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The scoreboard was still smoking in the wake of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history when Gus Malzahn made his decision. In reality, he had probably known what he had to do for a few weeks. No team closes a season by giving up at least 31 points in six straight games (against FBS foes) and doesn’t change some things. When you give up 55 points and 539 yards to your archrival in the season finale, the urgency to find a new way gets even greater.
Malzahn needed a new defensive coordinator, and he knew he was going to have to shop in the luxury aisle to get one. Some might think the 850 large the program had allotted for former DC Ellis Johnson was Ritz-level pricing, but that was discount stuff compared to the $1.6 million the Tigers will send Will Muschamp’s way this season. Muschamp — who was fired after four years as head coach at Florida but built successful defenses before that at Auburn, LSU and Texas — brings instant credibility to a side of the ball that had little last season. And he will be paid quite handsomely for that experience. In fact, he’ll be the second-highest-paid assistant in the country.
“That’s where the college game is at with the money and the TV,” Malzahn says. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”
Given Muschamp’s track record, his Riviera-level price tag isn’t so outrageous. Florida fans obviously focus on his 28–21 record during four years in Gainesville; but at Auburn, they’re more interested in the fact that none of his defenses finished worse than 15th nationally during that time. During his six years directing defenses at LSU (2001-04) and Auburn (’06-07), his units finished in the top 10 every year.
His 2008 Texas edition led the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense and held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. Muschamp is an excellent recruiter and brings some top-shelf assistants with him. If the Tigers D has the same success as Malzahn’s spread attack, Auburn will be back in the national title hunt. And it will make perfect sense that Muschamp gets a salary above those paid to more than 60 FBS head coaches in 2014.
“If you’re going to be consistently good and have a chance to win championships, you have to be good on defense, especially in our league,” Malzahn says.
Malzahn’s not the only SEC coach who thinks that way. Texas A&M will pay former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a reported $5 million over the next three years to fix a D that ranked 102nd in total yards allowed last year. That makes him No. 1 on the assistant coach payroll. He and Muschamp join four other conference coordinators (Alabama DC Kirby Smart, LSU OC Cam Cameron, LSU DC Kevin Steele and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt) who make at least seven figures. Last year, only three — Smart, Cameron and Chavis — earned that much.
The growing collection of million-dollar men makes sense in a conference that boasted nine of the nation’s top 19 assistant coaching salary pools. LSU’s $5.499 million outlay to assistants topped the national list, with Alabama ($5.213 million) second.
The growth has been quick. Consider that six years ago, Chavis made $400,000 at LSU. Last year, he earned $1.3 million. He’ll get $400,000 more than that in 2015. That’s a pretty steep climb in a short amount of time.
“There are rising salaries for all coaches — head coaches, coordinators and assistants,” says South Carolina boss Steve Spurrier, who made $4 million last year, the 10th-highest payday in the country. “It’s all about the rising revenues that are coming in.
“Hopefully, we’ll give some to the players soon, too.”
Hold on, Steve. That’s another topic altogether. The recent SEC binge on coordinator salaries is certainly about the big piles of cash flowing into schools’ coffers from TV deals, the new College Football Playoff and the growing professionalization of athletic departments. But coaches also realize that they had better beef up their staffs to attract, develop and deploy the best players in order to compete in the most cutthroat league around.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Last year, the SEC West went from merely brutal to absolutely pitiless. All seven teams finished the year with above-.500 records and played in the postseason. The last-place finisher, Arkansas, dismantled Texas in a bowl game, and the Mississippi schools reached heights they hadn’t experienced in decades. It is imperative that schools have the best possible coaches to run their attacks, or they risk getting overrun in one of the most competitive environments in all of sports.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been a head coach in the Big Ten, was the Miami Dolphins’ boss and directed the Baltimore Ravens’ attack for five seasons. As he tries to make the Tigers potent again — after a shaky 2014 — he understands the need for head coaches to bulk up their staffs as much as possible. That begins with their top lieutenants.
“When you have coached in the Big Ten and the NFL and then come to the SEC, and especially the SEC West, you realize the margin for error is so small,” Cameron says. “Coordinators can have huge impacts. The games are so close, so everybody has to be as qualified as possible.”
Cameron is right about the slim difference between success and failure. Last season, 19 SEC conference games were decided by seven or fewer points, and 10 had margins of three or fewer. In situations like that, it’s imperative for programs to have the most experienced and talented people possible in top assistant positions. Muschamp’s arrival in Auburn and Kevin Steele taking over in Baton Rouge mean there are now four former Power 5 conference head coaches among the coordinator ranks in the SEC. (Cameron and Alabama OC Lane Kiffin are the others.) In 2014, former UCLA head man Karl Dorrell led the Vanderbilt offense. Last year’s A&M defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, directed Marshall’s program for five years.
“You have former head coaches as coordinators and future head coaches as coordinators,” Cameron says. “There is so much at stake that everybody is trying to get as many good people as possible.”
• • •
The two highest-profile SEC hires of the offseason were curious less for their price tags than for those who brought them on board. Throughout their coaching careers, Malzahn and A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been known for their explosive offenses and overwhelming desire to pile up the points and yards, even if that put undue stress on their defenses.
High-speed attacks pressure rivals for 60 minutes, but they impact the defenses on their own teams every minute of the year. The most obvious effect is in the time of possession department. If an offense is holding onto the ball for only 20-25 minutes a game, that means opponents have it for a draining 35-40. Defenses trying to prepare for the kind of physical, pro-style opponents found throughout the SEC don’t have the ability to practice against that kind of scheme during the summer and then week-to-week. And when versatile prospects come into programs as freshmen, coaches try to decide whether they should play offense or defense. If the man in charge is more disposed to scoring points than preventing them, the toss-ups will often end up on the offensive side of the ball.
So, Sumlin’s decision to bring Chavis to College Station and Malzahn’s choice of Muschamp show how important those two creative offensive minds now consider the ability to stop people. At LSU, Chavis worked with an attack designed to complement his unit. The Tigers ran the ball. They worked the clock. And they were delighted with a 23–14 victory. It’s fun trying to score 50 but even more enjoyable to get the win. Muschamp’s defenses at Florida were stingy, but he lost his job because the Gators, who once spun scoreboards under Spurrier and Urban Meyer, were boring. Malzahn and Sumlin have invested big money in their new coaches, but they have to be willing to adapt their styles of play to let the defenses have a chance to thrive.
When Chavis met with Sumlin, the two discussed how the team would practice and any concerns Chavis had about tempo. And when spring drills began, the Aggies had actually slowed things down so much that it was Chavis who requested a change of pace. At Auburn, Muschamp’s unit will complement an attack that has averaged 493.4 yards in Malzahn’s 27 games at the helm.
“Will and (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) work real closely together,” Malzahn says. “We are making sure both sides’ needs are met. The experience so far has been really positive.”
Muschamp may have to convince his boss to play a little more to the defensive side of the ball at times, but the good news is that he won’t have too much interference from Malzahn. Lashlee may be the offensive coordinator, but the Tigers’ attack belongs to the head coach, who literally wrote the book (“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”) on the kind of run-based, spread attack he favors. According to Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, which combines content from three Alabama newspapers — Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — Malzahn “doesn’t meddle with the defense” and is “hesitant” even to stick his head in the room.
There have been great coordinators in the SEC for decades. One of the reasons Spurrier won a national title at Florida was that he had Bob Stoops, now the head man at Oklahoma, to run his defense. But Stoops wasn’t a huge name when he arrived from Kansas State. Cameron was when Miles brought him to Baton Rouge in 2013. He had spent 10 of the previous 11 seasons as an NFL coordinator and head man, so he brought instant credibility to the job at LSU.
A year later, Alabama coach Nick Saban got himself a high-profile coordinator when he hired Kiffin, the former Raiders, USC and Tennessee coach, to direct his offense. Although the Tide paid defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost twice as much as the $680,000 Kiffin earned, having a former NFL boss running the attack was big news. It also showed that Saban, who has four national titles to his credit, doesn’t mind having big names on his staff, especially on the side of the ball that isn’t his expertise. The goal is to win games, not rule absolutely — although Saban does a pretty good job with that, too.
“These coaches know they are the big men on campus, so they take the ego out of it and get someone in there to handle the other side of the ball,” Marcello says.
Cameron says there is more to it than just putting together and executing a game plan. Having former head coaches on the staff helps with recruiting. Since assistants spend more time on the road than do those who run the programs, having a former NFL assistant or college head man in the living room adds some serious cachet.
Thanks to television, coaches such as Muschamp, Kiffin and LSU’s Steele are recognizable and therefore have an edge over some of their lesser-known counterparts at other schools. Everybody on a staff must be out there selling, but top coordinators with national personalities can help a lot. They had better want to be part of the equation, rather than thinking they are above the daily grind of being an assistant.
“It’s very important that all coaches on a staff recruit and evaluate,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “Our coordinators do that, too. They have good relationship skills. If you have a coordinator who doesn’t recruit or have interest in recruiting, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Once the assistants lure top prospects to campus, they have to develop them — and not just to win games against SEC foes. Conference teams recruit some of the best players in the country, and though we would all like to think they are heading to school to become doctors and lawyers, most harbor NFL dreams. The exposure and level of competition in the SEC help them make progress toward that goal, but it’s imperative they receive the kind of development necessary to become attractive to professional talent evaluators.
That’s one reason why Miles considered Cameron an attractive candidate for the OC job. What young offensive player wouldn’t want to learn from someone who has not only helped produce NFL players but who also has coached them? At LSU, where the end of each season brings an exodus to the NFL of players who have been on campus the minimum of three years, it’s vital to have coaches who are capable of helping them maximize their talents — to help the Tigers but also to get them into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“When you talk to kids, they are looking for coaches who can help them develop today and for the next level,” Cameron says.
Muschamp and Chavis will be expected to provide immediate results for their new teams. At their price tags, they had better deliver quickly. If they do, you can bet that this time next year, there will be some new high-profile coordinators joining the SEC ranks at premium prices.
“It’s the demand for the position,” Richt says. “We’re in an academic setting, but it’s also a competitive setting. You want to hire the type of people who can get the job done in an excellent way. The higher the demand, the higher the salaries go.”
And it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop rising.
Baylor’s non-conference scheduling has been criticized frequently over the last few years. But the Bears are doing their best to upgrade the schedule and are on talks to appear in Australia (Sydney or Melbourne) against a Pac-12 opponent to open the 2016 season.
So that news got us thinking. What overseas cities need to have a college football game for an opener?
Here are a few cities or foreign destinations we think need to host a college football game in the future:
Location to be determined and it would take some creativity to fit the football field on the top deck. But if college basketball can do it, then let’s make it happen for college football. The military's newest supercarrier, the USS Gerald Ford (not pictured at right), is scheduled for deployment in 2019. Let’s go with an Air Force vs. Navy matchup.
Barcelona is one of the top travel destinations and is known for that other kind of football. And in tandem with the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, we could position a USF versus Buffalo matchup.
This is actually not an unrealistic trip or a location for a bowl. Since we are still trying to figure out the Bermuda Triangle, let’s go with an all-Hurricane matchup between Miami and Tulsa. Or since Bermuda is just off the coast of the Carolinas, we could propose a South Carolina-North Carolina pairing. Bermuda has to have good golf courses for Steve Spurrier, right?
This small Pacific Ocean island nation has some awesome views. Squeezing in a field will be a challenge. But let’s just say the fanbase for any team would appreciate a game in this location.
Dubai has been mentioned as a possible spot for a bowl or a game for Texas. Seems like it’s only a matter of time before a college football game ends up in the Middle East.
Relations between the United Stats and Cuba are thawing and what better way to continue that deicing than a game in Havana? After all, that’s where the Bacardi Bowl was played in the early 1900s to the mid-1940s.
Hong Kong’s picturesque skyline would be a good backdrop for the opening of the telecast. And the bright lights of the city would be a great place for Oregon to unveil another awesome uniform combination.
London already gets a few NFL games, but bringing a college matchup might have more spice than just a Jaguars contest. Let’s see: How about Michigan versus Alabama?
One of the world’s largest cities has a 95,500-seat stadium just waiting for a game. The 49ers-Cardinals played a NFL preseason game here in 2005. How about an Arizona-Texas Tech game?
There’s no shortage of stadiums in Paris. Let’s take LSU and the French Quarter overseas in the future to take on UL Lafayette.
The Olympics are coming to Rio in 2016, with the games scheduled to last from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21. That’s perfect timing to host a college football opener in late August/early September.
This would be even better if the game could take place in the old Colosseum. And for our modern day gridiron gladiators, how about Notre Dame and Florida State?
Asia is a region the Pac-12 wants to tap into, and Seoul is a good place to stage a game in the coming years.
I know. It’s cold and unrealistic. But Washington vs. Northern Illinois in a Huskies showdown has a good sound to it.
The Tokyo Dome has hosted MLB and NFL preseason games. Why not a college football matchup between two West Coast teams or a West Coast squad and team from the Midwest? Let’s say UCLA and Texas?
Other Locations Considered
An F1 racetrack (Don't forget that Virginia Tech and Tennessee are set to tangle at Bristol Motor Speeday in 2016)
Johnny Manziel is turning over a new leaf, and on that leaf there will be no more "money sign."
The Browns quarterback has gone on record to say that he will no longer be throwing up the trademark sign we've seen since his days at Texas A&M.
Johnny Manziel: "The money sign will not be back."— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) June 17, 2015
R.I.P. The Money Sign. It had a good run.
There are other celebrations we wouldn't mind seeing Manziel try out next season. After all, he has to do something when he gets excited.
1. The LeBron James
The signature James move signifies power and let's the crowd know you've just handled the situation. Manziel may need a few more successful 2-minute drives before he could pull this move off.
2. The Drake "Started From The Bottom" Dance
This might be the perfect dance since Manziel is starting from the bottom in his second season with the Browns.
3. The Whip
Manziel might need a little more rhythm than he's equipped with to pull this one off. Plus Odell Beckham Jr. seems to have it on lock.
4. The Andre Iguodala "Travel Dance"
It worked, he's an NBA champion now. This is the main reason he won MVP. Yes, just the dance.
5. The Lil' B "Cooking Dance"
Actually, no Johnny, don't do this or you will be cursed.
Steph Curry has been an NBA champion for less than 24 hours but this comeback game is on point.
ESPN's Skip Bayless, as he's known to do, tweeted about the "easy" road Curry and the Warriors had on their way to the championship. Chef Curry replied with the perfect tweet.
.@RealSkipBayless Love you too Skip!— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) June 17, 2015
1. It's not like the teams pick who they want to play.
2. The Thunder didn't even make the playoffs so they shouldn't be mentioned right now.
3. The validation Curry "needs" was met when he won league MVP and became a champion.
Not even Bayless can ruin your day when you're an NBA champion.
The NFC North is filled with talent and potential, just look at the Detroit Lions’ success last year. The Packers and Lions should be in contention for the playoffs like last year, and the Vikings and Bears should certainly see improvement. However, they will need help especially in areas that have the ability to get stronger this upcoming NFL season.
Take a look below at some of the players that can be of utmost importance to their teams:
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Free Safety,
Green Bay Packers (1st place, 12-4)
The standout safety from Alabama played well last year after taking the starting role for the Packers around the midway point of the season. Thus, with 10 starts under his belt, including a couple in the playoffs, he undoubtedly has the experience and skills to jump to an even better level of play. He only recorded one interception during the regular season, but he flashed signs of progress there with two picks in the NFC Championship Game. His second year will certainly be better and that should help out the Packers' already lauded defense.
Another player to watch: wide receiver Davante Adams
Darius Slay, Cornerback, Detroit
Lions (2nd place, 11-5)
After making significant progress from his rookie year to last year, Slay looks to continue on the upward trend on a team that was middle of the pack in pass defense. He helped shut down top quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Tony Romo last season, showing great improvement along the way The Lions will need him to take one more step, where he can define himself as one of the league’s top, young cornerbacks. He had a couple off games, but if he can be consistent on any given Sunday, then he will help the Lions in massive ways.
Another player to watch: linebacker Kyle Van Noy
Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback,
Minnesota Vikings (3rd place, 7-9)
The Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year made his way to the starting role after Matt Cassel broke his foot early in the season, and he remained in it throughout the remainder of the year. He played well enough to put his team in position to win, with several one-score losses during the season. His legs provide him speed to move around the pocket and scramble if needed, which is a plus. However, his 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions can surely be improved, and having Adrian Peterson in the backfield can only help.
Another player to watch: linebacker Anthony Barr
Matt Slauson, Left Guard,
Chicago Bears (4th place, 5-11)
Although entering his seventh year in the league, Slauson can make a strong impact for the Bears, after missing most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Jay Cutler, who is known for getting pressured and sacked a lot, needs more help from his offensive line in order to thrive. Thus, if Slauson can stay healthy, he will be an important factor for the Bears’ offensive production. He looks to be a leader along the line that also boasts two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long.
Another player to watch: defensive end Ego Ferguson
"It was, if not the best, one of the best conferences in the country [in 2014]," he said. "It’s an elite league from a standpoint of athleticism, dynamic offenses and physical play within the front sevens."
That combination of dynamic offense and physicality left the Beavers struggling to a 5-7 season, which ended with the surprising departure of longtime head coach Mike Riley for Nebraska. Riley was far and away the most-tenured coach in the conference, with 12 consecutive seasons spent at Oregon State from 2003 through 2014, and two years there prior in the late 1990s.
Perhaps equally as surprising as Riley's exit was Oregon State brass wooing Andersen away from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a perennial Top 25 program with six Rose Bowl appearances in the last 21 years — Oregon State's last came at the conclusion of the 1964 season.
Riley resurrected the program, which had long been a conference doormat, but the Beavers could never quite break through the gate USC patrolled in the early 2000s and the one rival Oregon has manned the last five years. Now, Andersen's mission is finding a way to get Oregon State to that next level of success at a time when the league is deeper than it's ever been.
It's the same challenge that Andersen's former coaching counterparts in the now football-defunct Western Athletic Conference, Sonny Dykes and Mike MacIntyre, face at Cal and Colorado.
Andersen, Dykes and MacIntyre coached Utah State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, respectively, in the 2012 season. All reached the Top 25 at some point in that campaign, but success has largely eluded Dykes and MacIntyre since taking over downtrodden Pac-12 programs.
Andersen, on the other hand, stepped into a favorable situation at Wisconsin. He went 19-7 in his two years there, and last season won the Big Ten West behind a typically stout Badgers defense and the play of Heisman Trophy runner-up running back Melvin Gordon.
Oregon State presents a different challenge, one that will test Andersen and his staff immediately.
"I felt like this in the Big Ten: If you have a deficiency [in the Pac-12], you're going to have some problems. People are going to catch up to it," he said. "You better find a way to hide or cover up your deficiencies."
Andersen and Co. effectively covered up for sometimes inadequate quarterback play at Wisconsin, relying on an offensive line rife with NFL-caliber talent to pave holes for Gordon. He obliged with an individual campaign that, statistically, was the best since Barry Sanders' legendary 1988 run.
With the counter-punch of Corey Clement supplementing Gordon's otherworldly output, Wisconsin had no shortage of ways to attack via the rush. Oregon State, on the other hand, has ranked at or near the bottom of rushing offenses in the Pac-12 for the last four seasons.
Compounding the challenge Andersen faces is that Oregon State heads into 2015 making a quarterback change for the first time in four years, when Sean Mannion took over as the starter in his freshman season. Mannion rewrote the Pac-12 record books in his four seasons with the Beavers, setting a high bar for his successor.
"The quarterback always has to be a leader," Andersen said. "Whoever [the quarterback] is, [he is] going to be very young. It's just a fact."
Indeed, true freshman Seth Collins' primary competitor for the vacancy is redshirt freshman Nick Mitchell. Whomever takes over, the Oregon State offense faces a much different dynamic than a year ago with the proven Mannion behind center.
But for Andersen, commanding the offense comes down to a simple formula.
"When we walk out on the field, that the offense has the confidence that the quarterback is going to make good decisions, he's going to manage the game and he's going to be smart: That's what we need from the quarterback position at this point."
Neither quarterback can rely on fifth-year wide receiver Richard Mullaney: Once tabbed as a possible breakout star in the vein of past Beaver standouts Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, Mullaney is transferring.
If the offense is going to have any success transitioning in its first year from Riley's pro-style to Andersen's spread, the onus falls on a line that returns all five starters. The defense — overseen by one of the Pac-12's best, former Utah coordinator Kalani Sitake — is almost entirely rebuilding, with just two starters returning.
Andersen-coached teams at both Wisconsin and Utah State featured offensive stars, but both programs made their bones with some of the best defenses in the nation. With very little experience for a side that allowed 31.6 points per game a year ago, Oregon State reaching the top-20 levels of Andersen's Aggies and Badgers is a steep climb.
However, Andersen sees the smash-mouth philosophy he hopes to instill being a seamless fit for a conference long celebrated for offensive innovation.
"People talk about the Pac-12 as far as the skill set and the wide-open offenses, but…now that I’ve been here for a little bit and had an opportunity to study the league from afar, I have a lot of respect for the physicality," he said, listing off various qualities that jumped out to him. "The front sevens, the great pass rushers, the ability of some very, very talented young offensive linemen… It’s the best of the best."
If Andersen can find ways to put Oregon State consistently in the hunt in the Pac-12 with his intended approach, he'll have established himself among the best of the best in the coaching ranks.
Heading into the fourth year under head coach Urban Meyer's direction, things could not be looking brighter for Ohio State football. Virtually every media outlet has predicted Ohio State to be the favorite to win the 2015 national championship.
The roster is heavily stocked with talented players at every position; a case in point is that Ohio State has three players at quarterback in Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones who could start for essentially any other college football program in the country. The aforementioned players, along with returning junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, are mentioned as leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season.
Yet I have a painful, and somewhat embarrassing admission to make regarding the present Ohio State offense...
I truly did not anticipate it working out this well over the past few seasons. Quite frankly, I was actually concerned about the direction the Ohio State offense might take when Meyer took over the head coaching position in November 2011.
Before you become indignant at my past concerns, let me explain why I had them. While Meyer always had dynamic offenses in his previous coaching stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, I had a big concern — The quarterback being the dominant running threat in the offense, versus a traditionally dominant running back.
Let me expand upon my thoughts for you. Throughout Ohio State's illustrious football history, the old Woody Hayes mantra of "Three Yards And A Cloud Of Dust" have been associated with tremendous running backs - Archie Griffin. Tim Spencer. Keith Byars. Eddie George. Maurice Clarett. Chris "Beanie" Wells. I realize I am leaving out so many other talented Buckeye running backs, but you get the idea.
And when Meyer was hired, how many dominant running backs could be named at any of his previous coaching stops? Zero. Not even one 1,000-yard rusher, ever.
Sure, the offenses were explosive. Meyer relied upon the traditional “running back by committee” (RBBC) approach, with multiple players usually carrying the ball for maybe 400 to 800 yards in a season. But who was usually the leading rusher, or among the leading rushers, at these previous coaching stops?
While at Bowling Green in 2001, quarterback Josh Harris was the leading rusher; in 2002, Harris was only 70 yards behind leading rusher Joe Alls. After moving on to to Utah in 2003, Meyer continued his committee approach with quarterback Alex Smith in both the 2003 and ‘04 seasons; Smith wound up the No. 2 rusher in both seasons.
After moving on to to Florida in 2005, Meyer continued his committee approach, albeit with mixed results. Things really started to percolate in 2006, when Meyer recruited some guy named Tim Tebow to quarterback his offense. Tebow emerged as the leading rusher for Florida from 2007-09, and was the second- leading ground gainer in ‘06 for Meyer's first national championship team.
Please do not misunderstand me when I write that the quarterback as a rushing threat in Meyer's offense was or is a bad thing. I have long been a proponent of the option as a tremendous way to keep opposing defenses off-balance. During Hayes' tenure, quarterbacks such as Rex Kern and Cornelius Greene were always considered a part of the offensive attack.
My concern for Ohio State heading into the 2012 season was the lack of a traditional plow-horse tailback. The kind of player such as the aforementioned Byars, George, Clarett, or Wells, who could be counted upon to carry the ball at least 20 to possibly 30 times a game, when the field is muddy and passing is almost impossible. The kind of running back who could rise to the occasion, even when the opposing defense was completely focused upon shutting the running game down.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, it certainly seemed as though my concerns, which were voiced by other Ohio State observers, might be legitimate. In the season opener against Miami (Ohio), Miller carried the ball 17 times for 161 yards. After the game, even Meyer stated that 17 carries by his starting quarterback were too many.
By the conclusion of the season, Miller was the leading rusher with 1,271 yards, yet Carlos Hyde had emerged as a dominant rushing threat in his own right, rushing for 970 yards. In 2013, Hyde finally delivered a 1,000-yard rushing season by a running back under Meyer, finishing with 1,521 yards, while Miller also rushed for 1,068 yards. While Miller was the catalyst of the offense, perhaps Meyer realized that a stocky, bullish-type runner was needed within the B1G for his offense to truly thrive.
In 2014, with Hyde off to the NFL and Miller out for the season, new players had developed within Meyer's offense. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 1,878 yards, while quarterback J.T. Barrett contributed 938 yards of his own. In the few games Cardale Jones played in, Jones was able to add 296 yards rushing during the Buckeyes' run to the national championship.
As for 2015 and beyond? Let us just say that if there are any running backs that may be concerned about not being a focal point of the Ohio State running game, it certainly does not seem to have affected the recruiting efforts. Incoming freshman Michael Weber signed with the Buckeyes despite Elliott's return, along with other players such as Curtis Samuel, Bri'onte Dunn, and Warren Ball. Other top running back recruits have already verbally committed for both the 2016 and ‘17 classes.
The moral of the story for this Ohio State fan? A rush to judgment is often a mistake. In this circumstance, Buckeye fans are the welcome beneficiaries of Meyer's offensive philosophies and approach, as the results over the past few seasons have demonstrated.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Minnich also writes and podcasts for menofthescarletandgray.com, a site dedicated to Ohio sports with a special emphasis on the Buckeyes. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
Music, like sports, sparks debate, creates discussion and can even lead to heated disagreements.
But both are unquestionably a huge part of American culture. So Athlon Sports has decided to combine two of our favorite things — rock and roll with college football.
What if our favorite football programs were rock and roll bands? Every Power 5 team will be represented, so if you don’t see your favorite band or school here, keep your eyes peeled.
Here are the 12 Pac-12 schools as rock bands:
Arizona: The Ramones
Their sound and touring is exactly what Rich Rodriguez would use to describe his offense — up-tempo, fast and non-stop. This group is never fully respected when its good by the big cities of the East Coast despite hailing from the Eastern time zone and they are at their best when they are running a lot of plays and having fun in the process.
Arizona State: Daft Punk
No one can really name anyone who plays on the team but no one misses the party. The kings of the club scene, they dominate the charts once every eight years with electric and innovative play-calling and a high level of talent. There is no better place to hang out than when they are on the big stage.
Cal: Bob Marley and The Wailers
The framework of the personality is politically charged and progressively motivated at its core. It’s really catchy and enjoyable in the right situation but too much of it can be a bad thing over time. And Tight Wad Hill has a similar aroma as the Marley tour bus.
Where else can you find this many hippies in one place? This group was very successful and reached cult status but did so over a decade ago. Then a complete lack of commitment internally and creative differences led to a costly break-up. Trey Anastasio has tried his hand at something new (in the Pac-12) but it hasn’t worked out as most expected — despite a good personality fit.
Oregon: David Bowie
Flashy, experimental and big on wardrobe changes makes David Bowie a perfect fit in Eugene. Extremely well respected but a little weird and far-out most of the time and never won the national title of the music industry despite being somewhat ahead of his time. He’s been around a long time and loves to try new things and act a little crazy, earning critical acclaim in the process.
Oregon State: Alabama Shakes
An independent, bluesy, soul rock band that has only recently risen into musical success. They do things their own unique way and have grown their popularity among the grassroots live music lovers of the festival scene. Both have a lot of upside and potential moving forward with unusual stars fronting the act.
Stanford: Neil Young
One of the most creative, intelligent and forward-thinking individuals in the history of music. He’s had a long and incredibly decorated career with major (yet possibly) underrated successes over a 50-year period of time. The Silicon Valley of music (he holds numerous U.S. patents) has impacted nearly every angle of the industry.
One of the best light shows in the business belongs in the City of Lights. This is a big band with big budgets, tons of record sales and a high-profile name. However, the substance has been severely lacking for most of its existence and has never really been better than 8-4. And like UCLA basketball, Chris Martin’s spouse is more well-known.
USC: Led Zeppelin
Possibly under appreciated on the East Coast (especially during their height) but beloved on the West Coast. Generally, this team is led by a heartthrob superstar who dominated his industry while on the team but never reached the same levels of success in the next phase of his career (and the most gifted architect of the team was always someone else — Troy Polamalu, Mike Patterson, Reggie Bush, Sam Baker, Rey Maualuga). Slightly self-destructive, extremely elite and powerful and somewhat misunderstood during its time.
Utah: Jason Isbell
You think you know all about him but you’re not entirely sure. He dominated the music world as a member of the Drive-By Truckers only to move on with a more calculated (and sober) approach in his new genre. He now wins on the field with a more complete and refined game that speaks to an old-school mentality in a new-wave industry.
Reached the top of the mountain in the early 1990s behind the leadership of a cult hero in the city of Seattle. However, this program hasn’t been able to get out of its own way and was obviously and tragically self-destructive. It’s been a memory every since. And like Dave Grohl, head coaches have headed to Los Angeles to try their hand at other things.
Washington State: Robert Randolph and the Family Band
They sort of dwell in music obscurity, but when it’s good, it’s as fun to watch as anything in the game today. The leader is generally too talented and smart for his own good at times, creating elite-level schemes and concepts without the championship-level appreciation. There is some Ernest Hemingway to both Mike Leach and Mr. Randolph.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the SEC in 2015:
1.5: Alabama’s points per trip inside the 40 margin
A measure of a team’s ability to finish drives on offense and stop drives on defense is points per trip inside the 40. Alabama led the nation with a plus-1.5 point margin last season. It was 20th nationally with 5.0 points per trip inside the 40 on offense and was sixth with just 3.5 points allowed per trip inside the 40 on defense.
5: Times Arkansas held an opponent under 70 yards rushing
Everyone knows about the Razorbacks' identity on offense, finishing 26th nationally at 218 yards rushing per game. But the defense held it’s own in a big way on the ground as well, holding five different opponents to less than 70 yards. This included Alabama (66), LSU (36), Ole Miss (63) and Texas (2).
329.8: Will Muschamp’s career worst yards allowed
In 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Muschamp has never allowed more than 329.8 yards per game, 5.3 yards per play or 23.7 points per game in any season. Auburn last year allowed 398.8 yards per game, 5.7 yards per play and 26.7 points per game.
5.42: Jim McElwain’s lowest offensive output
In eight years as a coordinator or head coach, McElwain’s lowest offensive output was 5.42 yards per play in his first season at Colorado State. During his three years in Fort Collins, the Rams posted an average of 6.31 yards per play with a high of 7.1 in 2014. Last season, the Gators averaged 5.24 yards per play and were even worse in 2013 (4.79).
8.7: Georgia’s field position margin
The Dawgs led the SEC and were fifth nationally with an average starting field position of the 34.5-yard line. The Dawgs also led the SEC and were third nationally in opponent’s starting field position at the 25.8-yard line. The 8.7 margin was good for third nationally and well ahead of the SEC’s No. 2 team, Tennessee (5.6, 12th).
11: Kentucky division wins against teams not named Vanderbilt
Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, the Wildcats have won just 11 games against teams not named Vanderbilt. Kentucky is 13-10 against the Dores but just 11-84 against Florida (0-23), Tennessee (1-22), Georgia (3-20), Missouri (0-3) and South Carolina (7-16).
50.0: LSU’s team completion percentage last fall
The Tigers had quarterback issues in 2014 to say the least. LSU finished 138-of-276 for the entire season, ranking 120th in passes completed (ahead of mostly option offenses). That 50.0 percent completion rate ranked just 122nd nationally, ahead of only Hawaii, USF, Miami (Ohio), Navy and Army.
1: Times Mississippi State has gone to five straight bowls
The 2014 season was a season of firsts for Mississippi State. It marked the first time in school history that the Bulldogs had been to five straight bowls. It also marked the first time in school history that they reached No. 1 ranking in the AP poll. In fact, Mississippi State spent four weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation and won 10 games for only the third time in school history.
3: Fumbles lost by Missouri
The Tigers led the nation with just three fumbles lost last season, tied with Boston College and UNLV. Their 10 total fumbles ranked fourth nationally as well. Additionally, only Oregon (22) forced more fumbles than the Tigers (21). Needless to say, Gary Pinkel’s squad won the turnover battle last fall (+9).
1994: Last time Ole Miss allowed less than 4.67 yards per play
The Ole Miss Landshark defense allowed just 4.67 yards per play last fall, ranking seventh in the nation. The last time the Rebels allowed less than 4.67 yards per play was way back in 1994. With seven starters back on defense (and nine more on offense), Hugh Freeze could see his team repeat the feat in 2015.
14.0: South Carolina QB sacks
Steve Spurrier has harped on it all offseason long. The Gamecocks have to get better at pressuring the quarterback or his putrid defense has no chance of improving. South Carolina ranked last in the SEC and 119th nationally with just 14.0 sacks — or just 1.08 per game. Spurrier is hoping he can get an instant impact from newcomer D-linemen Dexter Wideman and Marquavious Lewis.
5.7: Yards per play when Joshua Dobbs started
The Vols offense averaged just 4.5 yards per play during the first eight games of the season last fall. Tennessee was 3-5 and would have ranked 122nd nationally at 4.5 yards per play. Dobbs entered the starting lineup against South Carolina and the offense surged, averaging 5.7 yards per play and going 4-1 down the stretch — which would have been good for 57th nationally.
153.63: Kyle Allen’s QB rating over the final four games
Joshua Dobbs was great for Tennessee and Jeremy Johnson will be for Auburn, but don’t overlook Allen in College Station. The uber recruit took over the Texas A&M offense and cruised in the final month. His QB rating over the final four games was 153.63 — which would have ranked third in the SEC and 13th nationally. Allen completed 65.1 percent of his passes and posted an impressive 12:4 TD:INT ratio over that span.
-16: Vanderbilt’s turnover margin
Vanderbilt was both bad and unlucky last season at protecting the football. The Dores' minus-16 turnover margin was last in the SEC and 124th nationally. This was an astronomical swing from the James Franklin era, where the Dores were plus-7 in the turnover margin department in 2013. The minus-23 swing is virtually impossible to replicate and should improve in 2015.
There's something about a LeBron James loss that makes the internet rejoice.
After the Warrios defeated the Cavaliers to win the NBA Championship in six games, the internet brought out its best memes for the occasion.
I'm done. pic.twitter.com/JiJErNpqNE— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) June 17, 2015
Kobe at the crib like pic.twitter.com/5Ntb6tuztq— illroots 4 the kids (@illroots) June 17, 2015
Who made this? I want you to accept your MVP trophy lol pic.twitter.com/BYwhwh6w9d— Robert Littal (@BSO) June 17, 2015
This the most accurate one yet... pic.twitter.com/UFDK67TGV3— Stone M. (@Stone_Marley) June 17, 2015
People are TOO. QUICK. pic.twitter.com/oIR6xRLBdt— Harry Lyles Jr. (@harrylylesjr) June 17, 2015
Yall really terrible human beings pic.twitter.com/DrqKevoNk8— Andrés EagleDollar (@EllRino) June 17, 2015
How many times has Lebron lost in the finals? pic.twitter.com/OMMWlN1261— Tom Brady's Ego (@TomBradysEgo) June 17, 2015
James record in the Finals stands at 2-4, something he won't be able to soon forget.
Finding a dependable and productive starting quarterback is a huge challenge for all 128 college football coaches each season. While recruiting and developing a player is the easiest and preferred route, sometimes that plan doesn’t work. Transfers are a huge part of any offseason and can help the coaching staff bridge the gap to the next prospect or fill a void after a player didn’t develop as expected.
There are several players expected to make an impact as a transfer quarterback in 2015, including Everett Golson at Florida State and Vernon Adams at Oregon. Outside of the Power 5 ranks, Jeff Driskel at Louisiana Tech and Max Wittek at Hawaii are two names to watch among Group of 5 teams.
Power 5 Quarterback Transfers
Vernon Adams, Eastern Washington to Oregon
Adams is one of the most interesting quarterback transfers to hit the FBS level in recent years. The California native was one of the top players in the FCS ranks over the last three seasons, throwing for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns and rushing for 1,232 yards and 11 scores. While Adams has been an elite quarterback for Eastern Washington, he has to translate that production to the Pac-12 and a level of play with more talent. The Ducks certainly aren’t hurting for options or talent at the skill positions. If Adams quickly settles into the starting job, Oregon should be in the mix for a playoff spot once again.
Virginia has been a busy place for quarterback transactions this offseason. David Watford departed to Hampton, and Greyson Lambert left for Georgia after spring practice. Adding Brewer as a graduate transfer makes a lot of sense for Virginia, as more depth is needed behind starter Matt Johns. The junior has two years of eligibility left and was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Brewer has yet to throw a pass on the FBS level.
Ferguson left Penn State after one season in Happy Valley. In his only year with the Nittany Lions, the California native played in five games and completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards and one score. Louisville’s quarterback competition is a crowded one, as Reggie Bonnafon, Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin and Ferguson are all competing for the first snap. Bonnafon has the edge to start in 2015.
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
Garman was a late addition to Maryland’s 2015 roster, joining the team in late May as a graduate transfer. Caleb Rowe is expected to be the Terrapins’ quarterback this year, but the junior is recovering from a torn ACL. Garman completed only 54.9 percent of his passes (277) at Oklahoma State in 2014. However, he also has a knack for producing big plays, completing 19 passes of 30 yards or more.
Golson transferred from Notre Dame following spring practice and was brought in to compete with Sean Maguire for the starting job. Replacing Jameis Winston is no easy task, but Golson – 3,445 passing yards and 29 passing touchdowns in 2014 – should be one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC if he beats out Maguire.
Lambert started nine games for Virginia in 2014 but was edged by Matt Johns at the end of spring practice for the starting job. The Georgia native is eligible to compete immediately as a graduate transfer and will open fall practices at No. 3 after Jacob Park announced his intentions to transfer in June. Lambert is a good addition for a team with an uncertain quarterback situation, but it’s unlikely he wins the job with Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey ahead on the depth chart.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Mayfield has traveled an interesting path to Oklahoma. The Texas native was a walk-on recruit to Texas Tech and started the season opener for the Red Raiders in 2013. Mayfield finished 2013 with 2,315 passing yards and 12 touchdowns but decided to transfer at the end of the regular season. And after sitting out 2014 due to transfer rules, the junior is the frontrunner to take the first snap for Oklahoma in 2015. New play-caller Lincoln Riley is tweaking the Sooners’ offensive scheme, and Mayfield should benefit by the shift to more of an Air Raid style.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Chad Voytik returns as Pittsburgh’s starter after throwing for 2,233 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. But with a new coaching staff and offensive scheme, Peterman will have an opportunity to push for time in the fall. Peterman was recruited to Tennessee by current Pittsburgh play-caller Jim Chaney. The familiarity should help Peterman quickly acclimate to his new surroundings.
Rettig – a former four-star prospect out of high school – is locked into a tight battle with Chris Laviano for the starting job. Rettig redshirted in his only year at LSU but threw for 3,424 yards and 40 touchdowns in his senior year at Cathedral High School. While Laviano won the job in the spring, Rettig will have an opportunity to claim the starting spot in the fall.
Rudock left Iowa for a chance to start at Michigan and learn under Jim Harbaugh for one season. In four seasons with the Hawkeyes, Rudock completed 417 of 691 passes for 4,819 yards and 34 scores. The senior is expected to edge Shane Morris for the starting job in the fall.
Other Power 5 Quarterback Transfers to Watch
Josh Grady, Vanderbilt to Florida
Ty Griffin, Georgia Tech to Oregon
Nic Shimonek, Iowa to Texas Tech
Group of 5 Quarterback Transfers
FIU has a promising sophomore in Alex McGough, but it never hurts to add competition for a team that finished 4-8 and averaged only 23 points per game in 2014. Anderson completed 25 of 53 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown in three seasons of playing time at Pittsburgh.
Russell Bellomy, Michigan to UTSA
Bellomy was buried on the Michigan depth chart and transferred to UTSA as a graduate transfer for 2015. The Texas native played in six career game with the Wolverines and will push Blake Bogenschutz and Austin Robinson for snaps.
Michael Birdsong, James Madison to Marshall
Birdsong started for James Madison in 2013, throwing for 2,728 yards and 22 scores and adding 310 yards and three scores on the ground. Marshall’s offense is one of the best among the Group of 5 ranks, and Birdsong is inheriting plenty of talent to work with in 2015. The junior finished spring at the top of the depth chart.
Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions
The Zips are looking for a spark in their passing attack after throwing only seven touchdown passes in MAC play last year. Chapman – a former four-star recruit – is expected to push returning starter Kyle Pohl for the starting job.
Cody Clements, UAB to South Alabama
Clements was a good find for UAB on the recruiting trail last season, as the Cerritos College transfer threw for 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. The California native transferred to South Alabama after UAB disbanded its football team for 2015 and is expected to start for coach Joey Jones.
Wyoming averaged 227.8 passing yards per game last season, but this offense should have an upgrade at quarterback with the addition of Coffman. The Indiana transfer threw for 2,734 yards and 15 scores in 2012 with the Hoosiers.
Driskel was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but the Florida native had his share of ups and downs in Gainesville. With one year of eligibility left and a new offensive scheme for the Gators, Driskel decided to transfer to Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs had good success with a graduate transfer last year (Cody Sokol), and Driskel will have plenty of talent to work with, including star running back Kenneth Dixon. Driskel threw for 3,411 yards and 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions in his Florida career.
Greg Ward is a rising star at quarterback for new Houston coach Tom Herman, but depth behind the junior was an issue. Schulz is a graduate transfer from Utah and threw for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns in three years with the Utes.
Smith battled shoulder injuries at Kentucky and used the 2014 season as a redshirt year. But when he’s healthy, Smith has proven he can be a solid FBS quarterback. The senior threw for 21 touchdowns and 3,070 yards in three seasons with the Wildcats.
Southern Miss has a returning starter at quarterback in junior Nick Mullens (12 TDs, 9 INTs in 2014), but Matthews – a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class – will have an opportunity to win the starting job. The Kansas native was also recruited to Oklahoma State by current Southern Miss coach Todd Monken.
UConn is desperately looking for a spark on offense after averaging only 169.3 passing yards per game in 2014. Shirreffs had success in a limited role at NC State in 2013, completing 4 of 5 passes for 17 yards and one score, along with 158 yards on the ground. Shirreffs has an edge over Tim Boyle and Garrett Anderson to start.
With an 8-29 mark in three years at Hawaii, Norm Chow is squarely on the hot seat entering 2015. But Chow has reason for optimism this year, as Wittek was a former top 100 recruit in the 2011 signing class and a four-star prospect. Wittek only completed 50 of 95 passes for 600 yards and three scores in two seasons of playing time with the Trojans. However, he’s a talented passer and is an upgrade for the Rainbow Warriors at quarterback.
Other Quarterback Transfers to Watch
Damion Hobbs, Oregon to Utah State
Jake Rodrigues, Oregon to San Diego State
Blaire Sullivan, UTEP to Texas State
Conference USA has a bit of momentum after a 4-1 postseason last year. Last year C-USA's East Division featured Marshall, which was one game away from a perfect season. Key personnel losses will make a second run at perfection a tough task for the 2015 version of the Thundering Herd. In fact, the turnover throughout the conference should result in some good competition and possibly a new team atop the C-USA mountain.
There are seven teams in Conference USA's East Division. This article will apply the win totals from one online sportsbook and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Conference USA East Division
(Over 2.5 wins -130...Under 2.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-6
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The 49ers will be brand new to everyone in the conference as they make the jump from FCS to FBS. Things start with Kalif Phillips, who rushed for almost 1,500 yards. Matt Johnson is back under center after tearing his MCL last year. He's got his top two wideouts back and an offensive line with three returnees as well.
Defense: This is a unit that allowed over 30 points per game against FCS competition. Larry Ogunjobi leads the way with five sacks. Safety Branden Dozier was the team's leading tackler last year with 86 and he's back as well.
Schedule: This is all brand new for the 49ers, who play Georgia State, Presbyterian, Temple and Kentucky out of conference. They play three of four at home in October, but flip it around and have three of four on the road in November.
Selection: Charlotte will be in for a long season. They have never beaten any FBS-level teams. I just don't have a feel on this team like we did when Texas-San Antonio made the same jump. That was a veteran team with Larry Coker. This is a squad led by Brad Lambert. I'd stay away as the low win total number could be achieved.
(Over 5 wins -130...Under 5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-6
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Jacquez Johnson threw for over 2,000 yards on offense, but is without leading receiver Lucky Whitehead. Johnson has Jenson Stoshak and Kalib Woods on the outside and both are capable, but won't match up to Whitehead's production most likely. The left side of the offensive line is strong and should open holes for Buddy Howell and Jay Warren.
Defense: This was a horrible defense last year that gave up over 30 points in eight straight contests to close things out. This was with cornerback D'Joun Smith who was underrated. He's gone now as well as Andrae Kirk and Damian Parms. This unit will be just as leaky as it was last year.
Schedule: A road game at Tulsa starts things off for FAU with home games against Miami and Buffalo to follow. The fourth non-conference game is in November and it's at Florida as part of a rough finishing stretch. Marshall and Rice both come to Boca Raton in October.
Selection: Small lean to the over, but it's a suggestion that lacks confidence. FAU figures to pick up at least one win in September before a home-friendly October. Johnson is capable of winning a game or two, but this defense is capable of losing just as many, if not more. The Owls were one of my favorites last year as an underdog. They'll be a team that's going to play in a lot of overs.
(Over 6 wins +155...Under 6 wins -195)
Record Last Year: 4-8, 3-5
Returning Starters: 14 (6 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The Panthers bring back Alex McGough under center and he'll be relying on a solid run game. Anthon Samuel comes over from Bowling Green and he makes a nice combo with Alex Gardner. McGough also gets his security blanket back in tight end Jonnu Smith, who caught 61 passes last year.
Defense: The Panthers can get to the quarterback with Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, who combined for almost 15 sacks last year. This unit brings back the majority of its linebackers and secondary so the Panthers should be pretty fierce.
Schedule: Four of the first five are on the road including contests at UCF, Indiana and Louisiana Tech. The Panthers do get a breather with NC Central at home in September. The final non-conference game is at UMass on Oct. 3. This is not a friendly slate at all.
Selection: The under is the play here, but not at that price. It's hard to make any case for this team winning seven games especially considering the rough start. UMass is a winnable game, but I really like the Minutemen. If you can honestly make a case for the over, then go for it, because you won't get a better price.
(Over 10 wins -105...Under 10 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 13-1, 7-1
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Rakeem Cato is gone and in steps transfer Michael Birdsong who was solid for James Madison. Birdsong will have Devon Johnson in the backfield and Davonte Allen as well as Deon-Tay McManus on the outside. The offensive line brings back an experienced crew for the most part. There will be a bit of a step down, but maybe not as much as we think.
Defense: There's a lot gone from last year's top-20 unit. The front seven has only two returnees and neither were that good at rushing the passer. There are several seniors so you have to hope that their experience pays off.
Schedule: A home game against Purdue kicks things off with games against Ohio, Norfolk State and Kent State to follow in September. The MAC opponents are on the road making them slightly tougher. It's a manageable conference slate as well with a road game at Western Kentucky closing things out. Last year the two played a 67-66 game won by the Hilltoppers.
Selection: I like the under for the Thundering Herd. Road games at MTSU, Kent State and Western Kentucky should present the best chances for a loss. They'll roll through the rest of the schedule and make another bowl appearance.
(Over 7 wins -105...Under 7 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 6-6, 5-3
Returning Starters: 13 (6 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Austin Grammer is under center and he had 23 touchdowns last season. This group scored less than 20 points just twice last year. The Blue Raiders will need to ride a real good run game with Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson.
Defense: The numbers were ugly for the MTSU defense last year. It should be a lot better as a veteran unit led by T.T. Barber and Kevin Byard. There could be as many as eight seniors getting the start for Rick Stockstill's defense.
Schedule: The Blue Raiders travel to Alabama on Sept. 12. They also get Jackson State, Illinois and Vanderbilt early on in the season. Ironically, they alternate home and road games all year long.
Selection: I lean to the over and would like it more at plus money. MTSU has a great home schedule and should pick up wins at Florida Atlantic and UTSA. The Blue Raiders will be better than last year. Stockstill is a good coach and have these guys pointed in a good direction.
(Over 4.5 wins -145...Under 4.5 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 6-6, 4-4
Returning Starters: 11 (7 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Taylor Heinicke is gone and that's the biggest hole that needs to be filled of almost any team in this conference. He meant the world to the Monarchs and now the keys are being handed over to Shuler Bentley. Ray Lawry rushed for 16 touchdowns last year and will be counted on again this year. Zach Pascal and David Washington return at receiver, but they will have to fill the hole left by Antonio Vaughan.
Defense: This was honestly one of the worst defenses in FBS. ODU allowed 56 points to Marshall, 66 to Western Kentucky and 46 to NC State. Even worse is that this side of the ball only has four returnees. There will be immense growing pains, but it's not as if they didn't have enough last year.
Schedule: The highlight of the year will be Sept. 19 when NC State comes to Norfolk. Before then ODU plays at Eastern Michigan followed by a home game with Norfolk State. Appalachian State wraps up the September three-game home stretch. Games against Marshall and Western Kentucky could get ugly.
Selection: Slight lean to the over although that means Bentley takes the job and runs with it. ODU has winnable conference games against Charlotte and Florida Atlantic at home. One can make the case for the under, but it's not one of my favorites.
(Over 7.5 wins -130...Under 7.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 4-4
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: One of the most fun offenses in the country to watch brings back a ton of pieces. Brandon Doughty threw for almost 5,000 yards and 49 touchdowns last year. He'll be joined once again in the backfield by Leon Allen, who added 13 touchdowns of his own. Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor are two more weapons on the outside. This team scored over 50 points four times last year.
Defense: This side of the ball was 121st in terms of scoring defense, allowing 39.9 points per game last year. WKU brings back a lot, including Nick Holt and his 111 tackles. Cornerback Wonderful Terry, one of the best names in the conference, is back as well. He had two interception returns for touchdowns in 2014.
Schedule: The Hilltoppers play at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana to go along with a home contest against Miami (Ohio). WKU plays four road games in October with some pretty tough opponents.
Selection: I really like the over for WKU. This offense will roll and the defense will get better. The schedule is real tough and if you lean to the over like I do then you think this team has the pieces to win on the road. Doughty is a lot of fun and on a bigger program, he'd be in the Heisman race.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
Since their days in the youth football leagues of Miami, running backs Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby have been the subject of an ongoing debate: Who’s better?
“Every game, people would argue,” says Cook’s brother, former University of Miami basketball player Deandre Burnett. “Dalvin should be getting more carries. Joe should have got the ball there. They’re both good. Whoever gets the ball, it’s going to be an exciting run.”
They played together at Miami Central High, producing some of the gaudiest rushing stats in the rich history of South Florida high school football and helping the elite program win three state titles.
This year, Cook and Yearby — both sophomores and still best friends — are key figures on opposite sides of one of college football’s best rivalries.
Seminoles fans in the post-Jameis Winston era feel the offense is in good hands with Cook (6'0", 203 pounds), who led ACC freshmen in rushing yards (1,008) and scored eight touchdowns. Hurricanes fans missing Duke Johnson are happy to have Yearby (5'9", 195), who rushed for 509 yards and a touchdown.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Football Preview
Cook established himself as a star at the end of last season, rushing for 592 yards in his final five games with an MVP performance (220 total yards and a touchdown) in the ACC Championship Game. As Johnson’s backup, Yearby broke the 100-yard mark in two games.
Both feel it’s time, as Cook says, to “take over.” They’ve been waiting for this chance since they first bonded over workouts, video games and a whole lot of wins at Central High.
“We’d say to each other, we want to win championships, be in the race for the Heisman,” Yearby says. “We wanted to be the greatest to come out of high school and college.”
Cook grew up in Miami Gardens, around the corner from the Hurricanes’ home field. Yearby was raised a few neighborhoods south in Liberty City. When they joined together as high school sophomores, they instantly recognized something special.
Related: Florida State Preview and Prediction
They even went to Central coach Telly Lockette and stated a goal: “We’re going to be the best two running backs you ever coached,” Cook said.
Few metro areas in the nation produce as much football talent as Miami. Every year, Division I rosters contain some 350 players who hail from its 60 high school programs. But Cook and Yearby weren’t just city legends. Veteran recruiting analysts like Larry Blustein and Scout.com’s Jamie Newberg consider Cook and Yearby two of the best high school running backs the state of Florida has ever produced.
To have both in the same backfield? Unheard of.
After backing up future NFL back Devonta Freeman as a freshman, Yearby became the first sophomore in Miami-Dade County history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He finished high school with 5,592 yards; had he not broken his left fibula in a regional semifinal his senior year, he would have had two games to gain the 104 yards needed to break Bobby Washington’s county record.
Cook played fewer games, having made his varsity debut as a sophomore and missing half of a season because of shoulder surgery, but he finished with 4,267 yards. His yards-per-carry average broke the county record held by Johnson, who went on to earn All-America honors at Miami.
Related: Miami Hurricanes Preview and Prediction
Their combined rushing yardage would rank seventh all-time in high school history. In four years with Yearby (three of them with Cook), Central went 53–5.
“We were just unselfish,” Cook says. “Whoever was hot that night, we’d let them put on a show. Most of the time, we were both hot, so Joe would go to quarterback and I’d go to running back. We’d never take it too serious. We’d just run. We could run forever.”
In his senior year, Cook created a lasting memory. In the 2013 Class 6A state title game in Orlando, he ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. He swapped his No. 4 jersey for the No. 3 of Yearby, who sat on the bench in a cast, cheering him on.
“You don’t find too many guys just like you,” Cook says. “You cherish those guys. Joe’s going to be my brother forever.”
“When we first got together, we clicked,” Yearby says. “He knows everything about me. I know everything about him. We balance out each other.”
At a get-together in February, former Hurricanes star Clinton Portis talked about the pair with his former position coach, Don Soldinger. Portis saw them in the 2012 Class 6A state championship, when they combined for 251 total yards and four rushing touchdowns, two apiece.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between them,” Portis said. “Every time they had the ball, it was a gash — 40 yards, 50 yards.”
Soldinger, who once coached a UM backfield featuring future NFL Pro Bowlers in Portis, Frank Gore and Willis McGahee, was similarly impressed when he watched Cook and Yearby play on a hot Friday night.
“It was impossible to handle them,” Soldinger says. “One would come in — boom, 20-yard run. The other would come in — boom, 35-yard run. I remember saying, ‘Boy, if Miami could get both of those guys, they’d be something special.’”
For a time, it was unclear whether the Hurricanes would land either. Yearby committed to Florida State in May of his sophomore year. Cook pledged to Clemson a month later. When offensive coordinator James Coley left the Seminoles for the Canes in January 2013, he pulled Yearby with him. Soon after, Cook flipped to Florida. Jimbo Fisher later lured him to Tallahassee.
They teased the possibility of an on-campus reunion, but those close to them say that was never a possibility. Besides, the debate is more fun when they are opponents.
• “We wouldn’t trade Joe for anybody,” UM coach Al Golden says.
• “Cook is the more explosive of the pair,” says Newberg. “I see Yearby as the Barry Sanders type. You can never get a clean shot.”
• “Joe’s not as fast as Dalvin, but not a lot of people are,” Coley says. “Joe’s got more wiggle than Dalvin.”
• “You want to compare by pure speed? It’s Dalvin,” says Lockette, now Oregon State’s running backs coach. “But Joe is not far behind.”
Cook’s Seminoles got the upper hand last year, finishing 13–1 with a blowout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Yearby’s Hurricanes went a disappointing 6–7 and ended with four losses in a row, including an Independence Bowl defeat at the hands of South Carolina. Yearby says his main goal is to infuse a fractured locker room with the “championship mentality” he and Cook shared.
Miami’s slide started with a Nov. 15 home loss to FSU. On the turf of Sun Life Stadium, a 10-minute drive from Cook’s home, he grabbed hold of the rivalry for the first time. Late in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles down three points, Cook lined up 26 yards from the end zone. He was confident he would score on his next touch. He knew exactly how he would celebrate, too.
With his right hand, he would touch his thumb to his forefinger. That’s a gesture of Miami pride; the three fingers and circle of the right hand and the five fingers of the left signal “305,” the local area code.
Cook drifted right, took the handoff from Winston and slipped through a series of Hurricanes defenders like a ghost. With the game on the line, Yearby says, Cook is “like Michael Jordan.” He eluded one tackle, then another, then another, until he crossed the goal line. In a perfect bit of symmetry, the clock read 3:05. Cook spread his arms wide, letting cheers and boos rain down.
“I always wanted to do that,” he says. “It was a moment I will never forget.”
Neither will Yearby, who says he’s checking off days on his calendar until Oct. 10. This year’s game is in Tallahassee. He says if he scores a touchdown or two, he’ll throw up the “305.” Further playing his part in their newfound rivalry, Yearby jokes that he’s going to meet with his coaches that week and give them a detailed scouting report on Cook.
After all, few know him better.
On Monday, the Padres dismissed manager Bud Black after nine seasons at the helm in San Diego. New general manager A.J. Preller isn’t afraid to make swift changes to his ball club, as evidenced by his complete offseason makeover of the Padres’ roster. The roster turnover did little to change the Padres’ place in the National League West standings, as they entered Tuesday’s action two games below .500 (32-34) and a game and a half away from last place.
The fact is, few — if any — expected Preller to keep Black as his long-term manager, but the skipper can’t be blamed for several of the Padres’ current issues, such as their disastrous defense, marginal team batting average (.244) and startling number of strikeouts (555).
Black essentially started the 2015 season on the hot seat, and became the second manager after Milwaukee’s Ron Roenicke to be relieved of his duties. But there’s a good chance, they won’t be the only ones unemployed between now and the end of this season. Here are five other managers whose seats are starting to get a little warmer.
John Farrell, Boston Red Sox
Farrell is just two seasons removed from leading the Red Sox to a World Series title that saw Boston go from worst in 2012 to first in '13. Since that October run the Red Sox have lost 129 games in a season and a quarter, finishing in dead last in 2014 and are on pace to finish in last place again in '15.
Tensions are beginning to rise in Boston as new, high-priced players are failing to live up to their massive contracts (Looking at you, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval) and the pitching staff has been horrendous (Team ERA: 4.53). There is no doubt that the pressure to win in Boston is higher than in most other big league cities, and the heat is starting to come down on Farrell from the fans and media. Farrell isn’t afraid to call his players out for making mistakes on the field and has done so several times this season, including just as recently as this past weekend when he ripped Ramirez for a lackluster base-running blunder.
General manager Ben Cherington, the master designer of the most recent Red Sox offseason makeover, could be at the end of his rope with Farrell, if not for the safety of his own job.
Robin Ventura, Chicago White Sox
The South Siders were one of several teams this offseason to complete a roster overhaul in hopes of contending immediately. And much like those other teams, things haven’t worked out so well for the Sox. General manager Rick Hahn and team president Kenny Williams made what seemed like great offseason moves to acquire Jeff Samardzija to bolster the pitching staff in addition to signing Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to deepen the lineup. Those moves haven’t paid off. Samardzija has an ERA just south of 5.00, while LaRoche and Cabrera are both hitting under .250 as the White Sox (28-34) sit in last place in the AL Central.
With the Cubs beginning to show signs of promise, the focus of Chicago fan fury has shifted to Ventura and White Sox team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who just fired Tom Thibodeau as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Could Reinsdorf pull the trigger and let the former Sox great go as manager? I wouldn’t doubt it. In fact, I would bank on it.
Lloyd McClendon, Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners (29-35) very well might be the most disappointing team in baseball this season. On paper, it seems that the M’s have all of the necessary pieces to make a run at October. On the field, the Mariners are a mess. Last season’s historic and dominant team pitching performance has turned to marginal in 2015 and the offense is absolutely disastrous, sitting second to last in the majors in runs scored, just ahead of the laughable Phillies.
The $240 million mega-contract of second baseman Robinson Cano (.240/.281/.328, 2 HR, 19 RBI .609 OPS) could wind up being the worst in baseball history for a healthy ball player. But Cano isn’t the only scapegoat. The Mariners have just one player hitting near .300 in Nelson Cruz (.317), the second closest is $100 million dollar third baseman Kyle Seager (.275).
The M’s finished 2014 12 games above .500 and seemed like they could be the team to beat in the AL West in 2015, but thus far Seattle sits six games under .500 and next to last in the division with no signs of improving. If shuffling the lineup and reloading the pitching staff in the offseason wasn’t the answer for the Mariners, perhaps a new face calling the shots in the dugout could be.
Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves
Make no mistake about it, Gonzalez is a lame-duck manager and has been since the moment the Braves' front office decided that it was time to rebuild this past winter, trading away the Upton Bros., Jason Heyward, and the game’s best reliever in Craig Kimbrel. Even before the roster liquidation, Gonzalez’s name had been brought up in many industry conversations as a manager who was due to get fired after a couple of late-season collapses
The Braves (31-33) are playing better than many pundits thought they would, sitting just 3.5 games back in the NL East, a division they dominated for a decade and a half under previous manager Bobby Cox. But the unspoken agreement seems to be that this franchise is aiming for contention in 2017 when their new state-of-the-art and controversial ball park is set to open outside of the metropolitan Atlanta area. Don’t count on Gonzalez being at the ribbon cutting ceremony.
Bryan Price, Cincinnati Reds
Price is struggling. He’s struggling to adjust to an era where players are according to him, “flamboyant.” Price is struggling to not get thrown out of games before they start like he did back on May 23, and he’s struggling to understand the modern media’s job in baseball without using a certain four-letter word 77 times. Most importantly, Price and the Reds are struggling to win games.
Cincinnati (28-35) is 14 games back and currently sitting in the trade market’s no man’s land. Pitchers Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman and Johnny Cueto, along with long-time Reds’ outfielder Jay Bruce, are all reportedly available, only adding uncertainty to injury as Cincy currently has as many players on the DL as the Reds have in the lineup.
Things are looking grim for Price in the Queen City. Seeing how likely it is that the Reds miss the postseason for the third straight season and with just one year remaining on Price’s contract, it appears that the Cincy skipper could be expendable by summer’s end.
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. He can be reached on Twitter @JakeRose24.
People seem to do anything and everything when their favorite sports team wins a championship. Since the Blackhawks Stanley Cup win in 2010, Coach Joel Quenneville’s first, fans have TP’ed the yard in front of his house. This year was no different, as diehard fans quickly raced to his house to cover it in toilet paper. They also did the same thing there in 2013, after his second Stanley Cup.
Though it may now be a Chicago tradition, this act has more historically been a prank done by kids against people they dislike. However, this is quite the opposite. Whoever started the tradition really thought outside of the box for this unique twist. Hopefully, Coach Quenneville doesn’t have to clean this mess up because he’ll surely be busy. Then again, he probably doesn't mind it too much.
Take a look at some of the pictures:
As veteran players near the end of their careers, it is always great to see the next generation of players competing against them, who will one day fill their void. Last night, hitting legend, Ichiro Suzuki, faced the newcomer, Masahiro Tanaka, for the first time. Both players hail from Japan, where the prior has essentially immortalized himself as a legend. Tanaka has all the skills to one day become a superstar, but it was the aging Suzuki who won last night’s battle.
Suzuki singled twice off of Tanaka, as the Marlins eked out a 2-1 victory over the Yankees. While the two players spent last year on the Yankees together, watching them square off against one another seemed more significant. Once the first Japanese position player in the MLB, Suzuki has surely paved the way for other Japanese players to come in and succeed.
Take a look below at some highlights of the game from a Japanese news station:
Young Teddy Bridgewater’s unusual composure and good old Mike Zimmer’s as-expected defensive acumen gave the Vikings a renewed sense of direction despite their 7–9 finish a year ago. Now comes the next step, which the Vikings will take with the full-on power of Adrian Peterson’s unbridled return to the NFL.
Bridgewater went 5–4 in his last nine games as a rookie quarterback, and Zimmer orchestrated a turnaround from last in scoring defense to 11th in his first year as a head coach. And they did it with 2012 NFL MVP Peterson missing all but the season opener as he dealt with the law and the league over injuries he inflicted while disciplining his 4-year-old son. So, despite Peterson’s reservations about returning to a team and a city he feels didn’t support him initially, the Vikings held him to his contract because they believe he can help carry Bridgewater past the verge of being something special.
“I think Teddy’s play gives fans hope,” Zimmer says. “Hopefully, they also like how we compete. There’s no question what Adrian gives us. But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Bridgewater didn’t become a starter until Week 3, so he hasn’t played with Peterson or enjoyed the steady diet of eight and nine defenders crowding the box. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, for one, can’t wait to get started.
Turner has had decades of success running an offense that melds John Robinson’s running game with the old Air Coryell route-numbering system. He’s expecting a return to greatness for the 30-year-old Peterson and a significant residual effect on Bridgewater and the play-action, deep-ball attack. That part of the offense struggled last year until Charles Johnson, who was claimed off of Cleveland’s practice squad, emerged late as the No. 1 receiver by default.
General manager Rick Spielman executed a low-risk trade, sending his extra fifth-round pick to Miami for moody receiver Mike Wallace. His contract contains no guaranteed money beyond this season, and room for his $9.9 million cap hit was created painlessly with the release of Greg Jennings, whose $11 million cap figure was outlandish for an aging player who could no longer consistently separate from defenders. If Wallace plays like he did in Pittsburgh, when he was the league’s fastest deep threat, the Vikings got a steal. If Wallace pouts like he did in Miami, the Vikings can remove the cancer before it infects teammates, particularly receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who took a big step backward last year and has been given numerous warnings to take his job more seriously.
The offensive line has been an overrated liability. Right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt return from injuries, while the pressure is intense on left tackle Matt Kalil, who blamed last year’s awful performances on preseason knee surgery. Left guard is undetermined and a big question mark. Veteran interior backup Joe Berger, who started nine games at right guard last year, is the safety net and an upgrade over Charlie Johnson, who was released. David Yankey is the preferred candidate, but the 2014 fifth-round pick wasn’t strong enough to play as a rookie. Center John Sullivan had one of his finest seasons a year ago.
At tight end, Turner still has high hopes for Kyle Rudolph, who has prototypical size and enough speed to be one of the league’s tougher mismatches. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to nine games last season and 17 over the past two years.
Meanwhile, the sense of excitement about the offense is rooted in the popular belief that the Vikings finally found a franchise quarterback. Poise, touch and adequate arm strength contributed to Bridgewater posting the third-best completion percentage (64.4) by a rookie in NFL history.
Zimmer’s first priority last year was transforming a reactionary Cover-2 scheme into an aggressive unit that attacked from multiple fronts and blitz packages. Initial results were encouraging as the unit ranked seventh in pass defense, but the 25th-ranked run defense disappointed often and needed more time for linemen to adjust to an unfamiliar scheme.
Four defenders have shown All-Pro potential, and all are younger than 28. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr (23) was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before suffering a knee injury. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (25) was shadowing No. 1 receivers with a swagger during a breakout season under Zimmer, a noted defensive backs whisperer. Safety Harrison Smith (26) was the team’s biggest Pro Bowl snub. And end Everson Griffen (27) had a career-high 12 sacks while justifying the team’s decision to let Jared Allen walk.
Spielman used the draft to add two more likely starters in cornerback Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks, who should become the team’s first three-down middle linebacker in years.
Backup tackle Tom Johnson posted a career-high 6.5 sacks as part of a deep rotation. Meanwhile, starter Sharrif Floyd had 43 quarterback hurries and will enjoy a breakout season once he stays healthy enough.
At linebacker, Barr is a three-down star with no limitations. Chad Greenway, 32, returns for a 10th season at outside linebacker. The coaches still value his experience and leadership but are likely to give Kendricks his reps in the nickel.
In the secondary, Waynes gives the Vikings a big cover corner, a must against the big receivers in the NFC North. With Waynes on board, Captain Munnerlyn can slide inside exclusively as the nickel back. Meanwhile, at strong safety, Robert Blanton won the job by default last summer but didn’t establish himself as a long-term solution. The preferred candidate to win the job this year is Antone Exum Jr., a second-year player who was converted to safety a year ago.
Two former Bengals — cornerback Terence Newman, who will be 37 when the season starts, and safety Taylor Mays — could start or contribute this season for Zimmer, their former defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
Kicker Blair Walsh’s accuracy was a career-low 74.3 percent as the Vikings moved outdoors to their temporary new home last season. But don’t fret. The 2012 first-team All-Pro remains a viable scoring threat from 50 yards and farther. And the team is moving back indoors in 2016. Punter Jeff Locke enters his third season still needing more consistency and precision on punts inside the 10-yard line. Patterson, who was All-Pro first team as a rookie kick returner in 2013, regressed there as well. Punt returner Marcus Sherels remains a safety blanket, but rookie Stefon Diggs could push Sherels for his roster spot.
Peterson could challenge 2,000 yards, while Bridgewater and the defense each hope to take another step. But whether the team can close the gap in its own division will be the big question. After all, the Vikings were 0–4 against Green Bay and Detroit and were the only team in the league not to beat an opponent with a winning record. And their schedule gets tougher with the NFC West and AFC West in the rotation. The Vikings are heading in the right direction and should be a playoff contender. Getting there and winning their first postseason game since the 2009 season could be another matter.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North
Coach Jim Caldwell didn’t do exactly what he promised in his first year in Detroit. The new boss was supposed to unlock the Lions’ offensive potential, but instead he unleashed arguably the NFL’s most ferocious defense. He forged better team chemistry, but couldn’t keep his best player from bolting in free agency. He returned the Lions to the playoffs with an 11-win season — the franchise’s best record since 1991 — but he also watched as his team blew a fourth-quarter lead and, after the refs picked up a flag, handed a wild-card playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, there was something to build on, even with one of the cornerstone pieces of the Lions’ massive rebuilding effort — Ndamukong Suh — taking his talents to South Beach. Caldwell’s steady, straightforward approach has made a difference with a once-reckless bunch, on and off the field. And there’s plenty of playmaking talent returning on both sides of the ball. But the next step is where the Lions — 20 years removed from their last back-to-back playoff berths — have historically stumbled.
The Matthew Stafford 2.0 reboot wasn’t an unqualified success. But with the arrival of a quarterback whisperer in Caldwell, new coordinator Joe Lombardi and position coach Jim Bob Cooter, the changes were evident. Stafford, who has started every game the last four seasons, improved his footwork and his completion percentage, cut down on interceptions (from 19 to 12) and still led five game-winning, fourth-quarter drives.
But he clearly struggled with a more conservative mandate in a new offense that borrowed heavily from Lombardi’s voluminous Saints playbook. “I thought that he played smart football,” Lombardi says, “and sometimes to a fault.” This season, Lombardi says he’ll encourage Stafford to take more risks, and more shots down the field.
He has to, with one of the best pass-catching tandems in the league in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. The Lions were one of five NFL teams with multiple 1,000-yard receivers last season. And after a disappointing rookie season, tight end Eric Ebron — the 10th overall pick in 2014 — is expected to play a much bigger role in the passing game this fall.
But all that’s dependent on an overhauled offensive line that allowed 45 sacks — a career-high for Stafford — and a running game that ranked 28th in the NFL a year ago. In the backfield, rookie second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, a hard-working, productive runner at Nebraska, replaces oft-injured Reggie Bush in a tandem with Joique Bell. Theo Riddick, a pass-catching threat, figures to get more snaps as well.
The Lions invested a first-round pick in Duke’s Laken Tomlinson, a massive run-blocking guard who draws favorable comparisons to the Lions’ Larry Warford. Tomlinson will replace departed vet Rob Sims at left guard, while a healthy Warford returns on the right, flanking second-year pro Travis Swanson, who steps in for Dominic Raiola, the Lions’ starting center for the last 14 seasons. Manny Ramirez, a former Lions draft pick acquired during the draft from Denver, is back as veteran insurance on the interior. And Riley Reiff remains the left tackle for now, with LaAdrian Waddle (coming off ACL surgery) and Cornelius Lucas on the right.
Suh is gone, and though the Lions replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata in a trade with Baltimore, they’ll be hard-pressed to match last season’s dominance up front. With Suh commanding double teams on every play, the Lions led the league in run defense. They also recorded 42 sacks, with 34 coming from the defensive line.
But it’s not just Suh who left. The Lions also let Nick Fairley, who missed half the season with a knee injury, walk in free agency, along with primary backup C.J. Mosley and end George Johnson. Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones are the returning starters at end. In Ansah the Lions believe they have a Pro Bowl-caliber right end who’ll post double-digit sack totals, provided he can stay healthy. Jones offers inside-out versatility, and rookie Gabe Wright, a high-motor player from Auburn, will get thrown into the tackle rotation immediately with Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, an under-the-radar free-agent pickup from New Orleans.
The one key contributor the Lions did keep last winter, though, was coordinator Teryl Austin, a rising star who interviewed for multiple head-coaching vacancies. His aggressive, blitzing schemes brought the best out of a back seven that used to be the Lions’ Achilles heel.
DeAndre Levy emerged as one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers, and sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch returns in the middle after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. The Lions had big plans for 2014 second-rounder Kyle Van Noy as a hybrid pass rusher, but a sports hernia derailed his season. Expect to see more of that role this fall, with Tahir Whitehead also factoring in.
The safeties — led by All-Pro Glover Quin — led the NFL with 11 interceptions. And though James Ihedigbo was absent at the start of offseason workouts over a contract dispute, the secondary returns largely intact. Rashean Mathis returns as a steady, savvy vet opposite Darius Slay, who enjoyed a breakout sophomore season. Injuries proved costly at nickel back, and both Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson remain question marks this fall. But the Lions have added depth there, signing Josh Wilson and drafting Alex Carter and Quandre Diggs. And they often went with three-safety looks last year thanks to the versatility of backups Isa Abdul-Quddus and Don Carey.
The Lions’ kicking game might’ve cost them a division title. They missed eight of their first nine field-goal attempts from 40-plus yards last season, and all three kicks in a 17–14 home loss to Buffalo. They shuffled through two kickers — first rookie draft pick Nate Freese, then Alex Henery — before signing free agent Matt Prater coming off an alcohol suspension. Only then did things settle down, which is why re-signing Prater was an offseason priority. Punter Sam Martin was a goat in the playoff loss at Dallas — his fourth-quarter shank set up the Cowboys’ winning drive — but he ranked among the league’s best in net punting and kickoffs. The coverage units struggled all year, though, and the Lions lacked explosiveness in the return game, so in comes a fiery new coordinator in Joe Marciano. And in Abdullah, the Lions believe they’ve drafted a player who’ll contribute as a kick returner as well, possibly supplanting Jeremy Ross.
When the Lions made the playoffs in 2011, they acted like they’d arrived, only to discover they hadn’t with a 4–12 record after a disastrous offseason full of risky draft picks and off-field trouble. This time, they’re not standing pat, with major changes in the trenches. And in Caldwell, they’ve got a well-respected coach who GM Martin Mayhew insists “makes a difference.” With a brutal early-season schedule, it may not take long to find out if he’s right.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC North
There’s a better chance of Mike McCarthy having a training-camp movie night showing of “Remember the Titans” on a VHS tape than there is of the Green Bay Packers coach pinning his team’s motivational hopes on its gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
In the wake of their 28–22 overtime loss to the Seahawks — in which the Packers held a 16–0 lead at halftime and had the ball with a 19–7 lead with less than five minutes to play in regulation — McCarthy insists he will not use the loss as the basis for his annual theme, something he presents to the players every year at the start of training camp.
“(Come) hell or high water, we’re not going to run out there and come up with some slogan, ‘Remember Seattle!’” McCarthy says. “I’m not going to do that.”
There’s no doubt that the loss, with a berth in Super Bowl XLIX on the line, was heartbreaking — arguably the worst in franchise history, given the stakes and everything that went wrong in a short period of time.
So how do the Packers channel their disappointment into something positive going forward?
“That’s the million-dollar question right there,” says quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won his second career NFL MVP award in 2014. “We had a great opportunity right in front of us to do something special. That’s what makes it hard.”
It all starts with Rodgers. Not only did he throw for 4,381 yards with 38 touchdown passes and just five interceptions (112.2 rating) last season, but he also played through a torn left calf that initially occurred at Tampa Bay on Dec. 21 and plagued him the rest of the year. Back to full health in the prime of his career at age 31, there’s no reason to believe one of the league’s best quarterbacks won’t keep putting up those numbers — especially with the talent around him.
By re-signing wide receiver Randall Cobb (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns) and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the spring, the Packers bring back everyone on an offense that led the NFL in scoring last season. Not only does Cobb return, but so do Jordy Nelson, who set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards (1,519) and caught a career-high 98 passes; and third-year running back Eddie Lacy, who has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons during his first two years in the league. Lacy was healthier and more efficient (4.6-yard average) while not altering his bruising, physical style. Backup James Starks provides a more-than-capable No. 2 option in the backfield.
The offense should be even more potent if wide receiver Davante Adams, a second-round pick a year ago, and tight end Richard Rodgers, a third-round pick, make the Year 1 to Year 2 jump that the draft-and-develop Packers demand of their young, up-and-coming players. Adams flashed his ability with big games against New England in the regular season (six receptions, 121 yards) and against Dallas in the playoffs (seven receptions, 117 yards, TD) and has the look of another smart Ted Thompson pick at receiver. Rodgers the tight end, meanwhile, started slowly but caught 12 passes in the final four games (including playoffs), as his connection with Rodgers the quarterback — no relation — grew.
The consensus — from McCarthy to Aaron Rodgers to the offensive linemen themselves — was that the offensive success started with high-caliber play and consistency up front. Of the 18 games the Packers played, the same quintet — left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, rookie center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and Bulaga — started 17 of them. Bulaga, who’d suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries the previous two years, missed one game with a knee injury, but by season’s end he’d regained the form he had in 2012. Linsley, meanwhile, was a godsend as a rookie fifth-round pick who played every offensive snap, while resident tough guys Lang and Sitton played through leg injuries late in the year. This group will take on all comers and won’t cede the title of the NFL’s best line to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers had the league’s worst run defense until, in desperation, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside, where he played primarily in the nickel defense. It was a stroke of genius that saved the season and turned the unit around. While Matthews is hoping to spend less time in the middle this year — with the fourth-round selection of Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and the coaches’ high hopes for Carl Bradford after essentially a redshirt year, Matthews could get his wish — having No. 52 inside will still be part of the scheme. He had 11 sacks and made his fifth Pro Bowl in that hybrid role, so he can be effective splitting his time.
Matthews’ move was made possible by the rarest of moves by Thompson — the signing of a big-name veteran. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers had a turn-back-the-clock season, recording seven sacks while intercepting two passes, both of which he returned for touchdowns. At age 35, it’s possible he could fall off the table, but he certainly doesn’t look like a player at the end of the line.
Up front, defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion came back on one-year deals and should anchor the middle. The two key players, though, are 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, who has been a disappointment in his first two seasons, and Mike Daniels, who has had a greater impact each season. Youngsters Josh Boyd and Khyri Thornton have done little to this point and must contribute more.
The safety position has gone from a weakness to a strength with an improved Morgan Burnett and 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but now there are questions at cornerback with the departures of starter Tramon Williams and trusted backup Davon House. Casey Hayward is penciled in as the starter opposite Sam Shields, but nickel back Micah Hyde and draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will have something to say.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby is coming off two excellent seasons after struggling in 2012, while punter Tim Masthay had perhaps his worst season when the bottom fell out during the second half of the year. While Hyde has been excellent as a punt returner, the kickoff return game was abysmal and needs a boost. Perhaps rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery, the all-time kickoff return leader in Stanford history, is the answer.
Four straight division titles are nothing to sneeze at, but the annual postseason disappointments have gotten tougher to bear for the Packers — the hardest being the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Seattle last January. With the offense intact and the defense still having room for improvement, the Packers deserve to be in the Super Bowl 50 conversation as long as Rodgers is healthy. The biggest question mark is coaching. McCarthy relinquished the play-calling duties during the offseason, so if the offense is still potent and allows McCarthy to pay more attention to the defense and horrendous special teams, it could be a game-changer.
Prediction: 1st in NFC North
New Bears head coach John Fox and his staff have an infinitely easier task than the one Marc Trestman undertook in 2013 and failed to achieve. Fox will not be burdened by lofty expectations. He inherits a 5–11 team that isn’t realistically expected to contend in Year 1. Trestman took over a 10–6 team that barely missed the playoffs and was considered, right or wrong, to be primed for a deep playoff run. Never happened. Under Trestman, the Bears regressed to 8–8 and then to the 5–11 disaster that terminated his employment and ushered in Fox, whose last three Broncos teams went 38–10 in the regular season and won the AFC West in each of his four seasons. But Fox failed to produce the postseason success expected by team president John Elway and was replaced by Gary Kubiak.
In Chicago, Fox has the additional advantage of a much more accomplished and highly regarded staff than what Trestman was able to cobble together.
Fox has an added obstacle since the Bears will be transitioning to a 3-4 defense for the first time ever, but he’s got highly respected coordinator Vic Fangio overseeing the conversion.
Adam Gase was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates in the offseason, interviewing for top jobs with four teams, including the Bears, but he settled for re-upping with Fox. Gase spent the previous six years in Denver, including four under Fox, the last two as offensive coordinator.
He inherits quarterback Jay Cutler, who will be playing for his fifth offensive coordinator as he enters his seventh season in Chicago. Cutler’s inability to play up to his potential is the major reason the Bears’ offensive coordinator job has been a revolving door of men who have tried but never succeeded in getting Cutler to avoid the mistakes and inconsistencies that have plagued his career. Last season was no different. Cutler’s 88.6 passer rating was the second best of his career, but he led the NFL with 24 turnovers, including 18 interceptions, which tied for second most in his nine-year career.
All-purpose, workhorse running back Matt Forté enters his contract year wanting an extension that he’s unlikely to get. He turns 30 in December and, despite becoming only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing while catching at least 100 passes last year, he is not getting better. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season, his lowest number by far in five years, and he averaged a pedestrian 7.9 yards on his 102 receptions. Forté had one run of 20 yards or longer last season on 266 carries. Cutler had three on just 39 attempts.
One of new GM Ryan Pace’s first major personnel moves was to send productive but distracting wide receiver Brandon Marshall packing. Pace sent the five-time Pro Bowler and a seventh-round draft pick to the Jets and was content to get just a fifth-round pick in return. The Bears used the seventh overall selection in the draft on his replacement, Kevin White.
The Bears also signed free agent Eddie Royal, a quick, veteran slot receiver who gives them something they’ve been missing. Royal had a bounce-back season with the Chargers in 2014, posting his best numbers since his rookie year in 2008 with the Broncos, when his quarterback was, yep, Cutler. The Bears had high expectations for long, lanky Marquess Wilson a year ago, but a fractured collarbone in training camp limited him to seven games.
Alshon Jeffery is the go-to guy with Marshall gone and White a bit of a project. Jeffery has nice size, a wide catch radius and the ability to win jump balls downfield. He has 174 receptions for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns in the previous two seasons, but it remains to be seen how he handles the No. 1 role without Marshall around.
Tight end Martellus Bennett stayed away from a voluntary minicamp, wanting a new contract just halfway through his four-year, $20.4 million deal. Difficult as it is to believe, Bennett may be more self-involved than Marshall, but he turned in a career year in 2014.
The offensive line, not great to begin with, was devastated by injuries. The guard tandem of Kyle Long and Matt Slauson is excellent, but left tackle Jermon Bushrod’s best years appear to be behind him, and the Bears need better play at right tackle than they got from Jordan Mills. Will Montgomery seems like a stopgap solution at center. Michael Ola, a rookie last year with CFL experience, showed exceptional versatility, starting games at every O-line position except center.
Fox and Pace downplay the effect that a scheme change will have on a roster built to play a 4-3, because they’ll play 4-3 on some passing downs, making the defense more of a hybrid. Defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins were signed based on their 3-4 experience, and 336-pound Eddie Goldman was drafted 39th overall to play nose tackle. Unfortunately, McDonald was released in May following another arrest on domestic violence-related charges, the same situation that led to his suspension and eventual release when was with the 49ers last season.
The Bears’ biggest free-agent acquisition was 280-pound Pernell McPhee, who is primarily a linebacker but has the versatility to play almost anywhere in the front seven on a 3-4. McPhee was a key backup to superstars Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil last year with the Ravens, getting 7.5 sacks while playing 49 percent of the snaps. The Bears are convinced that the 26-year-old is an ascending player whose numbers will rise proportionately with increased playing time.
The key to the conversion will be how former 4-3 defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young adapt to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. Young seems like a natural, but he’s coming off a late-December Achilles injury. Houston will be trying to bounce back from a forgettable 2014 that ended in Week 8 when he suffered a torn ACL celebrating his only sack. The Bears also added inside linebackers Sam Acho and Mason Foster to their holdover collection of run-of-the-mill linebackers.
Veteran safety Antrel Rolle should upgrade a position that has been a weakness for years, but he’ll be 33 before the season ends. Cornerback is thin: Last year’s first-round pick Kyle Fuller could be a centerpiece, but he had an up-and-down rookie season, and veteran Tim Jennings slumped badly after getting a big contract following back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. In early June, the Bears signed veteran Tracy Porter to a one-year deal to boost both the depth and experience at the position.
There’s no reason to believe that Robbie Gould, the seventh-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, won’t bounce back from the worst season of his 10-year career. Gould hit a career-low 75 percent of his 12 attempts and missed the final four games with a quad injury. Punter Pat O’Donnell was a bit inconsistent as a rookie, but he’s a keeper. The long-snapper job will probably go to free-agent addition Thomas Gafford. Late-season veteran pickup Marc Mariani upgraded the kick return game in 2014 and is the leading contender to handle punt returns.
The Bears have been to the postseason once in eight years, and hardly anyone believes that this is a one-year fix. In his two other head-coaching stops, Fox has taken the Panthers (2003) and the Broncos (2013) to the Super Bowl. But neither of those teams was in the same division with Aaron Rodgers.
Prediction: 4th in NFC North
The success of the Houston Astros has clearly not gone unnoticed, and now there are alleged hacking attacks made by front office members of their former division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. The breach of data seems to revolve around Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who once worked in the scouting and player development department for the Cardinals. While in St. Louis, he helped create one of the league’s best farm systems, which led to direct success in the MLB. This success landed him the GM job with the Astros, where he has continued to build high caliber prospects.
While with the Cardinals, he developed a sophisticated computer network to store all of the confidential baseball information and reports. Then, when he moved onto the Astros, he built a very similar program. However, this led some in the Cardinals' front office to exact revenge on Luhnow, believing that he effectively stole this network idea. They were then able to hack into the system using passwords they had from him during his tenure in St. Louis.
Hacking seems to be common nowadays, but this seems to be the first acknowledged attack in sports. It will be interesting to see how first year commissioner, Rob Manfred, handles this unique situation.
News initially reported by The New York Times.
Here are the most important and interesting stats you need to know about the Pac-12 in 2015:
67-7: Anu Solomon’s record as a starter
Arizona’s starting quarterback isn’t the most mobile and doesn’t have the best arm but he knows how to win. He went 57-3 with four state championships at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and then 10-4 as a redshirt freshman with a division title in his first season at Arizona. His 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdowns were freshman school records and he’s the first returning starter at QB for the Wildcats since Nick Foles came back in 2011.
414.3: Yards per start for Mike Bercovici
Few teams will ever feel as comfortable replacing a three-year starter than Arizona State with Mike Bercovici. The super-sub replaced Taylor Kelly against UCLA, USC and Stanford last year and not only held his own but excelled. He won twice and averaged 414.3 yards passing per start. He added nine touchdowns and just two interceptions in those three starts.
7.1: Colorado yards allowed per play in Pac-12 games
The defense is an issue in Boulder to say the least. Colorado allowed an absurd 7.1 yards per play against Pac-12 foes last fall. No other team in the nation allowed more than 7.0 yards per play against conference opponents. The Buffs were much better in non-conference play at 4.9 yards per play allowed.
42: TD passes allowed by Cal
The Bears gave up a nation’s worst 42 touchdown passes a year ago. It also gave up a nation’s worst 4,406 passing yards on a nation’s worst 356 completions. The 154.54 defensive pass efficiency wasn’t much better at 118th nationally. Jared Goff is awesome but this team won’t get much better unless its defense improves.
19.5: Time between Oregon snaps in 2014
Oregon ran one play every 19.5 seconds last year, the sixth fastest total in the nation and trailing only Arizona in the Pac-12. That was with Marcus Mariota calling the shots so Vernon Adams obviously has big shoes to fill. The good news is the backfield returns 2,330 yards rushing from Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.
30-9: Gary Andersen’s record the last three seasons
A new era begins in Corvallis for more than one reason. Sean Mannion, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer (13,600), is gone but so too is mainstay head coach Mike Riley. Andersen takes over after going 30-7 in his last three seasons, winning at least nine games in all three campaigns. Riley won at least nine games just four times in 14 seasons at Oregon State and only once (2012) since 2008.
3.9: Stanford points per trip inside the 40
In the advanced stats world, finishing drives is defined by points per trip inside the 40-yard line. And the Cardinal ranked just 109th nationally a year ago, scoring just 3.9 points per visit inside the 40. For comparison, Oregon led the Pac-12 and was second nationally with 5.3 points per trip inside the 40. The Cardinal were actually worse in the red zone, finishing 112th in red zone efficiency (73.7 percent).
29: Wins in Jim Mora’s first three seasons
UCLA is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. That has happened only twice before Mora’s arrival (1997-98 and 1987-88) and never have the Bruins reached the 10-win milestone three times in a row. In fact, 29 wins is a school record for wins over a three-year period. It is worth pointing out that Brett Hundley, who is now in the NFL, started all 40 of those games the last three seasons.
97.4: USC rushing yards allowed per game in Pac-12 play
USC infamously allowed 452 yards rushing against Boston College last year. However, no team in the Pac-12 was better against the run in the league than the Trojans. Against Pac-12 teams, USC led the league with just 97.4 rushing yards allowed per game, ranking fifth nationally. Only Clemson (91.8) and Louisville (93.1) were better among Power 5 teams.
1: Times Utah has had a 2,000-yard passer in the Pac-12
Travis Wilson did plenty of good things last year — like cut his interception rate down and play in all 13 games. But he also did something no Ute quarterback has been able to do since entering the Pac-12. He threw for 2,170 yards, marking the first time Kyle Whittingham has had a 2,000-yard passer since leaving the Mountain West.
44.0: Washington sacks lost this offseason
The Huskies were No. 2 in the nation last fall with 52.0 sacks as a team. Just 8.0 QB takedowns return to the roster after graduation and the NFL Draft lured a total of 44.0 sacks away from the roster. This team has issues at quarterback and along the offensive line, but no bigger problem than replacing all four starting defensive linemen.
-31: Washington State turnover margin under Mike Leach
The Cougars were downright pathetic at protecting (or stealing) the football last year. Washington State posted a minus-17 turnover margin in 2014, ranking 126th nationally. Mike Leach’s squad was minus-5 in 2013 and minus-9 in '12 for a grand total of minus-31 over his three-year tenure with the Cougars.
Rainouts in baseball usually provide time for extra rest for the players. Except when you play in Chicago and the Blackhawks are one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. This scenario played out for the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, so Cubs’ star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Indians’ second baseman Jason Kipnis, who grew up in Chicago.
As much as they may have been saddened by a day off from baseball, they seemed to enjoy the Blackhawks decisive Game 6 victory. The championship win gives the Blackhawks their third Stanley Cup in six years, and their first title taken at home since 1938. The Cubs rainout also allowed fans to not miss either the Cubs or Blackhawks game. Now fans will have their attention focused on the Cubs, hoping that they can win their first World Series in over a century.
Look below at their Tweets showcasing their excitement:
Game cancelled! Get to watch the Blackhawks game 6 in Chicago for the cup!!— Jason Kipnis (@TheJK_Kid) June 15, 2015
The success of any college football offense starts in the trenches. Although the skill positions and quarterbacks get all of the attention, it’s the five players up front that set the tone for the rest of the offense.
The SEC is never short on talent in the trenches, and 2015 features two teams – Arkansas and Georgia – that could have the nation’s best overall group. The Bulldogs have a slight edge over the Razorbacks in Athlon’s offensive line rankings, but there’s very little separating these groups.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Ranking the SEC’s Offensive Lines for 2015
Returning Starters: 4
It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot between Georgia and Arkansas. A slight edge goes to the Bulldogs over the Razorbacks, as new Georgia line coach Rob Sale inherits four starters from a unit that led the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry in 2014. This group also allowed only 12 sacks in eight SEC contests. Guard Greg Pyke is a first-team All-SEC selection by Athlon Sports for 2015, while the tackle spots are anchored by seniors John Theus and Kolton Houston.
Returning Starters: 4
As mentioned with Georgia, very little separates Georgia and Arkansas in SEC offensive line rankings for 2015. The Razorbacks return four starters, including All-America candidates in guard Sebastian Tretola and tackles Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland. In SEC games last season, Arkansas averaged four yards per carry and allowed only 12 sacks. In just three years in Fayetteville, coach Bret Bielema has already assembled one of the nation’s top offensive lines.
Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team
Returning Starters: 3
Center Reese Dismukes will be missed, but coach Gus Malzahn should feel confident in the offensive line’s ability for 2015. The Tigers return three starters, with right tackle Avery Young the best of the bunch. But this group should receive a huge boost with the return of guard Alex Kozan from injury, along with the emergence of Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson at center. Sophomore Braden Smith is another promising player for this unit.
Returning Starters: 3
With question marks about the quarterbacks, the strength of LSU’s offense will be its rushing attack once again. Standout left tackle La’el Collins will be missed, but three starters are back, including guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins. Both players should be in the mix for All-SEC honors.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Returning Starters: 2
Alabama’s offense returns only two starters. That’s the bad news. But the good news is the two returning starters – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson – are among the nation’s top offensive linemen. Even though this unit will have three new starters in 2015, it’s safe to assume the Crimson Tide will have one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher is a breakout candidate at guard, while senior Dominick Jackson is slated to take over at right tackle after playing in eight games last year.
Returning Starters: 4
Missouri’s offensive line played better throughout the course of 2014, and this group should be in the top half of the SEC with four returning starters. Center Evan Boehm is the unit’s best player, and senior guard Conner McGovern was critical in the second-half improvement after switching from right tackle. The addition of junior college recruits Tyler Howell and Malik Cuellar bolster the depth.
7. Texas A&M
Returning Starters: 3
Will the Aggies make it four years in a row with a lineman going in the first round of the NFL Draft? Maybe not, but there’s a solid group for new line coach Dave Christensen to develop. Center Mike Matthews is the best of the group, while senior Joseph Cheek and guard Germain Ifedi return as starters. The development of the left side – Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor are the early favorites to start – will be critical for the Aggies in 2015.
8. Ole Miss
Returning Starters: 5
This unit could be among the most-improved lines in the SEC in 2015. All five starters are back for coach Hugh Freeze, including standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil and four seniors with experience in the SEC. Tunsil is recovering from a leg injury suffered in the Peach Bowl but is expected to be at full strength by the opener. True freshman guard Javon Patterson is a name to watch in 2015.
Returning Starters: 3
The left side of South Carolina’s line must be revamped after stalwarts Corey Robinson (left tackle) and A.J. Cann (guard) expired their eligibility. There’s a good core to build around in 2015 with the return of right tackle Brandon Shell and guard Will Sport. But who will step up to replace Cann and Robinson? With a new starter at quarterback, having a steady offensive line would be a huge plus for coach Steve Spurrier.
Returning Starters: 4
If Tennessee wants to challenge for the SEC East title, this group must take a step forward in its development. The Volunteers had zero returning starters going into 2014 and this unit struggled to get on track. In eight SEC games, the line allowed 28 sacks (most in the conference), and Tennessee rushers averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. Improvement is expected with four starters back, and the overall depth is better with another stellar recruiting class.
Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team
Returning Starters: 2
Rebuilding the offensive line is the top challenge for coach Dan Mullen this offseason. Last year’s group helped rushers average five yards per carry and allowed just 15 sacks in league play. Gone are three standouts, including All-SEC guard Ben Beckwith, left tackle Blaine Clausell and center Dillon Day. The good news is Mullen and this staff have recruited well, so there’s capable replacements waiting to emerge. Senior Justin Malone is the anchor, but junior college recruit Martinas Rankin is a player to watch.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Returning Starters: 4
The Wildcats gave up 36 sacks in 2014, but with four starters back, improvement is expected in 2015. Center Jon Toth is the anchor for coach Mark Stoops, while guard Zach West should be in the mix for all-conference honors this season.
Returning Starters: 4
Despite four returning starters last season, Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggled. The Commodores averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in SEC games and allowed 21 sacks in 12 overall contests. With four starters back once again for 2015, there’s hope for improvement for new coordinator Andy Ludwig. Junior Andrew Jelks and center Spencer Pulley need to be the anchors for this group.
Returning Starters: 1
This is the biggest concern for new coach Jim McElwain. Only one starter returns (Trip Thurman), and overall depth and proven bodies are in short supply. FCS transfer Mason Halter and true freshman Martez Ivey are likely to play a huge roles this season. The Gators showed improvement here under line coach Mike Summers last year, but he will have his hands full in 2015.
College football coordinators have a huge impact on their team in any season. And it’s no secret that hiring good coordinators and retaining them is critical to the long-term success of any head coach. Changing coordinators or a promotion of an assistant into the play-calling role can also provide a boost for any team or provide a fix for a struggling unit.
Every year there’s a new crop of coordinators emerging into the national spotlight or primed for a promotion. Which coordinators are on the rise or which ones could be in the mix to be a head coach in the coming years?
Here’s a few names to watch from the Power 5 ranks and a couple of coordinators from the Group of 5 teams to monitor in 2015.
(Photo of Arkansas' Robb Smith courtesy of Razorbacks Communications)
Power 5 Coordinators on the Rise
Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
In just two years at Wisconsin, Aranda has established himself as one of the Big Ten’s top assistants. Under Aranda’s direction, the Badgers have finished No. 2 in the conference in scoring defense in back-to-back years. Additionally, Wisconsin ranked No. 8 nationally in fewest yards per play in 2013 and gave up only 4.9 yards per play in 2014. Prior to the last two years in Madison, Aranda was a defensive coordinator for one year at Utah State and two seasons at Hawaii.
Chris Ash, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Ash was hired by coach Urban Meyer to work as the co-defensive coordinator with Luke Fickell last season. And the hire paid dividends for the Buckeyes’ defense, as this unit allowed only 22 points per game en route to a national championship. Ash also coordinated defenses at Arkansas and Wisconsin and is known for his work with defensive backs. Ohio State’s secondary showed significant progress under Ash, giving up only 17 touchdown passes after allowing 31 in 2013. Additionally, the Buckeyes cut down on some of the big plays that plagued this unit in 2013.
Kendal Briles, Offensive Coordinator, Baylor
With Philip Montgomery departing to be the head coach at Tulsa, Briles will assume the controls of Baylor’s high-powered offense. The former Houston receiver has worked on his father's (Art) coaching staff in Waco since 2008 and called the plays in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. Although the Bears came up short on the scoreboard, the offense averaged 7.9 yards per play against a rugged Michigan State defense.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator, Florida
Collins is known as the “Minister of Mayhem,” and the Georgia native left Starkville to coordinate Florida’s defense under new coach Jim McElwain. Under Collins’ watch, Mississippi State held opponents to 23 points per game in 2013 and 21.7 in 2014. The Bulldogs also ranked second in the SEC with 37 sacks last year. Prior to his stint with Mississippi State (2011-14), Collins also worked at FIU (2010), UCF (2008-09) and Alabama (2006).
Josh Conklin, Defensive Coordinator, Pittsburgh
Conklin has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks, and the Wyoming native was picked by defensive guru Pat Narduzzi to run Pittsburgh’s defense in 2015. Prior to his hire with the Panthers, Conklin spent two years at FIU and guided the 2014 defense to a No. 3 finish in points allowed in Conference USA and 33 forced turnovers.
D.J. Durkin, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan
Jim Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top coaches and offensive minds, but the former Michigan quarterback will have plenty of help from a standout defensive staff. Veteran assistant Greg Mattison remained in Ann Arbor, while Durkin was hired from Florida to coordinate the defense. Durkin worked closely with Will Muschamp from 2010-14 in developing a Gators’ defense that was consistently among the best in the SEC. Prior to the four-year stint at Florida, Durkin worked for three years at Stanford under Harbaugh.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are in rebuild mode under second-year coach Dave Clawson. The defense was a bright spot for Clawson last season, as despite a non-existent offense, Wake Forest gave up 26.4 points per game and held opponents to 5.2 yards per play. Elko followed Clawson from Bowling Green and coordinated the Falcons’ defense to a No. 1 rank among MAC defenses in fewest points allowed in 2013.
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
Scott Frost, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon
Oregon’s offense hasn’t missed a beat since Chip Kelly left for the NFL. Having a quarterback like Marcus Mariota certainly helps, but Frost has emerged as one of the nation’s top play-callers. The Ducks averaged 45.4 points per game in 2014 and have recorded back-to-back seasons of at least seven yards per play.
David Gibbs, Defensive Coordinator, Texas Tech
Texas Tech is consistently among the Big 12’s best on offense, but the defense has experienced its share of struggles and gave up 41.3 points per game in 2014. However, coach Kliff Kingsbury took a big step in addressing the defensive needs by hiring David Gibbs from Houston. In Gibbs’ tenure with the Cougars, the defense ranked among the best in the American Athletic Conference in fewest points allowed and generated 73 turnovers from 2013-14. Gibbs should be the right hire to get Texas Tech’s defense on the right track.
Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham was one of the nation’s top coordinator hires in 2014 and made a huge impact on TCU’s push for a playoff spot. The Horned Frogs offense struggled in 2013 by averaging only 25.1 points per game. But Meacham’s hire immediately paid big dividends for coach Gary Patterson, as TCU ranked second in the Big 12 by averaging 46.5 points per game last year. Additionally, the Horned Frogs averaged 6.7 yards per play in 2014. Meacham also improved Houston’s offense in his one year with the Cougars, guiding the 2013 attack to an average of 33.2 points per game.
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
David Cutcliffe is the mastermind behind Duke’s offense, but Montgomery was promoted to the offensive coordinator role after a one-year stint as receivers coach in 2013. Prior to the 2013 season, Montgomery spent three years with the Steelers and worked from 2006-09 as an assistant at Duke.
Mike Norvell, Offensive Coordinator, Arizona State
It’s only a matter of time before Norvell gets a chance to run a Power 5 program. The 33-year-old offensive coordinator has been a key cog in Arizona State’s rise under coach Todd Graham. Norvell has worked for the last three years as the Sun Devils’ play-caller and previously spent time with Graham at Pittsburgh and Tulsa. Arizona State has averaged at least 38 points per game in each of Norvell’s three years in Tempe.
Barry Odom, Defensive Coordinator, Missouri
After three years at Memphis, Odom is returning to a familiar place: Missouri. The Oklahoma native played with the Tigers from 1996-99 and later coached under Gary Pinkel in Columbia from 2003-11. Memphis showed dramatic improvement under Odom and limited opponents to 19.5 points per game in 2014. Odom has big shoes to fill after Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State. However, Odom is a top-notch hire and should keep Missouri’s defense performing at a high level in 2015 and beyond.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
In just two years, Pruitt has already moved into the conversation as one of the top defensive coordinators in the nation. Pruitt coordinated Florida State’s defense in its 2013 national championship season and led the nation by holding opponents to just 12.1 points per game. In Pruitt’s first year at Georgia, the Bulldogs held opponents to 4.8 yards per play and 20.7 points per game. Pruitt is also regarded as an excellent recruiter.
Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
Bob Stoops overhauled his staff after a disappointing 8-5 season last year, and Riley was handed the keys to the Sooners’ offense. Riley’s background is in the Air Raid offense, as he worked under Mike Leach at Texas Tech from 2003-09 and joined Ruffin McNeill’s staff at East Carolina as the play-caller from 2010-14. Under Riley’s direction, the Pirates averaged 40.2 points per game in 2013 and led the American Athletic Conference in passing yards per contest in 2014.
Mike Sanford, Offensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
Sanford has only been an offensive coordinator for just one season (2014), but the Virginia native is highly regarded assistant. Under Sanford’s watch last year, Boise State led the Mountain West by averaging 39.7 points per game. Additionally, the Broncos averaged 6.5 yards per play and ranked among the nation’s best in red zone offense. Prior to Boise State, Sanford spent three years at Stanford (2011-13) and also worked one year (2010) at WKU.
Kalani Sitake, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon State
When Gary Andersen was hired at Oregon State this offseason, he turned to a familiar name to coordinate the defense. Sitake worked with Andersen at Southern Utah in 2003 and at Utah from 2005-08. The Hawaii native comes to Corvallis after spending six years as the Utes’ defensive coordinator. Utah led the nation with 55 sacks in 2014 and led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.2 ppg) in 2011. The combination of Andersen and Sitake should be a huge addition for an Oregon State defense in rebuild mode in 2015.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Shoop was regarded as one of the nation’s top assistant hires last season, and the Pennsylvania native helped Penn State lead the Big Ten in scoring defense and rank No. 3 nationally in yards per play allowed. Shoop also worked under Penn State coach James Franklin at Vanderbilt, and the Commodores held opponents under 25 points per game in all three seasons (2011-13). Shoop also has stops on his resume at William & Mary, UMass, Columbia, Boston College and Army. The Pennsylvania native is one of the top defensive coordinators in the nation.
Robb Smith, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Bret Bielema has a good track record of hiring assistants. And it’s no surprise Bielema hit a home run when he hired Smith to coordinate Arkansas’ defense last season. After a one-year stint in the NFL with the Buccaneers, Smith returned to the collegiate level and transformed the defense into one of the best in the SEC. The Razorbacks allowed only 19.2 points per game and gave up only 28 points over the final four contests. Prior to his 2014 season at Arkansas, Smith also worked from 2009-12 at Rutgers and from 2002-08 at Maine.
Group of 5 Coordinators on the Rise
Kevin Clune, Defensive Coordinator, Utah State
Clune is back at Utah State after a one-year stint at Hawaii. He replaces Todd Orlando, who left Logan for a chance to coordinate Houston’s defense. Clune’s one year with the Rainbow Warriors brought marked improvement to their defense. Hawaii allowed 38.8 points per game in 2013 but gave up only 26.8 under Clune. Prior to the one-year stint at Hawaii and working from 2009-13 at Utah State, Clune also spent time as the defensive coordinator at Weber State and Southern Utah.
Tyson Helton, Offensive Coordinator, WKU
Helton assumed controls of WKU’s offense in 2014, and the Florida native’s first opportunity to call plays at a FBS program was a huge success. The Hilltoppers averaged 44.4 points per game in 2014 and ranked second nationally by averaging 374.3 passing yards per game.
Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions
Brent Key, Offensive Coordinator, UCF
Key is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, and the Birmingham native will take over play-calling duties for the Knights in 2015. Key has worked on UCF’s staff since 2005 and played at Georgia Tech under coach George O’Leary.
Todd Orlando, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Houston
Orlando was hired by Tom Herman to coordinate Houston’s defense after a successful two-year run at Utah State. Under Orlando’s watch, the Aggies led the Mountain West in scoring defense and fewest yards per play allowed in back-to-back years. The Pittsburgh native also has stops in his career as a defensive coordinator at FIU and UConn.
Nick Rolovich, Offensive Coordinator, Nevada
Rolovich – the former Hawaii quarterback – is in his four season coordinating the Wolf Pack offense. Nevada’s best season under Rolovich’s watch took place in 2012, as the Wolf Pack averaged 37.8 points per game and 6.2 yards per play. The California native will be tested in 2015 with the departure of quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Related: Mountain West 2015 Predictions
Tyson Summers, Defensive Coordinator, Colorado State
After spending one season as the defensive coordinator at UCF, Summers headed out west to work with Mike Bobo at Colorado State. The Knights’ defense held opponents to just 19.2 points per game last year and limited American Athletic Conference teams to just 3.9 yards per play.
Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, South Alabama
Vincent is back at South Alabama after a one-year stop at UAB. The Kentucky native guided the Blazers to a No. 4 finish in Conference USA scoring offense last season, and a 5.5 mark in yards per play. Vincent will be working with a few familiar faces from UAB, as quarterback Cody Clements and standout offensive lineman Cameron Blankenship transferred to Mobile for their senior year.