Articles By All

Path: /college-basketball/2014-15-college-basketball-big-tens-top-transfers-and-freshmen
Body:

The top programs in the Big Ten, for the most part, take a more traditional route for building rosters. Sign high school players and develop them into veterans.

Sure, there are outliers. Ohio State pulls five-star recruits as well as any program in the country. Illinois under John Groce has been active in the transfer market.

Even though the standard practice in the Big Ten tends to follow Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan, plenty of new arrivals should make an impact in the league.

In the first of our series breaking down the top newcomers around college basketball, we take a look at the top freshmen, transfers, redshirt freshmen and players returning from injury around the Big Ten.

1. Anthony Lee, Ohio State
Transfer from Temple

The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Lee will give Ohio State a key player in thin frontcourt. He was one of the top rebounders in both the Atlantic 10 and the American as the Owls changed leagues. Lee ranked in the top 200 in offensive and defensive rebound rate last season and ranked 11th nationally in defensive rebound rate two years ago, according to KenPom.com. He also averaged a career-high 13.6 points per game last season.

2. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Freshman

Like his father, James Blackmon Jr. came down to Indiana and Kentucky in recruiting. Unlike his father, the son picked Indiana. Blackmon’s arrival is good for other psychological reasons for IU as the Hoosiers kept another top prospect in-state. Blackmon he’s also a McDonald’s All-American shooting guard who will take some of the pressure off junior point Yogi Ferrell.

3. Kameron Chatman, Michigan
Freshman

Michigan will be a team in need of some new stars in 2014-15. Caris LeVert is the next in line, but Chatman will be an intriguing name to watch. He’s a 6-foot-7, 197-pound who could be one of Michigan’s most versatile players. The Wolverines have an opening at the 4, but Chatman’s also a skilled passer. He'll be small for a power forward, but not to play the position in the Michigan lineup.

4. Mark Donnal, Michigan
Redshirt freshman

Donnal was going to have trouble cracking the lineup last season, so he redshirted. His development on the practice squad puts him in line for a starting role this season. As is typical for a Michigan forward, Donnal can hit the 3 but his post play is in question.

5. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Freshman

Russell didn’t become eligible until late June, but his arrival means Ohio State will have the most highly touted member of its signing class available this season. The McDonald’s All-American is a combo guard who should give the backcourt a much-needed scoring jolt.

6. Leron Black, Illinois
Freshman

Black, a 6-7 forward from Memphis, will give Illinois some much-needed toughness. He’ll be a quality rebounder on a team that already has a top-notch rim protector in Nnanna Egwu.

7. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Freshman

Maryland will need Trimble, a top-40 recruit, to take a bigger role than perhaps anticipated. Trimble may step into the point guard spot vacated by Seth Allen, who transferred to Virginia Tech. Trimble is the Terrapins’ first McDonald’s All-American since 2003.

8. Ahmad Starks, Illinois
Transfer from Oregon State

Illinois was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country last season, hitting only 31.7 percent of shots from long range. The Illini will boost this by adding Starks, who was Oregon State’s most prolific 3-point shooter with 185 in 97 games.

9. Vic Law, Northwestern
Freshman

Law, a 6-6 forward, could be one of the most important recruits Northwestern has signed in a long time. He’s an elite athlete who will give second-year coach Chris Collins a versatile player on both ends of the court.

10. Aaron Cosby, Illinois
Transfer from Seton Hall

Cosby is another key name for the Illinois backcourt, which already includes Rayvonte Rice. Cosby can play both guard spots and averaged 12.6 points and shot 42.6 percent from the field during his final season at Seton Hall.

Teaser:
2014-15 College Basketball: The Big Ten's Top Transfers and Freshmen
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 15:43
All taxonomy terms: Hot Seat, running backs, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/10-nfl-running-backs-hot-seat-2014
Body:

For the second straight year, no running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. And in free agency, no ball-carrier signed for more than $10.5 million with a team. No matter how you look at it, the league’s attitude towards running backs has changed, which puts even more of a premium on production.

 

So when it comes to the running back position, NFL could truly mean “Not For Long,” as there are a number of former high draft picks that face uncertain futures as they enter the final year of their rookie contracts. On the other end of the spectrum, there also are several veteran backs that find themselves on the wrong side of 30 and need to prove they are still capable of getting the job done when the ball is in their hands.

 

Here are 10 running backs that need to make the most of their opportunities in 2014:

 

1. Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts

The third pick of the 2012 draft still has two years left on his rookie contract, but could be running short on opportunities to prove his worth. Already on his second team, Richardson fared even worse after being traded to the Colts (2.9 ypc) than he did with the Browns (3.5 ypc). With Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (ACL) poised to return from injury, Richardson is certainly no lock to assume the starting job, even if the Colts gave up a first-round pick to get him in the first place.

 

2. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

Richardson isn’t the only former All-American running back that played at Alabama struggling in the NFL either. Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, has yet to enjoy anywhere near the same level of success as a pro. Hampered by injuries, which have limited him to 37 games in his first three seasons, Ingram is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry as a Saint with 11 touchdowns. Darren Sproles is now in Philadelphia, but Ingram is still behind Pierre Thomas on the depth chart and could end up being passed by Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent last season, as well. Not exactly an ideal situation for someone who will be a free agent after the season. 

 

3. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

McFadden will turn 27 prior to the start of the season, yet his career is at a crossroads. The fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft, McFadden has shown glimpses of his all-around ability, but injuries and inconsistency have been the hallmarks of his career to this point. A free agent this past offseason, McFadden ended up signing a one-year deal to return to the Raiders, even though the team signed Maurice Jones-Drew (see below). McFadden better make the most of the touches he gets this fall, or else they may end up being the last he sees in the NFL.

 

4. Chris Johnson, New York Jets

The Tennessee Titans released Johnson in April, eating the last year of his contract. A 2,000-yard rusher in 2009, Johnson didn’t sit on the market too long, signing a two-year pact with the Jets. Set to turn 29 in September, Johnson has been consistent (six straight 1,000-yard seasons) and durable (only one missed game) in his six seasons, but he’s also shown signs of slowing down. After averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his magical 2009 campaign, he has seen that steadily decline to just 3.9 last season. Johnson believes he’s still capable of carrying the load, which would certainly help take some of the heat off of both his head coach and his quarterback.

 

5. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots

Following a breakthrough 1,200-yard campaign in 2012, Ridley seemed primed to establish himself as one of the top running backs in the league. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on that success as ball-security issues (four lost fumbles), led to him taking a back seat to LeGarrette Blount, among others. Blount is now in Pittsburgh, but Ridley still has to prove to Bill Belichick that he can take care of the football when it’s in his hands. Not only do the Patriots have other options in the backfield, but Ridley also needs a strong season to help establish his value with free agency on the horizon.

 

6. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos

Ball is in just his second season and is the unquestioned starter in Denver. However, a lot of responsibility comes with that job, especially on a Super Bowl contender like the Broncos. With Knowshon Moreno in Miami, Ball should more than double his carries (120) from last season while also becoming a key part of the passing attack. Besides the production, however, Ball also has to prove that he’s capable of protecting the most important piece to this team – Peyton Manning. That’s especially the case if the Broncos have any hopes of getting another shot at the Lombardi Trophy in February.

 

7. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

Checking in at No. 3 on this same list prior to last season, Mathews answered the bell to the tune of a career-best 1,255 yards rushing. In the playoffs, however, the durability questions arose again when an ankle injury limited his effectiveness in the Divisional Round loss in Denver. A free agent after the season, Mathews is still young enough (27) to cash in. However, it may not be with the Chargers since they signed former Colt Donald Brown to a three-year deal this offseason and just extended Danny Woodhead two more years.

 

8. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Similar to Mathews, Murray also was pretty high on the hot seat list last season. And like Mathews, Murray responded with a Pro Bowl-caliber season that saw him rush for 1,121 yards. Unfortunately, Murray also has his own durability questions, as he has yet to make it through a full season healthy. Another pending free agent, Murray’s future seems a little more secure considering he’s a year younger and the Cowboys don’t really have a better option right now on their roster. Still, Murray could make his agent’s (and his head coach’s) job a lot easier if he’s able to duplicate last season’s success.

 

9. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

If there is anyone who is ready to put 2013 behind them, it’s probably Rice. Besides seeing his production plummet (from 1,143 yards rushing in 2012 to 660), Rice also must still deal with the judicial system (NFL has suspended him for the first two games) when it comes to his indictment on third-degree aggravated assault stemming from a February incident involving his then-fiancée, now wife. With three more years remaining on his contract, the cost (cap hit/dead money) seems too high for the Ravens to simply cut their losses. But there’s no question that Rice needs to be at his best this season – both on the field and off of it.

 

10. Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons

After signing with Atlanta last offseason, Jackson thought he would finally get another shot to play in the postseason, while the Falcons thought they were solving their rushing woes. Unfortunately, neither goal was realized as Jackson rushed for career-worst 543 yards and the Falcons went from the top seed in the NFC playoffs to a 4-12 afterthought. At 31 years old and with more than 2,500 carries on his resume, the Falcons aren’t asking Jackson to be the workhorse he was earlier in his career. However, they do need more than 3.5 yards per attempt and seven total touchdowns they got from Jackson in 2013, especially if Atlanta wants to get back into the playoff discussion this season.

 

Other Names to Watch

(alphabetical order)

 

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

Has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in three straight seasons, but he’s 31 years old and a free agent after this year. The 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round and also have Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore on the roster.

 

Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

Thrived (890 yards rushing, 10 total TDs) in relief of an injured C.J. Spiller last season. Spiller still appears to be a building block for the future, however, as Jackson is 33 years old and a free agent after this season.

 

Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders

The 2011 rushing champion tested the free agent market and ended up signing a three-year deal (just $1.2 million guaranteed) with Oakland. Are MJD’s best days behind him or can he return to Pro Bowl-caliber form?

 

Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers

This duo is part of a crowded backfield and each has already restructured their contract to help secure a roster spot. Still, the Panthers need to find a productive running game to help Cam Newton break in a new receiving corps and stay in contention in what figures to be a competitive NFC South.

 

Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns

After tour of duty as Arian Foster’s backup in Houston, Tate gets his opportunity to carry the load in Cleveland. Contract (two years, only $2.5 million guaranteed) and the presence of rookie Terrance West are two indications that Tate may be on short leash in the Dawg Pound.

Teaser:
10 NFL Running Backs on the Hot Seat in 2014
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-july-23-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 23:

Thanks to Leah Remini, J-Lo posted some nice pics to Instagram.

Jack White did a very credible impersonation of a Cubs fan last night.

LeBron sent cupcakes to his neighbors in Ohio to apologize to the media frenzy. My neighbor leaves me anonymous notes about my dog's barking.

Longform read on the death of playground basketball.

The Wall Street Journal presents a radical reconstruction plan for college football.

Tony Cruz uses McConaughey's chest bump chant from "Wolf of Wall Street" as his walk-up accompaniment.

• The reigning champ of insane ballpark concession fare: The Rays' four-pound burger. By my math, that's equal to 16 McDonald's Quarter Pounders.

The AP Twitter account used some careless wording to cause a minor Twitter freak-out. Related item: Proof that minor typos can change the meaning of things significantly.

Watch a couple of kayakers get lifted up by a whale. Somewhat terrifying.

A Browns fan literally peed on Art Modell's grave.

• Watch Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig videobomb some poor reporter.

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 10:24
Path: /college-football/big-12s-top-10-heisman-candidates-2014
Body:

Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.

 

There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.

 

First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.

 

Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.

 

Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.

 

Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.

 

With this in mind, here are the Big 12’s front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014 (with current Bovada odds):

 

1. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor (12/1)

There is no questioning who is the top Heisman candidate in the Big 12. The guy who scored 46 times and threw just three interceptions while winning his school’s first-ever Big 12 championship is the only place to start. Petty won’t have the same supporting cast this year but Art Briles' system is a proven commodity. If he can do something that’s never been done — Baylor winning at Oklahoma — then his numbers and team success will be enough to get him to New York.

 

2. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma (16/1)

There were two Trevor Knights last year. The guy who played in the Sugar Bowl and the guy who played in every other game for Oklahoma. Knight has big-time, big-play ability and is leading the team who is clearly the front-runner to win the league and possibly land in the inaugural College Football Playoff. If he can stay healthy, he should post big numbers and win almost every game, making him an extremely viable Heisman candidate.

 

3. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech

He only played in 10 games but he finished No. 2 in yards (2,718) and touchdowns (20) as just a freshman in the Big 12 last year. Since every other person on campus who is capable of throwing a football has left Lubbock, Webb is now the star of the Kliff Kingsbury show. Look for massive numbers from the Tech QB and if he can pull a marquee upset (like, say, Texas or Oklahoma at home), Webb could find himself in national awards circles at season’s end.

 

4. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor

The Bears had the Big 12’s leading rusher last year in Lache Seastrunk but also boasted the No. 6 rusher too. Linwood, a freshman last year, rushed for 881 yards and eight TDs on just 128 carries. Imagine what he could do with a year of seasoning and a full workload?

 

5. Jake Waters, QB, Kansas State

Waters really settled into the role of starter in the second half of last season, prompting a switch from Daniel Sams. Waters went 6-1 as a starter while throwing 14 of his 18 touchdowns and only four interceptions over the final seven games. If Kansas State makes a push for a Big 12 title and Waters builds on his quietly impressive 2013 campaign, he could find himself in the national conversation come season’s end.

 

6. Desmond Roland, RB, Oklahoma State

Roland led all Big 12 players with 13 rushing touchdowns last year. It was his first season as the starter for a team that has a track record of producing big numbers in the running game. Look for Roland to take another step this fall, as he will likely will become the focal point of the Pokes' normally very solid offense.

 

7. Antwan Goodley, WR, Baylor

The leading returning receiver in the Big 12 in terms of yards (1,339) and touchdowns (13) is Goodley. Those numbers were among the best in the league last fall and with Petty back and Tevin Reese gone, Goodley could be in for another monster season. Obviously, wideouts have a tough time gaining Heisman notoriety (especially, with a bona fide contender under center as a teammate) but he has the goods to be a national star in Waco.

 

8. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State

One of the most explosive players in the nation returns to Manhattan for another year of long touchdowns and All-American production. He led the league at 105.2 yards per game last year as well as averaging 26.5 yards per kickoff return. He is Waters' favorite target and don’t be surprised if he is incorporated into a more versatile role this fall in an effort to utilize his unique skill set.

 

9. Keith Ford, RB, Oklahoma

The Sooners have had a long tradition of producing elite tailbacks and many in Norman are excited to hand the ball to Ford in a full-time capacity this season. He has the power, explosiveness, quickness and toughness to be a star in this league. He plays for a national front-runner and will have multiple shots in marquee showdowns to prove himself to the national audience. Look for big things from Ford this fall — as long as uber recruit Joe Mixon doesn’t steal too many carries.

 

10. Nick O’Toole’s Mustache

I can't do the West Virginia punter's facial hair justice so I will let the pictures do the talking. I mean, who wouldn't vote for this?

 

Others to consider: Aaron Wimbley, RB, Iowa State; Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas; E.J. Bibbs, TE, Iowa State; Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

 

Five defensive players who should but won’t be in the mix:

 

Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma

The big-play linebacker plays all over the field. He constantly disrupts the opposing backfield and regularly imposes his will with physicality and explosiveness. He should build on his stat line from last year: 50 tackles, 10.6 TFL, 6.5 sacks.

 

Cedric Reed, DE, Texas

He is a massive part of the Longhorns' rebuilding project on defense, figuratively and literally. At 6-6 and 260 pounds, Reed towers above the competition regularly and his numbers back it up as well. He posted 77 tackles, 16.5 TFL and 10.0 sacks last year and should only be better this year.

 

Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State

Mueller is the top returning sack artist in the league after posting an impressive 11.5 QB takedowns last fall. On a loaded defensive line, Mueller should be able to gain national acclaim for his performance.

 

Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas

Fans in Austin have been waiting for Diggs to develop into the superstar many believed he’d become. He has all of the tools and some explosive ability to make big plays, he just needs to put it all together in his final season at Texas.

 

Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia

He posted 102 tackles as a freshman starter and added 68 stops last year as a sophomore. With two full seasons under his belt as a starter and a chance to be on the field ALL OF THE TIME, Joseph has a chance to make a name for himself nationally in 2014.

 

Teaser:
The Big 12's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/penn-state-football-game-game-predictions-2014
Body:

The Big Ten’s new 14-team alignment brought another shift in the divisions for 2014. Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan headline a strong East Division, with the Spartans and Buckeyes expected to be the class of the Big Ten this year.

In addition to the changes at the conference level, for the second time in three years, Penn State will have a new coach roaming the sidelines. James Franklin comes to Happy Valley after three years at Vanderbilt and is one of the top coaching hires of the offseason.

Franklin inherits a team with nine returning starters and question marks regarding the depth on the roster due to NCAA sanctions.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the best in the Big Ten, but he will need help from an offensive line that is the team’s biggest question mark in 2014. How high can Penn State finish in the Big Ten East Division this year? Athlon polls a few experts to predict the Nittany Lions' 2014 record.

 

Expert Panel:


Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com

Mike Fiammetta (@B5Q), Buckys5thquarter.com
Brandon Cavanaugh (@EightLaces), HuskerCorner.com

 

Early Penn State Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
 Steven
Lassan
Brent
Yarina
Mark
Ross
Braden
Gall
Kevin
McGuire
David
Fox
Brandon
Cavanaugh
Mike
Fiammetta
UCF
(Ireland)
Akron
at Rutgers
UMass
Northwestern
at Michigan
Ohio State
Maryland
at Indiana
Temple
at Illinois
Michigan State
Final Projection9-38-48-49-310-28-410-29-3

Related: Most Improved Teams in College Football for 2014

 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Penn State’s hire of James Franklin was one of the best of the coaching carousel for 2014, and the Nittany Lions should improve off last year’s seven-win mark. Franklin got everything he could out of Vanderbilt’s roster over the last three seasons, taking the Commodores to three bowl games and back-to-back nine-win campaigns. Franklin inherits a Penn State roster that has talent but is short on depth. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a rising star, and the defense will take a step forward under new coordinator Bob Shoop. The schedule isn’t daunting, which sets up Franklin to have a fast start. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State and Michigan State and won’t play Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska from the West. If the offensive line holds together, and the overall depth concerns don’t become an issue, Penn State will have a chance to get to nine or ten wins in 2014. 
 

Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) BTN.com

When it comes to the Big Ten East in the first year of the new alignment, things don’t get much more favorable than Penn State’s draw. The two cross-division foes are Illinois and Northwestern, teams that combined to go 2-14 in the Big Ten last season; the toughest divisional tests come at home, with 2013 Big Ten title game participants Ohio State and Michigan State both coming to Beaver Stadium; and the road conference games are at Rutgers, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, all winnable matchups. Pretty favorable, right? Still, Penn State has depth issues that could keep it from capitalizing on this draw.
 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Penn State has a superstar at the two most important positions in any football program: Under center and on the sidelines. The combination of Chrisitian Hackenberg and James Franklin is sure to be magical in Happy Valley, however, the rest of the roster needs to develop quickly. The offensive line is the biggest issue as the Lions are likely to lose one or two games they should not due to poor play in the trenches. The schedule isn't overly taxing but playing in the tougher division won't help. That said, a third straight winning season in the face of sanctions would be considered a huge success, in my opinion.
 

Brandon Cavanaugh (@EightLaces), HuskerCorner.com

James Franklin walks into a rough situation politically, but a fantastic one when it comes to what he's being paid for. While the Sandusky controversy and sanctions still loom, Penn State has plenty of talent to make noise in the Big Ten and Franklin is one of the best coaches in the country to lead this team in doing so.

 

In terms of talent, the offensive duo of quarterback Christian Hackenberg and running back Zach Zwinak's one to be feared. Bill Belton's a great compliment to Zwinak. If the offensive line and wide receiver corps can be solidified, this could be one of the most damaging offenses in the conference.

 

Defensively, Franklin has plenty of talent up front such as defensive end Deion Barnes. The linebacker slots don't appear solidified yet, but the royal blue and white defensive backs are nasty.

 

The schedule sets up wonderfully as the Nittany Lions should be 5-0 heading into their game against Michigan. I'll take Franklin over Hoke, so chalk that game up as a win. I can't see this team topping either Ohio State or Michigan State as both are the power schools in the entire conference right now.

 

Look for Franklin to silence any critics with a nine or ten win season.
 

Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com

This was the first time I ran through the 2014 schedule for Penn State and picked wins and losses. Using just my gut instinct, I came up with 10 wins but even the most optimistic of Penn State fans would realize this has to be the ceiling for this team this fall. The concerns about the stability of the offensive line have been an annual tradition for as long as I have been covering the team just as white outs and tailgates, but this season could be the most alarming simply due to the impact of the recruiting sanctions the past few years. Bill O’Brien opted to pursue playmakers over line depth, but James Franklin and his staff will be prepared to handle the situation as best they can. Fortunately Penn State has one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in sophomore Christian Hackenberg, and I think there is some great potential for the running backs to do some damage a variety of ways. As was the case last year though, Penn State’s defense has to clamp down on opponents for Penn State to win some games. The schedule is somewhat favorable, with bye weeks before primetime games at Michigan and at home against Ohio State. Odds are Penn State will drop a game they shouldn’t along the way, but if healthy they will have a chance to steal one they shouldn’t have either.
 

Mike Fiammetta (@B5Q), Buckys5thQuarter.com

The common thread with Penn State is easily identifiable: James Franklin was a home-run hire, and his staff is off to a blazing start on the recruiting trail. Pairing him with Big Ten Freshman of the Year quarterback Christian Hackenberg is an enticing match, though ongoing concerns about the offensive line might limit the Nittany Lions' offense this year. Between Hackenberg and running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, there is enough firepower to expect Penn State's offense to be in the upper half of the conference. Defensively, Franklin inherits a strong front and secondary. The schedule is generally favorable, though a tough two-game stretch of at Michigan and then vs. Ohio State could alter the course of Penn State's season.

 

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)

James Franklin was the perfect fit to take over for Bill O'Brien in Happy Valley, no argument there. And Franklin's indoctrination to the Big Ten is not my biggest concern when it comes to the Nittany Lions this season. Nor is it quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Instead my primary fears for Penn State in 2014 have to do with an overall lack of starting experience and depth, especially on the offensive line and at receiver. Hackenberg can't win games by himself, not with a Big Ten schedule that includes Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions get a break in crossover action with Northwestern and Illinois, but that doesn't take away from a bruising East Division slate. Franklin did more with less at Vanderbilt and I have little doubt he will have similar, if not greater, success at Penn State. It just may take him a year or two to get the roster to where he wants it to be. Not that there's anything wrong with an eight-win season in the Big Ten mind you.


David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Penn State’s probably not good enough to “go chalk,” as in beating the teams they should beat. Somewhere the Nittany Lions are going to get bit by an offensive line that will be a liability all season and a front seven with some questions. That pretty much gives Penn State little chance against Ohio State and Michigan State. The scholarship limitations mean this team will be unpredictable even if it has one of the best passers in the country. We saw it last year when Penn State lost by 20 to Indiana and needed overtime to beat Illinois. That’s why I’ve put in another head-scratching loss to Northwestern

Teaser:
Penn State Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Auburn Tigers, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/auburn-football-game-game-predictions-2014
Body:

Auburn was one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 college football season. The Tigers went 3-9 in 2012 but finished 12-2 and lost by three points to Florida State in the national championship last year.
 

As expected under coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s offense guided this team to a SEC title. The Tigers averaged 39.5 points per game and ranked No. 1 nationally in rush offense. Running back Tre Mason was a Heisman finalist, while left tackle Greg Robinson went No. 2 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. Auburn's defense allowed 24.7 points per game, but this unit ranked near the top of the SEC in redzone and third-down defense.


The Tigers return 13 starters for 2014, including quarterback Nick Marshall and receiver Sammie Coates. And despite the loss of Mason and Robinson to the NFL, Auburn's offense will be among the best in the nation. A challenging schedule awaits this year, but Auburn’s roster might have more overall depth than it did in 2013. If the offense continues to score around 40 points per game, the Tigers should have a good shot to repeat as SEC champs.

 

Expert Panel:

 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Brandon Larrabee (@TeamSpeedKills), TeamSpeedKills.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com

 

Early Auburn Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
 Steven
Lassan
Braden
Gall
Josh
Ward
David
Fox
Mark
Ross
Brandon
Larrabee
Arkansas
San Jose State
at Kansas State
Louisiana Tech
LSU
at Miss. State
South Carolina
at Ole Miss
Texas A&M
at Georgia
Samford
at Alabama
Final Projection10-210-29-38-48-411-1
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Despite losing left tackle Greg Robinson, running back Tre Mason and a couple of key defenders, Auburn’s biggest concern in 2014 shouldn’t be personnel. The Tigers have one of the nation’s most-explosive offenses and will find a capable replacement for Mason at running back. Quarterback Nick Marshall should progress as a passer, and Auburn quietly has one of the best receiving corps in the SEC. The defense is the biggest concern for coach Gus Malzahn, especially with defensive end Carl Lawson sidelined indefinitely. Expect Auburn to win plenty of shootouts this year, but the schedule is arguably the biggest reason to pick against a repeat in the SEC West. The Tigers visit the Magnolia State to matchup against two teams on the rise in Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and there are two huge games against Georgia and Alabama on the road in November. Keep in mind, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide will have revenge on the mind in both matchups. It’s also difficult to expect Auburn to go 6-1 again in games decided by one score or less. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Tigers finish 11-1, but 10-2 or even 9-3 appears more likely.
 

Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com

The Kansas State game scares me for Auburn. A Thursday night game on the road against Bill Snyder’s team? No thanks. But I’ll take Auburn to escape with a close win. The LSU game should be difficult, but I’ll take Auburn to hold on and get the win against a team with a young quarterback on the road.

 

That’s where it gets tricky for Auburn. The Tigers will travel to Mississippi State, which came close to beating Auburn last year. Of course, that was early in the season before Auburn’s offense really took off. I’ll still take Mississippi State to pull off the upset at home. I think Auburn will bounce back and beat South Carolina with a week off to prepare. But I have Auburn will losing its final two road games at Georgia and Alabama, leaving Auburn with a solid but disappointing 9-3 record.
 

Brandon Larrabee (@TeamSpeedKills), teamspeedkills.com

I think the "luck" angle for Auburn has gotten so trumped up over the last few months that it's easy to forget that Auburn was still a very good team in 2013. Yeah, they got the flukiest of fluke wins against Georgia and then followed that up with a win against Alabama that was nearly as bizarre -- but Auburn also pushed Florida State as hard as the Seminoles got pushed by anyone all season long and won 10 games that didn't involve the kind of great fortune that the Tigers in the two wins everyone talks about. With most of the offense coming back and two of the four toughest games coming at home, double-digit wins feels almost like a floor for this team. I might even pick them over Alabama if the Iron Bowl weren't played at the end of the year -- but the Tide will have had time to fix any kinks and Nick Saban will have revenge on his mind.

 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

The Tigers offense, led by a returning star at quarterback and a deep collection of offensive lineman and pass catchers, should be even more balanced and dangerous in 2014 than it was a year ago. This is a scary thought for opposing coordinators. However, the defense still has question marks, the schedule is dramatically more difficult and its impossible for the bounces to go as well for Auburn again this fall. I wouldn't pick Auburn to lose at home but two or three road losses is very possible as the rest of the league begins to learn how to stop (aka, slow down) Gus Malzahn's offense.

 

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)

While there's a chance Auburn's offense could be even better this season compared to last, which is a scary thought, I am concerned the same could be said for the defense. And not in a good way. Despite the Tigers' ridiculous offensive numbers in 2013, this team needed every break and lucky bounce to win its way to a spot in the national championship game. This same fortune can't be counted on this season and it should be pointed out that the early trip to Manhattan to play Kansas State makes the non-conference slate trickier this fall. As far as the SEC schedule goes, Gus Malzahn's team has to play Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama — three teams Auburn beat by eight or fewer points in '13 — away from Jordan-Hare Stadium and all in a five-week span in the final month of the season. Even with all Malzahn's offensive wizardry and plenty of talent, I have a hard time picking the Tigers to win 10 games again this season, let alone repeat as SEC champs.

 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)

Wow. That road schedule is brutal. I might like Auburn in games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss at home, but those are tough rubber games to have on road trips. Kansas State is no gimme, either. Auburn will find a way from slipping from 12-2 to seven wins, but it’s going to be closer than any Auburn fan would want to admit. The Tigers were 11th in the SEC in yards per play allowed in conference games, and now they’re dealing with losing perhaps their top pass rusher in Carl Lawson. This may be a boom-or-bust team in 2014.

Teaser:
Auburn Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-backstory-games-2014
Body:

No one will need any push to watch a rematch of the Iron Bowl. No college football fan will need to know why Alabama’s return trip to Auburn will be loaded with drama.

Same with another matchup between Oregon and Stanford that may determine the Pac-12 South.

Those games all have worthy backstories attached, but we wanted to look a little deeper at the games that mean a little extra something in 2014.

 

We're taking a look at rematches of classic games, meetings of non-conference foes that rarely happen, if ever, coaches with axes to grind. As usual, there are plenty on the slate. These are the games in 2014 that have an extra little juice.

Aug. 30: Appalachian State at Michigan
"The Unhappy Michigan Man Bowl
"
Michigan fans are probably not thrilled to have this game on the schedule given the flood of bad memories this brings back. The first meeting was one of the biggest upsets in college football history, making Armanti Edwards and Dexter Jackson stars for a week by beating Chad Henne and Mike Hart. Appy State is now a Sun Belt program, and Michigan isn’t a top-five team. At least if Michigan loses again, it won’t be as much of an upset.

Aug. 30: Arkansas at Auburn
"The Tempo Bowl
"
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn both said at SEC Media Days that they’ve mended fences since Bielema floated rules changes to slow down the pace of play by citing health concerns. Such limitations, of course, would make offenses like Malzahn’s less effective. Malzahn said he thought such a proposal was a joke, and there's been a perception of bad blood ever since. They’re not breaking bread together, Bielema says, but they’re not throwing bread (or rocks) at each other. No word on if Malzahn will try to run up the score, though.

Aug. 30: Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
"The Monongah Bowl
"
Not only is this the first meeting between Alabama and West Virginia, this is the first time Nick Saban has faced the top school from his home state. Saban’s father operated a service station in rural West Virginia and his mother operated an ice cream shop. The Saban name still carries considerable weight in Fairmont and Monongah, W. Va., even with the governor.

Aug. 30: North Dakota State at Iowa State
"The FCS Showcase
"
Not only has North Dakota State won the last three FCS titles, the Bison have defeated an FBS opponent in four consecutive seasons (Kansas State in 2013, Colorado State in 2012, Minnesota in 2011, Kansas in 2010). Iowa State certainly isn’t invincible.

Aug. 30: FAU at Nebraska
"The Carl Bowl
"
At one point, this game could have set up a brother vs. brother coaching matchup between Bo and Carl Pelini. Instead, Carl was fired amid accusations that he did not report "certain conduct" of a member of his coaching staff. The accusation at first, though, was that of drug use by Carl Pelini and a staff member. Pelini denied these allegations.

Sept. 6: Missouri at Toledo
"The Pinkel Bowl
"
A career like Gary Pinkel’s is becoming more and more rare: He’s been a head coach since 1991 and had only two jobs. The first was at Toledo, where he won 113 games. The run included an 11-0-1 season in 1995 and 10-1 in 2000. This game will be the first Pinkel has coached at Toledo since he took the Mizzou job in 2000.

Sept. 13: Tennessee at Oklahoma
"The We’ll Play Sooner or Later Bowl
"
Hard to believe, but this is the first regular-season meeting between these two powerhouse programs. The Volunteers and Sooners have split their two meetings in the Orange Bowl in 1968 and 1939.

Sept. 20: Miami at Nebraska
"The Former Powerhouse Bowl
"
Three times between 1983 and 2001, the national championship went through Miami and Nebraska. Miami beat Nebraska in bowls for its first and most recent national titles in 1983 and 2001, and Nebraska beat the Hurricanes in 1994 in a bowl for the first of back-to-back titles. Neither has been in the national title race for a decade, and the two teams haven’t played during the regular season since 1976.

Oct. 25: Ohio State at Penn State
"The Larry Johnson Bowl
"
Larry Johnson was offered a chance to stick with a third Penn State coaching staff under James Franklin, but he instead joined Urban Meyer at Ohio State. The defensive line coach should spice up Big Ten recruiting with his track record in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Oct. 25: Alabama at Tennessee
"The Kiffin Bowl
"
Derek Dooley may have been worse, but new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is more hated in Knoxville. Kiffin signed a washout recruiting class, went 7-6 in one season and unceremoniously dumped Tennessee to return to USC. The Tennessee fanbase was angrier than most when a coach leaves for another program, gathering outside of the athletic facility as Kiffin conducted a bizarre news conference the day he announced his resignation. Tennessee hasn’t had a winning season since.

Nov. 1: Maryland at Penn State
"The Revenge of James Franklin Bowl
"
James Franklin’s first head coaching break never actually materialized. Franklin had been named the coach-in-waiting under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, but a new athletic director was lukewarm to the idea of honoring such a commitment. Instead, Franklin left for Vanderbilt and later Penn State, where he’s vowed to dominate recruiting the state of Maryland. To which, current Terrapins coach Randy Edsall said talk is cheap.

Nov. 8: Iowa State at Kansas
"The Mangino Bowl
"
Mark Mangino built Kansas into a respectable program from 2002-09. He reached four bowl games in eight seasons, including the Orange Bowl in 2007. But he also had a bit of a mean streak with players, leading to his firing from Lawrence. After time on the staff at Youngstown State, Mangino returns to the Big 12 to revive the offense at Iowa State.

Nov. 15: Oklahoma at Texas Tech
"The Baker Bowl
"
Former Texas Tech starting quarterback Baker Mayfield bolted Lubbock with no guarantees of being able to play quickly or gaining a scholarship. The Red Raiders tried to block his transfer to Big 12 foe Oklahoma, but the Sooners are appealing to the NCAA to grant him eligibility. OU coach Bob Stoops says Mayfield’s status as a walk-on at Tech means he should eligible right away. Of course, that’s self-serving for a team that moved a backup quarterback to tight end. Either way, the latest transfer issue will surely be a topic when these two teams meet in November.

Nov. 29: Rutgers at Maryland
"The Fridge Bowl
"
Ralph Friedgen hasn’t coached since he was fired from Maryland in 2010 despite going 9-4 and winning ACC Coach of the Year honors. Friedgen, a Maryland alum, never matched his 31-7 start with an ACC title in his first three seasons, but the Terrapins haven’t exactly thrived without Friedgen either. Given the record it’s easy to sympathize with his feeling that he got a raw deal. Friedgen’s return to coaching as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator means at least one trip to College Park for the big guy.

Teaser:
College Football's Top Backstory Games for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-potential-growth-2014-sprint-cup-newbies
Body:

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

 

Today, David ponders how each rookie’s growth pattern might play out in future Cup Series seasons.

 

 

It takes very little effort to point at Kyle Larson, per production, the top rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and say that he’s going to blossom into a star. Something so obvious is a good thing, especially if it is the exception to the rule, which Larson is.

 

Larson is a quick learner, evident by a win in his first ever Late Model start, a championship in his first ever stock car season (NASCAR K&N Pro Series East) and leading series regulars in production and pass efficiency in his rookie NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign. But his history of swift assimilation isn’t the industry norm.

 

Rookies at the sport’s premier level tend to struggle with producing results in their given equipment. From 2006 through 2013, there were 27 rookies in the Cup Series. Just one — Denny Hamlin — scored a first-year Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) higher than 1.000, a mark signifying an ability to win on any particular race weekend, per MotorsportsAnalytics.com. If this year’s seven full-time rookies, which includes Larson’s 2.092 PEER through 19 races, are added to that total then just two out of the last 34 rookies (under six percent) were serviceable producers in their maiden Cup Series seasons.

 

Among that crop of rookies were Clint Bowyer (0.819 PEER), Brad Keselowski (0.653), Joey Logano (0.569) and Paul Menard (minus-0.750), all of which have cracked the 1.000 mark and are vying for Chase contention for established teams in 2014. The lesson here? Slow assimilation to the Cup Series isn’t necessarily a career-killing omen. That’s why any panic over the seemingly slow development of current rookies Austin Dillon, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex and 2013 Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse is a bit premature. If their careers to this point are any indication, we shouldn’t have expected much from them initially in the first place.

 

In analyzing a driver’s ascent up the sport’s ladder, patterns stick out. Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide Series champion, is a polarizing subject among industry influencers. Some covet his natural, aggressive ability that they believe is being muzzled by the traditionally conservative Roush Fenway Racing camp. Others feel he has underachieved dramatically in his first two seasons. I haven’t come across much of a gray area when it comes to opinions on Stenhouse, but it’s alarmingly clear that initial expectations were out of whack from the get-go. At least that’s what his pattern indicates.

 

Stenhouse spent three full years in the Nationwide Series — two longer than Hamlin and Larson and what will ultimately be one year longer than current series riser Chase Elliott — driving for one team and the year-to-year improvement was visible on the track and on paper. His average finish moved from 19.4 in 2010 to 8.8 in 2011 and, finally, to 7.3 in 2012. That corresponded with increases in win totals (zero to two to six) and PEER (minus-0.422 to 2.529 to 3.485). How did a driver who, at one point, produced worse weighted results than the likes of Kevin Lepage, Derrike Cope and Eric McClure become a world-beater? He became demonstrably better at passing.

 

In 2010, with plate tracks and road course races omitted (tracks ripe for outliers), he earned a pass efficiency of 48.99 percent; anything below 50 warrants a negative pass differential and in his case, it was minus-40 for the normal oval races. His efficiency improved to a 52.71 percent in 2011 (for a pass differential of plus-100) and leapt even higher in 2012 to 54.88 percent (plus-153). Though Stenhouse’s 46.88 percent efficiency in his rookie Cup Series season didn’t pave the way for anything good, it wasn’t entirely a cause for alarm if his previous growth pattern was considered. His adjusted pass efficiency this season sits at 49.9 percent — a three percent increase — that echoes the pattern he demonstrated at the Nationwide level. Though it hasn’t translated to an elevated average finish or PEER, he is maturing into a better Cup Series driver.

 

If this year’s current rookie crop plays true to their patterns, here are a few reasonable things to expect:

 

Improvement from Justin Allgaier

Across two organizations, Allgaier’s PEER climbed from 0.286 and 1.114 with Team Penske to 1.882, 2.700 and 2.053 with Turner Scott Motorsports, but his performance strides can be best viewed in his average finish bookends; in his rookie year for Penske, he averaged a 16.5-place result, while in his fifth and final Nationwide season, in a Turner car, he was five positions higher in the running order, with an 11.2-place average. On a related note, it took him the equivalent of three full seasons to become a multi-race winner in ARCA.

 

Steadiness from Cole Whitt

Whitt’s only multi-season experience in one division came in Nationwide. He averaged a 14th-place finish in 2012 for JR Motorsports and was released from the ride in favor of Regan Smith in 2013 (interestingly enough, Brad Keselowski averaged a 17.9-place finish in his initial half-year effort for JRM and was retained for the ensuing season). Landing a limited role with Mark Smith’s Tri-Star Motorsports faction, Whitt only had to swallow a drop of 1.7 positions per race across 15 attempts. His stats might not scream “star quality,” but as we saw with Martin Truex last year, Cup teams value steady hands in a rapidly evolving sport.

 

Immediate regression from Austin Dillon

You’d think the year in which he won a Nationwide Series championship without winning a single race would be chock full of statistical depth, but it wasn’t. His 2012 season, in which he won twice and amassed a PEER of 2.879, had more top-10 finishes (27) than his winless title-winning campaign (22). Things aren’t exactly awful for him in Cup, though. His team is in Chase contention despite his 0.737 PEER that ranks second among rookies and he and crew chief Gil Martin have been shrewd position-grabbers in the close of races. Eventually his poor passing — never a strong suit in the lower divisions — could bite him.

 

THE FRONTSTRETCH  |  Five defining moments

 

Improvement from Michael Annett

Prior to an injury-marred 2013 season in Nationwide, Annett chipped off nine positions from his 20.5-place rookie season average finish, enjoying an 11.2-place average result in 2012 (all of his top-5 finishes in Nationwide came in Years 4 and 5). He’s already making in-season improvements to his passing, thanks to a tidy summer swoon.

 

Improvement from Ryan Truex

Like Annett, Truex has enjoyed an increased passing efficiency that hasn’t yet resulted in on-track results. That’s fine. Truex went from sub-serviceable producer in the Nationwide Series in 2011 (0.412 PEER, finished in the top 10 just 29 percent of the time) to a driver who nearly won at Dover in 2012 and finished his partial season with an elevated production rating (1.227 with a 36 percent top-10 finish rate).

 

Alex Bowman is the wild card

Bowman has never, at any point in his career, competed in the same series for consecutive seasons, providing virtually no pattern from which to pull. It’s what made the Cup Series’ youngest driver an inherent risk for BK Racing in the first place, but it’s better to bite the bullet on an unknown commodity than recycle a veteran who is a well-documented underachiever.

 

 

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

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
David Smith analyzes the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie crop.
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 17:45
Path: /nascar/nascar-indianapolis-need-marquee-winner-bolster-slumping-brickyard-400
Body:

In a decade of skyrocketing growth for the sport of NASCAR, no single event in the 1990s topped its first visit to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1994 Brickyard 400.

 

However, 20 years later, amid sagging attendance and television ratings and a weekend diluted with Nationwide and nondescript sports car ancillary races, the Sprint Cup Series’ annual visit is a shell of its former self.

 

Make no mistake, the sparse nine degrees of banking in Indy’s four nearly-90 degree turns have never yielded great returns for fendered stock cars. In fact, the storylines have always overshadowed the actual on-track action. 

 

Jeff Gordon’s coronation in the premier race, the larger-than-life Dale Earnhardt fittingly victorious in Indy’s winner’s circle, Tony Stewart finally capturing a win at his beloved home track — all made for great copy, but it was the narrative of “big-name driver winning at the epicenter of racing” — check that, “household name winning at the epicenter of racing” — that ruled the day. Only the best drivers from the premier level deserved a shot to lead the field across the yard of bricks, regardless of motorsports discipline. And only the one-percenters of that group should prevail at day’s end.

 

The sobering reality of NASCAR’s lost luster at the Brickyard was driven home last year when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series made its inaugural trip to the quaint half-mile Eldora Speedway in tiny Rossburg, Ohio. Running the Wednesday prior to what is billed as the “Super Weekend at the Brickyard,” a high-banked dirt track — owned by Stewart himself — stole the racing headlines all week.

 

It was an odd yet telling twist that the most historic speedway in the world was upstaged by NASCAR’s “third series” running an event — complete with heat races, a last-chance qualifier and an “A-Main” feature — at a track that harkened race fans back to their roots. The Eldora event was a smashing success: competitive, unique, entertaining. Oh, and run in front of a packed house.

 

The Cup Series’ stop in Speedway, Ind., four days later was cloaked in pageantry, yet the on-track product was all-too-familiar, as the crowd of roughly 70,000 (down from a reported 280,000 five years prior) could attest. Aero-dependent racing at the monstrous facility was in stark contrast to the “racin’” enjoyed at Eldora. 

 

Fans raved about the excursion on dirt for weeks. Yeah, Indy's cool, but did you see that Eldora race?!

 

Still, it is important for NASCAR’s top series to count Indianapolis as a regular tour stop. As stated earlier — and with apologies to Daytona and Monaco — the Brickyard is the world’s best-known speedway. Not having North America’s most popular motorsports series at a track centered in its heartland is just a poor marketing play by both the track and the series.

 

But a race once reserved for Hall-of-Fame caliber winners — Gordon, Earnhardt, Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson — has seen a new type of victor in recent years. Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have won three of the last four Brickyard 400s. All deserving in that they played the game better than 42 others on their given day, but the wins lacked luster. They lacked headline-power. They lacked the storylines and larger-than-life personalities that once almost single-handedly carried NASCAR’s day at the “grand old speedway.”

 

THE CHASE  |  The race to NASCAR's bubble begins

 

Yet, despite its often-mundane on-track product, NASCAR needs the Brickyard and the Brickyard needs NASCAR. Though what both need now more than ever is for a rousing, intriguing storyline — a household name along the lines of Danica, Gordon, Earnhardt or Stewart — to not only prosper, but win in the most dramatic way possible. Because no longer does the sparkling pre-race hype, the in-race confection or the simple and notable fact that NASCAR is racing at the Brickyard carry the day.

 

 

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

 

Google

Teaser:
NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway need an intriguing storyline and big-name driver to carry the day at the struggling Brickyard 400.
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 16:47
All taxonomy terms: Hot Seat, quarterbacks, NFL, News
Path: /10-nfl-quarterbacks-hot-seat-2014
Body:

Of the 256 players selected in the most recent NFL Draft, 16 of them were quarterbacks. Cleveland, Jacksonville and Minnesota all took quarterbacks in the first round in hopes of landing a franchise signal-caller. Whether any of these rookies start a game (or more) this fall remains to be seen, but at least they don’t have to worry about job security just yet. The same can’t be said for a number of veterans around the league.

 

Here are 10 quarterbacks under the most pressure in 2014:

 

1. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans

When it comes to Locker, it’s really pretty simple. There’s a reason the team didn’t exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Titans’ brass still isn’t sure what exactly they have in Locker, who has made just 18 starts the past two seasons because of injuries. Locker has a golden opportunity to show first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt he’s the long-term answer, but to do so he’ll not only need to stay healthy, he’ll also need to improve his accuracy (57.2 career completion percentage) and decision making (22:15 TD:INT ratio).

 

2. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

The Rams had two shots at drafting Johnny Manziel, but passed on him, a show of confidence in Bradford. This doesn’t mean Bradford is completely off of the hook, however. Even though the Rams appear to have a defense that’s capable of keeping up with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West, it’s the offense’s improvement in 2014 that will likely determine their fate. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft was off to a great start last season (60.7 completion rate, 14:4 TD:INT ratio) before tearing his ACL in Week 7. Besides continuing to improve his production, Bradford needs to show he can stay healthy, especially with just two years remaining on his six-year, $78 million ($50 million guaranteed) rookie contract.

 

3. Geno Smith, New York Jets

Smith is just in his second year, so he should be pretty “safe.” However, head coach Rex Ryan needs to win to keep his job and the team also brought in veteran Michael Vick as an insurance policy. Everyone with the Jets wants Smith to succeed and seize the starting job by the throat, but another interception-prone season (21 last season, compared to just 12 TD passes) may be too tough to swallow.

 

4. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

Palmer helped lead the Cardinals to 10 wins last season, but it wasn’t enough to get into the playoffs. The 11-year veteran will turn 35 in December and is entering the last year of his contract. The team drafted Logan Thomas in May, but he’s considered a long-term project. The Cardinals are built to win now so Palmer should be safe, at least this season. But with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington, Palmer better improve on his production (24:22 TD:INT ratio in 2013) if he wants to stick around beyond 2014.

 

5. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

In the past three seasons, Smith has gone 30-9-1 as a starter for the 49ers and Chiefs. While the 2005 No. 1 overall pick hasn’t fully fulfilled his draft status, he has proven he’s capable of winning games consistently. Still, the 30-year-old is in the final year of his contract, despite posting an impressive 23:7 TD:INT ratio last season and performing even better (9:0) in three career playoff games. “Game manager” is a hard label for a quarterback to shed and that looks to be Smith’s challenge as he seeks to sign a contract extension with Kansas City.

 

6. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

When it comes to Dalton, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation. The second-round pick from the 2011 draft has been extremely solid (30-18 record, 80:49 TD:INT ratio) in the regular season, leading his team to a franchise-first three straight playoff appearances in the process. Once he gets to the postseason, however, it’s been a nightmare, as he’s 0-3 with just one TD pass and six interceptions. It’s the latter that has cast some doubt on Dalton’s long-term future with the Bengals. Still, it seems more likely that Dalton and the team will come to an agreement on a contract extension. Sorry AJ McCarron fans.

 

7. Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders

Pretty much whatever could go wrong for Schaub last season did, starting with the NFL-record four consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. An ankle injury just added to his misery, and following Houston’s 2-14 meltdown, the two-time Pro Bowler was traded to Oakland for a sixth-round pick. The Raiders drafted Derek Carr in the second round, but the starting job should belong to Schaub. That said, considering the pay cut he took upon his arrival with his new team, it’s pretty safe to say the 33-year-old is not only playing for his spot with the Raiders, but his professional future.

 

8. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

The good news for Tannehill is that he doubled his TD passes (12 to 24) in his second season as the starter. Unfortunately, the interceptions (13 to 17) also ticked up and he improved in the win column by just one game (7-9 to 8-8). He still has two years to go on in his rookie contract, but Tannehill needs to take another step forward this season if he wants to silence his critics. Of course, a little more support from his offensive line (sacked NFL-high 58 times in 2013) certainly wouldn’t hurt.

 

9. Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After thriving (13 TDs, INT) primarily in relief of an injured Jay Cutler last season, McCown finally gets his shot at being the full-time starter. Even with a new head coach (Lovie Smith) and several new faces, expectations are pretty high for the Buccaneers this fall, so McCown will need to maintain his 2013 level of performance if he wants to prolong his starting status. After all, the Bucs still have Sean Glennon on the roster. Besides being more than a decade younger than McCown (35), Glennon (25 in December) fared pretty well as a rookie last season, posting a 19:9 TD:INT ratio in 13 starts.

 

10. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills

Similar to Geno Smith, Manuel is in just his second year in the league. Unlike Smith, Manuel missed six games due to knee injuries and fared a little better (11:9 TD:INT ratio) when he was on the field. Still, Manuel can’t develop as a quarterback if he’s not healthy enough to play. This season could be a critical one in that respect with first-round pick Sammy Watkins and former Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Williams added to the roster. There are still plenty of analysts and pundits who question the Bills’ decision to take Manuel with the 16th pick of the 2013 draft. It’s now up to Manuel to prove them all wrong.

Teaser:
10 NFL Quarterbacks on the Hot Seat in 2014
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 16:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, TCU Horned Frogs, Big 12, News
Path: /college-football/tcu-de-devonte-fields-indefinitely-separated-team
Body:

TCU defensive end Devonte Fields has been separated from the school after allegations stemming from a domestic disturbance case. Fields is under investigation, but no charges have been filed in the case so far. The Star-Telegram reported the details on Fields' status on Tuesday.

Fields is indefinitely separated from TCU pending the outcome of the investigation into the allegations.

The off-the-field incident comes at a bad time for Fields, as he was picked as the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year for 2014.

Fields played in only three games due to injury in 2013 and recorded two tackles for a loss. In 2012, Fields was voted as the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and won AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.

If Fields returns in time and at full strength for the season opener, he has a chance to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 once again.

Even without Fields, TCU’s defensive line will be among the best in the conference. The Horned Frogs return experience at end with James McFarland and Terrell Lathan, with Chucky Hunter and Davion Pierson anchoring the interior.

 

Teaser:
TCU DE Devonte Fields Indefinitely "Separated" From Team
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 15:13
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-july-22-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 22:

The USF Sun Dolls dance team took a trip to the beach. Looks like they had fun.

Marshawn Lynch surrounds his Lambo with velvet ropes when he parks it. Sounds about right.

Andrelton Simmons may not be from this world.

A guy grew a beard in the shape of the Washington Nationals logo.

• Good stuff, if a little inside baseball: breaking down Mike Trout's swing.

• Zach Mettenberger got clocked by a rogue Bama fan in a Nashville bar. But it could have been worse.

The highlight of Cliff Lee's evening was a satisfying fart.

• ESPN's "This Is SportsCenter" ad featuring Metallica is pretty funny, as are the bloopers and outtakes.

Andre Drummond treated a bowling ball like a basketball, with amusing results.

The Chargers can boast only the second-best softball team in San Diego. Interesting footnote: Philip Rivers "is a horrible shortstop."

So apparently Rory McIlroy did Jager bombs out of the Claret Jug.

• You'd think a pitcher would be able to throw the ball around the infield. In Shane Greene's case, you'd be wrong.

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 10:37
Path: /college-football/secs-top-10-heisman-candidates-2014
Body:

Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.

 

There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.

 

First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.

 

Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.

 

Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.

 

Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.

 

With this in mind, here are the SEC’s front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014 (with current Bovada odds):

 

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia (12/1)

He is the most gifted player at his position in the nation and it’s one that has Heisman pedigree. On just 202 touches due to injuries, the 230-pounder rolled up 1,430 yards from scrimmage and scored 16 times. When healthy, he is unstoppable.

 

2. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn (10/1)

He is a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense — a unit that should be even better and more balanced this year. He should blow past last year’s passing totals (1,976 yds, 14 TDs) and could easily match last year’s rushing production (1,068 yds, 12 TDs). And another run at an SEC title could put Marshall back in New York.

 

3. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama (18/1)

Alabama’s starting tailback has been in the Heisman conversation ever since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Yeldon is coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons and has scored at least 13 times in each of his first two years. Another big year could mean a berth in the College Football Playoff and a Heisman Trophy for Yeldon.

 

4. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina (28/1)

The situation around Davis is extremely conducive at a run for the Heisman. He plays for a top-15 team with marquee showdowns, has a shot at a playoff berth and his entire offensive line returns intact. If he can stay healthy, Davis — who posted six 100-yard games in his first seven last fall — could pace the SEC in rushing.

 

5. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU (N/A)

He’s already been compared to Michael Jordan by his coach and to Adrian Peterson by his teammates. No pressure, young fella. Fournette is going to be great. The question is how quickly? And will the rest of his offense support him? The ground game will be electric in Baton Rouge but this unit needs balance to get the true freshman into the Heisman conversation.

 

6. Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss (N/A)

Who finished second to Johnny Manziel last year in the SEC in total offense? Not Aaron Murray, Nick Marshall, A.J. McCarron or Connor Shaw. No, Wallace’s 3,701 yards were well ahead of third place (and well behind Manziel). Now fully healthy and with a developing young corps of supporting players, Wallace is in store for a monster final season.

 

7. Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri (N/A)

The youngster is brimming with confidence and now has the keys to an offense known for producing big-time stars at quarterback. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin have all run Gary Pinkel’s offense to perfection. Mauk is just the next and might be the best pure passer in the SEC.

 

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State (40/1)

State is dying for a star at quarterback and Prescott could be the guy. He posted big numbers in the second half of the season, topping 300 yards of total offense in four of his last five games. With another year of seasoning, Prescott could become State’s first 3,000-yard passer.

 

9. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama (25/1)

He’s a load to tackle and has all the ability in the world. As fans should expect from the nation’s most prolific high school running back in history. He got just 35 carries last fall but eight of them (and 100 yards) came in the Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma. Look for a breakout campaign from Henry this fall even if he has to share carries with Yeldon.

 

10. LaQuon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss (N/A)

From a talent standpoint, few are as gifted as Treadwell. He has the size, speed, power and agility to be a star in the NFL. With his quarterback healthy and a move to his more natural outside position, Treadwell could blossom into one of the nation’s elite pass catchers.

 

Others to consider: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama; Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas; Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama; Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia; Jerron Seymour, RB, Vanderbilt

 

Five defensive players who should but won’t be in the mix:

 

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida

Not many players earn first-team preseason All-American honors as a true sophomore but that is what VH3 has done. He might be the nation’s top pure cover corner and should only build on his excellent first season in Gainesville.

 

A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee

He is a big-time playmaker on defense. But what could give him some national notoriety would be his contributions on offense. If Butch Jones (which is unlikely) decides to use him like Derek Dooley did in 2012 (6 rush TDs), Johnson would be a household name nationally in no time.

 

Landon Collins, S, Alabama

He is one of the most gifted tacklers in the nation. When Collins arrives at the ball, the entire country knows about it. The lone returning starter in the secondary could be the nation’s best safety. And he plays a position that has recently become a marquee spot with names like Mark Barron and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix excelling for the Tide.

 

Dante Fowler, DE, Florida

Fowler is a beast and can simply take over games but he will need to improve his consistency in order to get mentions for national awards. Physically, he is nearly impossible to stop and he should lead the Gators in sacks and plays made behind the line of scrimmage.

 

Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State

As a true freshman, Jones — who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds — made a much bigger impact than even his five-star status indicated. He posted 32 tackles, 7.0 for a loss, 3.0 sacks and constantly disrupted the opposing backfield. He is a sure-fire future NFL star.

Teaser:
The SEC's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-most-improved-teams-2014
Body:

Every college football season brings a surprise or two each fall. And if you need evidence of that statement, take a look at the two teams that played for last year’s national championship: Florida State and Auburn.

 

While both programs had claimed previous championships during the BCS era, neither team was picked to win the national title last August.

 

So whether it’s a team finishing in the top 10 that no one expected in the preseason or another program struggling to reach .500 after a successful stretch, each year presents many different case studies when trying to project teams for the upcoming season. And some teams quickly rebound after a disappointing year to contend for a conference title or crack the top 25 once again.

 

Projecting which teams will fill those categories and show significant improvement is no easy task.

 

When it comes to judging improvement in college football, it doesn’t always come in the form of wins and losses. Improvement can simply come as a result of a team being more competitive within its conference and reducing the margin of defeat.

 

Kickoff for college football’s 2014 season is less than 40 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which teams will be some of the most improved in the nation.

 

College Football’s Most-Improved Teams for 2014

 

Florida

Just based on talent, Florida can’t be any worse than it was last season. According to the recruiting rankings, the Gators are tied with Florida State for the No. 2 roster in college football. If Florida wants to contend in the SEC East this year, improving the offense has to be the top priority. The Gators averaged only 18.8 points per game and 4.7 yards per play (in conference games) in 2013. Help is coming in the form of a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback, along with the addition of Kurt Roper as the team’s new play-caller. Roper plans to utilize Driskel’s rushing ability more in 2014, while new line coach Mike Summers is tasked with fixing a unit that struggled mightily last year. Any improvement on offense should be enough for Florida to at least reach the postseason, especially since the Gators lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2013. The defense returns seven starters from a unit that allowed the fewest yards per play (5.09) in SEC games last year. Will Muschamp needs a big year to save his job. With a schedule that features crossover games against LSU and Alabama, along with a road trip to Tallahassee in November, drastic improvement in the win column will be tough. However, with a strong defense and more production from the offense, the Gators should be able to get to 7-5 or 8-4.

 

Northwestern

High expectations surrounded Northwestern going into 2013, as the Wildcats were coming off a 10-3 mark and a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Northwestern started the year in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and opened 4-0 with victories against California, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. However, the injury bug took a toll on the Wildcats, and Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost seven out of its last eight games. Running back Venric Mark barely played in 2013 due to an ankle injury, and starting cornerback Daniel Jones was lost for the year due to a knee injury suffered in the opener against California. Northwestern used a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian last season, but the job is Siemian’s in 2014 with Colter expiring his eligibility. While Colter’s rushing ability will be missed, settling on one quarterback could benefit the offense. Seven starters return on defense, which should help this unit improve after allowing 27.1 points per game in 2013. Also, Northwestern is due for better luck in 2014. The Wildcats lost four games by eight points or less last year and gave up a late touchdown to Ohio State to lose 40-30.

 

Penn State

By no means was 2013 a bad season for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were still dealing with NCAA sanctions and had no possibility of a bowl. However, Penn State managed to finish 7-5 with a true freshman at quarterback and closed the year by defeating Wisconsin 31-24 in Madison. New coach James Franklin should make an immediate impact in Happy Valley, as he’s inheriting a roster that ranks No. 4 in the Big Ten. Depth is suspect – especially on the line – but the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent in the starting 22. Franklin squeezed the most out of his rosters at Vanderbilt, winning nine games in each of the last two seasons. Penn State’s schedule also sets up favorably, missing Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska in crossover play in 2014. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg should thrive under Franklin’s watch, and the defense should show improvement on the stat sheet behind new coordinator Bob Shoop. The offensive line needs some work, but line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation. If Franklin can get everything out of the roster like he did at Vanderbilt, finishing 9-3 or 10-2 isn’t out of the question for Penn State.

 

NC State

Dave Doeren’s first season in Raleigh was a tough one. The Wolfpack went winless in ACC play for the first time since 1959 and finished the year on an eight-game losing streak. A lot of factors went into NC State’s losing mark in 2013, but the biggest was the quarterback position. Brandon Mitchell was injured in the opener and there was never any consistency under center. That should change in 2014, as Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett will stabilize the quarterback position and allow coordinator Matt Canada to install more of his spread offense. The Wolfpack also have a solid group of skill players – running back Shadrach Thornton and receiver Bryan Underwood – while freshman Bo Hines had a strong spring and is expected to contribute in the receiving corps. Left tackle Rob Crisp also returns after missing nearly all of 2013 due to a concussion. The defense allowed 30.2 points per game last season, but six starters are back, and the defensive line should emerge as a strength. The non-conference schedule is favorable. NC State plays four winnable games outside of the ACC, while swing games against Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest are at home.

 

TCU

On paper, a 4-8 record isn’t appealing for any coach or team. However, TCU was much closer to 7-5 than some may realize. The Horned Frogs lost by three points to West Virginia, two points at Kansas State, three points to Baylor and by three points at Oklahoma. After losing six games by 10 points or less last year, TCU just needs a little improvement from its offense to get back into bowl contention. And improvement should come in the form of new offensive co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, along with the addition of quarterback Matt Joeckel. Major improvement isn’t expected in the new spread attack, but the Horned Frogs can’t be any worse on offense. Assuming Joeckel can stabilize the quarterback spot, Trevone Boykin could move back to receiver to give the offense another playmaker on the outside. Even without Jason Verrett at cornerback, TCU’s defense should be one of the best in the Big 12. With slight improvement on offense, the Horned Frogs will be back in a bowl. And TCU has a chance to play spoiler with Oklahoma and Kansas State both visiting Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2014.

 

Better…But it May Not Show in Win Column
 
Arkansas

Bret Bielema’s SEC debut wasn’t pretty. The Razorbacks finished 3-9 overall and went winless in conference play. Arkansas finished 2013 on a nine-game losing streak, but this team didn’t quit at the end of the year. The Razorbacks lost in overtime to Mississippi State and nearly defeated LSU (31-27) on Nov. 29. Bielema and his staff have a lot of work to do on the recruiting trail to upgrade the overall talent, but there are reasons for optimism for this team. Sophomores Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland headline a solid offensive line, and the running back corps ranks as one of the top 10 in the nation. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be better in his second year as the starter, especially if he can stay healthy after battling a shoulder injury in 2013. The schedule certainly isn’t kind for Arkansas, as crossover games against Georgia and Missouri are challenging. The Razorbacks came close to winning two SEC games last year. A bowl game would be a surprise, but Arkansas should close the gap some in the SEC West and find a way to win a game or two in conference play. 

 

California

Everything that could go wrong seemed to in Sonny Dykes’ first season at California. Not only were the Golden Bears battling through scheme changes on both sides of the ball, they were hit hard by injuries on defense, started a true freshman at quarterback (Jared Goff) and finished with a minus-15 in turnover margin. After hitting rock bottom, California can only go up in 2014. A tough non-conference schedule awaits the Golden Bears, as a road trip to Northwestern starts the season, followed by the finale against BYU. Dykes’ team also plays Arizona, UCLA and USC in crossover play with the Pac-12 South Division. Both sides of the ball have question marks, but the passing attack should be a strength, especially with Goff healthy and having another offseason under his belt. The defense allowed 45.9 points per game in 2013, but new coordinator Art Kaufman should bring immediate improvement. Don’t expect drastic steps forward in the win column for California, but this team should find a way to win a game in Pac-12 play after going winless in 2013.

 

Indiana

After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson’s first season (2011), Indiana has made improvement in the win column in each of the last two years. The Hoosiers went 4-8 in 2012 and finished 5-7 last season, barely missing out on a bowl game. With 16 starters back, Indiana should be a better overall team in 2014 but getting to six or seven wins will be difficult. The Hoosiers were aligned in the Big Ten’s East Division, which features annual matchups against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers and Maryland. Home games against Penn State and Maryland are winnable, but Indiana also gets a road trip to Iowa in crossover play. In addition to a challenging schedule, Wilson has to fix a struggling defense. The Hoosiers allowed 38.8 points per game last season and allowed 7.4 yards per play in conference matchups. With one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, along with a standout backfield (quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Tevin Coleman), Indiana’s offense won’t be a concern. However, if the defense struggles again, a challenging schedule will keep the Hoosiers at home for the bowl season.

 

Kentucky

It’s going to take coach Mark Stoops a few years to build Kentucky’s roster into one that can consistently compete for bowl games in the SEC. However, the Wildcats are trending in the right direction. Kentucky signed the No. 22 class in 2014, an improvement after inking the No. 34 recruiting haul in '13. Those two totals are the best two classes the Wildcats have brought in over the last five years, and all signs point to another standout group coming to Lexington in 2015. With the improvement in talent, it should start to show on the field for Stoops. Kentucky went 2-10 in Stoops’ debut but lost two SEC games by a touchdown or less. Finding a quarterback is the top priority for coordinator Neal Brown, and Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and touted freshman Drew Barker will all contend for time in the fall. The talent at the skill positions has improved, and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard should team with Jojo Kemp to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Stoops’ specialty is on defense, and that’s an area of focus this offseason after allowing 6.8 yards per play in SEC games. Kentucky should be able to win three of its non-conference matchups and could steal a win in conference play this year.

 

Utah

The Utes are still working to get acclimated to their new Pac-12 surroundings, so it’s no surprise the program has struggled to get bowl eligible in the last two years. Since winning four Pac-12 games in its conference debut, Utah is just 5-13 in league play. Some bad luck and injuries have prevented the Utes from getting into the postseason the last two years but that could change in 2014. New play-caller Dave Christensen should bring stability to an offense that averaged only 29.2 points per game in 2013 and help junior quarterback Travis Wilson develop after an up-and-down season. Wilson was injured late in the year but was cleared to play earlier this summer. The Utes always seem to find replacements on defense, so getting back to a bowl in 2014 will hinge on Wilson’s progress and how well this team navigates a schedule that features crossover games against Oregon and Stanford. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Utah went 5-7 again but was competitive against the top teams in the conference.


West Virginia

Transitioning to the Big 12 has been a challenge for West Virginia, as the Mountaineers are just 6-12 in conference play over the last two seasons. After winning seven games in 2012, Dana Holgorsen’s team regressed to 4-8 last year. However, West Virginia lost two games in overtime in November. It seems odd for a Holgorsen-coached team to have question marks at quarterback, but that’s the storyline facing the Mountaineers’ offense in 2014. Clint Trickett is slated to start, assuming his surgically repaired shoulder is at full strength. The strength of West Virginia’s offense is at running back, and the defense should improve with the return of six starters. Even though West Virginia is due to be a better team in terms of on-field performance, it may not show in the win column. The Mountaineers play Alabama and Maryland in non-conference play and swing games against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Iowa State are away from Morgantown.

 

Four Teams Outside the Power 5 Conferences to Watch

 

Memphis

The Tigers are making steady progress under third-year coach Justin Fuente. After winning just five games from 2009-11, Memphis has won seven in the last two years and lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2013. With 15 starters back, the Tigers could push for a bowl in 2014. The defense finished No. 5 in the American Athletic in points allowed, and end Martin Ifedi is one of the nation’s most underrated defenders. Memphis needs more from its offense – especially quarterback Paxton Lynch – but with the turnover at the bottom of the conference, combined with improvement on both sides of the ball, the Tigers have the potential to win six games in 2014.

 

Nevada

The Wolf Pack slipped to 4-8 in Brian Polian’s first season in Reno, but there’s plenty of optimism for a turnaround in 2014. Nevada’s schedule in conference play is favorable, as Fresno State and San Diego State both visit Mackay Stadium, and the Wolf Pack won’t have to play Utah State from the Mountain Division. Quarterback Cody Fajardo battled leg injuries for most of last season and a full offseason to recover will benefit the entire offense. New defensive coordinator Scott Boone is tasked with fixing a unit that allowed 6.8 yards per play in Mountain West games last season, and he should have plenty of help with eight returning starters.

 

Akron

The Zips showed marked improvement in Terry Bowden’s second season. Akron finished 1-11 in 2012 but went 5-7 last year and 4-4 in conference play. The Zips had a couple of close calls, including a four-point defeat at Michigan and a seven-point loss to Northern Illinois. Bowling Green is the clear front-runner in the East, but Akron could surprise with another offseason of improvement. Kyle Pohl is one of the top returning passers in the MAC, and running back Jawon Chisholm has rushed for at least 860 yards in each of the last three seasons. The defense returns only four starters, so there are holes to fill for coordinator Chuck Amato. 
 

South Florida

Willie Taggart didn’t inherit a ton of talent from previous coach Skip Holtz, and the Bulls slumped to 2-10 in Taggart’s debut. USF’s offense managed only 13.8 points per game and lost 17 turnovers in eight American Athletic Conference contests. Despite all of last year’s problems, the Bulls are positioned for immediate improvement. Taggart signed the No. 40 recruiting class in 2014 – the No. 1 haul in the conference – and a handful of young players saw extensive playing time in 2013. Sophomore quarterback Mike White is promising, and the offensive line could be one of the best in the American Athletic with four returning starters. The middle of the conference is wide open, and USF has a good collection of young talent waiting to emerge. Taggart needs more time to build the roster to his liking, but the door is open for the Bulls to get back into the postseason in 2014.

Teaser:
College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/pac-12s-top-10-heisman-candidates-2014
Body:

Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.

 

There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.

 

First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.

 

Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.

 

Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.

 

Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.

 

With this in mind, here are the Pac-12’s front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014 (with current Bovada odds):

 

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (11/2)

He is arguably the most gifted athlete in the country and he is running one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. Should he stay healthy, Oregon is also the front-runner to win the Pac-12 and play in the playoff. The talent, the numbers, the winning and championship coattails could all be in Mariota’s corner.

 

2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (16/1)

One of my favorite bets, the UCLA quarterback is eyeing everything that Mariota is targeting. His numbers should be comparable and Hundley will have a chance at home to knock off the Ducks late in the year. If UCLA makes a run at the Playoff, Hundley could easily be in New York.

 

3. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State (66/1)

Not many players have thrown for at least 3,000 yards and rushed for at least 500 in the last two years but Kelly is one of them. He led ASU to the Pac-12 title game a year ago and another run at a league title — along with another 4,000-yard season — could get Kelly into the national discussion.

 

4. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon (N/A)

The Ducks have five starters back along the offensive line and an offense that has churned out Heisman candidates at running back. Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 168 carries last fall. If he can get upwards of 250 touches, he could lead the nation in rushing for Oregon. His only concern might be that backup Thomas Tyner might actually be the better player.

 

5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State (50/1)

The Beavers quarterback threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns last year, trailing only Derek Carr as the nation’s leading passer. If he can cut back on interceptions — he threw 12 in the last five games — and lead his team to a few more wins, Mannion should have the numbers to get to New York.

 

6. D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State (N/A)

Marion Grice scored 20 touchdowns last year so Foster could flourish in his expanded role as top running back. While he won’t be a true workhorse, Foster has shown he can be used all over the field. In his two-year career, Foster has rushed for 994 yards on 195 carries while posting 1,186 yards on 101 receptions. If he can get more than 200 touches, the Sun Devils' smallish star will be on national radars.

 

7. Buck Allen, RB, USC (N/A)

Javorius “Buck” Allen took control the starting tailback job at USC in the second half of last year and it has vaulted him into award conversations. Allen rushed for over 100 yards in four of the last six games and scored 12 times during that span. A full season workload could make Allen the top true workhorse back in the conference this year.

 

8. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC (N/A)

The first-team All-American is dynamic enough and versatile enough to get onto Heisman ballots. He scored twice on punt returns last fall while excelling as a No. 2 wideout for USC. Now, Agholor is the top target for an offense that will be much improved. He will get the ball in a lot of different ways and that could mean a monster season.

 

9. Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State (N/A)

The numbers will be there for the Mike Leach-coached quarterback. Halliday was third in the nation with 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns last year while getting Washington State back into the postseason. Much like Mannion, a few more wins and a few less turnovers would do wonders for Halliday.

 

10. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington (N/A)

Fans and experts all point to Myles Jack as the top defensive candidate to break through this fall but he isn’t expected to be used on offense this fall. Thompson, on the other hand, could see more than spot duty for the Huskies. He is a freak athlete, an All-American candidate and could be the next two-way star.

 

Others to consider: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State; Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford; Cody Kessler, QB, USC; Austin Hill, WR, Arizona; Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon

 

Five defensive players who should but won’t be in the mix:

 

Myles Jack, LB, UCLA (33/1)

Jack made a huge name for himself last fall while playing two ways. Unfortunately, Jim Mora has talked openly about returning his star linebacker to an exclusively defensive role. Either way, he is a star athlete who will be a national award winner at some point.

 

Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington

See above.

 

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon

The first-team All-American cornerback consistently makes highlight-reel plays on defense. He has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles in the last two seasons while making 147 total stops. He could be the most high-profile member of a Pac-12 championship defense.

 

Leonard Williams, DE, USC

The lanky defensive end is a projected top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and should he dominate the line of scrimmage once again — he has 26.0 TFL and 13.0 sacks in two seasons — he should be in line for national acclaim.

 

Su’a Cravens, S, USC

From a talent standpoint, few can match Cravens’ size and speed combination. He proved as a true freshman last year that he could be special, posting 53 tackles and four interceptions.

Teaser:
The Pac-12's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/georgia-south-carolina-clemson-bank-patient-quarterbacks
Body:

HOOVER, Ala. — An injury to Aaron Murray last season gave Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason a taste of the big-time. The injury that never happened, though, ensured Mason would have a full year as an SEC quarterback.

As it became clear Mason would have trouble earning playing time behind Murray, Mason and Georgia coach Mark Richt formulated a plan to keep the Marietta, Ga., native in Athens.

One plank of that was a redshirt year in 2012 so Mason would be able to start his final season once Murray graduated. The redshirt, though, was no sure thing. Mason remained Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback as the Bulldogs won the SEC East. Had Murray gone down anytime before the bowl game, Richt would have burned Mason’s redshirt.

“Even that season was a little bit crazy because at any given time if Murray would have got hurt ... Hutson would have played,” Richt said.

Murray stayed healthy that season, meaning Richt now has the luxury of a fifth-year senior running the offense in 2014. Mason is a rarity, not only that he didn't transfer like many in his shoes would have, but he's also spent five seasons entrenched the same offensive system under Richt and Mike Bobo.

 

"He's really sacrificed a lot for this team," Richt said. "He's staying because he loves Georgia, and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come and he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys — a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago."

Mason isn’t the only quarterback in the Southeast who needed to be patient for his turn. He’s one of three QBs at power programs who bucked a trend. South Carolina and Clemson will join Georgia with a senior under center in 2014. 

As Mason waited for Murray to leave, South Carolina senior Dylan Thompson needed three-year starter Connor Shaw to move on before he could take over the job full-time. Clemson senior Cole Stoudt finally gets his shot after backing up three-year starter Tajh Boyd.

Murray and Boyd were their respective school's career leading passers. Shaw was South Carolina's all-time winningest quarterback.

Many quarterbacks in similar situations as Mason, Thompson and Stoudt would have sought a better chance to start at another school. Instead, this trio stuck around and each will play key roles on teams with high aspirations in 2014. Both Georgia and South Carolina have eyes on an SEC championship while Clemson is eager to prove it can be a player on the national stage without Boyd and All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins.


Of Thompson, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he'll need to "pack his college career into one season." The same could be said of any of the three.

Thompson has the most experience, even if it’s all relative.

He’s 3-0 as a starter and helped South Carolina complete a 28-25 win over Fiesta Bowl champion UCF when Shaw was hurt in the first quarter.

But there was also Thompson’s start against Missouri. He went 15-of-27 for 222 yards with an interception as South Carolina fell behind 17-0. Out of desperation, Spurrier turned back to Shaw, who led South Carolina to a 27-24 win in double overtime despite a knee injury.

“I was just forcing the issue a lot,” Thompson said. “I’ve watched that tape I don’t know how many times, just learning to be patient and taking what the defense gives me. That’s what Connor did such a good job of.”

Thompson’s cross-state rival has thrown 118 career passes, but none in a contested game. Stoudt has completed 72.2 percent of his passes, almost all in lopsided games against the likes of South Carolina State, Ball State, Wake Forest and Virginia.

Stoudt had to win the job in spring, aided in part by the dismissal of Chad Kelly and the youth of Deshaun Watson. A top-100 freshman, Watson may be the quarterback of the future, but Clemson felt confident enough in Stoudt to hand him the keys to Chad Morris' offense.

“It's a huge thrill ride constantly,” Stoudt said at Media Day. “There's always something new every single day, and I've had a blast. I've never been more excited in my entire life.”

When Stoudt starts his first career game, he’ll do so against another first-year starter who at least got a taste last season.

The injury to Murray came in the final game of the SEC season, forcing Mason into duty. In his first start, he shook off a lackluster first half to lead a second-half comeback to beat Georgia Tech 41-34 in double overtime.

Where Stoudt inherits an offense run by one of the most dynamic coordinators in the country, Mason takes over an attack flush with skill position talent. Now healthy, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett could form one of the best running back/receiver groups in the SEC.

“Hutson has done a great job,” Conley said. “He’s been a field general out here, a leader. He’s done a great job of getting the team to rally behind him. The offense will be in good hands.”

South Carolina and Clemson hope to be saying the same thing this fall. 

Teaser:
Georgia, South Carolina, Clemson Bank on Patient Quarterbacks
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-july-21-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 21:

Kim Kardashian has mastered the bikini selfie. At least she has one marketable skill.

A guy used a painful sunburn to create a Dante Exum jersey.

How rare is it for a Hall of Famer to return to the team he started with? Pretty rare, as it turns out.

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols took shots at Fernando Rodney.

Megan Fox says she was star-struck by Russell Westbrook at the Kids Choice Awards.

Rory McIlroy's dad made more off the British Open than Tiger Woods.

Take a peek under David Feherty's hood. Kind of a scary place.

Speed golf: A game I could enjoy watching. (But not playing.)

Some WWE Russian heels referenced the downed Malaysian flight. Oh, well, wrestling's not known for good taste.

I was never going to visit China anyway, but now it's really out of the question.

Anthony Rizzo flipped into the photographer's well to make a sick grab.

• Watch an alert dad grab a foul ball while maintaining his grip on his toddler.

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, July 21, 2014 - 11:01
All taxonomy terms: coaches, Hot Seat, NFL, News
Path: /nfl-coaches-hot-seat-2014
Body:

Fourteen NFL teams have hired a new head coach in the last two offseasons and one of those franchises (Cleveland) doubled their pleasure during this span. With nearly half of the league employing first- or second-year head coaches, “tenure” isn’t exactly a word that’s used to describe this fraternity.

 

Even with all of the recent turnover at the top, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any coaches who are already feeling the pressure with Week 1 still more than six weeks away. These four head coaches need to produce results this fall if they don’t want to become the newest to join the ranks of the unemployed.

 

1) Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

The pressure’s always on for the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but that’s especially true for Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract and desperately needs to get his team into the playoffs. In his three and a half seasons at the helm, Garrett has yet to post a winning record over a full season. After going 5-3 when he replaced Wade Phillips (1-7 start) halfway through the 2010 season, Garrett has posted three consecutive .500 campaigns.

 

While the Cowboys’ four-year postseason drought is no doubt tough for owner/general manager Jerry Jones to stomach, the late collapses have been even more painful for him to endure. In each of the past three seasons, Dallas has had a chance to win the NFC East title. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have gone 0-3 in these games, which is a big reason why Garrett is feeling the heat in Big D.

 

2) Rex Ryan, New York Jets

Since leading the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons, Ryan’s team has gone 22-26 and missed the playoffs three straight years. With general manager John Idzik entering just his second season with the Jets, the onus is on Ryan to show Idzik (as well as owner Woody Johnson) he’s still the man for this job.

 

Ryan did sign a contract extension in January that carries him through at least 2016, but the pact has some interesting language, including verbiage that states the deal isn’t fully guaranteed after the ‘15 season. The contract also features incentives related to postseason success. In other words, the writing in his contract is pretty much the writing on the wall for Ryan this season – make the playoffs or you may not be with the Jets in 2015.

 

3) Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins

Philbin had the Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card chase until disappointing back-to-back losses to end the season. So after a two-game improvement (7-9) from his rookie year, why is he on the hot seat?

 

For one, thanks to an embarrassing bullying scandal that put the team in the national spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, the pressure is on Philbin to show his critics that he is in control of the locker room. The ‘Fins also need to focus on making headlines for what happens on the field, not off of it. And while Philbin survived the Dolphins’ tumultuous offseason, several others did not. With former Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey now in place as the general manager, Philbin may as well treat this season like a job interview. And in that respect, hopefully the on-the-field results will provide all the answers to Hickey’s questions.

 

4) Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders

Allen’s gone 4-12 in each of his first two seasons in Oakland and let’s face it, no one expects the Raiders to produce a miraculous turnaround this year either. However, these are no longer Al Davis’ Raiders, as son Mark has taken over the reins and empowered general manager Reggie McKenzie to overhaul the roster.

 

McKenzie was very busy this offseason, using free agency and a couple of trades to bring in a lot of new faces. The Raiders clearly have a long way go before they can be considered legitimate contenders, and with recent draft picks like linebacker Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and cornerback D.J. Hayden considered a big part of the future, it’s not out of the question that the next change made is at head coach. After all, the Raiders certainly are no strangers to coaching changes — try seven different head coaches since Jon Gruden left after the 2001 season.

 

Getting warmer?

 

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

Last season, Lewis became the first in coach in Bengals’ history to earn three straight playoff berths. Unfortunately, Lewis is still looking for his first postseason victory (0-5), and even though he’s the winningest coach in franchise history (90-85-1 in 11 seasons), one can’t help but wonder if Lewis has taken this team as far as he can. And despite all of his success in Cincinnati, Lewis’ current contract is set to expire after the 2015 season.

 

Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were decimated by injuries last season, so Smith should get a mulligan for their 4-12 showing, which broke a string of three consecutive 10-win seasons. However, with the NFC South only getting tougher and owner Arthur Blank readying his shiny (and expensive) new stadium in 2017, it wouldn’t hurt Smith to show that 2013 was the exception and not the norm.

 

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

From coach of the year to the unemployment line? It’s not likely, considering Rivera led the Panthers to an improbable 12-4 record and NFC South title last season, which netted him the AP’s NFL Coach of the Year award. However, after nearly doubling his win total from his first two years (13-19) at the helm, Rivera can’t afford too many steps backward this season in what figures to be a tightly contested division. Fair or not, Rivera has raised the expectation level in Charlotte, which subsequently decreases his margin for error.

 

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

A two-time AFC champion with a Super Bowl ring to his credit, it’s entirely possible that Tomlin directs the Steelers back to the top of the AFC North this season. And should that happen, any questions surrounding his job security would be rendered moot. However, after consecutive 8-8 finishes which resulted in the proud franchise’s first extended playoff drought in more than a decade, Tomlin also knows that his team needs to produce better results in 2014 if he doesn’t want to worry about answering said questions.

 

Tom Coughlin, New York Giants

Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants and is among the top 15 head coaches in all-time wins (14th with 158). Even if the Giants fare considerably worse than 7-9 this season, I don’t really see any scenario in which co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch fire Coughlin, who is the third-longest tenured head coach (11 seasons). However, considering the Giants’ steady decline since their 2011 Super Bowl run, I am not ruling out the possibility that Coughlin makes the decision to call it quits after a Hall of Fame-worthy career that covers nearly two decades. If anything, Coughlin, who is signed through the 2015 season, has earned the right to leave on his terms.

Teaser:
NFL Coaches on the Hot Seat in 2014
Post date: Monday, July 21, 2014 - 11:00
Path: /golf/5-key-stats-british-open
Body:

At one point during Sunday's coronation at Royal Liverpool, Rory McIlroy's lead, which was six at the start of the day, had dwindled to two over Sergio Garcia. But this was no Van de Velde moment in the making. McIlroy was really never threatened on his way to a two-shot British Open win and his third major championship. "I got within two,” Garcia said, “but to me, it never felt that close."

 

McIlroy now owns three of golf's four crown jewels, and at 25, he's the third-youngest since The Masters began in 1934 to earn the trifecta, trailing only Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24). Yes, that's the company that McIlroy is now keeping, and he displays the kind of power ball-striking, poise and desire that marked the two legends at similar stages in their careers.

 

As Woods continues his long, slow fade, it seems that we have entered the Age of Rory. We may never see the kind of dominance that Woods displayed in his prime, when his dreaded A-game left everyone else playing for second, but McIlroy is willing to take the top spot for a test drive. “Golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try,” said McIlroy. “I want to be the guy who goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I’ve love to be in that position.”

 

And the lead story for the 2015 Masters has already been written: McIlroy will look to complete the career Grand Slam at a tournament he seems destined to win. “Looking forward to driving up Magnolia Lane next year,” he said.

 

Here are the key stats from the weekend at Royal Liverpool:

16

McIlroy is the 16th player to win at least three of the four major championships. He's the 44th player to win as many as three majors.

 

4

Sergio Garcia posted his fourth runner-up finish in his 62nd major appearance. He's tied with Lee Westwood for most major appearances without a win.

 

7

McIlroy tied Victor Dubuisson for most greens reached in under regulation, with seven. McIlroy eagled two of the final three holes on Saturday to build what turned out to be an insurmountable lead.

 

1

Only one player in the field posted four rounds in the 60s — Rickie Fowler, who went 69-69-68-67 to finish at 15-under, tied with Garcia for second, two shots back. Fowler was second at the U.S. Open and tied for fifth at The Masters. "Going into the year the goal was to be in contention at majors and play well and have chances to win," Fowler said. "And with all the good play, the long-distance goal on that was to be on the Ryder Cup team. With the way I've playing in the majors this year, that's definitely what has given me the opportunity to represent the country."

 

7

At 64, Tom Watson shot a final-round 68 to finish at 1-over. He was seven shots better than a player he'll be considering for his Ryder Cup squad, Tiger Woods.

 

$340,000

Rory McIlroy's dad, Gerry, and three friends placed a bet of 400 pounds back in 2004 that Rory would win the Open before he turned 26. The quartet will cash a check worth $340,000 for Rory's efforts.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, July 21, 2014 - 10:36
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Florida Gators, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/will-muschamps-future-florida-hinges-revamped-offense
Body:

The days of Steve Spurrier’s Fun ’n’ Gun are long past — relegated to record books, YouTube clips and faded memories among longtime Florida Gators fans.

 

Tim Tebow is doing TV, Percy Harvin is preparing for his sixth NFL season and Urban Meyer is coaching at Ohio State.

 

The Gators’ offense followed them out the door, apparently never to return.

 

Left now are question marks, coaching transition and waning patience from even the most loyal Florida fans.

 

Head coach Will Muschamp enters his fourth year on the hot seat following the program’s first losing season since 1979. While Muschamp’s defenses have finished each year ranked in the top 10 nationally, his offenses have not once cracked the top 100. The Gators averaged 14.4 points during a seven-game losing streak to cap 2013’s 4–8 season, leaving Muschamp with time for one more Hail Mary to save his coaching career in Gainesville.

 

Enter Kurt Roper, the longtime protégé of Duke head coach and quarterback whiz David Cutcliffe, one-time mentor of Eli Manning at Ole Miss and the man handed one of the toughest jobs in college football.

 

Roper’s up-tempo scheme carried the Blue Devils to new heights and helped Duke’s offense go toe-to-toe with Johnny Football and Texas A&M during a shootout loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Now, Roper has one offseason at Florida to teach his system to a collection of unprovens, unknowns and underachievers.

 

Or else he and the Gators’ coaching staff might not be back for another offseason.

 

“We have to produce,” Muschamp says. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I’d feel a little bit more uncomfortable if we didn’t have some of the talented players we have on our football team.


Florida's Offense Over the Last Three Years
 2013
(SEC rank)
2012
(SEC rank)
2011
(SEC rank)
Total offense316.7 ypg
(14th)     
334.0 ypg
(12th)
328.7 ypg
(10th)
Yards per play4.79 ypp
(14th)
5.25 ypp
(12th)
5.42 ypp
(6th)
Rushing145.8 ypg
(13th)
187.7 ypg
(3rd)
143.0 ypg
(8th)
Passing170.9 ypg
(12th)
146.3 ypg
(14th)
185.7 ypg
(5th)
Scoring18.8 ppg
(14th) 
26.5 ppg
(10th)
25.5 ppg
(8th)

“I feel confident in the players we have and the changes we’ve made in our staff moving forward.”

 

The Gators finished 2013 ranked last in the SEC in points and yards. Even in 2012, when Florida went 11–2 and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, the Gators were last in the league in passing.

 

The day after Florida’s season ended with a 37–7 loss to Florida State and without a bowl bid for the first time in 23 years, Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after two seasons.

 

Muschamp is banking on Roper and veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers to tap into the potential of a host of high-level recruits who have failed to produce as planned.

 

Chief among them is junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who will be the key if the Gators’  offense is to turn things around in 2014. Driskel is 11–3 as a starter at Florida, but he rode the coattails of the nation’s best defense as a sophomore in 2012, finishing with 12 touchdown passes and 35 sacks, many because he held onto the ball too long. Last season, Driskel had five turnovers, including three critical miscues during a 21–16 loss at Miami, before he broke his leg in the season’s third game, against Tennessee.

Related: College Football's Top Players Returning From Injury for 2014

 

But one thing Driskel has shown he can do is run; he totaled 716 rushing yards, not including sacks, in 2012.

 

Roper will place Driskel in the shotgun and use the spread formation to highlight the dual-threat abilities that made him the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit in 2011. Too often, Driskel appeared paralyzed by the decision-making required of Pease’s pro-style system.

 

“He’s talented, folks,” Roper said in March during spring practices. “I mean we’re sitting here talking about a guy that’s really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It’s not his first rodeo.”

 

Upbeat evaluations are as common that time of year as springtime allergies. Optimism also does not hide the facts. No returning Gator wide receiver caught more than one touchdown in 2013, while the tight ends (not including Virginia transfer Jake McGee) combined for four receptions. Tailback Kelvin Taylor, son of former NFL star Fred Taylor, displayed a hard-running style as a first-year player, but the Gators lack a home-run threat anywhere on offense to change a game in one play.

 

Meanwhile, Summers, a 34-year coaching veteran, faces one of his toughest assignments yet when it comes to the Gators’ offensive line. Florida allowed 66 sacks the past two seasons and lost two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in 2013. UF’s run game averaged 3.6 yard per carry. Worse, the Gators lost their two best linemen, three-year starters Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio.

 

“They don’t have a receiver on their football team that would start at another SEC school right now,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg says. “Think about that. This is the University of Florida.”

 

Under Spurrier, the Gators revolutionized SEC football. The Fun ’n’ Gun era produced four straight SEC championships, a national title and 59 40-point games.

 

The Gators won two more national titles using Meyer’s spread offense, with Tebow at the controls and thoroughbreds like Harvin lined up beside him.

 

Offensive talent flocked to Gainesville during those days. Lately, top recruits are jumping ship.

 

When five-star running back Dalvin Cook of Miami changed his commitment in January from Florida to Florida State, the Gators lost the kind of big-play threat they have lacked since Harvin. Cook also left Florida fans with a bad taste in their mouths when he explained his decision.

 

“Coach Roper is a great coach, but I don’t think Florida has the athletes like Duke got,” Cook said. “That’s all I can say.”

 

Recruiting misses, injuries and coaching turnover have plagued the Gators dating to Meyer’s final season in 2010.

 

To see the big picture, look no further than sixth-year senior wide receiver Andre Debose.

 

Debose was tabbed “the next Percy Harvin” when he signed with the Gators in 2009. Since then, he has worked with five wide receivers coaches, four offensive coordinators and endured two season-ending injuries.

 

These days, Debose is recovering from an ACL tear suffered last August, hoping finally to make his mark during the extra season gained by the NCAA’s medical hardship waiver. A five-star recruit with four touchdown catches in three seasons, Debose will turn 24 the day before the Gators’ SEC opener on Sept. 13 at home against Kentucky. He believes he stuck around long enough to see Florida finally turn things around on offense.

 

“I expect this offense to definitely put up some numbers,” Debose says. “I feel like the whole SEC is changing to the spread from the smashmouth. It’s going to be a challenge this season for other teams to stop us.”

 

Roper says that the offense that Florida will put on the field will be far easier to execute than it will be for opposing teams to stop.

 

“The Gators want to have an offense that is simple to learn, but complicated to defend,” he says.

 

The mandate for Debose, Roper and the entire Florida offense this season is not complicated in the least: It’s time to produce.

 

Written by Edgar Thompson (@osgators) of the Orlando Sentinel 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.

Teaser:
Will Muschamp's Future at Florida Hinges on an Offensive Overhaul
Post date: Monday, July 21, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /101-funny-fantasy-football-team-names
Body:

The upcoming NFL season marks the kickoff of everyone's real favorite sport — fantasy football. Only one team in your league will be crowned Super Bowl champion. But it just takes a dirty joke or some well-crafted Johnny Football trolling to cash in on the best fantasy football team name. Here are a few suggestions for this season:

Brown-out Drunk

Money Manziel

Drake's New Favorite Team

Mount Douchemore

Waka Flacco Flame

U Mad Bro?

Taste My Rainbow

12th Man Records

Bout That Action, Boss

Harbaugh's Dad Pants

Trolling Crabtree

Vince Young's Steakhouse

Cry Me a Rivers

Connecticut Cholos

Hernandez Hit Men

The Gronk Abides

Party Like a Gronk Star

Wilfork Dance Party

Keyshawn Beliebs

Touchdown Germany

Gisele's Bundchens

Mr. UGG Boots

I Spygate

Evil Empire

Revis' Vineyard

Jay-Z's My Agent

Off to Tennessee the Whiz

Remember the Titans

I Don't Want Your Life

Bud Kilmer's Coyotes

Dillon Panthers

Kissing Suzy Kolber

Pouncey Bouncers

Miami AR-15s

Smokin' Jay Cutler

Black Unicorns

Dirty Sanchez Butt-Fumblers

Purple Jesus Juice

All Day 2K

J.J. S.W.A.T.T. Team

Clowney Question Bro

Kaepernick Swag

Eli Looking at Things

You Down With JPP?

Mannings' O-Face

Peyton Manning's 5-Head

Omaha! Omaha!

Mile High Manning

Welker, Texas Ranger

Sherman's Last Rant

The Boldin the Beautiful

Call Me the Brees

Jimmy "WR" Graham

No Romo

Jason Garrett's Ginger Boys

Monte Kiffin's 401K

Dez Does Dallas

80% Mental, 40% Physical

Laces Out

Show Me the Money

Four Horsemen

Titletown TDs

Titletown Cheeseheads

Super Bowl Quadruple-Check

Prime Prep Two-Step

Don Beebe's Hustle

Toronto Bills

Big Ol' Bortles

RG 3000

Not Racist Redskins

Hard Knocks Life

Eat a Damn Snack

Motown Megatrons

Suh Girls, One Cup

Boy Named Suh

Somewhere Over Dwayne Bowe

K.C. Kool-Aid Man

Drinkin' Fortes

Turn Your Head and Coughlin

Tampa Bay Terminators

Polk High Panthers

JaMarcus' Purple Drank Diet

Jim Haslem's Accountants

Illiterate Read Option

Springfield Atoms

Forgetting Brandon Marshall

Ron Mexico's Perro

It's Always Runny in Philadelphia

Favre Dollar Footlong

Van Buren Boys

Crab-leg Bootleg

Makin' It Wayne

Luckness Monster

Irsay's $29K

Red Hot Julius Peppers

Show Me Your TDs

Slow White Bronco

Going Incognito

Wham, Bam, Michael Sam

Straight Cash Homey

Gruden vs. Gruden

Teaser:
These 101 fantasy football team names will make your league laugh
Post date: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, rookies, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/top-20-fantasy-football-rookies-2014
Body:

Entering last season, the two rookies that were widely projected to have the biggest fantasy impact in 2013 were running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Their electric debuts didn’t exactly materialize, for different reasons, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any first-year fantasy standouts either.

 

Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy all finished among the top 20 running backs in fantasy points, while San Diego’s Keenan Allen put up better numbers than the likes of Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Victor Cruz, among many others.

 

So which members of the 2014 NFL Draft class are the ones to target for your fantasy team this season?

 

1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo

No one was really surprised when the Bills traded up to grab Watkins at No. 4 overall. And based on the steep price (two first-round picks, one fourth) the team paid to do so, it’s pretty clear the former Clemson star will be a huge part of the offensive game plan from the start. Watkins was a threat to break off a big play whenever he touched the ball in college, and his all-purpose skills only add to his appeal. The Bills traded away No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, so the opportunity is there for Watkins to step in and immediately become quarterback EJ Manuel’s favorite target. 

 

2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee

The first running back off of the board, Sankey (above, right) is the beneficiary of an unsettled Titans backfield with Chris Johnson now on the Jets and Shonn Greene coming off of knee surgery, along with the fact the team has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt. A workhorse at Washington, Sankey figures to see plenty of touches this fall and should be the first rookie running back drafted.

 

3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans

The nation’s best wide receiver lands on a team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It could be a match made in fantasy heaven for Cooks, who caught 128 passes last season. While it wouldn’t shock me to see Cooks post the best numbers of any rookie wideout when all is said and done, there’s still the matter of grasping the Saints’ complex passing game and the fact that Drew Brees doesn’t lack for targets with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas around.

 

4. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina

The Panthers’ top four wide receivers from last season are gone, so opportunity should not be an issue for Benjamin. A big (6-5, 241) target, Cam Newton should have little trouble finding Benjamin, provided the rookie learns the ins and outs of being an NFL wide receiver.

 

5. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati

Giovani Bernard is the Bengals’ top backfield option, but he’s also more of the change-of-pace guy, not the bruising, between-the-tackles rusher. Right now that job belongs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but Hill could quickly supplant him. To that end, even though BJGE averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry last season, he did have seven rushing touchdowns.

 

6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants

Hakeem Nicks is now in Indianapolis, so that certainly helps Beckham’s chances of getting on the field early. However, the Giants already have Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan at the position, and with a grizzly old veteran like Tom Coughlin as head coach, Beckham will have to earn his playing time. Still, with no established tight end on the roster and Eli Manning at quarterback, there’s much to like about Beckham’s fantasy potential.

 

7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay

The jury seems to be out on Evans, but there’s no disputing his production (1,394 yards, 12 TDs at Texas A&M last season) or the fact he’s a large (6-5) target capable of making big plays down the field. In addition, the Buccaneers traded Mike Williams to Buffalo, so the No. 2 job opposite Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is available.

 

8. Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco

The thinking is that Hyde is the heir apparent to Frank Gore, who has nearly 2,200 carries in his career. However, Gore is only 31 years old and the 49ers have other options in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore (see below). The 49ers love to run the ball, but don’t lack for mouths to feed either.

 

9. Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville

A first-round talent according to many scouts, Lee fell in the Jaguars’ lap early in the second. With Justin Blackmon’s future with the team uncertain at best, the only sure thing Jacksonville has at wide receiver is Cecil Shorts. If not for the quarterback situation, Lee would be higher on this list.

 

10. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland

The No. 1 attraction in the entire draft class, Manziel won’t be handed the starting job by rookie head coach Mike Pettine. However, considering Brian Hoyer has four total career starts under his belt, it may just be a matter of time before Manziel is running the show. His dual-threat ability is obviously appealing, but don’t push Manziel too high up your draft board, unless it’s a keeper/dynasty league.

 

Related: Does Johnny Manziel Have Any Fantasy Value in 2014?

 

11. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit

Although he didn’t play basketball, Ebron fits the Jimmy Graham mold pretty well and he landed with a team that’s fairly pass-happy in its own right. Ebron’s shortcomings as a blocker may actually bolster his fantasy value, especially if the Lions line him up out wide (See: Jimmy Graham).

 

12. Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis

The Heisman finalist finds himself behind Zac Stacy, another SEC alumnus, in the Rams’ backfield pecking order. Head coach Jeff Fisher seems committed to Stacy, last year’s fifth-round pick who emerged from nowhere to seize the starting job. However, that doesn’t mean history can’t repeat itself this season with Mason. At worst, Mason figures to be a potential flex play or bye week fill-in down the road.

 

13. Terrance West, RB, Cleveland

The Browns signed Ben Tate as a free agent, but his production has dipped in the past few seasons and he has struggled to stay healthy. Coming from FBS member Towson, West may be somewhat unknown and unheralded, but that could change if he gets enough touches this season.

 

14. Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets

Amaro was a pass-catching magnet at Texas Tech, which is something the Jets haven’t had at tight end since Dustin Keller. The question is can Geno Smith find and, more importantly, connect with Amaro?

 

15. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia

Plenty to like about the SEC’s all-time leading wide receiver, but it remains to be seen how Chip Kelly will use him in an offense that attempted the sixth-fewest passes last season. Also don’t forget about the additions of Jeremy Maclin (missed last season with torn ACL) and Darren Sproles (via trade with New Orleans).

 

16. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville

Like Marqise Lee, Robinson immediately bolsters a receiving corps that lacked playmakers. But Robinson is probably behind Lee and Cecil Shorts on the depth chart for a team that finished near the bottom in pass offense last season. A hamstring injury suffered during OTAs only adds to the uncertainty surrounding Robinson’s fantasy potential.

 

17. Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay

Doug Martin should be 100 percent recovered from a torn labrum, which probably limits Sims’ chances. However, new Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith probably sees some Matt Forté in Sims, who could carve out a role as a receiver out of the backfield.

 

18. Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota

Toby Gerhart is now in Jacksonville, so the backup job is there for the taking. Just remember who holds the No. 1 job in Minnesota, which is the main reason Gerhart is now a Jaguar.

 

19. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Kansas City

Can Thomas be Andy Reid’s new Dexter McCluster? If so, the former Oregon all-purpose dynamo could develop into a fantasy sleeper.

 

20. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay

Like teammate Mike Evans, Seferian-Jenkins was very productive in college. Unfortunately, Seferian-Jenkins’ path to the Buccaneers’ starting lineup doesn’t seem as clear as Evans’, not with last year’s pleasant surprise, 2013 undrafted free agent Timothy Wright, and a couple of veteran tight ends on the roster.

 

Others to Watch (alphabetical order):

 

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay – Great quarterback, crowded receiving corps.

Dri Archer, RB, Pittsburgh – Special teams weapon could see role as change-of-pace back.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota – May be most pro-ready rookie QB, but Vikings in no rush to throw him out there.

Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago – Open competition to be Matt Forté’s backup.

Shaq Evans, WR, New York Jets – After Eric Decker Jets’ receiving corps is unsettled.

Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta – Steven Jackson is not getting any younger.

Nate Freese, K, Detroit – Kickers score points too, especially for an offense like Detroit’s.

T.J. Jones, WR, Detroit – Plenty of targets available for another Lion wide receiver to emerge behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami – Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace weren’t exactly on the same page last season.

Cody Latimer, WR, Denver – Any Denver wide receiver deserves to be mentioned, but Latimer may be more of a 2015 option.

Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle – Golden Tate is gone, while Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice are no strangers to the injury report.

Devin Street, WR, Dallas – Miles Austin’s departure presents an opportunity for a new No. 3 wide receiver to emerge.

Lorenzo Taliaferro, RB, Baltimore – Ravens running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season.

 

(Bishop Sankey photo courtesy of Tennessee Titans' Web site, www.titansonline.com; Odell Beckham Jr. photo courtesy of New York Giants' Web site, newyorkgiants.com; Jace Amaro photo courtesy of New York Jets' Web site, www.newyorkjets.com; Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)

Teaser:
Top 20 Fantasy Football Rookies for 2014
Post date: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-july-18-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 18:

 

The cheerleaders of the NFL have been spending their offseason on calendar shoots in exotic locations.

 

• The other day, John Daly was wearing SpongeBob pants. Today, it was pants with drawings of well-endowed ladies. Hope he packed enough pants for the weekend; looks like he's going to make the cut.

 

Tim Howard sent a tweet asking the Knicks if they had any cap room.

 

• This is shocking and disappointing: Several of today's top golfers couldn't name the four Beatles. That's like Pop Culture 101, fellas.

 

• For some insane reason, Tyler Seguin let a Stars fan tee up and hit a ball off his junk.

 

MLS MVP Mike Magee made a Ferris Bueller parody. Never heard of him, but it's well done.

 

Watch a guy use a child's slide and trampoline to beclown himself. I bet his last words will someday be "Watch this."

 

• Jimmy Fallon is livin' the dream. Last night, he played flip cups with Miranda Kerr.

 

Haloti Ngata goes beast mode with a 150-pound dumbell.

 

• A guy wanted A.J. Hawk to tackle him at a celebrity golf tournament. A.J. Hawk happily obliged.

 

• Pickin's are so slim in Miami that D-Wade has taken to playing ball with a dolphin.

 

• Sonny Gray pranked some unsuspecting New Yorkers.

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 11:08
Path: /nfl/5-nfl-teams-poised-make-big-turnarounds-2014
Body:

2014 was a fun year in the football universe, culminating in a Super Bowl championship for the Seattle Seahawks and a runner-up finish for the Denver Broncos. Though these two squads enjoyed deep postseason runs, not every city is blessed with athletes as accomplished as Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.

 

Some teams string along years of dominance through frugal management and brilliant coaching (see: New England Patriots). Others take time to build the foundation of a championship-quality roster (see: Kansas City Chiefs). And every year, a few teams find themselves with the short end of the stick, crashing and burning before they can even figure out what the problem is. But these unfortunate squads are notable not necessarily for the games they lost, but rather for the games they could have won. Football is truly a “game of inches”, so even the most minute offseason changes can turn a bottom-dweller into a contender in a hurry.

 

Though the number of wins varies greatly around the league each year, the parity in talent levels between NFL teams is not as wide a gap as many would imagine. Whether it's through the draft or free agency or a byproduct of the coaching carousel, not mention a bit of fortune, there are a myriad of ways by which a team can go from worst to first fairly quickly. With that in mind, here are five teams ready to rebound in 2014.

 

Atlanta Falcons

2013 Record: 4-12

2014 Schedule Outlook: Fair

 

The Bad: Tough division & brutal final stretch - last four games: at Packers, home vs. Steelers, at Saints, home vs. Panthers

 

The Good: 4 out of last 6 games are at home

 

Matt Ryan and company return to the field coming off of the franchise’s ugliest campaign in recent memory. With HBO’s "Hard Knocks" filming the Falcons' training camp this summer, the spotlight is on the “dirty birds” to produce in a big fashion in 2014. Two seasons ago, the team nearly wound up in the Super Bowl. The Falcons also made appearances in the postseason in 2010 and '11. The forecast was sunny back then; Atlanta projected as a championship candidate for years to come. How quickly things have changed.

 

Last season, the Falcons were the victims of a greatly improved NFC South. Cam Newton’s rise to supremacy in the division hasn’t allowed much breathing room for the rest of the division’s teams. When you pair the Panthers’ emergence with the return the Saints had after getting head coach Sean Payton back, it was only natural for the Falcons to drop off a small amount. But four wins is a mark expected at the season’s quarter waypoint in the Peach State. Losing Tony Gonzalez to retirement means it will be tough for the Falcons to return to normalcy in 2014. Still, Julio Jones, Roddy White and a talented group of newcomers will do all that’s humanly possible to get this squad back to relevancy.

 

In 2013, Jones suffered a tragic, season-ending foot fracture in Week 5. The Falcons lost that game to the Jets, and went on to win just three of their next 11. Jones should be healthy and ready to roll in 2014. Additionally, seven of the Falcons' 12 losses last year were by a touchdown or less, and the majority of the teams that they lost to were playoff qualifiers. Clearly, the Falcons were a few mishaps away from having a vastly different record.

 

Atlanta has gotten increasingly younger over the past few years and with nine draft picks in 2014, the Falcons addressed one of their most detrimental problems: a lack of depth. With the sixth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons selected Jake Matthews, offensive tackle from Texas A&M. Matthews was an important factor in Johnny Manziel’s collegiate stardom. If the tackle’s superb instincts and size translate to the next level, Matt Ryan will be taking his O-line out to plenty of steak dinners over the course of the season.

 

Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is a bit of an enigma coming out of the University of Minnesota. He has the physical tools that he needs to excel in the NFL, but scouts questioned his consistency and every-down performance. Aside from those two studs, the Falcons used the remaining seven picks mainly to address some issues in the secondary and with the pass rush. It wasn’t the most star-studded of classes, but the Falcons now have a few more players who can fill the various holes in a thin roster.

 

Ultimately, the Falcons’ 2014 draft class won’t make or break this team’s season. Young bucks like cornerback Desmond Trufant must improve while new additions, namely defensive tackle Paul Soliai, must prove their worth. New running back Devonta Freeman has been brought in to complement existing backfield weapons Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. But none of those three, or Ryan, will be able to get anything going if blockers don’t create time for them to react. In short, this team will travel as far as its offensive line allows.

 

With an abundance of offensive talent, all Atlanta truly needs is a solid wall of blockers that allows the team’s playmakers to show why they’re paid the big bucks. The wins this year might come in shootouts, but a W on the schedule is all that matters for coach Mike Smith. If the “dirty birds” stick to the game plan, this season won’t end after 16 games for this squad.

 

Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth

 

Detroit Lions

2013 Record: 7-9

2014 Schedule Outlook: Easy

 

The Bad: At Patriots Week 12, then at Bears, at Packers Weeks 16 & 17

 

The Good: Face the yardage-anemic Vikings twice. Jets, Dolphins & Buccaneers also are on the schedule

 

The Detroit Lions have the tools to navigate the 2014 season deftly and end up in the driver’s seat of a very winnable NFC North. Yes, they finished third last year behind the Packers and Bears, but the Lions are due for a successful season.

 

Even with Calvin Johnson snatching every football in sight, Detroit has struggled to meet its potential each and every season. Now, with quarterback Matthew Stafford signed to a three-year, $53 million extension through 2017, it’s time for the Lions to show up. It’s no secret that first-year head coach Jim Caldwell and his revamped coaching staff inherits a touchy situation in Motor City. The good news for Caldwell is that a stacked offense and a serviceable defense should secure his job for years to come.

 

Stafford has arguably the richest treasure chest of play-toys of any QB in the NFL. Between Reggie Bush, Megatron, and the newly acquired Golden Tate, plenty of touchdowns are going to be scored. The real question is: exactly how many TDs will be scored, and how fast will they reach the end zone? On the defensive side of the ball, there are a few more pressing questions. Will the secondary hold up? Will a skilled pass-rushing unit finally penetrate the opposing pocket? These are just a few of the unanswered issues heading into the season.

 

Detroit is betting on its defensive roster to improve based on physical training and an increased familiarity with schemes after doing little in the offseason to add new pieces to a decent unit. The Lions see 13-year veteran Rashean Mathis as the potential solution at the cornerback position. This display of complacency should tell you all you need to know about the state of the Detroit secondary. However, the team did sign James Ihedigbo, who comes off a standout season in Baltimore, at the safety spot. You’re only as good as your weakest link. If that saying is true, the Lions will live and die with their defensive backs in 2014.

 

Detroit decided to upgrade its already potent offense this draft. With the 10th overall pick, management had a ton of potential routes in which the franchise could be redirected. By taking Eric Ebron, a freak athlete who starred at tight end for North Carolina, the Lions made their intentions clear. Detroit is choosing to approach the NFL, a quarterback’s league, by surrounding its own field-manager with a loaded arsenal of weaponry. If Stafford can’t get the job done with this supporting cast, it’ll be hard to defend his role as an NFL starter.

 

The Lions’ other picks were mainly oriented towards a long-term vision, but the team’s second-round pick caught some eyes. Kyle Van Noy, a popular BYU linebacker and rusher, was a projected top-10 pick if he had left school a year ago. After his senior year, his stock fell off and he was forgotten as prospects like Khalil Mack stole the limelight. Detroit doesn’t mind; Van Noy will compete for the starting strong-side linebacker job from day one.

 

Last season, this team simply collapsed under pressure – Lions fans are familiar with this occurrence. The team won just two of its last eight games. This would be considered a dismal outcome for any team, much less a postseason hopeful. But with all five pieces on an excellent offensive line returning, a new and improved coaching staff, and an explosive offensive toolbox, the Lions are destined for the playoffs in 2014. Shaky defense and special teams means that the bulk of Detroit’s wins must come from overwhelming offensive performances. But Jim Caldwell doesn’t mind grinding out a win, and he’ll take as many as he rightfully can in his first year in Motown.

 

Projected Record: 11-5, win NFC North

 

Buffalo Bills

2013 Record: 6-10

2014 Schedule Outlook: Merciful

 

The Bad: At Chicago to open things, at Denver in Week 14, wrap up at New England in Week 17

           

The Good: Play the lowly Jets twice. Toughest two-week stretch is Weeks 5-6: at Detroit followed by home vs. New England

 

Last year was a rough outing for the Buffalo Bills. They performed valiantly, competing up until the last minute in almost every game, but still walked away with the worst record in the AFC East. In reality, the Bills’ record could have easily been 10-6 instead of 6-10. To elaborate, the Bills lost to New England by two points in their first game and later fell short against Cincinnati and Atlanta in overtime. These three missed opportunities demonstrate just how frustrating 2013 was for the organization. This year, expect a reversal of fortune for Buffalo, as the Bills have found continuity and have added a few big-time players to the roster via the NFL Draft.

 

Breaking in a new head coach and quarterback last year proved to be a difficult process. Rookie coach Doug Marrone proved his worth, while quarterback EJ Manuel showed flashes of promise. A knee injury held Manuel out for much of the season and when he saw the field, his stats weren’t exactly eye-popping. But with receiver Robert Woods assuming a greater role in the offense and the addition of the explosive Sammy Watkins, you can count on an enormous jump in performance from Buffalo’s QB.

 

The 2014 NFL Draft has allowed the Bills to upgrade many positions this offseason. They acquired help on the offensive line by selecting Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandijo and Baylor’s Cyril Richardson. These two will undoubtedly help Manuel make further strides in his game. But the Bills made the most noise in this draft by trading up in the first round to draft Watkins with the fourth pick. We might find that the Bills made a league-altering decision when we look back on this selection in 10 years. Watkins has the potential to be a difference-maker from his first snap in the NFL, and he better do so because the Bills gave up next year’s first-round choice to select him. In free agency, the organization added linebacker Brandon Spikes to an already fearsome defensive unit. Even with the loss of safety Jairus Byrd, it’s safe to say this offseason has been good to the Buffalo Bills.

 

The franchise is trudging through the longest active postseason drought in the NFL, the last appearance coming in 1999. But this drought can end in 2014 if the Bills win the close ones. Mario Williams, the first overall draft pick in the 2006 draft, has blossomed into one of the league’s best pass-rushers, quietly recording 13 sacks last season. Losing second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL poses a challenge for the Bills. Still, the defense won't need to do much to see the team finish second in a weak AFC East. On offense, C.J. Spiller flies under the radar but is on a short list of the most electric rushers and return specialists in the NFL.

 

Clearly, this team has the necessary talent to succeed. The only question now is if that talent will translate to wins. With a forgiving schedule and an improved offensive repertoire, don’t be too surprised if Buffalo snags a playoff spot in 2014.

 

Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth

 

Houston Texans

2013 Record: 2-14

2014 Schedule Outlook: Ideal

 

The Bad: Probably not winning the AFC South outright over the Colts

 

The Good: Gift of a schedule – Open against Redskins at home, second half of season features only three teams with winning records in 2013

 

It’s rare for a team to be truly worthy of a two-win record. In the case of the Houston Texans, the roster wasn’t the worst in the league but 2013 was a season that completely fell apart. The team’s starting quarterback was traded, the head coach was fired, but the misery did deliver the first overall pick to the franchise. After a league-worst record and a 10-win drop-off from the previous season, one would expect a team to officially enter “rebuilding mode”, a euphemism for sucking. Badly. The Texans waited until the fourth round to grab a quarterback, which may restrict the team’s chances of rebounding. But with little expectation to make noise in the AFC, it’d be characteristic of the underdog Texans to turn some heads in 2014.

 

The Texans are a mirror image of the NFC's Falcons, minus a steady solution at the quarterback position. Like the Falcons, the Texans were considered dark horse Super Bowl candidates last season but turned out to be monumental frauds. The last 14 games that the Texans played have been losses, including a sweep against the Jaguars. Former quarterback Matt Schaub set the record last season for consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. Star running back Arian Foster was sidelined with a back injury. Coach Gary Kubiak had a mid-season stroke. He was fired about a month later. It was more than a tough season for the Texans. It was a meltdown of epic proportions.   

 

The biggest offseason event for this team was bringing a new head coach into town, Bill Belichick disciple and former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. If O’Brien can fix the offense as quickly as he did in Happy Valley, the Texans' faithful will be delighted with this hire. Under O’Brien, collegiate quarterback Matt McGloin completely stepped up his game and ended up landing with the Raiders.

 

Free agent pickup Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage can squeeze the most out of their potential in the new offensive scheme. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster won’t be too mad about it either. Though, all this depends upon a rock-solid offensive line. The problems, which will inevitably arise, will be mental rather than physical with this offense. The talent is there, but learning O’Brien’s complicated system may prove challenging.

 

Houston is putting a lot of trust in its defense to supply the pressure against divisional villains Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and Chad Henne. To add to an already fearsome defensive line that features the league’s finest pass-rusher in J.J. Watt, the Texans selected South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the draft.

 

It also helps that linebacker Brian Cushing should return from knee problems this year a healthier and more effective version of himself. Houston’s secondary is functional and in signing safeties Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis during free agency, the team shored up an important part of its roster. Notre Dame’s Louis Nix can help out on a thin interior defensive line, but the Texans' defense is still a few years away from being able to stop the league’s heavy hitters.

 

As of late, it’s been a tumultuous time for Houston – even Johnson, a career Texan and one of the most underrated receivers in the league, has expressed a desire to leave town. But if a team can fall apart as quickly and unfortunately as the Texans did last year, surely one can reenergize and transform itself in the same span. In arguably the weakest division in the NFL, Houston can contend. Luck’s Colts will likely maintain the top spot, but don’t be shocked if Houston finds reasonable success in 2014.

 

Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs

 

Washington Redskins

2013 Record: 3-13

2014 Schedule Outlook: Challenging

 

The Bad: Difficult non-divisional foes: home vs. Seahawks Week 5, at San Francisco Week 12, at Indianapolis Week 13

 

The Good: Open season at Houston & head home to play the Jaguars in Week 2, get the Seahawks after 10 days of rest

 

The NFC East is always an interesting battle. Most fans of the division would tell you that in any given year at least three of its teams are seemingly trying to lose. In Robert Griffin III’s sophomore season, the ‘Skins took a step back, regressing to a 3-13 record, missing the postseason, and finishing last in the division. Thanks to a difficult schedule, I wouldn’t count on Washington making a deep playoff run in 2014. Still, the team should look a lot sharper come when it kicks the season off on Sept. 7.

 

Mike Shanahan is out and Jay Gruden is in as Washington’s team leader. Gruden, brother of the more famous Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst Jon, is an expert in quarterback development, with his most impressive product at the position being... Andy Dalton. Jay has been getting looks at head coach around the league for the past few years, but this is his first venture in the NFL as the leading man. There will be a short grace period for the coach his first two seasons in Washington. Regardless, quick results and a return to the success of 2012, a 10-win season with a playoff appearance, are still the goals for '14.

 

So what’s the issue with this team? Why couldn’t the Redskins replicate the win count in 2012? It’s simple: keep RGIII healthy, keep his jersey clean and you’ll have a chance against just about any team in the league. With the addition of DeSean Jackson in the offseason, if Griffin has time and is well protected, his passing numbers could very well peak this year. Signing Jackson was a coup, one that divisional foe Philadelphia will be crying about for quite some time. D-Jax can burn any defense in the league, and at the very least he distracts defenders, opening up opportunities for his teammates all over the field. With Gruden calling the shots, the Redskins' offense will be extremely difficult to stop in 2014.

 

On defense, coordinator Jim Haslett now has full control of personnel decisions. The pass rush should be adequate, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan coming off the edges. Washington newbie Jason Hatcher, another divisional transfer, will see time at the defensive end position in Haslett’s aggressive scheme. Hatcher is coming off a career-high 11 sacks in 2013 with the Cowboys.

 

In the secondary, the Redskins added safety Ryan Clark to the aging, but experienced, tandem of DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather. Last year, the team’s defense ranked 30th in points allowed. If Haslett’s newfound independence doesn’t bring major improvements, you can count on another lackluster season.

 

The ‘Skins’ draft was not as captivating as it was for other teams in the league. In wheeling and dealing for Griffin two years ago, the Redskins set themselves back for a future rebuilding project. This offseason, Washington lacked a true first-round pick. With the team’s first selection coming at No. 47, it’s understandable that no major pieces were added. Still, this is bad news for a team looking for immediate help. The Redskins only used two of their eight draft choices to deal with their horrendous defense – something that could come back to the haunt the franchise later this season. Either way, Trent Murphy, a pass-rusher out of Stanford, and Morgan Moses, an offensive tackle from Virginia, were solid value picks that can help this team moving forward.

 

From NFC East champs to last place, this is the story of the 2012-13 Washington Redskins. With RGIII and DeSean Jackson running the show, this is one of the most egocentric teams in the league today. It will be fun (maybe not as a Redskins fan) to watch the rookie head coach balance the squad’s personalities while simultaneously fighting to win the NFC East. I don’t think the ‘Skins return to the throne this year, but the franchise will take a step in the right direction after a poor showing in 2013.

 

Like I said before, with a healthy Griffin, the sky is the limit. As the saying goes, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars." Gruden and company will be aiming high in their first season together, with a slight alteration to that quote: they hope to land smack dab in the middle of the NFC playoff race.

 

Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs

Teaser:
5 NFL Teams Poised to Make Big Turnarounds in 2014
Post date: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/virginia-tech-football-game-game-predictions-2014
Body:

Virginia Tech has been one of the ACC’s most consistent programs under Frank Beamer’s watch.

 

The Hokies won at least 10 games in every season from 2004-11 and made five appearances in the ACC Championship game since 2005.

The last two years haven’t been up to Virginia Tech’s usual standard, as the Hokies are just 15-11 since 2012. A struggling offense has been the primary issue for Beamer, as Virginia Tech averaged just 22.5 points per game in 2013.

Once again, offense is the Hokies’ biggest concern. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer is expected to push for the starting quarterback job, but the offense as a whole has to pickup their play in 2014.

With a wide open Coastal Division, Virginia Tech’s defense and favorable schedule could be enough to return to the conference title game.

Related: 2014 Virginia Tech Team Preview2014 ACC Predictions2014 All-ACC Team

 

Expert Panel:


Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Chris Coleman (@ChrisColemanTSL), TechSideline.com
John Cassillo (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Matt McClusky (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
Ryan Tice (@RyanTice), TheWolfPacker.com

 

Early Virginia Tech Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
 Steven
Lassan
John
Cassillo
Mark
Ennis
Chris
Coleman
David
Fox
Braden
Gall
Matt
McClusky
Ryan
Tice
William & Mary
at Ohio State
East Carolina
Georgia Tech
Western Michigan
at UNC
at Pittsburgh
Miami
Boston College
at Duke
at Wake Forest
Virginia
Final Prediction:9-38-47-59-38-49-39-39-3
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

It’s anyone’s guess which team is the favorite in the Coastal Division this year. Any of the projected top six teams in Athlon’s 2014 ACC predictions have a good shot at winning the division. Despite the overall uncertainty of the Coastal, Virginia Tech should be near the top of most projections. Yes, the offense is a concern (5.3 yards per play in conference games last year), but can it really get worse? The Hokies have options at running back and the top three receivers from 2013 are back. Finding answers on the offensive line and settling on a starting quarterback are the biggest offseason priorities for coordinator Scot Loeffler. The defense is once again the anchor for Virginia Tech’s division title hopes, especially with a secondary and defensive line that will be among the best in the nation. A huge factor in the Hokies’ favor is a schedule that misses the projected top four teams in the ACC Atlantic. It’s hard to envision a Coastal team winning more than nine games, so 6-2 might be enough to claim the division. Even though road trips to North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Duke won’t be easy, Virginia Tech’s crossover schedule with the Atlantic is a huge advantage in 2014.

 

Chris Coleman, (@ChrisColemanTSL), TechSideline.com

Virginia Tech’s schedule sets of favorably. They have a couple of tough road games in the middle of the season, but they have the opportunity to close strong. Turnovers and the running game will be the key for the Hokies. With more options at running back and a more experienced offensive line, the running game should improve. The big questions are will Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer win the job, and if so, will he be a better passer than Logan Thomas?


John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com

While I want to give Virginia Tech's excellent defense the benefit of the doubt here, it's simply too tough to ignore this lack of an offense any longer. Last year's group already struggled to score (put up just 22.5 points per game), and now the Hokies need to replace seven of those players -- including QB Logan Thomas. There's a lack of leadership and ability on that side of the ball, and in an ACC that has its fair share of stout defenses, that's a big problem. The defense will obviously be fine, and Bud Foster will work his magic on that side of the ball yet again (as he has every year since 1995). But that defense and the division's mediocrity are the only things keeping them in the hunt for another ACC Championship Game berth.
 

Ryan Tice (@RyanTice), TheWolfPacker.com

When I first looked at their schedule, I initially thought the Hokies could finish with a record as good as 10-2, but these aren’t the Hokies of a few years ago when double-digit wins were the norm. I saw a group of three games where I think Tech will have more trouble than most expect: East Carolina at home (the Pirates can score and gave the Hokies a scare last year, although it was in Greenville), at North Carolina (I don’t think the Tar Heels will be as good as some, but they’ll be contenders in the Coastal) and against Miami in Blacksburg (although the Hurricanes quarterback situation scares me). There’s a chance the Hokies could win all of them or go 1-2 in this stretch, but I’m leaning towards 2-1, which puts them at 9-3 on the year. They lucked out with their crossover games (Boston College, at Wake Forest) and that could allow them to nab a spot in the ACC Championship game.

 

Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com

I know Stewart Mandel with Fox Sports was probably the first person to really call these years the end of the Frank Beamer era at Virginia Tech, but I would like to join him. After the school's incredible run of double-digit win seasons came to an end two years ago, it seems like things are headed in the wrong direction without much hope to turn around in the short term. For the life of me I can't grasp why Beamer turned to Scott Loeffler to revive his offense and now without Logan Thomas, inconsistent as he was, the offense could actually find a way to be worse. I'm picking the Hokies to lose almost every game against an opponent with a competent offense. I want to be wrong and will freely admit it if I am. Nevertheless, until the Virginia Tech can scare people offensively, there will only be middling results from here on out. 

 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)

I’m not sure if it says more about the Virginia Tech defense or the ACC that the Hokies won eight games with that offense last season. Bud Foster should have another strong defense on his hands, especially in the back end. But I don’t envy the defensive coordinator in September, going from facing Braxton Miller in Columbus, to East Carolina’s Air Raid to Georgia Tech’s triple option in three consecutive games. To their credit, the Hokies handled both Georgia Tech, East Carolina plus the Marshall hurry-up in a three-week span last season. Can that happen again? With new faces in the front seven, this offense is going to have to produce more than it did a year ago.

 

Matt McClusky (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com

After 28 years in Blacksburg, this truly may be the beginning of the end for Frank Beamer's run at Virginia Tech. A couple of years of slippage in the program have people genuinely wondering about the future of Hokies football and its 67-year-old coach.

 

But there is always a "but" isn't there? Here, the cause for pause is two fold. First, Virginia Tech may be something of a darkhorse due to its defense. Players like Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson and Luther Maddy (who lead Va. Tech in sacks in 2013) will all return for Bud Foster's typically stout defense. And then there's the schedule, which is important for what is missing -- as in Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. So maybe things aren't as bleak as they seem.

 

I mean, the ACC's Coastal is effectively wide open this season and, given the returning defensive talent and the '14 slate, Virginia Tech should be considered the favorite to get back to the ACC title game. Will winning a rather weak division in the ACC be enough for some people to stop thinking this is the final chapter for Beamer? Probably, but how long will that sentiment last?

 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Virginia Tech still has one of the best defenses in the nation and certainly one of the best in the ACC. The Hokies have major issues on offense, however, so holding serve at home in Lane Stadium will be key. Miami, Georgia Tech, East Carolina and Boston College are must-win games. Tech will lose some games away from home with trips to Ohio State, North Carolina, Pitt and Duke looming.

Teaser:
Virginia Tech Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Post date: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 07:15

Pages