations. Recruits noticed.
Rutgers enters Big Ten play with two new coordinators, most notably Ralph Friedgen, a well-respected play-caller who enters the Big Ten at the same time as a Terps team he used to coach. Rutgers is counting on Friedgen to stabilize a rhythm-less offense. He’ll start by finding someone to get the ball to talented receiver Leonte Carroo.
One American Athletic Conference coach believes Rutgers will have a tough time competing in the Big Ten. “I think they will struggle to be .500 in that league, especially in the East,” he says.
How Much of an Upgrade is the Big Ten for These Two Teams?
The Big Ten is probably the country’s third- to fifth-best league, depending whom you ask.
The SEC still has the strongest profile. The Pac-12 and Big 12 have serious depth, and FSU’s national title lifts the ACC’s profile.
You could argue that Maryland is downgrading in football competition, though both leagues are probably equal top to bottom. Rutgers is upgrading, but this isn’t Division II to FBS. It’s a manageable move.
The Big Ten East should be a beast, though. It features Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana. The first four on that list range from national title contenders to potential conference winners. Maryland and Rutgers must play all six divisional opponents plus two crossovers.
But the bottom third of the league still plays uninspired football. Purdue, Indiana and Illinois have been bad for a while, and Northwestern is coming off a 1–7 conference season.
“The Big Ten is getting better,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says. “Michigan State, Penn State coming off the sanctions, Wisconsin is a helluva football team. We were right there on the 35-yard line to beat Clemson. Traditionally there’s an Iowa, that’s a helluva team. I think it’s coming.”
A fully loaded Big East/American was known in coaching circles for its physical teams. Syracuse, Pitt and Boston College — current ACC schools with roots in the Big East — each won seven games last season with power-run principles.
The best move for Rutgers might be to mirror those programs.
For Maryland, improving in College Park will help its league debut. The Terps are 3–9 in conference home games since 2011. The games won’t get easier with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State visiting Byrd Stadium this year.
The Big Ten East
Coaches and athletic directors use the word all the time — branding.
In the big picture, the branding presence of Maryland and Rutgers will be less about the schools and more about Big Ten sprawl. Not many New Yorkers will watch Rutgers sports over the Yankees, nor will D.C. fans watch Maryland over the Redskins. But these schools are in huge markets where the Big Ten will capitalize.
If the Big Ten ever goes to 16 teams, it will undoubtedly add East Coast schools to create a five-team division for travel purposes and commonality.
The question is, will Rutgers and Maryland lose their identities in the process? Maryland was a founding member of the ACC. When people talked about the ACC, Maryland was probably among the first seven teams the common fan would list.
Rutgers was in a league it was capable of winning. Greg Schiano had resurrected the program.
Of course, Rutgers would make about 10 times less in the American, which makes a few more potential losses on the field easier to bear.
Joining the Big Ten was never a 12-month decision for either school. It was a move made for the long term, with financial stability the primary motivation. And as strange as it feels — and it feels awfully strange — it just might work out for everyone involved.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Thinking big isn’t always the best tactic.
Joe Novak learned that much from afar. He was an assistant at Indiana during the 1986 when he watched Northern Illinois, where he had worked for three years, leave the MAC with aspirations of joining big-time college football.
“I don’t know what they were thinking or where they were going to go,” Novak told Athlon Sports in a recent interview.
What the Huskies were trying to do was parlay a move to the Big West into a bid for the Big Eight or Big 12. What Northern Illinois got was six losing seasons in 10 years as an independent and Big West member only to return to where it started.
Northern Illinois’ returned to the league in 1997 with Novak as coach, trumpeting his return with the slogan, “Back in the MAC with Novak.” That’s just about all Northern Illinois had to sell at the time. The Huskies’ hopes of major conference membership were ill-advised, and in the aftermath of the experiment, NIU went 3-30 during Novak’s first three seasons.
The best MACtion, Novak learned, may be inaction at least in terms of changing leagues. Once the program recovered under Novak, Northern Illinois, instead, settled on being one of the flagship programs in the MAC.
July 1 marks another year of conference realignment moves. Maryland and Rutgers become official in the Big Ten, and the ACC adds Louisville. Conference USA adds two teams to take the place of the three that will join the year-old American Athletic Conference.
Once again, though, the MAC is sitting out the game of musical chairs.
That’s not to say the MAC is a total outlier. Temple left before last season after five years as a football-only member, and UMass will follow suit next season.
But the core of the MAC — 10 teams in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana — has remained more or less stable since the ‘70s. Marshall and UCF dabbled here, but neither seemed to be a geographical or philosophical fit.
As conference affiliations change, the MAC has thrived in its stability.
In the last two seasons, the league has produced a BCS participant (Northern Illinois), a No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick (Central Michigan) and another top-five pick (Buffalo). Ratings for the MAC’s featured games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays late in the season aren’t out-performing the Big Ten, but they can top second- or third-tier Saturday games in major conferences.
"The best thing for that league is to stay status quo."
-former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak
“I’m thankful we’ve been able to stay together, and because of it our conference has moved up in stature,” said Jim Schaus, Ohio’s athletics director since 2008. “By staying where we were and because other conferences have seen other members moving up, those conferences may have stepped back a little bit.”
Tuesday and Wednesday night games have been a staple of the MAC for several years. Wild offensive showcases between MAC teams have become the league’s signature. The #MACtion meme shows there’s national interest in the conference, even if it’s a niche.
At the same time, the American, Conference USA and perhaps even the Mountain West can’t say the same.
“We talk about branding here a lot,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said. “It’s led to the culture of the MAC brand. At the same time, despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
The Big Ten and Big 12 may be unrealistic goals — as Northern Illinois learned — but MAC teams have rarely been in the conversation for movement in the next tier of conferences. The shared recruiting base and similar budgets can keep MAC teams competitive, but it likely makes them less of a target in realignment.
The top program in the MAC lineup in terms of revenue is Miami (Ohio) at $28.7 million, ranking 79th, according to USA Today (outgoing affiliate member UMass actually bring sin more at $30 million). On the other end is Ball State at $21.3 million, ranking 112nd.
In other words, $7.4 million in revenue separate the top and bottom teams in the MAC. More than $100 million separates Texas and Iowa State in the Big 12, and $74 million separates Oregon and Washington State in the Pac-12.
“Part of the reason we’ve stayed together is the commonality of the members in this conference,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.
MAC administrators also believe the new College Football Playoff may improve postseason opportunities for the league, specifically the one bowl guaranteed to the highest-ranked team in the “Group of Five” (the MAC, American, C-USA, Mountain West and Sun Belt).
Talk of autonomy among the five major conferences is sure to be a concern for the MAC and leagues of its ilk, but at least not outwardly for now.
“We are joined at the hip for the next decade,” Shaus said of the Group of Five and the power conferences.
The key for the MAC is to maintain its midweek presence.
The MAC’s contract with ESPN runs through 2016-17, but the two parties were expected to reopen talks a year ago. The $1 million deal is on the low end of broadcast contracts.
Even as more and more major programs and even the NFL have embraced the Thursday night primetime spot, the MAC is not concerned it will lose its foothold on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"Despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
-Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien
“We’ve become their midweek franchise in November,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We’ve embraced it, they’ve embraced it and I anticipate that continuing.”
Simply put, the tradeoff in terms of juggling player class schedules and the attendance hit of playing on a weeknight is not one leagues may be willing to embrace on a regular basis.
Central Michigan, for example, didn’t play a game between Oct. 19 and Nov. 6 to accommodate a Wednesday night game against Ball State. Ohio and Buffalo both played on three consecutive Tuesday nights in November.
“I absolutely would make that trade,” Tom Amstutz, Toledo’s coach from 2001-08, told Athlon. “Yes, you have to make adjustments and yes, you have to do things academically, but it was worth it. ... Whenever we were asked if we wanted to have a Tuesday night game, I always quickly said yes because I always though it would benefit our league, benefit our program and I knew our players wanted that opportunity.”
Between the familiarity of the lineup and the reliability of four or five MAC teams to be compelling in a single season, viewers on Tuesday or Wednesday nights know what to expect from a featured MAC matchup.
“The stability has allowed people to follow the MAC and know what they’re following,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich, the longest-tenured coach in the league.
As the college football landscape changes on a yearly basis, the MAC has found a way to turn stability into an asset.
Standing still in conference realignment, while the American, C-USA and Sun Belt have struggled to plant their flags, has been a gain for the MAC.
“The best thing for that league,” Novak said. “is to stay status quo.”
Texas A&M’s move to the SEC has yielded an upset of the No. 1 team in the country, a Heisman winner and a new identity for the Aggies.
In many ways, the Aggies exceeded expectations by becoming one of the nation’s “it” programs since moving into the SEC. A program that struggled to win at a high level in the Big 12 has reinvented itself as a member of the SEC.
But are we ready to declare A&M the big winner in the realignment rumble in the Lone Star State. Has Texas A&M left Texas behind as at least one columnist would suggest?
The final verdict may not arrive for some time, but it’s not to early to take stock of where Texas and Texas A&M stand since the dominoes fell in realignment.
In our scorecard, we looked at key games in football, men’s basketball and baseball as well as the most important off-field developments for the rival programs. Of course, a loss for Texas is a gain for Texas A&M and vice versa by our count.
Here’s how we see the scorecard shaking out so far.
Texas vs. Texas A&M: Realignment Scorecard
|Aug. 26, 2011|
The Longhorn Network is launched.
|Sept. 6, 2011|
SEC presidents and chancellors vote to invite Texas A&M to the SEC. The Aggies and Missouri officially join the SEC on July 1, 2012.
|Nov. 24, 2011||Texas defeats Texas A&M 27-25 in final meeting as Big 12 opponents. This is the final scheduled meeting in the series.|
|Feb. 1, 2012||Texas signs the No. 2 class in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Texas A&M finishes 16th.|
|April 26-28, 2012||Texas A&M has four players selected in the NFL Draft, including No. 8 overall selection Ryan Tannehill. Texas has three players drafted, none in the first three rounds.|
|Nov. 10, 2012|
Texas A&M defeats No. 1 Alabama 29-24 in Tuscaloosa. Johnny Manziel passes for 253 yards and rushes for 92 to end the Crimson Tide’s 13-game winning streak.
|Dec. 1, 2012|
Kansas State defeats Texas 42-24 in the final game of the 2012 regular season. Texas finishes the regular season 8-4 and 5-4 in the Big 12. After winning more than 10 games in nine consecutive seasons, Texas will fail to win 10 games for the third consecutive season.
|Dec. 8, 2012||Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel becomes the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Manziel owned a 323-point edge over Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in the voting.|
|Dec. 29, 2012||Texas uses two fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 31-27 comeback win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.|
|Jan. 4, 2013|
Texas A&M defeats Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl. Manziel passes for 287 yards, rushes for 229 and accounts for four total touchdowns.
|Feb. 6, 2013|
Texas A&M finishes ninth nationally in the 247Sports.com Composite Rankings on National Signing Day. Texas finishes 17th.
|March 13-20, 2013||Texas A&M basketball loses to Missouri 62-50 to finish the season 18-15 overall and 7-11 in the SEC. Texas loses to Houston 73-72 in the College Basketball Invitational to finish the season 16-18.||Draw|
|April 25-27, 2013||Texas A&M has five players selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, including No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel. Texas has three players selected, led by No. 15 overall pick Kenny Vaccaro.|
|May 1, 2013||Texas A&M announces $450 million renovation for Kyle Field, said to be the largest redevelopment plan in college athletics history. It is scheduled to be complete in 2015.|
|May 2, 2013||The SEC and ESPN announce launch of SEC Network for 2014.|
|Aug. 22, 2013||Two years after its launch, the Longhorn Network is still unavailable through major cable carriers.|
|Sept. 4, 2013||Texas loses to BYU and Ole Miss in back-to-back games, allowing 822 rushing yards in two games. The 1-2 Longhorns fire defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and replace him with Greg Robinson.|
|Oct. 12, 2013||Texas upsets No. 12 Oklahoma 36-20. The Longhorns were a two-touchdown underdog. A defensive turnaround under Robinson puts Texas back into Big 12 contention until the last week of the season.|
|Nov. 30, 2013||Texas A&M completes 8-4 season and 4-4 season in the SEC with a 28-21 loss to Missouri. The Aggies finish the season ranked last in the SEC in total defense.|
|Dec. 7, 2013||Texas loses to Baylor 30-10 to be eliminated from Big 12 contention.|
|Dec. 12, 2013||Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, considered a potential candidate for NFL teams, agrees to six-year contract extension to stay in College Station.|
|Dec. 15, 2013|
Texas coach Mack Brown retires, but not after the possibility is raised he will stay an extra year.
|Dec. 30, 2013||Texas loses to Oregon 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl.|
|Dec. 31, 2013||Texas A&M defeats Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, scoring 35 points in the second half for the comeback.|
|Jan. 6, 2014||Texas hires Louisville coach Charlie Strong to replace Mack Brown.|
|Jan. 8, 2014||Influential Texas booster Red McCombs is lukewarm on the Strong hire, saying the new Longhorns coach “would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator.”|
|Feb. 4, 2014||Texas A&M’s signing class finishes fifth nationally and third in the SEC in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Texas finishes 17th nationally and second in the Big 12.|
|Feb. 5, 2014||Strong says Texas won’t be a “gadget program” in response to Texas A&M’s “swagcopter” in recruiting and Sumlin’s status as “Coach Cool.”|
|March 3, 2014||The Longhorn Network gains distribution on Dish Network.|
|March 22-24, 2014||Texas basketball loses to Michigan 79-65 in the NCAA Tournament round of 32 after surprising for an 11-7 in the Big 12. Texas A&M loses to Illinois State 62-55 in the College Basketball Invitational semifinal, completing an 18-16 season and 8-10 record in the SEC.|
|May 8-10 2014|
Texas goes without an NFL Draft pick for the first time since 1937. Texas A&M has three offensive players — tackle Jake Matthews, wide receiver Mike Evans and Manziel — selected in the first round.
|May 28, 2014||Texas A&M receives a commitment from Allen (Texas) quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports Composite rankings in the class of 2015.|
|May 30-June 7, 2014||Texas goes 2-1 against Texas A&M in the Rice regional to eliminate the Aggies from the baseball postseason. A week later, Texas defeats Houston 4-0 to clinch a berth in the College World Series. The Longhorns go 3-2 before elimination against eventual national champion Vanderbilt.|
|June 26, 2014||The SEC Network remains unavailable on major carriers.|
|And the winner (for now) is ... Texas A&M 20-13-1 by our count. The Longhorns still have bragging rights by picking up the last win in the series. Texas also made progress on the Longhorn Network and has a significant edge in men’s basketball and baseball. The Aggies, though, win on big events — a Heisman winner, an Alabama upset, three draft day and two signing day “wins” over Texas and the Kyle Field expansion give the Aggies a significant leg up.|
Kentucky Speedway has now held four NASCAR Sprint Cup races since getting added to the sport’s top-tier schedule in 2011. In theory, the potential is there for incredible racing in the Bluegrass State, a place that begged for a stock car arena to be built inside their borders. Aging pavement, the type that’s resulted in side-by-side endings at Fontana and Atlanta, should give drivers tires that fall off. Multiple grooves and varied setups should be the result, causing better racing all the way around.
But the type of excitement that caused hours of traffic backup for the track’s inaugural event has fizzled after a handful of snoozers. This year’s event had only 12 lead changes, the fewest on any oval in Cup this season. (By comparison, Fontana, touted as the most exciting “cookie-cutter” the last two years, had 35.) Winner Brad Keselowski led 199 of 267 laps. In the 2013 Kentucky race, Jimmie Johnson led 182 laps and was seemingly on track for a cakewalk victory until a late-race spin took him out of contention. The track’s record for lead changes in any Cup race is 20 and in none of the events did first place switch off over the final 10 laps of an event.
In the meantime, Kentucky’s pavement — closing in on a repave — has caused more potential problems than perfect competition. Bumps in the surface frustrate drivers, while rough pavement tore too many Goodyears to shreds, resulting in a handful of tire failures and hard accidents. Off track, fans wary of the monumental traffic delays experienced in 2011, when thousands didn’t even make it to the track, have chosen to stay home. Vast portions of the grandstand were empty Saturday night, even though the place hosts but one date a year.
From excitement to excrement, it’s a scary trend for a place highly touted for years as a “must add” to the Cup Series schedule. But it’s also a nightmare other tracks know well. Fontana, the punching bag of the NASCAR circuit for well over a decade, took the right amount of aging pavement combined with a blossoming, last-lap rivalry to turn things around. That means in a sea of despair, there’s always hope for perception to change. Kentucky badly needs that random boost of luck, like its two best drivers to date, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, settling their on-again, off-again feud by heading to the finish line slamming into the side of each other, fighting for the win in a shower of sparks.
Until then, the schedule’s newest facility is nothing more than a blip on the radar. Bad timing (June race date), worse racing and nonexistent TV ratings. To some degree, the new kid on the block will deal with that type of stuff; it’s always rough to see a rookie take their lumps. But after four years, this slump is digging a serious hole that’s bordering on disastrous and increasingly difficult to dig out of going forward.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske, Penske, Penske
Brad Keselowski became the first two-time Kentucky winner on Saturday, dominating from the pole on a night when Team Penske could have led all 267 laps. Only a late-race, green-flag pit sequence, where an Aric Almirola wreck caused a caution that jumbled up the field, gave Kyle Busch an opening to briefly take control. In total, just three drivers spent time up front: Busch, Keselowski and Penske’s Joey Logano. That’s a performance dominant enough to leave the Ford organization, which has appeared a step behind Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports in recent months, bullish about its chances going forward.
“There are a lot of mile-and-a-halfs in the Chase,” Keselowski said. “(Kentucky) kind of fits all between them. It doesn’t have the banking of Charlotte, but it’s a little bit rough and Charlotte is a little bit rough. It doesn’t have the smooth surface of Kansas, but it has a similar layout. The things it takes to go fast here aren’t too far off from those other tracks, and I think when you hit this mark in the season, some cars might show a little bit more development but not a lot.”
So has Penske suddenly acquitted themselves after a late spring of slipping a small step behind? Um, not really. Hendrick captured the last three intermediate races, when Penske could do no better than third in any of them. All four Hendrick cars were plastered across the top 10 Saturday night. And while both Keselowski and Logano did well, this track has always been one of their favorites. Logano won three straight times here in the Nationwide Series, so to a degree this track is like Roush Fenway Racing and Michigan: anything less than first place is a disappointment.
No doubt, NASCAR hopes this duo builds momentum and challenges for a spot inside the Homestead Final Four because an all-Chevy lineup (or all-Hendrick) won’t conjure up the same type of ratings and drama for the sport. Keselowski, who at 30 still carries that rebellious nature — he cut his hand drinking champagne in Victory Lane, needing four stitches — combines with 20-something Logano to be a potentially powerful 1-2 personality punch for the next generation. But while Saturday night was a step in the right direction you still have to label Hendrick a step ahead.
SECOND GEAR: Can one Busch moment make all the difference?
As mentioned, Kentucky’s been good to Kyle Busch, the track’s inaugural Cup winner, who used a little luck to climb up to second Saturday night. Almirola’s wreck gave Busch the edge, one he stretched on the final restart before Keselowski’s handling was just too good to fend off, even in clean air.
“That caution came out right at the perfect moment for us,” said Busch. “We were able to beat the 2 (Keselowski) to the (pit road) exit line and keep our spot on the lead lap, come back around, and essentially inherit the lead. But once I got to traffic, man, I just got too loose. I was kind of loose the whole run, but I kept getting looser and looser throughout.”
It’s that type of issue for Busch that has me thinking the result was more outlier than standard. His team, along with Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, seems a bit in disarray while preparing for a rumored expansion to four cars next season. Their situation reminds me a lot of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013, when a ton of off-track distractions altered the landscape internally, leading to just one car (Ryan Newman) making the Chase and essentially a lost season.
Denny Hamlin is struggling again, down to 17th in points after a tire problem wrecked his No. 11 Toyota early. And Matt Kenseth, who celebrated the announcement of a contract extension along with additional support from sponsor Dollar General, had to deal with the news Home Depot, who’s been with JGR for decades, will finally leave the No. 20 car at the end of 2014.
For some reason, it’s been difficult to get all three of these guys on the same page. An announcement mid-summer, potentially involving Busch sponsor M&M’s (the rumors continue to be all over the place on that front) will stir the pot even more. So this second-place finish, as Busch said, is just “one week. We certainly need to be able to do it weekly on the intermediates.” Considering Toyota’s place behind Ford and Chevy right now, many observers are going to need a few more seconds to be convinced.
THIRD GEAR: Hello, Newman
Ryan Newman’s season has been difficult to figure. New to Richard Childress Racing, he’s been a model of consistency, posting five top-10 finishes entering Kentucky along with zero DNFs. That was enough to get sponsor Caterpillar to stay on board, signing an extension that should keep Newman in position to drive the car through at least the end of 2015 (then Ty Dillon’s promotion could cause a logjam).
But Newman, once known for his raw speed, has only led 10 laps this season. With 51 career poles, he has yet to win one with RCR, posting a ho-hum average start of 14.1 and seems to run “in place” throughout the race. That leaves the organization hopeful his third-place finish Saturday could finally send a spark that injects this team with a bit more acceleration towards the front.
“Strategy wise, (crew chief) Luke (Lambert) did a great job calling two tires when we needed to and not losing track position with four when other guys were taking two,” Newman said. “All that adds up. Having that clean air and that track position is probably more powerful than anything we do with the race car at times, so that's probably the biggest difference.”
The good news for Newman, who clearly downplayed the run, is with the way the winners are shaking out. His points position (eighth) will likely get him in the Chase regardless. And once you’re in that 16-driver field you never know.
KENTUCKY | Thinkin' Out Loud: The Quaker State 400
FOURTH GEAR: Familiar faces finding their way forward
Speaking of the Chase, two familiar faces are sneaking up on postseason spots after early slumps. Kasey Kahne, despite being involved in a mid-race wreck, posted another top-10 finish (eighth), his third straight that moves him within eight points of Clint Bowyer, clinging to the last “winless Chase position” on points. Right behind him in the standings? Tony Stewart, whose 11th-place run was impressive considering a transmission change left him starting at the back of the field. The No. 14 team, which typically heats up in the summer months, seems to be benefiting from the solid performances of teammates Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick (pit road excluded) and yes, even Danica Patrick in recent weeks.
Their gains should leave guys like Paul Menard, who’s never made the Chase, the “still in limbo” Greg Biffle and even Bowyer, who’s winless with Michael Waltrip Racing this season, a little nervous. If those two are going to break into the playoffs, someone’s got to be kicked out, and, well, it’s not going to be a guy like Matt Kenseth at fifth in the standings and capable of winning at any time. If Kahne and Stewart keep climbing — by the way that would give Stewart-Haas and Hendrick Motorsports seven of the 16 spots in this year’s Chase — is it parity or “paired up to dominate”?
NASCAR claims there’s no cause for concern that Saturday night produced a short field, with only 42 cars starting the race. It’s the lowest car count since November 2001, when a New Hampshire event postponed by 9/11 got off the grid with only 42 (one team had folded in the interim). I respectfully disagree; after all, no sport can survive without the woeful Houston Astros to complement the New York Yankees. All the new, underdog entries are fizzling out, leaving a bunch of Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske, etc. cars battling for “elite” status with no real middle or lower class. Xxxtreme Motorsports, along with Randy Humphrey Racing are two of the smaller teams retooling, claiming they’ll withdraw from competition for the “next several weeks” so expect the smaller car count to continue. … Joey Logano lost a cylinder down the stretch, fading to ninth as another reminder of why Penske’s not “quite there yet.” Two of his three DNFs this season have been for mechanical failure in a format where one blown motor could be a killer come September. … Saturday night was the third this season in which a driver won a race from the pole. The lowest anyone has started all season and still won on an intermediate? Kyle Busch, who qualified 14th in Fontana. Food for thought heading towards the Chase.
Follow Tom Bowles on Titter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The All-Star break will be here in a couple of few weeks, which means the trade winds will start to blow a little stronger. One trade has already taken place, giving a pair of deposed closers a change of scenery. Pittsburgh sent Jason Grilli, an All-Star last season who saved 33 games for the WIld Card Pirates, to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. The fire-balling Frieri posted 37 saves of his own in 2013, but he has struggled mightily so far this season, to the tune of a 6.39 ERA for his former team. It remains to be seen if a change of scenery will do either enough good for them to become fantasy factors once again, but one thing is clear — they won't be the last bullpen pieces to switch uniforms between now and the end of July.
|Arizona||Addison Reed||Brad Zeigler||Joe Thatcher, Oliver Perez|
|Atlanta||Craig Kimbrel||Shae Simmons||Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, David Carpenter (DL)|
|Baltimore||Zach Britton||Tommy Hunter||Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb, Brian Matusz|
|Boston||Koji Uehara||Junichi Tazawa||Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop, Craig Breslow|
|Chicago (AL)||Zach Putnam*||Javy Guerra*||Jacob Petricka*, Daniel Webb, Nate Jones (DL)|
|Chicago (NL)||Hector Rondon||Pedro Strop||Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Kyuji Fujikawa (DL)|
|Cincinnati||Aroldis Chapman||Jonathan Broxton||Sam LeCure, Manny Parra|
|Cleveland||Cody Allen||Bryan Shaw||Scott Atchison, John Axford|
|Colorado||LaTroy Hawkins||Adam Ottavino||Rex Brothers|
|Detroit||Joe Nathan||Joba Chamberlain||Al Albuquerque, Phil Coke|
|Houston||Chad Qualls||Tony Sipp||Joshua Zeid, Jesse Crain (DL)|
|Kansas City||Greg Holland||Wade Davis||Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow|
|Los Angeles (AL)||Joe Smith||Jason Grilli||Kevin Jepsen|
|Los Angeles (NL)||Kenley Jansen||Brian Wilson||Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Chris Withrow (DL)|
|Miami||Steve Cishek||A.J. Ramos||Mike Dunn|
|Milwaukee||Francisco Rodriguez||Brandon Kintzler||Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg (DL)|
|Minnesota||Glen Perkins||Casey Fien||Jared Burton|
|New York (AL)||David Robertson||Dellin Betances||Adam Warren, Shawn Kelley|
|New York (NL)||Jenrry Mejia||Jeurys Familia||Carlos Torres, Vic Black, Bobby Parnell (DL)|
|Oakland||Sean Doolittle||Luke Gregerson||Ryan Cook, Dan Otero, Jim Johnson|
|Philadelphia||Jonathan Papelbon||Ken Giles||Jacob Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, Matt Adams (DL)|
|Pittsburgh||Mark Melancon||Tony Watson||Justin Wilson, Ernesto Frieri|
|St. Louis||Trevor Rosenthal||Jason Motte||Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, Kevin Siegrist (DL)|
|San Diego||Huston Street||Joaquin Benoit||Alex Torres, Dale Thayer|
|San Francisco||Santiago Casilla*||Jeremy Affeldt*||Jean Machi, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez|
|Seattle||Fernando Rodney||Danny Farquhar||Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina|
|Tampa Bay||Jake McGee||Joel Peralta||Grant Balfour, Juan Oviedo|
|Texas||Joakim Soria||Jason Frasor||Neal Cotts, Alexi Ogando (DL)|
|Toronto||Casey Janssen||Aaron Loup||Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil (DL)|
|Washington||Rafael Soriano||Tyler Clippard||Drew Storen|
*The Chicago White Sox and San Francisco are employing a closer-by-committee approach right now.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 30:
• For some reason, the mascots of the Big Ten gathered for a giant selfie in front of the White House. Brutus Buckeye appears to be getting a little friendly with that cheerleader.
• A Cubs fan went swimming in the stands during a rain delay.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Last season’s MVP, both on the field and in fantasy football, was without a question Peyton Manning. That’s what happens when you break the single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Manning’s 520 fantasy points (Athlon scoring) lapped the field and then some, as he it was nearly 100 points more than No. 2 Drew Brees’ 435.7 points.
Despite Manning’s record-setting performance, he barely makes the top 10 of Athlon Sports’ early fantasy football rankings for 2014. As remarkable as Manning’s 2013 season was, there’s no reason to draft the future Hall of Famer based on what he did last year. Instead, our early rankings lean towards the few elite running backs that remain — LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forté. Even though the NFL has become more of a pass-happy league, there’s no substitute for landing one of the few playmakers who are guaranteed to touch the ball (assuming they stay healthy) 300 times a season and are the undisputed focal points of their team’s offense.
Athlon Sports' 2014 Fantasy Football magazine is now available for purchase at newsstands everyone or online. The ultimate draft-day resource, this year's edition features 419 in-depth player reports, informative features, a 20-round mock draft, team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers and much more. Whether your fantasy league is head-to-head, roto, PPR or IDP, this magazine has all the stats and insight you need to help you get ready for the upcoming season. Click here to purchase you copy today!
Early 2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
|1||LeSean McCoy||PHI||RB||Ideal fit for Chip Kelly's offense.|
|2||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||3rd in rushing, just 10th in carries.|
|3||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||More catches coming in Norv's O?|
|4||Matt Forté||CHI||RB||Enjoyed career year in Trestman's O.|
|5||Calvin Johnson||DET||WR||Yards went down, but TDs up in '13.|
|6||Marshawn Lynch||SEA||RB||He's not really going to retire is he?|
|7||Jimmy Graham||NO||TE||Clearly he's a TE in fantasy.|
|9||Peyton Manning||DEN||QB||Don’t bank on another 55 TDs.|
|11||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Hoping for better health in '14.|
|12||Eddie Lacy||GB||RB||Can he enter elite RB conversation?|
|14||Dez Bryant||DAL||WR||Dez needs a healthy Romo.|
|15||Doug Martin||TB||RB||Shoulder should be fully recovered.|
|16||Arian Foster||HOU||RB||QB concerns could mean more work.|
|17||DeMarco Murray||DAL||RB||Still has yet to play full season.|
|18||Zac Stacy||STL||RB||How much of a threat is Tre Mason?|
|19||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Healthier OL could mean big year.|
|20||Montee Ball||DEN||RB||No real competition for carries now.|
|24||Andre Johnson||HOU||WR||Not a happy Texan right now.|
|26||Randall Cobb||GB||WR||Broken leg wiped out promising start.|
|27||Alfred Morris||WAS||RB||How does he fit Gruden's O?|
|28||Giovani Bernard||CIN||RB||Should see more touches.|
|30||Ryan Mathews||SD||RB||SD backfield getting crowded.|
|31||Drew Brees||NO||QB||No more Sproles, but added new WR.|
|33||Larry Fitzgerald||ARI||WR||Floyd ready to supplant him as No. 1?|
|35||Pierre Garcon||WAS||WR||How will DeSean Jackson impact him?|
|36||Keenan Allen||SD||WR||Sophomore slump coming?|
|37||Roddy White||ATL||WR||Goal is to start season healthy.|
|38||Wes Welker||DEN||WR||Concussions becoming more of an issue.|
|39||Percy Harvin||SEA||WR||Finally ready to take flight?|
|40||Matthew Stafford||DET||QB||New coach/OC = new Stafford?|
|42||Vernon Davis||SF||TE||49ers added to WR depth.|
|43||DeSean Jackson||WAS||WR||Ready to silence the critics?|
|46||Torrey Smith||BAL||WR||Steve Smith should help Torrey.|
|47||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Is Hyde or Lattimore a threat?|
|48||C.J. Spiller||BUF||RB||Breakout season coming?|
|49||Ben Tate||CLE||RB||Finally gets chance to be No. 1, maybe.|
|50||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||2013 a fluke or sign of things to come?|
|52||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||Is there a bigger risk-reward option?|
|54||Michael Floyd||ARI||WR||Could supplant Fitzgerald as No. 1 target.|
|55||Cordarrelle Patterson||MIN||WR||If QB is settled, he could break out.|
|56||Jeremy Maclin||PHI||WR||Chip Kelly has forgotten about him, have you?|
|57||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||How many touches will he get?|
|58||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Running out of chances to matter.|
|59||Chris Johnson||NYJ||RB||What does he have left for Jets?|
|60||Steven Jackson||ATL||RB||Workhorse days are probably over.|
|61||Rashad Jennings||NYG||RB||Can he carry the load for the Giants?|
|62||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Coming back from ACL injury.|
|64||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||All eyes will be on this rookie.|
|65||Shane Vereen||NE||RB||Vereen could be a PPR monster.|
|66||Knowshon Moreno||MIA||RB||Dolphins' tenure not off to best start.|
|67||Stevan Ridley||NE||RB||Was a 1,200-yard rusher in 2012.|
|68||Joique Bell||DET||RB||Should remain a factor in Lions' backfield.|
|69||Andrew Luck||IND||QB||Cut his INTs by half (18 to 9).|
|70||Russell Wilson||SEA||QB||26 TD passes in each of first 2 seasons.|
|71||Bishop Sankey||TEN||RB||Could be Week 1 starter.|
|72||Toby Gerhart||JAC||RB||Could surprise as Jags' No. 1 back.|
|73||Maurice Jones-Drew||OAK||RB||Best to keep expectations low.|
|74||Cam Newton||CAR||QB||Throwing to entirely new WR corps.|
|75||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||Fresh start with new HC, offense.|
|78||Dennis Pitta||BAL||TE||Could be in for big season.|
|80||Darren Sproles||PHI||RB||Expect similar role w/ Eagles.|
|82||Nick Foles||PHI||QB||Don't expect 27:2 TD:INT ratio.|
|83||Colin Kaepernick||SF||QB||Got better as season progressed.|
|84||Matt Ryan||ATL||QB||Better OL/WR health = better numbers.|
|85||Kendall Wright||TEN||WR||Gets the catches, but not the yards.|
|86||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Can he and Tannehill get on same page?|
|87||Golden Tate||DET||WR||Megatron gets his sidekick.|
|88||Eric Decker||NYJ||WR||You’re not in Denver anymore Eric.|
|89||Tom Brady||NE||QB||Tom's terrific days past him?|
|91||Khiry Robinson||NO||RB||Watch out for this young Saint.|
|93||Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||WR||Could post Decker-like numbers.|
|94||Cecil Shorts||JAC||WR||Should finally get some support.|
|95||Riley Cooper||PHI||WR||Was last year a fluke?|
|98||Tony Romo||DAL||QB||Will his back hold up?|
|99||Philip Rivers||SD||QB||Can he do it two years in a row?|
|100||Jay Cutler||CHI||QB||Weapons are in place for huge numbers.|
|101||Ben Roethlisberger||PIT||QB||WR corps could be better this season.|
|104||Delanie Walker||TEN||TE||Quietly posted strong 2013 season.|
|106||Pierre Thomas||NO||RB||More valuable in PPR leagues.|
|107||David Wilson||NYG||RB||His neck is definitely a concern.|
|108||Chris Ivory||NYJ||RB||Should see carries even w/ CJ on board.|
|109||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||If Rice falters, Pierce could seize job.|
|110||Josh Gordon||CLE||WR||How many games will he play?|
|111||Terrance Williams||DAL||WR||No. 2 now with Miles Austin gone.|
|112||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||WR||Looking for consistency in 2nd season.|
|113||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Seems tailor-made for Saints/Brees.|
|114||Antonio Gates||SD||TE||Time for Ladarius Green to take over?|
|115||Ladarius Green||SD||TE||Can he supplant the future HOFer?|
|117||Shonn Greene||TEN||RB||May have already lost starting job to Sankey.|
|118||Tre Mason||STL||RB||If Zac Stacy slips, Mason could pounce.|
|119||Darren McFadden||OAK||RB||MJD + DMC = a backfield to avoid.|
|120||Lamar Miller||MIA||RB||Moreno's health history could benefit Miller.|
|121||Danny Amendola||NE||WR||Hoping for better results in Year 2 w/ Pats.|
|122||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Chiefs need him to bounce back.|
|123||Steve Smith||BAL||WR||What role does veteran play w/ new team?|
|124||James Jones||OAK||WR||Matt Schaub is NOT Aaron Rodgers.|
|127||Mike Evans||TB||WR||Can the rookie make a splash early?|
|128||Tavon Austin||STL||WR||Looked better late last season.|
|130||Eli Manning||NYG||QB||Surely he can't throw 27 INTs again?|
|132||Mark Ingram||NO||RB||Running out chances in NO?|
|136||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Big target, but still raw as a WR.|
|140||Eric Ebron||DET||TE||How will Lions use him as rookie?|
|144||Broncos||DEN||DST||Plenty of new faces on D.|
|145||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||CIN||RB||Jeremy Hill may make BJGE irrelevant.|
|146||LeGarrette Blount||PIT||RB||How many carries will he get with Bell around?|
|148||Roy Helu||WAS||RB||Seems well suited for Gruden's O.|
|149||Miles Austin||CLE||WR||Browns need help at WR b/c of Gordon's situation.|
|150||Hakeem Nicks||IND||WR||New team = new Nicks?|
|151||Rueben Randle||NYG||WR||Not quite ready to cede No. 2 job to Beckham.|
|152||Rams||STL||DST||D-line should be one of league's nastiest.|
|153||Chiefs||KC||DST||Incredible start, disappointing finish.|
|157||Dexter McCluster||TEN||WR||Ken Whisenhunt's new Danny Woodhead?|
|158||Josh McCown||TB||QB||Weapons in CHI better than those in TB.|
|160||Ryan Tannehill||MIA||QB||Needs to cut down on INTs (17).|
|161||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||When will he start? How much will he run?|
|163||Kenny Stills||NO||WR||Even w/ Cooks, opportunity exists for Stills too.|
|166||Justin Hunter||TEN||WR||Ready to break out?|
|167||Markus Wheaton||PIT||WR||Steelers have been waiting for him.|
|168||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||Landed in good situation w/ Giants.|
|171||Buccaneers||TB||DST||How will the Bucs adapt to Cover-2?|
|175||Latavius Murray||OAK||RB||Younger legs could supplant veterans.|
|178||Sam Bradford||STL||QB||Lots of pressure to stay healthy and produce.|
|181||Jordan Matthews||PHI||WR||Intriguing rookie to keep an eye on.|
|182||Marqise Lee||JAC||WR||If QB play is solid, he could surprise.|
|183||Jeremy Hill||CIN||RB||Could seize backup job quickly.|
|185||Terrance West||CLE||RB||Browns high on this rookie.|
|190||Owen Daniels||BAL||TE||Played for new OC Kubiak in Houston.|
|194||EJ Manuel||BUF||QB||Will he and Watkins click right away?|
|196||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Make or break year for Locker.|
|197||Geno Smith||NYJ||QB||Needs to show improvement in Year 2.|
|198||Matt Schaub||OAK||QB||Can he turn things around in Oakland?|
|200||Jace Amaro||NYJ||TE||Could be big part of offense right away.|
|201||Doug Baldwin||SEA||WR||Golden Tate no longer in Seattle.|
|209||Texans||HOU||DST||Watt and Clowney should be fun to watch.|
|212||Christine Michael||SEA||RB||Could be see bigger workload.|
|213||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Will Harbaugh trust the rookie right away?|
|217||Brandon LaFell||NE||WR||Tom Brady needs more help from his WRs.|
|222||Kenny Britt||STL||WR||Fisher giving his former WR another chance.|
|227||Marlon Brown||BAL||WR||Undrafted rookie caught 7 TDs last season.|
|231||Chad Henne||JAC||QB||Jags would rather Blake Bortles watch.|
|232||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||Probably will open as starter, but for how long?|
|233||Michael Vick||NYJ||QB||Jets needs Geno Smith to seize job.|
|234||Teddy Bridgewater||MIN||QB||Just how pro-ready is he?|
|239||Bears||CHI||DST||Bears have beefed up D-line/secondary.|
|246||Levine Toilolo||ATL||TE||Post-Tony Gonzalez era begins for Falcons.|
|247||Andre Williams||NYG||RB||Keep eye on him, esp. if Wilson doesn't return.|
|248||Devonta Freeman||ATL||RB||Someone will need to spell SJax.|
|253||Mike Glennon||TB||QB||Do the Bucs still view him as QB of future?|
|257||Jerick McKinnon||MIN||RB||Peterson needs a new backup.|
|258||Vick Ballard||IND||RB||Not like Richardson's a lock for the job.|
|259||Ahmad Bradshaw||IND||RB||Don't count out this veteran.|
|269||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||Is he ready to return to the field?|
|270||Paul Richardson||SEA||WR||His speed could result in playing time.|
|271||Devante Adams||GB||WR||Packers high on this rookie.|
|272||Allen Robinson||JAC||WR||Jags need all the weapons they can find.|
|273||Cody Latimer||DEN||WR||Anyway Bronco WR is worth monitoring.|
|274||Blake Bortles||JAC||QB||Only a keeper/dynasty league option in 2014.|
|277||Adrien Robinson||NYG||TE||Starting job is there for the taking.|
The start of NFL training camps is still several weeks away and the 2014 regular season won’t kick off until September, but for all intents and purposes, America’s game has become a year-round sport.
So to help whet your appetite for some pigskin while counting down the days until the action returns to the gridiron, here are 14 storylines that will help shape how this season plays out.
1. Denver’s pursuit of its first Super Bowl win since the 1998 season
The Broncos had the AFC’s best record each of the past two seasons only to come up empty in the postseason. They went all in during free agency. It started with the signing of punishing strong safety T.J. Ward, a Pro Bowler for the Browns a year ago, to a four-year, $23 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. Cornerback Aqib Talib then signed a six-year, $57 million deal with $26 million guaranteed to replace Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos’ best cover corner last season. The rich only got richer when outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware signed a three-year, $30 million deal with $20 million guaranteed to give the Broncos a potent pass-rushing tandem.
The Broncos hope that the moves will improve a defense that ranked 19th last season in yards allowed, gave up 24.9 points per game and surrendered 43 points to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. More quarterback drama in New York
Michael Vick declared Geno Smith the Jets’ starter upon his arrival in New York, and the Jets want the second-year quarterback to win the job. But the Jets signed Vick to a one-year, $5 million deal as insurance, providing yet more quarterback drama for the team.
Vick made six starts last season in Philadelphia, eventually losing his starting job to Nick Foles. With the Jets, he reunites with Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Vick from 2009-12 as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Vick, who turns 34 in June, had his best season in 2010, going 8–3 with a 62.6 completion percentage, 3,018 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. It ranks as his only season completing better than 60 percent of his passes. Vick only went 20–20 as a starter in five seasons in Philadelphia.
Still, he could provide the best option for an offense that finished 25th in total yards, including 31st in passing, with Smith’s 66.5 passer rating ranking 37th.
3. Playoffs or bust for Jason Garrett
Jason Garrett enters his fourth season as a full-time head coach and the final year of his contract, having produced only a 29–27 record since taking over for Wade Phillips as the interim head coach in 2010.
The Cowboys have not made the playoffs since winning the division in 2009, going 30–34 over the past four seasons combined. It’s looking like playoffs or bust for Garrett. Jerry Jones has hired seven head coaches since buying the Cowboys in 1989. Only Jimmy Johnson lasted more than four years, leaving after his fifth season in Dallas.
4. The Cardinals’ quest for a “Super” home game
You can make a strong case the two best teams in the NFL reside in the NFC West. The Seahawks are fresh off of a dominating win in the Super Bowl, and the 49ers — who have advanced to the NFC Championship Game in each of the last three seasons (with one win) — might have the best overall roster in the game. But there’s another potentially elite team out West. The Arizona Cardinals quietly won 10 games in 2013 under first-year coach Bruce Arians and are poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals boast one of the league’s top defenses and have enough firepower on offense — as long as Carson Palmer behaves — to hang with Seattle and San Francisco. A year ago, Arizona went 1–3 against the “Big 2,” splitting two games with the Seahawks and losing a pair to the Niners by an average of 7.5 points.
Arizona has extra motivation to make a deep postseason run: The Cards want to be the first team to play the Super Bowl at home.
5. Cam Newton’s ankle
Cam Newton had surgery March 19 to repair an ankle injury he has had since college. Coach Ron Rivera said Newton tweaked the ankle in a Dec. 22 victory against the Saints. With a recovery time of four months, Newton missed out on an entire offseason of working with a new cast of receivers.
The Panthers released Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon all signed with other teams in free agency. Carolina signed Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood in free agency and drafted Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State, but of Newton’s top four targets, only tight end Greg Olsen returns.
6. Eli Manning’s rebound
Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but he didn’t play like it last season. His 69.4 passer rating ranked below the likes of Matt Schaub, Brandon Weeden, Chad Henne and rookie EJ Manuel. In fact, only Terrelle Pryor’s and Geno Smith’s passer ratings were worse than Manning’s. And no quarterback threw more interceptions than Manning, who tossed 27, with three returned for touchdowns. Manning now has thrown 42 interceptions in his past 32 games.
The question is: Will Manning, 33, regain his golden touch? The Giants brought in new coordinator Ben McAdoo to fix Manning and the offense, which ranked only 28th last season and had an NFL-worst 44 giveaways. But with Manning signed only through 2015, the Giants are taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to more years with him as their quarterback.
7. Julius Peppers with the Pack
Julius Peppers, 34, appears to be on his last legs. He had only 7.5 sacks last season, and the Bears released him March 11. The Packers, though, believe Peppers has enough left to help them to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. They signed him to a three-year deal with $7.5 million in guarantees.
Peppers, who has 118.5 sacks in 12 seasons, finally gets a chance to play in a 3-4. He should help the Packers defense improve from 25th. The question remains, though, whether he finally gets his first Super Bowl ring.
8. Jadeveon Clowney’s impact
The Chiefs would have made Jadeveon Clowney the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 if the South Carolina defensive end had been eligible for the draft. He wasn’t, but he played last season like he would have preferred the NFL. Clowney had only three sacks in 2013 and was heavily criticized for not going hard on every play.
But Houston, despite being in need of a quarterback, was won over by Clowney’s size, speed and athleticism. He stands 6'5", weighs 266 pounds, runs a 4.53, has a 37.5-inch vertical and has an arm length of 34.5 inches.
The Texans will pair him with the best defensive player in football in J.J. Watt, who desperately needed pass-rush help. Watt’s sack numbers dipped from 20.5 in 2012 to 10.5 in 2013 because opponents were able to consistently double-team him. As a team, the Texans recorded only 32 sacks.
Clowney will play outside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4 base defense and then down in passing situations. Together, Clowney and Watt should return the Texans to their former status as one of the top defensive units in the NFL. The Texans’ only problem now is that they still lack a sure-fire franchise quarterback.
9. Andy Dalton’s future
Andy Dalton took the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. The Bengals, though, still haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. They lost at home in the wild card round last season, 27–10 to the Chargers, and have averaged 11 points in their three postseason losses the past three seasons — games in which Dalton has a combined one TD and six INTs.
Despite his 30–18 regular-season record as a starter, Bengals fans aren’t sold on Dalton as their franchise quarterback. The Bengals seem to be sold, however, with coach Marvin Lewis touting a long-term deal for Dalton.
10. Brady vs. Manning encore
It ranks as arguably the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Manning and Brady have met 15 times. The first meeting came in 2001 in Brady’s first career start, with Brady’s Patriots beating Manning’s Colts 44–13. Their most recent meeting came in the AFC Championship Game last season, with Manning’s Broncos winning 26–16.
Brady leads the series 10–5, with his Patriots scheduled to host Manning and the Broncos this season. With Brady turning 37 in August, and Manning already 38, every meeting could be their last meeting.
11. Jim Harbaugh vs. the 49ers
There might be some unrest in the 49ers organization, but the boys in Las Vegas don’t seem overly concerned. Only Seattle and Denver have better post-draft Super Bowl odds than the 49ers do at 15–2.
Jim Harbaugh has taken San Francisco to NFC Championship Games in three consecutive seasons, with a trip to the Super Bowl to end 2012. The 49ers, who had 39 wins in seven seasons before Harbaugh’s arrival, have posted a 36–11–1 record since 2011. They will contend again in 2014, despite the unrest of this offseason when reports surfaced that the Browns attempted to trade for Harbaugh.
Harbaugh elected to stay put, but speculation is that Harbaugh wants more power and/or money. He may or may not get along with general manager Trent Baalke, and may or may not want a raise from the five-year, $25 million deal he signed upon leaving Stanford. It won’t matter this year, but Harbaugh’s future in San Francisco no doubt is cloudy.
12. Michael Sam makes history
Michael Sam expects to fit in an NFL locker room just as easily as he did at Missouri. That might be easier than making the Rams’ roster. Though he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss and shared the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year award, Sam stands only 6'2", weighs only 255 pounds and had a mediocre performance at the scouting combine. He ran the 40 in 4.91, recorded 17 reps in the 225-pound bench press and had a 25 ½ inch vertical. The Rams return Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims at defensive end, though Gerald Rivers, an undrafted rookie, did make the roster for 13 games last season. The NFL is rooting for Sam to make the Rams. He already has a following, thanks in part to a top-selling jersey.
13. Washington’s new weapon
DeSean Jackson stayed unemployed only for a weekend, accepting a three-year, $24 million deal with the Redskins shortly after the Eagles released him. Jackson helped Philadelphia win the NFC East last season with a career-best 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. He could change the balance of power in the division this season.
Though the Redskins ranked 16th in passing offense, Pierre Garcon had 113 catches for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon and Jackson give Washington the best set of receivers in the division, if not the NFL. Robert Griffin III could have a bounce-back season, as could the Redskins.
14. Ravens on the rebound
The Ravens went to the playoffs five consecutive seasons before missing out last season with an 8–8 record. Still, owner Steve Bisciotti gave his coach a vote of confidence by adding a year to John Harbaugh’s contract. General manager Ozzie Newsome spent a busy offseason trying to get the Ravens back to being Super Bowl contenders. He traded for center Jeremy Zuttah, signed safety Darian Stewart and receiver Steve Smith and re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, left tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens are counting on a bounce-back season from quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
— Written by Charean Williams for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.
From the time he was in fifth grade through the end of his sophomore year in high school, James Franklin could be found just about anywhere on the football field except under center.
He played receiver, tight end, defensive end and linebacker. He was the backup quarterback on his prep sophomore team, but that was more of an emergency thing. A year later, Franklin’s high school coach, Jeremy Males, finally tired of hearing Franklin begging to play quarterback and installed him at the position. It was a good move.
Almost immediately, Franklin showed the big arm that had come to him through the wonders of genetics. “My dad could throw the ball 85 yards,” he says. As a high school junior, Franklin threw for 2,464 yards and 23 scores. A year later, he threw for 2,360, rushed for 1,282 and accounted for 41 TDs. Rivals rated him the nation’s fourth-best dual-threat QB. Tom Lemming considered him the nation’s fifth-best hybrid.
But most colleges didn’t share the same assessment of the 6'2", 230-pound Texan. They saw him as an “athlete,” that dreaded appellation applied to someone who might look good in the slot or at tailback. Perhaps he could play linebacker. Those schools were excised quickly from Franklin’s list.
Then there was Missouri.
“One of the biggest things about the school was that they recruited me as a quarterback,” Franklin says. “A lot of schools weren’t recruiting me for that position.”
It makes sense that the Tigers would see what others couldn’t, since over the past 13 years, they have produced some of the most successful college passers in the nation. Since Gary Pinkel took over after the 2000 season, Mizzou has become a quarterback factory of sorts, boasting a series of prolific passers, each of whom has moved on to play in the NFL. It began with Brad Smith and continued with Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Franklin. In 2014, Maty Mauk will likely take over, based on his strong relief work last year when Franklin was injured. The quartet sits atop the school’s career total offense list, and each is among the top five in passing yardage. The Tigers haven’t yet reached the same level as BYU did from 1973-99 — when it cranked out the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer — but they are on quite a run.
Pinkel and his staff look for the usual things when assessing a quarterback prospect. Arm strength, accuracy and superior athletic ability are vital. But Pinkel has a more nebulous characteristic in mind when he focuses on someone who could run his offense some day.
“For me, I have to get a good feeling that the quarterback has the ‘It’ factor, that this guy is special and is a great competitor,” Pinkel says. “We look for mentally and physically tough kids who are tenacious competitors.”
Pinkel’s quarterback lineage goes back well before his time at Missouri. While an assistant to his college coach, Don James, at Washington from 1979-90, Pinkel helped develop Husky standouts Steve Pelluer, Chris Chandler and Cary Conklin, all of whom spent at least five years in the NFL. “And every one of our quarterbacks at Toledo was all-conference,” he says.
When Pinkel left Toledo in November 2000 to take the job in Columbia, he was recruiting Smith, a dual-threat passer from Youngstown, Ohio, whom he convinced to follow him to Missouri. Okay, so David Yost really sold Smith on becoming a Tiger. No story about the Mizzou quarterback lineage can be told without Yost, who is now an inside receivers coach at Washington State. The shaggy-haired offensive savant created schemes that fit his team’s talent and pressured defenses from a variety of formations and strategic approaches. Pinkel delegated a lot of day-to-day control to his assistants, and Yost used that authority to build an attack that showcased the Missouri passers.
“David Yost was the biggest part of it,” Smith says. “I was with him every day, installing the offense and working on fundamentals and techniques. Coach Yost molded guys. He was passionate and spent countless hours on the offense to find ways to help players get better. He was very smart, and guys respected him.”
The excitement began almost immediately. In 2002, his redshirt freshman season, Smith became the second player in Division I-A history to throw for 2,000 yards (2,333) and run for 1,000 (1,029), a performance he would repeat in 2005 (2,304/1,301).
Pinkel’s first few seasons featured a more conventional attack, but by the time Smith was a senior, Yost had spread things out, put the QB in the shotgun and reaped the benefits. Mizzou went 7–5 and topped South Carolina in the Independence Bowl. Missouri won at least eight games in each of its next six seasons — the longest such streak in program history — and hit double figures in wins three times.
“It’s a really good offense,” Smith says. “It forces the defense to do more of what you want it to do.”
Daniel was next in line, and he didn’t have the running ability Smith did, gaining fewer yards on the ground in his career (970) than Smith did in three of his four seasons as a starter. But Daniel could sling it. He topped 4,300 yards through the air twice and helped the Tigers to a pair of Big 12 North championships. Daniel thrived in the wide-open system that took advantage of his ability to make quick decisions and deliver the ball on time.
“The mental side of the game is so difficult, and exciting,” Pinkel says. “Understanding the complexities of the defense requires constant training.”
Gabbert followed by throwing for at least 3,000 yards during both of his seasons as a starter. Then, it was Franklin’s turn. During his four campaigns — three as a starter — he completed 62.1 percent of his throws and finished third on the school’s all-time yardage list. “I felt really good as a senior, and I knew the offense really well,” Franklin says. “I understood it.”
Next up is Mauk, an aggressive bomber with a strong arm and little fear. It’s a good bet he’ll be the next Missouri quarterbacking standout and help fuel the brand that Pinkel now sells. Different schools have been known for developing successful players at various positions, and as Mizzou continues to be what Pinkel calls “a destination job,” he and his staff will herald their ability to produce outstanding passers.
“There is no question we sell it,” Pinkel says. “We evaluate well, and we do an excellent job of player development. Everybody does it, but we do it better than most.”
James Franklin can attest to that.
Maty Mauk: Next In Line as Missouri’s Next Standout QB
When Missouri starting quarterback James Franklin suffered a shoulder separation against Georgia last October, Tiger fans had to wonder whether Maty Mauk was going to handle the assignment of stepping in.
Earlier in the year, the redshirt freshman had been sacked twice in the Tigers’ win over Toledo and admittedly “wasn’t being me.” So, Mauk stopped “stressing” himself and pretended he was in high school all over again, when it was five wide and let it fly.
The results were encouraging. Mauk helped the Tigers extend their 28–26 fourth-quarter lead to a 41–26 triumph over the seventh-ranked Bulldogs. “It felt like high school again,” Mauk says. “After that, it was amazing how much the game slowed down.”
Mauk started the next four contests for Mizzou and posted a 3–1 record that included a tough overtime loss to South Carolina. Though his completion percentage (51.1) didn’t sparkle, he demonstrated the ability to get the ball downfield and played with a fearlessness not usually associated with a first-time starter.
“He really likes to make plays and sling the ball around,” Franklin says. “Even if he makes a mistake, he’ll come back and take a chance the next time. He’s not afraid.”
The Kenton, Ohio, native chose Missouri because of the family atmosphere he experienced on his visit. “Coach (Gary) Pinkel is like a second dad,” he says. His brother, Ben, was a quarterback at Wake Forest and Cincinnati, so Mauk has a good pedigree. Now, it’s about becoming a full-time starter at a school where quarterbacks are expected to stand out.
“I’m a playmaker,” Mauk says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
So this is a sobering reminder from West Virginia’s coach about last season. “We did not play winning offense,” Dana Holgorsen says.
This would be a fairly innocuous comment for most coaches coming off a 4–8 season, but we’re talking about Holgorsen, whose offensive prowess was supposed to ease WVU’s Big 12 transition — not derail it.
From 2007-12, Holgorsen’s offenses at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia ranked in the top 13 nationally in scoring — and three times in the top three. Last year, however, an combination of inexperience and uninspired quarterback play led to a national ranking of 79th.
Holgorsen isn’t about to change his coaching style. He still knows the intricacies of the Air Raid better than most. But last year proved that you can’t simply plug in any quarterback and expect to post gaudy offensive numbers. And if you don’t have elite skill players, you better have solid depth throughout your roster — something the Mountaineers are lacking.
“There aren’t many Geno Smith- or Tavon Austin-type bodies running around right now,” Holgorsen says, referring to his former All-America quarterback and wide receiver, respectively. “We have to win as a team. We’ve got to win with good depth. I think we’re at that point right now.”
The same factors that held the Mountaineers back — they have lost 14 of their last 20 games since that resounding 5–0 start to 2012 — can actually set them free.
Cluster at QB
West Virginia played three quarterbacks last year, which tells you everything you need to know about 2013 in Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s offense is about timing, rhythm and a deep understanding of the system, and West Virginia simply didn’t have that luxury last year. Clint Trickett, a transfer from Florida State and son of Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett, didn’t arrive on campus until the summer and battled injuries during the season. Ford Childress wasn’t ready, as evidenced by his suspension and subsequent transfer to a junior college. Paul Millard is considered the proverbial “program guy” — good for the locker room, serviceable player, but not a long-term answer.
Two signees, junior college transfer Skyler Howard (expected to redshirt) and incoming freshman William Crest, will have the opportunity to compete for the job, but both likely will need time. This year’s show belongs to Trickett, who missed spring workouts because of shoulder surgery.
Looking back, Holgorsen wasn’t too upset with the offense’s overall production; after all, the Mountaineers averaged more than 400 yards per game. What drew Holgorsen’s ire were the turnovers (ninth-worst in the Big 12), third-down conversions (eighth) and red-zone production (ninth).
That, friends, is how you lose to Kansas in November.
“Things get hard on third down when you’re in the red zone,” Holgorsen says. “We need to handle that better.”
Trickett fits the coach’s-son mold Holgorsen likes and, given a full offseason to absorb the plays, should improve. His 88-of-149 performance for 1,104 yards over his last four full games isn’t stellar but is something to work with. “I’m really confident he’ll be able to play better,” Holgorsen says.
West Virginia seemed the ideal candidate to handle the demands of the upgrade to the Big 12. The Mountaineers won (or shared) six conference titles from 2003-11 in the Big East, and they did so with high-powered offenses — the specialty of the Big 12.
As Holgorsen sees it, the biggest issue in West Virginia’s transition has been a lack of depth. In 2011, Holgorsen’s first year, he carried 65 scholarship players — “borderline I-AA numbers,” he says. Initially, that wasn’t a huge issue, because play counts in the Big East ran in the low 60s. The Big 12, however, averages in the high 70s.
Holgorsen has since beefed up his roster, signing a combined 59 players from 2012-13, but WVU’s still not at 85 scholarship players.
The coach has a friend who can relate.
“(TCU’s) Gary Patterson and I have talked about that,” Holgorsen says. “You need to be able to play 50 or 60 bodies consistently.”
The Horned Frogs, who joined the Big 12 in 2012, also went 4–8 last season, losing four games by three points or less. Patterson, however, will get more of a pass because he has five conference titles on his résumé. Despite his Orange Bowl victory in his debut 2011 season, Holgorsen doesn’t have the same clout yet.
That can change if his players grow up in a hurry.
WVU’s 2013 recruiting class featured three junior college skill players — running back Dreamius Smith and receivers Mario Alford and Kevin White — who are talented but inconsistent. No Mountaineer receiver broke 600 yards last year. Expect White to make a jump.
Losing do-everything back Charles Sims is costly, but high-profile transfer Rushel Shell, who recorded 641 yards as a freshman at Pittsburgh two years ago, garnered buzz in the spring.
And there is hope that the much-maligned defense, which has ranked no higher than eighth in the league in WVU’s two seasons in the Big 12, might actually be a relative strength this fall. The Mountaineers return seven defensive starters and could be especially salty in the secondary.
On an Island
If Holgorsen gets enough time, West Virginia might have a stout roster by 2015. The Mountaineers polished off a top-40 recruiting class in February and are off to a very strong start with the 2015 class. Heading into late June, WVU was ranked in the top 20 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, headlined by five players from South Florida.
West Virginia has done well for years recruiting South Florida, and that shows no signs of slowing down. This summer, Holgorsen hired Damon Cogdell away from Miramar High, the school that produced recent Mountaineer stars Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey.
This is a reminder that no school from a power conference faces a more unique recruiting setup than West Virginia. The other nine Big 12 teams are relatively close to the conference hub in Dallas. West Virginia is a 19-hour drive from the Metroplex, with no travel partner.
The Mountaineers are building a roster with players from everywhere but Texas or West Virginia. The school signed players from 12 different states last year — with only one from West Virginia and one from Texas.
Holgorsen sees his outlier status as an advantage.
“We’re not competing with the guys we’re playing,” Holgorsen says.
“Our recruiting battles happen with Florida schools, the East Coast. It’s obviously tough to beat Ohio State on Ohio kids, but we get into Ohio. A lot of good football players there and in Pennsylvania. We get into New Jersey. Maryland.”
The bottom line, of course, is winning. Holgorsen can sell the ‘Big 12 East’ to players who might not otherwise be exposed to the conference, but these players must be able to compete in the Big 12. And Holgorsen must prove he is up to the task of serving as the CEO of a major-conference program. Making the move from respected coordinator to head coach isn’t always smooth.
The jury is still out on Holgorsen, who is 21–17 overall and 11–14 in league play in three seasons — and that includes the 10–3 mark in a first year highlighted by a 70–33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers have had three losing streaks of at least three games in the past two seasons. And last November, West Virginia capped its season with consecutive losses to Kansas and Iowa State.
That is not what West Virginia had in mind when it joined the Big 12 — or when it tabbed Holgorsen to lead its program into a new era.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
The prevailing nation, especially in certain segments of the country, is that the College Football Playoff will give the SEC yet another chance to flex its muscles.
The SEC may be the best-positioned league to send two (or more) teams to the Playoff, and the grind of the regular season will have that team best prepared to advance. Both may be true. Indeed, the SEC is not short on teams that could finish in the top four if things break right.
But the SEC also might not be alone. The Pac-12 has gained ground in recent seasons on the SEC with Oregon and Stanford holding their own on the national stage. With USC, UCLA and Washington ascending, could this be the season the Pac-12 takes over as the nation’s top conference?
We say not so fast. The SEC remains the to league in the land, but the Pac-12 will have the edge in quarterback play. That’s no small bit of information, but we’ll stick with the SEC for now.
The SEC’s run of seven consecutive national championships ended, but the league is well positioned for success in the College Football Playoff era. We’ve picked Florida State at No. 1 overall, and have only one SEC team projected for the semifinals (No. 2 Alabama), but Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina also are in our top 10. If the league doesn’t send two teams to the Playoff, expect the New Year’s Day bowls to be filled with SEC representatives. The quarterback play in the league will drop off with Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray gone, but the SEC is still loaded with elite talent on defense and innovative offensive coaching minds. If LSU and Florida can field credible offenses and Ole Miss continues its ascent, the SEC will have a deep bench of teams with top-10 potential.
Oregon and Stanford have captured the last five league titles and will continue to be in contention for Playoff spots, but other Pac-12 teams are on the doorstep of national relevance. UCLA won 10 games and finished a season ranked for the first time since 2005, and Washington has the foundation to start challenging for the crown in the North. USC and Washington hired new coaches, both of whom could be upgrades. This could be the nation’s top quarterback conference with Brett Hundley at UCLA, Marcus Mariota at Oregon, Taylor Kelly at Arizona State, Sean Mannion at Oregon State and Connor Halliday at Washington State.
3. Big Ten
Favorite: Ohio State
The Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers this season and ditches the Legends and Leaders divisions for the more conventional East/West designations. The power of the league appears to be in the East, where the conference’s defending division champions (Michigan State and Ohio State) and the league’s top quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Christian Hackenberg) play. If Michigan can improve its consistency on offense, the East will be even more of a gauntlet. Wisconsin is the favorite in the West despite having only eight returning starters. Like Michigan, Nebraska is still fighting to regain its stature as a national power.
4. Big 12
The league enjoyed tremendous balance a year ago with three teams in conference title contention going into the final week of the season. After Oklahoma and Baylor, no other Big 12 team has the look of a top-10 squad in the preseason. Kansas State continues to overachieve, and now Bill Snyder knows who his quarterback will be to start the season. Oklahoma State has weathered personnel losses before, but Mike Gundy will be put to the test with a rebuilding defense. Texas, though, is the mystery team in the league in the first season under Charlie Strong.
Favorite: Florida State
With Jameis Winston and 12 other starters returning, Florida State has a chance to repeat as national champion. One thing is certain in the ACC: No team in a major conference is a more prohibitive favorite in its league than FSU. In the Atlantic, Clemson is rebuilding without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and newcomer Louisville enters the league with a new coach, Bobby Petrino, and new quarterback, Will Gardner. The Coastal is a mystery. Four teams — Duke, Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech — finished within a game of first place last season, and the same thing could happen again this year.
UCF’s Blake Bortles is gone to the NFL, and Louisville is gone to the ACC. To replace Louisville, the American adds East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa this season. The lineup changes in the Big East/American have all but ended its status as a major conference. Instead of fighting for an automatic BCS bid, teams like Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF will compete with the champions from Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt for a single spot in the premier New Year’s bowl games. In a scheduling quirk, two of the top three teams in the league, Cincinnati and UCF, won’t face each other.
7. Mountain West
Favorite: Boise State
The Mountain West will be in a state of transition at the top. Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State assistant, will attempt to keep the Broncos rolling in the post-Chris Petersen era. Fresno State also moves on without quarterback Derek Carr. Several programs are on the rise, including Colorado State, Nevada and Wyoming, but the team to watch may be Utah State following the return of a healthy Chuckie Keeton at quarterback.
Favorite: Bowling Green
Bowling Green was the only MAC team in the top 30 nationally in total offense and total defense and will be the league favorite under first-year coach Dino Babers. Toledo, Northern Illinois and Ball State are in our top 80, but Ohio and Akron, led by veteran coaches Frank Solich and Terry Bowden, respectively, can’t be counted out.
9. Conference USA
Realignment has decimated Conference USA, but this year the league might get the last laugh if Marshall can snag a New Year’s Day bowl. The Thundering Herd run one of the fastest offenses in the country, return a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Rakeem Cato and face a paper-thin schedule. Marshall is ranked 40th in our countdown. No other C-USA program is in the top 80.
10. Sun Belt
Favorite: UL Lafayette
The Sun Belt welcomes back two teams from the defunct WAC (Idaho and New Mexico State) and invites two FCS powers (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern). As such, the Sun Belt has five of the last seven teams in our rankings. With upstart coach Mark Hudspeth and returning quarterback Terrance Broadway, UL Lafayette will be one of the few teams worth watching from a distance.
The 2014 World Cup has narrowed its field from 32 nations in the Group Stage down to the 16 teams that advanced to the single-elimination Knockout Stage, which kicks off Saturday, June 28. But before we move on with the tournament, let's take a quick look back at the insanity that took place in Brazil over the past couple of weeks. These are a few of the highlights and lowlights from the 2014 World Cup Group Stage:
First goal of 2014 World Cup is Marcelo own goal
Oops. The host nation scored its first-ever World Cup own goal in the opener against Croatia, as Brazil's talented left back Marcelo accidentally scored on his own side for the first goal of the 2014 World Cup.
Clint Dempsey’s first-minute goal vs. Ghana
A good omen to start the party for the USMNT. America's best and brightest player sent shockwaves back home with an electric goal to start what has been a fun, albeit unexpected, run through the Group of Death and the Group Stage on to the Knockout Stage.
Lionel Messi’s 90th-minute goal to beat Iran
The beautiful game's most beautiful player was able to bend a beautiful ball for a last-minute match-winning goal. Messi has four goals, tied with Brazil's Neymar and Germany's Thomas Muller for most in the Group Stage.
Robin van Persie’s diving rainbow header vs. Spain
It would have taken devine intervention for "Saint Iker" Casillas to stop this incredible first-touch diving rainbow header from van Persie in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup finals between Spain and the Netherlands.
Guillermo Ochoa’s clean sheet in draw vs. Brazil
Mexico beat a Neymar-led Brazil squad in the Olympic gold medal match in London two years ago. But a 0-0 draw in the Group Stage of the World Cup may have been even sweeter. Ochoa had six ridiculous saves in easily the best display of goaltending thus far.
Luis Suarez biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini
Third time is a charm — unless you're biting opponents on the pitch, Suarez-style. After battling back from injury and scoring two goals, Suarez really left his mark on the World Cup with another ugly incident for the Uraguay villain.
Teddy Goalsevelt and Will Ferrell firing up fans
If a pair of former U.S. President impressionists can't get you fired up, then you're not a red-white-and-blue-blooded 'Merican.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s “please excuse” form letter
Coach Klinsmann had a plan. It didn't include Landon Donovan, but it did include advancing to the Round of 16 in style — with an excused absense from work, thanks to the boss of the USMNT.
Cristiano Ronaldo both villain and hero for USA
The world's richest, prettiest and floppiest striker may not have been in tip-top shape but he made the most of what gas he had in the tank — ripping the collective hearts out of the USA with an assist on a stopage-time equalizer one game before scoring the winning goal against Ghana, which resulted in the USA advancing to the Knockout Stage.
Spain, Italy, England, Portugal failing to advance
Europe's traditional powers couldn't take the sweltering Amazonian heat of the World Cup in Brazil. The quartet comprised of a billion dollars worth of club talent was unable to produce for country on the sport's biggest stage.
ESPN camera crews’ ability to find hot fans in crowd
Uncanny. The Worldwide Leader had a sixth sense for finding a diamond in the rough, no matter how rough-looking the crowd might appear to be from the untrained eye. Expect more knockouts in the Knockout Stage. It is Brazil, after all.
As soon as Commissioner Adam Silver tipped off the 2014 NBA Draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the hilarity was on a fast-break pace. ESPN’s crew was highlighted by pro’s pro Reece Davis, length-loving Jay Bilas and the hot-and-heavy bromance of Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons at the big desk, while globetrotting European expatriate Fran Fraschilla told tales of scouting the south of France and motorcycle wreck Jay Williams wiped out during every post-draft interview. These are just a few highlights from the telecast.
Andrew Wiggins’ Three Amigos fashion sense
The No. 1 overall pick of the Cavaliers is the second consecutive Canadian drafted with the top spot, following the Anthony Bennett shocker last year. There have now been three Canadians drafted in the top-5 all-time, with all three picked by the Cavs. And after seeing what the wide-smiling Wiggins was wearing on draft night, Cleveland’s Canadian trio of Wiggins, Bennett and Tristan Thompson might as well be called the “Three Amigos” — if Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short don’t mind, that is.
Joel Embiid’s ESPN reaction to getting drafted
It’s been a rough few weeks for the 7-foot, 20-year-old Embiid. First it was a stress fracture in his back. Then it was a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot. Finally he was stung by the tape-delay bug, sitting with a blank look on his face after being drafted No. 3 overall by the 76ers. ESPN’s cameras zoomed in for an awkward few seconds of instant-classic draft footage.
Dante Exum’s Foot Locker and Adidas commercials
The 18-year-old Australian combo guard went No. 5 overall to the Utah Jazz, but his real highlight reel was during commercial breaks during the draft. Exum — whose father, Cecil, was a teammate of Michael Jordan and James Worthy on North Carolina’s 1982 national title team — played up his “international man of mystery” status and stateside anonymity in a series of ads for Foot Locker and Adidas. Whether he was mistaking bills for fan mail, practicing his autograph or wanting to avoid the paparazzi, Exum stole the show within the show.
Toronto drafting “Brazilian Kevin Durant” Bruno Caboclo
By far the craziest pick of the draft came when the Raptors took the 6’9”, 18-year-old Caboclo with the No. 20 overall pick in the first round. Frascilla declared the so-called “Brazilian Kevin Durant” as “two years away from being two years away.” Bilas seemed to think Toronto may have had more success making “Bruno Mars” the first “Bruno” selected in draft history. While the Raptors are hoping they’ve landed the next “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, the rest of the hoops-watching world is laughing.
Bill Simmons’ reaction to Heat getting Shabazz Napier
The Sports Guy loved the Celtics’ picks of Marcus Smart (pronounced Maaaacus Smaaaat from now on) and James Young — who prompted a fist pump from Simmons and marked the official end of the Kentucky basketball season, according to John Calipari — at Nos. 6 and 17, respectively. But Simmons is sick of teams “helping the Heat,” which is what he thought went down when the Bobcats traded LeBron James’ favorite player in the draft, two-time UConn champ Shabazz Napier, to two-time champ Miami.
Adam Silver and the NBA “drafting” Isaiah Austin
On a much more serious note, Silver continued to show a Midas touch when dealing with delicate matters. A 7-footer out of Baylor, Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome — a connective tissue disorder that can affect the heart, lungs, eyes and spinal cord — during pre-draft medical evaluations. As a result, Austin’s basketball career was effectively ended. But at the halfway point of the draft, Silver called Austin on stage as a draft pick of the NBA. It was a poignant moment of genuine emotion that even a smug Internet troll draft critic could respect and appreciate. Well played, sir.
The offseason is an ideal time to unveil any new uniforms, helmets or logos for college football teams.
Ball State is the latest to showcase a new look for 2014, as the Cardinals unveiled on Friday a black helmet to go with their black jersey.
Here’s a look at the helmet, along with the full black uniform.
We don't wear all black for "black out" games. We wear all black because it's another game for us to SHINE!! 1T1M pic.twitter.com/oxtW45iEiF— Daryl Dixon (@CoachDDixon) June 27, 2014
Out early for Ball State football breaking out these beauties. Video to come pic.twitter.com/ZgkP6NGuDK— Ben Breiner (@BenBreinerTSP) June 27, 2014
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 27:
• The Golf Channel learned long ago what drives viewership, as this slideshow reveals.
• Bill Simmons let his Celtic flag fly during the draft last night. He also expressed via an eyeroll his disdain over the Hornets helping the Heat. Sports Guy was GIF gold last night.
• Ranking World Cup floppers. Dwyane Wade got nothing on the boys from Brazil.
• Shia LeBeouf behaved like a crazy person last night. In other news, water is wet.
• Scary Wimbledon GIF: Novak Djokovic fell on his shoulder and screamed in pain. He finished the match, though.
• A lady attacked a 2,800-calorie Beltre Burger at a Rangers game. This lady is my new hero.
• Vin Scully told a story about bird poop as only Vin Scully can.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
College football’s 2014 season is still a few months away, but kickoff is fast approaching in late August. Now that the preseason magazines are on newsstands, it’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming season.
The unpredictable nature of college football is challenging for any preseason prognostication. However, that’s also what makes this sport unique.
As fall practice approaches, Athlon will be identifying some of the key players on the rise or on the verge of a breakout season.
The list of defenders on the rise could span all 10 conferences and include plenty of players from the Independent ranks, but we had to limit the list to 20 and a few others to watch.
Players like Mississippi State’s Chris Jones and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche were big-time recruits, so it’s no surprise they made this list. However, names like West Virginia’s Daryl Worley and Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas are probably not as well-known from across the nation.
20 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2014
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Had Alexander not suffered a groin injury in fall camp, it’s likely he would have played a major role in Clemson’s secondary last season. Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was widely considered one of the nation’s top freshmen on the defensive side. Although the groin injury prevented Alexander from getting involved last year, it allowed him extra time to learn the defense. The redshirt freshman is slated to crack the starting lineup for the opener against Georgia.
DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
New coordinator Don Pellum must replace two starters up front, but Buckner and junior tackle Arik Armstead are a solid duo to build around in 2014. Buckner played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2012 and recorded 29 tackles. He took a step forward in his development last year by playing in all 13 games and recording 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The Hawaii native shined in the spring game, forcing a fumble and recording a sack. One of Pellum’s priorities for 2014 is to find a way to slow down opposing rushing attacks after the Ducks allowed 175.9 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play last year. At 286 pounds, Buckner’s size and ability should help Oregon win its share of battles at the point of attack.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
In an offensive-minded conference like the Pac-12, you can never have enough elite defensive backs. USC already has one of the top cornerbacks in the conference in Josh Shaw, and it’s clear Cravens is poised to contend for All-America honors this year. The California native was the No. 5 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in the 2013 signing class and recorded 52 stops and four interceptions. New coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward helped to develop standouts at Washington like Desmond Trufant, Marcus Peters and Sean Parker. Expect both coaches to help Cravens reach his potential – which could be in 2014.
Durell Eskridge, S, Syracuse
Syracuse fans are certainly aware of Eskridge’s potential after he nearly declared for the draft following the 2013 season. However, it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Eskridge led the team with 78 tackles and intercepted four passes last year. The Florida native also forced a fumble and was selected as a third-team All-ACC safety. The ACC has several all-conference contenders returning at defensive back, but Eskridge should be a lock for first- or second-team honors at the end of 2014.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt isn’t inheriting the same amount of proven talent as he did at Florida State in 2013, but the Bulldogs certainly aren’t hurting for defensive standouts. Pruitt’s experience at Alabama suggests he will implement a similar blueprint in Athens, especially once he has time to recruit. Floyd started eight games as a true freshman in 2013, recording 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Georgia native also earned SEC All-Freshman honors. Floyd and Jordan Jenkins form a dynamic pair of pass-rushers off the edge, which should help Georgia cover for some of its concerns in the secondary. Expect Floyd to push for 10 sacks in Pruitt’s 3-4 approach.
Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Even though Missouri loses Michael Sam and Kony Ealy at defensive end, there’s not much concern in Columbia about the pass rush. Coordinator Dave Steckel has an intriguing group of options remaining, with Golden expected to make the jump to all-conference contention. In 14 games last season, Golden recorded 55 tackles (13 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. Transitioning from a part-time position into a starter’s role with increased snaps, while maintaining (and increasing) his production will be a challenge for Golden. Line coach Craig Kuligowski’s has developed several standouts in his career at Missouri, and Golden is already on the radar as a potential first-round pick in the 2015 draft.
Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers
It’s a bit of a cliché, but to win in the Big Ten, you have to be solid on both lines of scrimmage. With the Big Ten brand to sell, it should help Rutgers on the recruiting trail, allowing the Scarlet Knights to add more talent to the trenches. While Rutgers may not match Ohio State or Michigan State’s defensive line, the cupboard isn’t bare for new coordinator Joe Rossi. Hamilton started 12 games in 2013 and recorded 48 tackles (11.5 tackles for a loss) and 4.5 sacks. His presence on the interior was also a key reason why Rutgers held opponents to just 3.3 yards per rush in American Athletic Conference games last year. The New Jersey native took a step forward in his development last season and should push for all-conference honors in 2014.
Alec James, DE, Wisconsin
The front seven of the Badgers’ defense is in need of a major overhaul with just three starters returning. Replacing key players like linebacker Chris Borland won’t be easy, but coordinator Dave Aranda and coach Gary Andersen should have this defense performing at a high level by midseason. James is expected to be a key cog in the rebuilding effort in Madison, as the Wisconsin native will slide from linebacker to defensive end to provide a speed rusher off the edge. James redshirted in his first season on campus and will be tested right away with a matchup against LSU in the opener.
Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
Jones was a key pick up on the recruiting trail for coach Dan Mullen, ranking as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100. And the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman, recording 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. Jones was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones is expected to push for All-America honors.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
South Carolina coordinator Lorenzo Ward is tinkering with his defense with the departures of linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. The Gamecocks may use more 3-4 alignments to compensate for the losses in the trenches, especially with rising stars like Moore ready to step up in 2014. The Florida native made an instant impact as a true freshman last year, recording 56 tackles in 13 games. Moore started only four games but is expected to play in a full-time role in 2014.
Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
In a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, the one constant among the contenders is Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies have finished first or second in scoring defense (conference-only games) in the ACC for six consecutive seasons. With one of the conference’s top defensive backfields and lines in 2014, expect much of the same from the Hokies. Nicolas appears to be the next star on the front line for Virginia Tech, recording 32 tackles and four sacks in 13 games last year. The Florida native should easily shatter those totals in a full-time role in 2014.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche in this space. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
Running back Alex Collins garnered most of the freshman headlines in Fayetteville last season, but Philon quietly turned in an impressive campaign. The Alabama native appeared in all 12 games and finished with 46 tackles and three sacks. Nine of Philon’s tackles went for a loss. After starting the final five games of 2013 and earning SEC All-Freshman honors, Philon is poised to challenge for all-conference honors. The 283-pound defensive tackle can only get better with more snaps, but he has the talent to be a disruption in the backfield for new coordinator Robb Smith.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
Since 2010, six LSU defensive backs have been selected in the NFL Draft. The Tigers should have no trouble adding to that total in recent years, as cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Robinson are future stars in Baton Rouge. White was named to Athlon’s preseason first-team All-SEC squad for 2014, while Robinson earned second-team honors. Robinson played in 12 contests last year, with both of his starts coming late in the season. He was instrumental in containing Texas A&M’s offense to just 10 points in late November and finished 2013 with 16 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups. After a NCAA clearinghouse issue delayed his arrival in Baton Rouge, Robinson will benefit from a full offseason to work under defensive backs coach Corey Raymond.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
Sanchez was thrown into fire as a redshirt freshman and started all 13 games for Bob Stoops. The Texas native recorded 46 tackles, picked off two interceptions and tied for third in the Big 12 with 15 passes defended. With Aaron Colvin expiring his eligibility, Sanchez will assume the role as Oklahoma’s No. 1 cornerback. And as last year showed, Sanchez is ready for that assignment.
Vince Taylor, NG, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason plans on shifting Vanderbilt’s defense to a 3-4 look. Transitioning from the 4-3 to a 3-4 can be challenging, but the Commodores have the personnel to make a successful (and swift) switch. As with any 3-4 scheme, there’s extra attention placed on the nose guard as the key cog on the interior. Taylor appears to be a perfect fit at nose guard, as his 6-foot-2 and 310-pound frame can handle the interior. The Mississippi native has just 44 tackles in his career and one fumble recovery. Don’t expect Taylor to impress on the stat sheet, but the senior should be a force in the middle for Mason’s defense.
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett will be missed, but there’s optimism in Fort Worth that TCU’s secondary is still the best in the Big 12. The safety spots are in good hands with Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and cornerback Kevin White is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014. Texada was a spring standout for the Horned Frogs after redshirting in 2013, and the Texas native should team with White to help the defense ease the loss of Verrett.
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
The Seminoles have to retool at linebacker with the departures of Christian Jones and Telvin Smith. New coordinator Charles Kelly isn’t inheriting a bare cupboard, as Terrance Smith should push for All-ACC honors, and there’s plenty of talent waiting to emerge. Thomas played in four games last season but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. In limited action in 2013, Thomas recorded two tackles for a loss and a sack. At 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds, the Miami native has the size to stop the run, while possessing the speed and explosiveness to get to the quarterback off the edge.
Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line will have three new starters in 2014, but the rebuilding effort is made easier with the return of end Randy Gregory and the emergence of Valentine, Maliek Collins and Aaron Curry at tackle. Valentine played in all 13 games in 2013 and recorded 21 stops (five for a loss) and one sack. The Illinois native had a breakout performance against Iowa in the regular season finale, recording five tackles and a sack. If Valentine picks up where he left off against the Hawkeyes, combined with Gregory’s continued dominance at end, Nebraska’s defensive line should emerge as one of the best in the Big Ten.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
With an unsettled quarterback situation, the Mountaineers need to rely on their rushing attack and defense – at least early on – to help West Virginia return to a bowl. New coordinator Tony Gibson has not called the plays for a defense since 2000 at West Virginia Tech, but he will have help from veteran assistant Tom Bradley. Gibson and Bradley have pieces to work with, including six returning starters and an intriguing FCS transfer in Shaquille Riddick from Gardner-Webb to help the pass rush. But the player generating the most buzz this offseason might be Worley. The 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and made 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. With another year to progress, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Other Players to Watch
T.T. Barber, LB, MTSU
Barber earned first-team All-Conference USA honors after recording 119 tackles and three sacks last year. The junior is already on the radar for NFL scouts and should be one of the top defenders from outside the five power conferences in 2014.
Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State
Sun Devils were hit hard by departures on defense with just two returning starters. Fiso is one of the few returning commodities for coordinator Keith Patterson after ranking third on the team with 71 stops as a freshman.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Rated as one of the top defenders in the 2013 signing class, Foster appeared in nine games and recorded 12 tackles. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, Foster is expected to push for a starting job.
Jacoby Glenn, CB, UCF
UCF won’t have Blake Bortles to lean on in 2014, but the Knights should still be in the mix to win the American Athletic Conference. Look for the defense to take a step forward, and Glenn is an emerging star in the secondary. As a redshirt freshman, he earned American Athletic Conference first-team honors in 2013.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Lawson played in 14 games as a true freshman and recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks. He is expected to be a key piece in Auburn’s defensive front but recently underwent offseason knee surgery.
Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
Melifonwu started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season and finished with 70 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He should be one of the key pieces in new coach Bob Diaco’s rebuilding effort at UConn in 2014.
Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State
Justin Gilbert was selected by the Browns in the first round of the draft, but the Cowboys still have talent at cornerback with Peterson and Ashton Lampkin returning. Peterson recorded two picks and four pass breakups last year. He is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Max Redfield, S, Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish already received a huge impact from one of their top freshmen in last year’s class (Jaylon Smith), and Redfield – a top-100 recruit – is poised to take on a bigger role. The California native played in 12 games (one start) and recorded nine tackles. Redfield is expected to start in 2014.
Reggie Spearman, LB, Iowa
The Hawkeyes must replace three starters at linebacker, including standout James Morris. Spearman was just one of four Iowa true freshmen to play in 2013 and recorded 10 tackles in 10 appearances. The sophomore is expected to start for coordinator Phil Parker.
Ben Weaver, LB, Boise State
Weaver shined in his redshirt freshman campaign by leading the Broncos with 89 stops. The sophomore should be an All-Mountain West performer this year.
It would make for great copy if Bryce Hager, the son of University of Texas’ all-time tackling leader, had spurned earnest pleas from his daddy’s alma mater to be part of the Art Briles Project in Waco and help fuel the Baylor renaissance that has angered all proud Longhorns.
But that wouldn’t be telling the truth.
Fact is, Hager had only one BCS scholarship offer, and it came from the Bears. About three weeks before 2010’s National Signing Day. That made leaving Austin a little easier, and no doubt put him in good company with a lot of other BU players at the time, who had chosen to play for Briles at a school that was in the midst of a 14-year string of losing seasons.
“I met with Coach Briles, and I thought (Baylor) was the right fit for me,” Hager says.
These days, Baylor isn’t just a match for players with limited options; it’s a destination for some of the state’s best. Briles has turned the Bears from a Texas-sized ragdoll into one of the hottest programs in the country. BU is not merely winning, but it is doing so with a kind of flash that has 18-year-olds around the country paying close attention. The Bears are fashion plates. Their offense is electrifying. And this season, they’ll move into a new 45,000-seat on-campus stadium. The momentum is building at a place that was once thought to be immune to excitement.
“Coach Briles told me, ‘We have a plan, and we want you to be part of the plan,’” Hager says.
Many coaches have plans when they approach significant restoration projects, but only a few are capable of carrying them out. Briles has taken Baylor to four straight bowl games, doubling the longest streak in school history, and he won the 2013 Big 12 title. He has coached a Heisman Trophy winner. And he is now charged with doing something no one thought was possible at Baylor: adjusting to life as a powerhouse.
Imagine that. Instead of suffering from gridiron envy, the Bears are causing other programs to covet their prosperity. That didn’t happen when BU was in the Southwest Conference, and it sure hadn’t been part of its Big 12 narrative.
“People want to have Baylor as an official visit now,” says senior quarterback Bryce Petty, last year’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. “It’s not, ‘I have to go to Baylor.’ It’s, ‘I want to go to Baylor.’”
That change in attitude comes courtesy of Briles, who arrived in Waco after four years at Houston, where he sent footballs flying all over the field. He understood that winning was vital but that doing it in a way that appealed to recruits was also important. His offense certainly did that, and when Robert Griffin III won a Heisman at its helm, high school players noticed. When Baylor started wearing uniforms that took the school’s green-and-gold colors in every direction possible, the program became cool. The Bears aren’t quite at the Jackson Pollock level favored by Oregon, but they have quite a menagerie of modern football costuming.
“When I came in, we didn’t have cool uniforms,” Hager says. “Last year, we were excited to wear the new uniforms with gold helmets and flat black. You want to be looking good.”
It’s all part of the new Baylor brand. More established, tradition-bound programs, like Alabama and Penn State, can outfit players in apparel better suited for the 1960s, because their national profiles are set. Baylor lacks that kind of historical narrative, so it must attract attention in other ways. Scoring lots of points will do it. Fancy threads will, too. Mom and Dad may not like matte black helmets and gold facemasks, but Junior sure does. It’s all part of selling the program.
“In this age, everything is visual,” Briles says. “Very seldom do people lock themselves in a room without a TV or computer. Kids see us, with our stadium and uniforms and style of play, and they like it.
“The team is trending up.”
The most obvious manifestation of Baylor’s new prosperity is $250 million McLane Stadium, which sits on the banks of the Brazos River and replaces the Bears’ old Floyd Casey home, which sat across town from campus. It offers slips for boats to dock before the game, a la Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and Washington’s Husky Stadium, and will lead to increased participation by students, who can now walk to games, and alumni, who will be drawn to campus on Saturdays.
“It integrates football and the campus environment, and that’s something we have never had,” AD Ian McCaw says. “It connects the students and alumni and creates a pageantry around football games that we’ve lacked.”
The uniforms and stadium are all part of the overall presentation. But looking good doesn’t matter at all if a team is losing. One thing Baylor has on its side is the lack of historical perspective present in its target recruiting market. Teenagers have never been great students of past events, but this generation is particularly averse to anything that happened even 10 years ago.
“Tradition starts for these guys at age 15,” Briles says. “When we talk to high school students in the state of Texas about Baylor football, they think it’s the best thing in the world.”
That showed in February, when the Bears amassed a top-30 recruiting class heavy on wideouts and athletes needed to propel Briles’ offense. Granted, it wasn’t Bama’s five-star haul, but it continued the school’s recent upward movement and was a huge improvement from even five years ago, when Baylor struggled to get four-star talents to visit campus.
The influx of talent is vital, because no program can sustain success with B-list players. Briles’ challenge is to take the next step in his strategic plan. He has established the Bears. He has won a title. Now, he has to create something that can win and compete regularly. That’s the tricky part, because at a place like Baylor, a couple shaky seasons can kill any momentum that has been generated.
“That’s why it’s so hard for teams to repeat and stay on top at any level, be it college, the NFL or high school,” Briles says. “Once you hit that mark, everybody wants a piece of you. You have to learn how to practice with a target on your back. That’s what we’re going through as a program and a university. It’s at the forefront of our minds.
“Now, we’ve become the hunted.”
That brings problems. For Baylor football, those are good problems to have.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Things didn't go as planned in Dave Doeren's first season in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack didn't win a game in the ACC and lost four times to programs inside the state of North Carolina (Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and East Carolina). So why would a program that didn't win a game a year ago and essentially finished fifth in the state have so much optimism heading into 2014?
Doeren and his staff are entering their second season, ideally, giving this program much-needed stability from an established business culture standpoint. He has 12 returning starters and a former big-time SEC recruit under center in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Lastly, NC State also has a very manageable slate to navigate this fall.
2014 NC State Schedule Analysis
2014 NCST Schedule
Stack up wins early
For a team that didn’t win a game in ACC play and won just three times all year, NC State should be excited about the start of the 2014 season. Georgia Southern, Old Dominion and Presbyterian have to be wins and all will take place in the first four weeks of the year. The lone non-conference game that could provide some difficulty is South Florida on the road in Week 3. There is a good chance NC State starts the year with four straight wins and should that happen, a bowl game is well within reach.
Within the division, Florida State, Clemson and Louisville seem to be a cut above the rest. NC State will face all three — including both the Tigers and Cardinals on the road — over a four-week span from Sept. 27 to Oct. 18 with a home date with Boston College mixed in. Two wins in that span would be considered a huge success and a 1-3 mark is more likely. However, if things play out the way most expect, the Wolfpack could be sitting at five wins entering the final month of play.
Finish the year strong
It won’t be easy but NC State could enter November needing just one win to reach the postseason. And the schedule in the final month of the year sets up very well to provide that one (or more) much-needed victory to reach bowl eligibility. Road trips to Syracuse and North Carolina won’t be easy but aren’t overly taxing either while home games with Wake Forest and Georgia Tech could also be winnable. This is a very manageable final month that could shake things up in the Atlantic Division.
Related: 2014 NC State Wolfpack Team Preview
NC State is an intriguing team to track this preseason. Doeren is a respected coach and new quarterback Jacoby Brissett should be a major upgrade under center. The schedule is extremely manageable minus a few inevitable divisional battles with traditional powerhouses. If NC State can win the games it is supposed to and can steal a swing game or two (Boston College, Georgia Tech, for example), then the Wolfpack could produce not only a bowl team this fall but also perhaps a winning overall record.