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Sunday’s AFC Championship Game will be the 17th time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have faced off and probably the last. Everyone knows that this is the greatest quarterback rivalry of the 21st century, but where does it stack up amongst the other ones in NFL history?
Related: Ranking All 16 Manning-Brady Bowls
A great quarterback rivalry cannot just be confined to the regular season. It has to carry over to the postseason and last for multiple years. This has not happened often. Here are the five greatest times that it has.
5. Sid Luckman vs. Sammy Baugh
For those of you who do not read much about the pre-Super Bowl era, Luckman quarterbacked the Chicago Bears and Baugh led the Washington Redskins. In the early 1940s, these two teams met for the NFL championship three times in four years. Chicago won two (including an NFL record 73-0 beatdown in 1940) and Washington won one.
4. Terry Bradshaw vs. Ken Stabler
This contest that started with the “Immaculate Reception” could not be called a rivalry until 1976 since Bradshaw and the Steelers dominated. However, after suffering back-to-back AFC Championship Game losses to the Steelers, Stabler led the Oakland Raiders to 1976 world championship after beating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Along the way, the Raiders dispatched the Steelers 24-7 in the conference title game. The rivalry resumed in 1980 when Stabler was traded to the Steelers’ AFC Central rival Houston Oilers. The two teams split regular season victories in 1980 and ‘81, Stabler’s only two years in Houston.
3. Troy Aikman vs. Steve Young
This rivalry was brief but for four years all eyes were on these two teams and their respective quarterbacks. Both Aikman and Young met in the NFC Championship Game three years in a row and would have met for a fourth had the 49ers not been upset by the Green Bay Packers in the 1995 Divisional Round. The quick decline of the Cowboys and the emergence of the Packers brought this rivalry to an end way too soon.
2. Bobby Layne vs. Otto Graham
Layne’s Lions and Graham’s Browns met for the NFL title three years in a row from 1952-54. Detroit won the first two in close games, but Cleveland prevented a three-peat with a 56-10 walloping in which Graham accounted for six touchdowns.
1. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady
As you can see, no other rivalry even comes close. Enjoy Sunday’s game because we may never see another QB pairing like this for a long, long time.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Two Indiana high school basketball teams' seasons are over.
Ben Davis High School and Pike High School girl's basketball teams got into a bench-clearing brawl that also included some fans. Both teams were set to enter post-season play, but instead the players and coaches will be entering sportsmanship training.
Along with the teams' seasons being canceled, both teams will be on probation for the upcoming season.
College football’s Heisman race in 2016 is filled with plenty of big names battling for the top award in the nation. Alabama running back Derrick Henry isn’t returning for another run at the Heisman, but the 2016 race is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.
It’s never too early to think about next season, which is why Bovada has released its early Heisman odds for 2016.
Here are the early odds from Bovada, headlined by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson at 9/2
Bovada's Early 2016 Heisman Odds
|Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson||9/2|
|Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU||5/1|
|Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford||5/1|
|J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State||10/1|
|Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma||10/1|
|Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia||12/1|
|Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State||12/1|
|Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon||12/1|
|Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss||12/1|
|Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma||12/1|
|Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama||12/1|
|Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee||16/1|
|Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami||25/1|
The LSU Tigers may end up with the top-ranked 2016 recruiting class, currently rated No. 2 by Rivals, but 5- and 4-star high school talent can never replace maturity, leadership, and experience. On Monday, LSU head coach Les Miles announced two of his defensive stars from the 2015 season will be returning, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and cornerback Tre’Davious White, making those targets the Tigers’ biggest recruiting win thus far.
When the 2016 season kicks off, Beckwith will be putting a stamp on a four-year career that has gotten better and better as his time on the field has increased. The Clinton (La.) area native played in 12 games as a freshman but did not get his first start until his sophomore season in 2014 becoming LSU’s starting middle linebacker during the backstretch of the season. With seven consecutive starts under his belt, he entered his junior season with high expectations and delivered, becoming a semifinalist for both the Butkus Award and Bednarik Award after posting 84 tackles (second on the team), 10 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.
White has lived up to his Class of 2013 hype as a 5-star recruit earning Freshman All-SEC honors in 2013 after starting 11 of 13 games. In 2014, White became a cornerstone of the Tigers' defense and started all 13 games. LSU put more responsibilities on White’s plate in '14 and this past season, adding punt returner to his resume. The former Green Oaks High School star out of Shreveport was fifth on the team in tackles in 2015 with 44 to go along with seven passes defended and seven pass breakups. White has two career punt returns for a touchdown as well as 126 tackles, 19 pass breakups and four interceptions.
Miles released a statement oozing with excitement about the return of White and Beckwith after the LSU team has endured four consecutive seasons of top underclassmen heading off to the NFL early. “This is a windfall for us. For the first time, we return a big senior class," Miles said. "Anytime that you have a senior-dominated team, you recognize that you are going to play with leaders and guys always play their best year of football when they are most mature.”
Miles addressed all the positives of his defensive leaders returning adding, “This is a great decision for all of these guys. They are going to get their college degree and they will all improve their (NFL) draft position. This is a great day for LSU and our program.”
LSU starts the 2016 season on Sept. 3 with a neutral-site game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., against the Big Ten's Wisconsin Badgers.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline officially passed on Monday evening and over 100 players could be on their way to the next level. The official list of players leaving for the NFL will be released on Friday, and there’s a possibility a few could return to school if they change their mind by Thursday night and haven’t signed with an agent.
With the early entrants declared, it’s time to take a look at the winners and losers from a college perspective.
The early entry deadline is a key moment in any college football offseason, as this allows coaches to get a better view of which players are returning and how the roster looks headed into Signing Day.
Which teams are the big winners and which progams have big shoes to fill thanks to the draft deadline? Here are the winners and losers with the draft deadline process:
Winners from the NFL Draft Early Entry Deadline
Considering Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and standout defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson are off to the NFL, it seems odd to list Alabama in the winner category. While Henry and Robinson leave big shoes to fill, the losses could be a lot worse. Tight end O.J. Howard, linebacker Tim Williams, safety Eddie Jackson and end Jonathan Allen all decided to return to Tuscaloosa for 2016.
While the defense was hit hard by departures to the NFL, Clemson’s offense remained intact for 2016. Running back Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett decided to return next fall, which should ensure the Tigers once again have one of the nation’s best offenses and plenty of weapons for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The Hawkeyes should be the favorite to win the Big Ten’s West Division in 2016. Star cornerback Desmond King considered an early jump to the NFL but will return to Iowa City. King should be an All-America cornerback and one of the Big Ten’s top players in 2016.
Clemson and Florida State are national title contenders next fall, but don’t count out Louisville from making some noise in the ACC. The Cardinals avoided any early departures to the NFL, as linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields, along with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons decided to return for 2016. In addition to the key returners on defense, the emergence of quarterback Lamar Jackson is a big reason why Louisville should be a top 25 team next fall.
Unlike the past couple of seasons, the draft deadline wasn’t filled with bad news for coach Les Miles. Left tackle Jerald Hawkins declared for the next level, but the Tigers received good news when linebacker Kendell Beckwith, center Ethan Pocic and cornerback Tre’Davious White announced their intentions to return.
The Wolverines should challenge for a spot in College Football’s Playoff next season. After showing marked improvement in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, Michigan is poised to take another step forward and received its share of good news around the draft deadline. Tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jourdan Lewis considered an early departure, but both players are set to return in 2016. Butt and Lewis should be All-America candidates next fall.
San Diego State
The Aztecs finished the year on a 10-game winning streak, and the momentum for coach Rocky Long’s team continued through the draft deadline. Top cornerback Damontae Kazee and running back Donnel Pumphrey will return in 2016 instead of jumping to the NFL. Both players should be first-team All-Mountain West picks next fall.
The Volunteers are heavy favorites to win the SEC East next season, and coach Butch Jones received plenty of good news around the draft deadline. Cornerback Cam Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and running back Alvin Kamara all turned down the NFL for one more season in Knoxville.
With Stanford, Oregon and California each replacing their share of departing seniors, as well as a few departures to the draft, the Pac-12 North’s balance of power could be shifting to the state of Washington in 2016. The Huskies lost running back Dwayne Washington to the NFL, but Myles Gaskin is already entrenched as the team’s No. 1 option on the ground. Washington State did not suffer any early departures to the draft, as receiver Gabe Marks announced his intentions to return for 2016. Things are looking up for the Cougars and Huskies.
Losers from the NFL Draft Early Entry Deadline
The Razorbacks led the SEC in scoring (conference-only games) and was already slated to lose quarterback Brandon Allen. However, the losses for coach Bret Bielema were heavy at the draft deadline, as running back Alex Collins, tackle Denver Kirkland and tight end Hunter Henry are off to the NFL. All three players were strong candidates for first-team All-SEC honors in 2016.
Improving the defense is an offseason priority for Arizona, but the task for new coordinator Marcel Yates got a little tougher with linebacker Scooby Wright declaring for the NFL. The offense is also losing a big-time receiver, as Cayleb Jones (16.4 ypc) is off to the next level.
Running back Peyton Barber’s late declaration came as a mild surprise, and the Tigers also lost two starting offensive linemen – Xavier Young and Shon Coleman – to the NFL. That’s not great news for an offense looking for improvement in 2016.
Coach Art Briles should have a quick reload at Baylor, but the Bears are losing three key contributors. Cornerback Xavien Howard and All-Americans Andrew Billings (DT) and receiver Corey Coleman are leaving Waco for the NFL.
How’s this for a talent drain in 2016? Seven first-team All-Big 12 selections from last season are leaving early for the NFL. The only underclassmen from the Big 12’s first-team awards returning next fall are: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine, Kansas State fullback Winston Dimel, Oklahoma State tight end Blake Jarwin and TCU defensive end Josh Carraway.
California’s 8-5 record in 2015 was the best mark for the program under coach Sonny Dykes. Meeting that record in 2016 will be a huge challenge for Dykes, as quarterback Jared Goff – arguably the Pac-12’s No. 1 quarterback in 2015 – and receiver Kenny Lawler (13 TDs) are departing for the NFL.
How quickly will coordinator Brent Venables find the right answers on defense? The Tigers lost six defenders to the NFL, including standout ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, as well as All-America cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
Five players are leaving early for the NFL, and that total could have been higher had safety Marcus Maye or linebacker Jarrad Davis opted to depart Gainesville. Coach Jim McElwain has recruited well, so there’s talent waiting in the wings. However, players like cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, safety Keanu Neal and end Alex McCalister leave big shoes to fill this spring.
The Tigers lost only one player but it’s a huge blow for new coach Mike Norvell. After throwing for 3,778 yards and 28 scores in 2015, quarterback Paxton Lynch is off to the NFL. Lynch could be a first-round pick this year.
Not only are the Bulldogs losing quarterback Dak Prescott, but three other standouts are headed to the next level. Tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Beniquez Brown and receiver De’Runnya Wilson all declared for the draft.
The Cornhuskers finished second in the Big Ten in rush defense, but the defensive line will need some extra attention from coordinator Mark Banker this spring. Maliek Collins – one of the top defenders in the Big Ten – and fellow tackle Vincent Valentine are both off to the NFL. That’s a huge void up front in Lincoln.
The Fighting Irish should push for a playoff spot once again next season, but coach Brian Kelly’s team is one of the teams hit the hardest by the early entry deadline. The departures of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and linebacker Jaylon Smith are setbacks for the defense, while the offense must replace standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley, go-to receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise.
The Buckeyes were the team hit the hardest by early declarations to the NFL. Nine players are leaving for the next level and there are losses on both sides of the ball. End Joey Bosa, cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Darron Lee and safety Vonn Bell headline the departures on defense, while running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Michael Thomas are off to the next level. That’s a lot of roster turnover for coach Urban Meyer to replace in one offseason.
The Sooners were already set to lose linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper, and the draft deadline added two more departures to the defense. Two standouts and All-Big 12 performers in 2015 – cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander – are both off to the next level.
So far, the start of the 2016 offseason has been a busy one for coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions lost two assistants – defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and line coach Herb Hand – and two players are off to the NFL. Standout defensive tackle Austin Johnson and quarterback Christian Hackenberg are leaving Happy Valley for the next level.
Six Bruins declared for the next level, including linebacker Myles Jack, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and running back Paul Perkins. Rising star quarterback Josh Rosen will have a few new faces in the trenches next fall, as two linemen – Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch – are also headed to the next level.
In a mild surprise, the Mountaineers lost leading rusher Wendell Smallwood (1,519 yards) and top cornerback Daryl Worley to the NFL. Rushel Shell (708 yards) is a solid option to replace Smallwood, but West Virginia’s secondary enters spring practice with just one returning starter.
Skip Bayless is not popular in most circles.
Charles Barkley is in one of those circles. The "Inside the NBA" analyst talked about those people in sports who act like they know everything and didn't hesitate to mention Bayless as one of those people.
"I hate when guys act like they know everything about sports," Barkley said. "Like these guys on all of these talk shows ... We all know I hate Skip Bayless, but Ernie listen, we don't know everything about all of these sports. We're paid to give our opinion. It's just our opinion."
It doesn't happen that often but Barkley actually makes a good point. Bayless usually has an "I know everything" approach to his sports takes.
Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots also represents Manning-Brady Bowl XVII. These two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks have already faced each other 16 times in their careers. Tom Brady holds a commanding 11-5 edge on Peyton Manning, but this rivalry is tied 2-2 in playoff matchups. This will be the fourth time each will stand in the other’s way of getting to the Super Bowl, with Manning having won their previous two AFC Conference Game clashes.
Here’s a look back at the 16 prior games between the generation’s finest signal-callers, ranked in order of historical significance, in-game excitement and individual performance.
1. Manning-Brady Bowl IX
2006 – AFC Championship at Indianapolis
Colts 38, Patriots 34
Peyton Manning – 27-of-47, 349 yards, TD, INT, rush TD
Tom Brady – 21-of-34, 232 yards, TD, INT
Tony Dungy and Manning finally punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with a thrilling come-from-behind win in the AFC title game. Trailing 21–3 in the second quarter, it looked as if Bill Belichick and Brady would cruise to victory. But Manning rallied back, leading an 80-yard drive that ended in a go-ahead TD run by Joseph Addai with one minute remaining. Brady’s last-ditch, last-second effort ended in an interception by Marlin Jackson. The Colts went on to win a rainy Super Bowl XLI against the Bears in Miami.
2. Manning-Brady Bowl XIV
2013 – Week 12 at New England
Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (OT)
Tom Brady – 34-of-50, 344 yards, 3 TD
Peyton Manning – 19-of-36, 150 yards, 2 TD, INT
In what was easily the most hyped and arguably the most exciting game of the season, Manning’s Broncos jumped out to a 24–0 lead only to have Brady’s Patriots charge back to take a 31–24 edge late in the fourth quarter — after scoring on the first five possessions of the second half. But Manning wasn’t done, finding Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown to force overtime at 31–31. The game ended with not a bang but a whimper, as a botched punt return set up a chip shot field goal to clinch a New England win.
3. Manning-Brady Bowl XV
2014 – AFC Championship at Denver
Broncos 26, Patriots 16
Peyton Manning – 32-of-43, 400 yards, 2 TD
Tom Brady – 24-of-38, 277 yards, TD
It’s only fitting that Manning have one of his best performances ever against the Patriots in the season he rewrote the NFL record book. The top-seeded Broncos simply had too much offense against Brady and the Patriots, who were without tight end Rob Gronkowski and could muster just 64 yards rushing. Manning was methodical in his dissection of the New England defense, as Denver was content to chew up clock and basically play keep away after taking a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter. The victory got Manning back to the Super Bowl as he moved to 2-0 against Brady in conference championship games.
4. Manning-Brady Bowl IV
2003 – AFC Championship at New England
Patriots 24, Colts 14
Tom Brady – 22-of-37, 237 yards, TD
Peyton Manning – 23-of-47, 237 yards, TD, 4 INT
The first of soon-to-be five playoff meetings between Brady and Manning was a rough one for the true blue horseshoes. Manning threw four picks in the snow — three to Ty Law and one to Rodney Harrison, who also forced a fumble of Marvin Harrison — in a physical game many point to as a catalyst for the implementation of the more pass-happy rules we know and love (hate?) today. New England then went on to win the “breast Super Bowl ever,” bookending Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” with a win over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
5. Manning-Brady Bowl VI
2004 – AFC Divisional Round at New England
Patriots 20, Colts 3
Tom Brady – 18-of-27, 144 yards, TD, rush TD
Peyton Manning – 27-of-42, 238 yards, INT
The second playoff meeting between Brady and Manning was owned by the home team Patriots, who dominated time-of-possession 37:43-to-22:17 — including a 21:26-to-8:34 edge in the second half — in a Foxboro snowstorm. Adding insult to injury, Rodney Harrison sealed the win with an interception in the end zone with 10 seconds remaining. From there, Brady’s Patriots marched to wins at Pittsburgh and against Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX.
6. Manning-Brady Bowl XI
2009 – Week 10 at Indianapolis
Colts 35, Patriots 34
Peyton Manning – 28-of-44, 327 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT
Tom Brady – 29-of-42, 375 yards, 3 TD, INT
The Manning-Brady Bowl skipped a year following the 2008 season-ending knee injury suffered by Brady in the season opener. But the two made up for lost time in 2009. Manning threw a game-tying scoring strike to Reggie Wayne — who made a highlight reel diving catch in the end zone — before Matt Stover’s extra point gave Indianapolis a one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining.
7. Manning-Brady Bowl III
2003 – Week 13 at Indianapolis
Patriots 38, Colts 34
Tom Brady – 26-of-35, 236 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Peyton Manning – 29-of-48, 278 yards, 4 TD, INT
Despite Manning’s best efforts — throwing four TDs to four different receivers — the Colts lost a close call following a dramatic 4th-and-1 stop with 18 seconds to play. Willie McGinest stuffed Edgerrin James for a one-yard loss to secure turnover on downs and Brady victory formation.
8. Manning-Brady Bowl X
2007 – Week 9 at Indianapolis
Patriots 24, Colts 20
Tom Brady – 21-of-32, 255 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
Peyton Manning – 16-of-27, 225 yards, TD, INT, rush TD
The Patriots improved to 9–0 by defeating the 7–0 Colts en route to an 18–0 start to a season that ended with a painful loss to Eli Manning’s Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Touchdown Tom threw three TDs for a record ninth consecutive game, breaking Peyton’s record of eight straight. In a tale of two halves, Indy outgained New England 229-to-114 in the first half, only to see the Pats outgain the Colts 228-to-100 in the second half.
9. Manning-Brady Bowl I
2001 – Week 3 at New England
Patriots 44, Colts 13
Tom Brady – 13-of-23, 168 yards
Peyton Manning – 20-of-34, 196 yards, TD, 3 INT, rush TD
Brady’s first career start came against Manning, the man who would become his chief rival over the next decade-plus. But Brady’s first career TD pass didn’t come until Week 5. But he did go on to throw his first career playoff TD in a Super Bowl XXXVI win over Kurt Warner’s heavily favored Rams.
10. Manning-Brady Bowl VII
2005 – Week 9 at New England
Colts 40, Patriots 21
Peyton Manning – 28-of-37, 321 yards, 3 TD, INT
Tom Brady – 22-of-33, 265 yards, 3 TD
After starting his career 0–6 head-to-head, Manning finally earned his first victory over Brady. The stable of Colts playmakers helped their quarterback as much as they could — with Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne all topping 100 yards from scrimmage. The statement win moved Indy to an 8–0 start in a 2005 season that saw the Colts jump out to 13–0 before staggering down the stretch and going one-and-done in the playoffs against the eventual Super Bowl XL champion Steelers.
11. Manning-Brady Bowl V
2004 – Week 1 at New England
Patriots 27, Colts 24
Tom Brady – 26-of-38, 335 yards, 3 TD, INT
Peyton Manning – 16-of-29, 256 yards, 2 TD, INT
The NFL kicked off the 2004 season with Manning vs. Brady in a rematch of the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The results were the same, despite a solid effort from Manning and 142 rushing yards from Edgerrin James. Indy won nearly every statistical category but was just 3-of-7 in the Red Zone, which ultimately dropped Manning to 0–5 against Brady.
12. Manning-Brady Bowl XIII
2012 – Week 5 at New England
Patriots 31, Broncos 21
Tom Brady – 23-of-31, 223 yards, TD, rush TD
Peyton Manning – 31-of-44, 337 yards, 3 TD
Just when it looked as if there may never be another Manning-Brady Bowl — due to the four (or more) neck surgeries that caused Manning to miss the 2011 season — the rivalry was renewed in style. Manning’s jersey was different but his game was the same. Unfortunately for No. 18, Brady led four scoring drives of at least 80 yards as the Patriots set a franchise record with 35 first downs.
13. Manning-Brady Bowl XII
2010 – Week 11 at New England
Patriots 31, Colts 28
Tom Brady – 19-of-25, 186 yards, 2 TD
Peyton Manning – 38-of-52, 396 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT
New England started strong in each half, taking a 21–7 advantage in the second quarter and 31–14 lead early in the fourth quarter. Playing from behind all game was good for Manning’s stats. But it was Brady — who leaned on a combined 165 yards and two TDs on the ground from running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead — who had the last laugh.
14. Manning-Brady Bowl VIII
2006 – Week 9 at New England
Colts 27, Patriots 20
Peyton Manning – 20-of-36, 326 yards, 2 TD, INT
Tom Brady – 20-of-35, 201 yards, 4 INT
For a second straight season, Indianapolis improved to 8–0 following a Week 9 win at New England. Brady threw four INTs after entering the game with just five picks through the season’s first seven games. Adam Vinatieri also hit two field goals in his first game against the Patriots as a member of the Colts.
15. Manning-Brady Bowl XVI
2014 – Week 9 at New England
Patriots 43, Broncos 21
Tom Brady – 33-of-53, 333 yards, 4 TD, INT
Peyton Manning – 34-of-57, 438 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
The Patriots jumped all over the Broncos at home, scoring three times in the second quarter alone to take a commanding 27-7 lead at halftime. Even though Manning threw for the most yards in his career against the Patriots, he was very succinct in his performance, saying after the game, “Well I don’t usually stink, but I stunk today.” This win also was important in that it gave New England the head-to-head tiebreaker over Denver for the top seed in the playoffs after both finished the regular season 12-4. The rematch would have been in Foxboro for the right to go the Super Bowl, but Indianapolis took care of that when the Colts upset the Broncos in the Divisional Round. The Patriots would dispatch of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game and then survived the Seahawks to get Brady (and Bill Belichick) that coveted fourth Super Bowl ring.
16. Manning-Brady Bowl II
2001 – Week 6 at Indianapolis
Patriots 38, Colts 17
Tom Brady – 16-of-20, 202 yards, 3 TD
Peyton Manning – 22-of-34, 335 yards, TD
Remember when Brady and Manning were in the same division? Those were the days. The Patriots and Colts shared the old AFC East prior to the 2002 Texans expansion and subsequent divisional realignment. Had Brady and Manning stayed in the same division — and history had played out exactly as it did — we’d be prepping for Manning-Brady Bowl XXVIII this week.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Nebraska’s 2015 season may be over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t head straight to kick off 2016 for a look into the future! In fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing today. For the sake of argument, no names will be used for the starting quarterback. Fill in Tommy Armstrong or Patrick O’Brien as you wish.
Understanding full well how much things will change between now and Sept. 3, here's an early game-by-game look at the Cornhuskers' 2016 slate and how things could possibly play out.
Sept. 3 — vs. Fresno State
A familiar early-season opponent for the Huskers, the Bulldogs don't pose the challenge that 2015’s BYU squad did. Mike Riley starts a new opening-game winning streak. – WIN
Sept. 10 — vs. Wyoming
The Cowboys visited in 2013 and gave the Big Red a scare, but quarterback Brett Smith isn’t around to panic the Blackshirts anymore. If the defensive front seven can contain second-team all-MWC running back Brian Hill, this one could get ugly for the visitors. – WIN
Sept. 17 — vs. Oregon
Consider this game to be the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl taken up a few notches. The Ducks finished last season giving up just a bit less on the ground than UCLA (179 rushing ypg), but the Quack Attack has far more speed than the Bruins did.
Running back Royce Freeman and the Ducks’ usual cadre of dangerous receivers will test the Blackshirts early and often. Nebraska is working on stockpiling the speed Oregon already has while the Ducks probably know Riley fairly well from his days at Oregon State. – LOSS
Sept. 24 — at Northwestern
The Big Red's offensive line practically played patty cake against Northwestern defensive lineman Dean Lowry last year. This year, Nebraska offers more beef up front and a unique running back in Devine Ozigbo. Look for one of the younger ball carriers like Mikale Wilbon to be this year’s edition of No. 22. Should the Big Red be able to keep its passes down to 25 or so, the Battle of NUs is won by those in scarlet and cream. – WIN
Oct. 1 — vs. Illinois
The benefactors of perhaps the most disappointing loss of Nebraska’s 2015 season, the Illini visit Lincoln and the Huskers are going to want payback for the poorly-called and/or -executed game a year prior. Wes Lunt gets to face the Big Red a final time, but he’ll do so without game-changing running back Josh Ferguson or All-Big Ten safety Clayton Fejedelem to stop the Huskers’ receivers. – WIN
Oct. 15 — at Indiana
If this were a 2015 matchup, Indiana would have every opportunity to win with Nate Sudfeld at quarterback and trusty running back Jordan Howard. Alas, the former’s eligibility ran out and the latter declared early for the NFL Draft. Even though it’s an away game for Nebraska, the Huskers take the first matchup with the Hoosiers as a member of the Big Ten. – WIN
Oct. 22 — vs. Purdue
Quarterback Ryker Fyfe won’t be starting this time. – WIN
Oct. 29 — at Wisconsin
This is the annual game that Riley probably shouldn’t win, but let 2016 be known as the year Nebraska finally gets over the hump and beats the Badgers. Last year’s absolutely heart-wrenching loss deserves to be avenged. This game again comes down to the ground. If Wisconsin is stopped, the Huskers will be the ones jumping around. – WIN
Nov. 5 — at Ohio State
Let’s be honest, Nebraska isn’t in the upper echelon where Ohio State and Urban Meyer currently reside. Now that this prediction is made, watch Riley pull a rabbit out of his hat and lose to Wisconsin only to turn around and beat the Buckeyes, because why not? – LOSS
Nov. 12 - vs. Minnesota
The Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy returns to Lincoln, and Goldy’s crew will need every ounce of positive play from redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner for a chance to win. That still may not be enough as the Big Red dispatched the Golden Gophers up North to the tune of 48-25 last year in one of the most complete games of the season for the Big Red. – WIN
Nov. 19 — vs. Maryland
The first time Nebraska and Maryland meet as conference mates will see first- and second-year head coaches in D.J. Durkin and Riley. Unfortunately for Durkin, Riley’s got more talent, more speed and a home-field advantage that Maryland would kill for. – WIN
Nov. 25 — at Iowa
The Huskers played the Hawkeyes tight last year and likely will again as cornerback Desmond King returns to wreak havoc. The key question at this point in the season is how comfortable are the Huskers as a team? If they’ve gelled, no one player can stop them. – WIN
So if you're keeping score at home that's a 10-2 showing for Riley's second season, including 8-1 in the Big Ten. Will this all play out in a potential West Division title and a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game? That remains to be seen, but it's a scenario Cornhusker fans would undoubtedly sign up for this fall.
The definition of a breakout player in college football varies from each analyst or fanbase, but one thing is certain when looking ahead at the next season and the players returning. Regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Which quarterback could be the next Deshaun Watson? Or which receiver could be the next Calvin Ridley in 2016? Both of those questions could be answered this spring.
The emergence and development of young talent can play a critical role in any team’s position in the race to win a college football national championship or conference title. The unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 15 potential breakout stars for 2016.
15 College Football Breakout Candidates for 2016
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning was pressed into the spotlight as a true freshman in 2015, but the California native responded with a solid campaign, throwing for 2,955 yards and 16 scores in 12 games. With Vernon Adams, Jared Goff, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan and Mike Bercovici departing the Pac-12 next season, don’t be surprised if Browning pushes for all-conference honors.
Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson
Coordinator Brent Venables heads into another offseason looking to restock one of the nation’s best defenses. The Tigers must replace their top two ends, as Shaq Lawson (12.5 sacks) and Kevin Dodd (12 sacks) are both off the NFL. Bryant flashed potential in his first season on campus, recording 1.5 sacks, 23 tackles (two for a loss) and one pass breakup. Expect to see Bryant take a major step forward as a key contributor to Clemson’s defensive line in 2016.
Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida
Callaway was a key cog in Florida’s passing attack as a true freshman, and his role should grow once again in 2016 – especially if the Gators get consistent production from their quarterbacks. Callaway caught 35 passes for 678 yards and four scores and finished the year with three 100-yard performances. He was also one of the SEC’s top punt returners, taking two returns for a score and averaging 15.5 yards per return in 2015.
Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Just how deep was Alabama’s defensive line in 2015? Hand – the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – was a third-string end. With A’Shawn Robinson leaving early for the NFL, along with Darren Lake and Jarran Reed expiring their eligibility, Hand should see more playing time next fall. Hand played in 14 games in 2015, recording 16 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks.
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have some work to do in the trenches this spring. Standout defensive end Joey Bosa left early for the NFL, and defensive tackles Adolphus Washington, Joel Hale and Tommy Schutt expired their eligibility. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Urban Meyer, and Hubbard is poised to be one of the next stars for the Buckeyes. In 13 appearances and less than a full complement of snaps, Hubbard recorded 28 tackles (eight for a loss) and 6.5 sacks.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson showcased his dynamic, dual-threat potential in Louisville’s Music City Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The true freshman gashed the Aggies for 226 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and completed 12 of 26 passes for 227 yards and two scores. Jackson finished 2015 with just under 1,000 yards (960) on the ground and threw for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns on 135 completions. The Florida native needs work as a passer, but a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback in coach Bobby Petrino’s offense should speed up his development.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
With Paul Perkins off to the NFL, Jamabo is poised to step into the No. 1 role in UCLA’s backfield. As a true freshman last season, Jamabo recorded 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries and caught five passes for 58 yards. After Noel Mazzone left to take a job at Texas A&M, coach Jim Mora promoted Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and wants to bring more of a physical presence to the offense. All signs suggest Jamabo will see over 200 carries in 2016.
Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
New coach Clay Helton wants to build USC’s offense around its ground attack, and the pieces are in place to do so in 2016. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12, and the Trojans return two running backs that eclipsed 900 yards last season. Justin Davis recorded 902 yards in 13 games, while Jones II rushed for 987 yards in 14 games as a true freshman. Davis will see plenty of attempts, but Jones could become the focal point for the ground game as a sophomore.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
Athletic edge rushers are a staple of LSU’s defenses under coach Les Miles. The Tigers generated 34 sacks in 2015 and could push that total even higher in 2016 if Key develops as expected. He started nine games and played in 12 contests as a true freshman in 2015, recording 41 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and five sacks. Key should be an All-SEC player with another offseason to learn from line coach Ed Orgeron.
Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Scarbrough has a build similar to the player he is replacing – Derrick Henry. The Alabama native was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown on 18 attempts in 2015. Scarbrough will share time with Damien Harris, but he could have a huge season in his first year as the No. 1 back in Tuscaloosa.
LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
With quarterback Connor Cook expiring his eligibility, the Spartans will need even more from their ground game in 2016 to push for another Big Ten title. Coach Mark Dantonio has a deep group of options in place, but Scott is the best of the bunch. In 14 games as a true freshman last season, Scott recorded 699 yards and 11 scores - including the game-winner against Iowa in the Big Ten title. Expect to see more from Scott in 2016.
Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat suffered a torn ACL and dislocated knee during the senior year of his high school career. Considering the seriousness of the injury, Sweat was a candidate for a redshirt year in 2015. However, the Virginia native played more as the season progressed and finished with 41 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks, one interception and two pass breakups. With another offseason to add strength in the weight room, look for Sweat to push for All-ACC honors in 2016.
Casey Tucker, OT, Stanford
Stanford has placed an offensive lineman on the All-Pac-12 first-team for eight consecutive seasons. Could Tucker extend that run to nine in 2016? The Arizona native played in five games as a freshman in 2014 and anchored the right side of Stanford’s line in 2015 with 14 starts. Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett will be missed, but the drop-off in production for the Cardinal’s offensive line is minimized with players like Tucker returning next fall.
KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU
TCU’s offense will have a new quarterback (likely Kenny Hill) in 2016, but Turpin should remain one of the team’s top go-to targets. Injuries hit the Horned Frogs’ receiving corps hard in 2015, which allowed Turpin to emerge as a preferred option for quarterback Trevone Boykin. Turpin caught 45 passes for 649 yards and eight scores, rushed for 116 yards and was one of the top returners on punts and kickoffs in the Big 12. The Louisiana native could be one of the top all-purpose players next fall.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2016
Ishmael Zamora/Davion Hall/Chris Platt, WR, Baylor
We are cheating a bit here and listing three Baylor receivers instead of picking one, but Zamora, Hall and Platt’s place in this article shows why the Bears still have one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps – even with Corey Coleman declaring for the NFL. In limited action last season, Zamora grabbed nine passes, Hall caught five for 77 yards and Platt ranked fourth on the team with 11 catches. Expect all three to be more involved next fall.
The ACC’s title has resided with Florida State or Clemson in each of the last five seasons, and it’s hard to see that changing in 2016. The Tigers are the early favorite to win the ACC next year, but the Seminoles are a close No. 2. Clemson’s defense needs to be retooled, while the offense should remain one of the best in college football behind quarterback Deshaun Watson. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the way for Florida State, and the Seminoles have an advantage in scheduling with Clemson visiting Tallahassee in 2016. Louisville is another team to watch after winning six out of its last seven games last season. North Carolina tops the early Coastal Division power rankings, but Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh are capable of pushing the Tar Heels for the No. 1 spot.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2016:
Early ACC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
After winning 14 games and falling just short of a victory in the national championship in 2015, Clemson has its sights set on another title run next fall. But it won’t be easy for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the way for an explosive offense, and running back Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett provide plenty of talent at the skill positions. The offense also regains the services of receiver Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt will be even better as a sophomore, but two starters must be replaced on the offensive line. While the offense is primed for a huge season, the defense may take a step back. Six players – ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and defensive backs Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green, Travis Blanks and Jayron Kearse – declared early for the NFL. A road date at Florida State could be all that stands between Clemson and another undefeated regular season.
2. Florida State
The ACC should have two playoff contenders next season, as there’s not a huge gap separating Clemson and Florida State prior to spring practice. Despite a rebuilding year in 2015, the Seminoles won 10 games and earned a spot a New Year’s Six Bowl. Nearly all of the two-deep is back on offense, including running back Dalvin Cook and standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. Question marks remain on the offensive line and at receiver, but the quarterback position will be under the microscope this offseason. Can Sean Maguire hold off a challenge from freshmen Deondre Francois and Malik Henry? The defense made big strides last season by limiting opponents to 4.68 yards per play. End Demarcus Walker is a candidate for All-America honors, and safety Derwin James and end Josh Sweat are back after standout freshmen seasons. The development of the linebacking corps will be an area to watch in spring practice.
The Cardinals started slow (0-3) but finished 2015 as one of the hottest teams in the ACC. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team won six out of its last seven games, including a 38-24 victory over rival Kentucky and a 27-21 win against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, starting with a rising star at quarterback in Lamar Jackson and the return of running back Brandon Radcliff and receivers Jamari Staples, James Quick and Jaylen Smith. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, but Geron Christian is a promising player to build around. The defense has ranked near the top of the ACC in each of the last two seasons under coordinator Todd Grantham and a strong core is in place for 2016. End Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess will be missed, but linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey and all four starters are back in the secondary.
4. NC State
The Wolfpack have recorded back-to-back 3-5 records in ACC play, and progress in the win column in 2016 could be a challenge for coach Dave Doeren's program. The Atlantic Division is loaded at the top with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, and NC State catches an improving Miami team and Coastal Division champion North Carolina in crossover play. New coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz won’t have quarterback Jacoby Brissett to work with, but Jalan McClendon is an intriguing player to watch. There’s a strong stable of running backs in place for McClendon to lean on, starting with Matthew Dayes (865 yards) and Reggie Gallaspy II (4.79 ypc). All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels headlines the targets at receiver, but three starters are gone from the offensive line. Improvement is needed on defense after giving up 29.6 points per game in ACC contests last season. However, most of the depth chart returns intact, with end Mike Rose, safety Hakim Jones and cornerback Juston Burris the biggest losses for coordinator Dave Huxtable.
5. Boston College
Last year’s 3-9 record was the worst mark for Boston College under coach Steve Addazio. However, 2015 was largely a lost season due to injuries on offense. Starting quarterback Darius Wade was hurt in the third game of the year, and All-ACC candidate in running back Jon Hilliman was limited to 198 rushing yards due to injury. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade for the starting job this offseason. Despite the lack of production on offense, the Eagles lost five games by three points or less. That’s largely due to a defense that led the nation in fewest yards per play allowed (4.07), finished fourth in points allowed (15.3 ppg) and second nationally against the run. Coordinator Don Brown left for Michigan, but linebacker Matt Milano and end Harold Landry are back to anchor a solid defense in 2016.
6. Wake Forest
Third-year coach Dave Clawson has recorded identical records (3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play) in back-to-back seasons. However, there are signs of progress in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons lost four games by a touchdown or less, including matchups against Florida State (24-16), Louisville (20-19) and Duke (27-21). After playing several freshmen over the last two years, the experience could pay off in the form of a few more wins in 2016. Quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton will compete for the starting job, and there’s talent in the skill positions with running back Tyler Bell (451 yards), receiver Cortez Lewis (47 catches) and tight end Cam Serigne (46 catches). In order for the offense to take a step forward, the line and ground attack has to improve. The defense has been placed into some bad situations with a struggling offense over the last two years, yet managed to hold opponents to 24.6 points a game in 2015. Most of the defense is back for 2016, but standout linebacker Brandon Chubb will be missed.
The Orange deserve high marks for the hire of Dino Babers, but 2016 will be a challenge for the first-year coach. Babers’ high-powered offense has a few promising players in place, including quarterback Eric Dungey, receiver Steve Ishmael and running back Jordan Fredericks. Three starters depart on the offensive line. Syracuse’s defense surrendered 6.21 yards per play and 31 points a game last season, so there’s plenty of work needed by new signal-caller Brian Ward this spring. The good news? Most of the unit returns intact, with ends Ron Thompson (early NFL Draft entrant) and Donnie Simmons (expired eligibility) the biggest losses. The 2016 schedule doesn’t provide many breaks for Babers, as Syracuse plays swing games against Boston College and Wake Forest on the road and catches Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh in crossover play. There's not much separation between Boston College at No. 5 and Syracuse at No. 7 in the early power rankings.
1. North Carolina
The defending Coastal Division champions are in good shape to make a repeat trip to Charlotte next December. Mitch Trubisky is ready to step in as the team’s starting quarterback after Marquise Williams expired his eligibility after the 2015 season. Elijah Hood is one of the ACC’s top running backs and returns after rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 scores last year. Quinshad Davis (55 catches) is the biggest loss in the receiving corps, while standout guard Landon Turner is the only departure from an outstanding offensive line. The defense showed improvement in coordinator Gene Chizik’s first season and should be poised for another step forward on the stat sheet in 2016.
New coach Mark Richt inherits a team capable of contending for the Coastal Division title in 2016. And the schedule certainly doesn’t hurt Richt’s first-year momentum, as Miami hosts Florida State and North Carolina and misses Louisville and Clemson in crossover play. Quarterback Brad Kaaya should benefit from Richt’s tutelage, and the rest of the offense returns nearly intact. Rashawn Scott (52 catches) is the biggest loss, while running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby return, along with receiver Stacy Coley and all five starters on the offensive line. The defense needs the most attention from Richt and new play-caller Manny Diaz this spring. Seven starters return from a unit that surrendered 6.1 yards per play in ACC contests last season. However, the secondary must be retooled with the departures of cornerbacks Tracy Howard and Artie Burns, along with safeties Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford.
3. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock wasted no time in replacing retiring coach Frank Beamer, and the program landed a home-run hire in Justin Fuente. After struggling on offense in recent seasons, Fuente’s background on that side of the ball should pay off in 2016 and beyond. The quarterback position is up for grabs with Michael Brewer expiring his eligibility, but the Hokies return running back Travon McMillian and standout receiving targets in Isaiah Ford (75 catches) and tight end Bucky Hodges (40 catches). One of Fuente’s biggest moves so far was to retain veteran coordinator Bud Foster and most of Beamer’s defensive staff. Foster has a busy spring ahead, as three starters depart the line and linebacker Deon Clarke must be replaced. The secondary held ACC quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion clip this season and should be solid once again in 2016.
Pat Narduzzi has Pittsburgh on the right track. The Panthers’ 8-5 record in 2015 was the program’s highest win total since 2010, and the stability at the top should pay off for this program in 2016 and beyond. Nate Peterman edged Chad Voytik for the starting quarterback job during the regular season and returns for his senior year under the direction of new coordinator Matt Canada. Top receiver Tyler Boyd will be missed, but the offensive line should be one of the ACC’s best. Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin have a few holes to fill this spring, as tackles Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and cornerback Lafayette Pitts have expired their eligibility. But the cupboard is far from empty. End Ejuan Price is expected to get a sixth year of eligibility, and safety Jordan Whitehead is one of the ACC’s top defensive backs.
5. Georgia Tech
What a difference a year makes. After winning the Coastal Division in 2014, the Yellow Jackets slumped to 3-9 overall and claimed one victory – a last-second win over Florida State – in ACC play. So where does that leave Georgia Tech for 2016? Probably somewhere in the middle. Coach Paul Johnson’s team wasn’t as bad as it played last season but contending for the Coastal Division title seems to be out of reach. Quarterback Justin Thomas is back for his senior year, and a promising group of options returns at running back. Improvement on the offensive line and a few more big plays in the passing game are a must for Johnson’s offense in 2016. The secondary was hit the hardest by departures on defense, with end KeShun Freeman and linebacker P.J. Davis headlining the returning corps for 2016.
To put the coaching job by David Cutcliffe at Duke into perspective, a quick history trip is needed. The Blue Devils are pushing for their fifth consecutive bowl appearance in 2016. Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke played in eight bowl games from 1922-2011. The Blue Devils will be another tough out for the rest of the ACC next fall, as quarterback Thomas Sirk should benefit from another offseason to work as the starter, and the ground attack is in good hands with Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan. Center Matt Skura and guard Lucas Patrick are big losses in the trenches. Safety Jeremy Cash, end Kyler Brown, tackle Carlos Wray and linebacker Dwayne Norman are big losses on defense, but cornerback Bryon Fields returns after missing all of 2015 due to an ACL tear.
Virginia’s hire of Bronco Mendenhall as the program’s new coach came as a surprise. But after winning 99 games at BYU from 2005-15, Mendenhall should be a solid hire for a program that hasn’t played in a bowl since 2011. Mendenhall is a defensive-minded coach and inherits a group that surrendered 32.2 points a game last season. Safety Quin Blanding is a rising star, and linebacker Micah Kiser is another key cog for Mendenhall to build around in the front seven. Virginia has not finished higher than ninth in the ACC in scoring offense in each of the last five seasons. Go-to receiver Canaan Severin departs, but quarterback Matt Johns and running back Taquan Mizzell are back for new coordinator Robert Anae.
September seems pretty far away, but it’s never too early to take a peek at the 2016 college football season. Especially when you take a gander at an opening weekend schedule that boasts perhaps some of the most enticing matchups fans have seen in years.
A slate of contests that more closely resemble postseason bowl games will ensure that there will be no margin for error for teams as they begin their quest to earn a spot in the third edition of the College Football Playoff and a chance to play for the national championship.
Here are the top 10 games during the opening weekend of the upcoming college football season:
1. Ole Miss vs. Florida State
Sept. 5 (Orlando, FL)
Both of these schools ended their 2015 seasons on opposite ends of the spectrum. Ole Miss dominated Oklahoma State in winning the AllState Sugar Bowl 48-20, while Florida State fell 38-24 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to a red-hot Houston Cougars team.
2. Oklahoma vs. Houston
Sept. 3 (Houston, TX)
After going 13-1, including a win over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Peach Bowl in head coach Tom Herman’s first season, Houston draws a formidable opponent in reigning Big 12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield will kick off his 2016 Heisman campaign in front of a national audience against what will likely be a highly ranked Cougars team.
3. Alabama vs. USC
Sept. 3 (Arlington, TX)
Defending national champion Alabama sets its sights on another repeat and national championship No. 17 against a USC team that will start year one of the Clay Helton era. The Trojans boast a talent-laden roster, as do the Crimson Tide. Alabama rode its 2015 season-opening win against Wisconsin – also coincidentally played in Arlington, Texas – to the College Football Playoff.
4. LSU vs. Wisconsin
Sept. 3 (Green Bay, WI)
Les Miles was granted a reprieve by LSU athletic director Joe Alleva to close out 2015. His road to redemption must go through Lambeau Field where his Tigers will face a gritty Wisconsin team that won 10 games last season and defeated USC 23-21 in the Holiday Bowl. Luckily for LSU, this game will be played in September and not December, so the Tigers won’t have to worry about any frozen tundra.
5. North Carolina vs. Georgia
Sept. 3 (Atlanta)
Defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina travels to Atlanta to face first-year head coach Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs. Smart’s season opener will test his mettle as Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels return plenty of talented pieces from last season’s 11-3 team. Plenty of Bulldog fans are sure to be in attendance in the Georgia Dome to observe their new-look team.
6. Clemson at Auburn
Sept. 3 (Auburn, AL)
Clemson and 2016 Heisman Trophy front-runner Deshaun Watson’s path to a return trip to the College Football Playoff begins at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers return a number of starters from last year’s 14-win team, but also must replace several key players. Auburn was one of college football’s biggest disappointments last season and head coach Gus Malzahn desperately needs this win to silence his detractors. This game will set the tone for Auburn’s 2016 campaign.
7. UCLA at Texas A&M
Sept. 3 (College Station,TX)
UCLA freshman phenom quarterback Josh Rosen threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdown last season. Texas A&M landed former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight after Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen defected from College Station. Aggies’ head coach Kevin Sumlin survived a tumultuous end of the year but managed to preserve his job. The eyes of Texas will be upon him when his team welcomes the Bruins to Kyle Field.
8. Notre Dame at Texas
Sept. 3 (Austin, TX)
The Fighting Irish cruised to a 38-3 victory over the Longhorns in South Bend last year. Texas will look to repay the favor. Notre Dame withstood a number of injuries last season to go 10-3 and play in the Fiesta Bowl. After a sluggish start in 2015, Texas used the momentum it gained from its victory over Oklahoma to go 3-3 in its last six games. The Longhorns defeated Baylor 23-17 to close out the season and give head coach Charlie Strong some breathing room.
9. Kansas State at Stanford
Sept. 2 (Palo Alto, CA)
Stanford hosts Kansas State in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder and the Wildcats’ defense will have to contend with Stanford All-American running back Christian McCaffrey, a 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist, in what could be Snyder’s final year before retirement.
10. BYU vs. Arizona
Sept. 3 (Glendale, AZ)
BYU and Arizona get together in University of Phoenix Stadium for the first of a three-game series. Arizona leads the series 12-9-1 and defeated BYU 31-21 in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, their most recent meeting. Arizona turned in a disappointing 2015 season where it went 7-6, just one year removed from playing in the Fiesta Bowl. BYU’s Kalani Sitake first game as a head coach should be a good one.
Missouri at West Virginia (Sept. 3, Morgantown, WV)
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas (Sept. 3, Fayetteville, AR)
Fresno State at Nebraska (Sept. 3, Lincoln, NE)
Rutgers at Washington (Sept. 3, Seattle)
South Carolina at Vanderbilt (Sept. 1, Nashville, TN)
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
If you missed the NFC Divisional Playoff game between Green Bay and Arizona on Jan. 16, that’s a shame. The fact the Cardinals won 26-20 in overtime doesn’t begin to encapsulate this game, which featured one of the most bizarre, improbable finishes in NFL history.
And while there are still three games left, including the Super Bowl, which has been the scene of some pretty memorable plays recently, there has been no lack of have-to-be-seen-to-be-believed finishes this season. The playoffs alone have already featured three such endings.
(Listed in chronological order, from earliest to most recent)
Jan. 16, 2016 – NFC Divisional Round: Green Bay at Arizona
Fitzgerald’s “Hail Larry” Helps Cardinals Overcome Rodgers’ Hail Mary
Two teams who are no strangers to postseason theatrics (Arizona beat Green Bay 51-45 in overtime in the wild-card round in 2009), came up with a script that even Hollywood couldn’t write. This game had a little of everything, including a tipped pass in the end zone that landed in Michael Floyd’s hands to give the Cardinals a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter. Arizona looked to ice the game with a late field goal, but a questionable pass play before the two-minute warning gave Aaron Rodgers 1:55 to work with down 20-13. He would need every bit of it too, as Rodgers’ 41-yard desperation heave as the clock expired landed in the hands of Jeff Janis in the end zone despite being harassed by two defenders.
Stunned, the Cardinals and Packers gathered at midfield for the coin toss, only to watch the coin not actually flip in the air, leading to a re-flip and plenty of confusion. Arizona won the toss, and following a touchback, Carson Palmer, not exactly known for being mobile in the pocket, avoided Green Bay’s rush (and nearly got taken down by one of his own offensive linemen) and threw across his body to find a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald, who almost ended the game right there before being tackled at the five-yard line. Following an incompletion to Fitzgerald, head coach Bruce Arians called his wide receiver’s name again, this time on a shuffle pass (of course), as the future Hall of Famer added yet another memorable play to his resume with the game-winning reception.
Jan. 10, 2016 – NFC Wild Card Round: Seattle at Minnesota
Seahawks Survive Frigid Temperatures, Vikings Following Walsh’s Missed Chip Shot FG
Through three quarters the Vikings were in complete control at home despite the sub-zero temperatures. Trailing 9-0 on the road, Seattle finally got on the board with a TD pass and then followed that up with a field goal to take a 10-9 lead with eight minutes to go. Both defenses held firm from there and the Vikings got the ball back with 1:20 to go. From their own 39-yard line, Teddy Bridgewater moved his team all the way to the Seahawks’ nine, thanks in large part to a 15-yard pass interference penalty and a 24-yard catch by tight end Kyle Rudolph. With just 26 seconds remaining and both teams’ timeouts exhausted, Blair Walsh, whose three field goals were responsible for all of the Vikings’ scoring, lined up for a 27-yard field goal. Referred to in the business as a “chip shot,” Walsh watched helplessly as his kick sailed wide left, giving the Seahawks the improbable come-from-behind win and Vikings’ fan yet another painful postseason exit.
Jan. 9, 2016 – AFC Wild Card Round: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Bengals Implode Late as Steelers Escape With Wild Win
Visiting Pittsburgh was up 15-0 after three quarters. Cincinnati had backup quarterback AJ McCarron making his first career postseason start. But despite his early struggles, McCarron and the Bengals woke up in the fourth quarter. An A.J. Green touchdown catch gave the Bengals a 16-15 lead, although the missed two-point conversion would come back to haunt them. Still with less than two minutes to go, Cincinnati appeared to be in pretty good shape, especially following Vontaze Burfict’s interception of Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones.
Deep in Pittsburgh territory, all the Bengals had to do was run out the clock. Unfortunately, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball on the first play, giving the Steelers one more shot with 1:23 remaining. A hurting Ben Roethlisberger, who had to be replaced by Jones following a hard sack, returned and moved his team to about midfield with 22 seconds remaining. Then on the next play (starting around 6:45 mark of video below), a vicious hit by Burfict on Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown led to a 15-yard penalty, which was made worse when Cincinnati’s Adam Jones got flagged another 15 yards for his altercation with Steelers’ assistant coach Joey Porter, who had come on the field when Brown was getting looked at by the trainers. The end result was the ball was placed on the Bengals’ 17-yard line, from which Chris Boswell drilled a 35-yard field goal to put Pittsburgh ahead 18-16. A desperation heave went unanswered, as Cincinnati’s playoff drought reached eight games, a streak that now dates back to the 1990 season. As painful as some of these losses have been this one especially hurts as the Bengals have no one to blame but themselves.
Dec. 7, 2015 – Week 13: Dallas at Washington
NFC East Archrivals Save Best for Last 74 Seconds
For the first 58 minutes, the Cowboys and Redskins could do no better than trade field goals. Despite the team’s sub-.500 records, this game was plenty important, as a mediocre NFC East was still open for the taking. But with less than two minutes to go, the score was tied at 9-9 with Dallas set to punt. And that’s when things got interesting. DeSean Jackson fielded the punt deep in Washington territory, advanced it past the 20 and then proceeded to retreat all the way to his own one-yard line in hopes of finding room to run. Jackson lost the ball, which the Cowboys recovered at the Redskins’ 15. Two plays later Darren McFadden ran it in as the visiting team went up 16-9 with 1:14 left. Game over, right? Wrong.
A 41-yard kickoff return tacked on with a 15-yard facemask penalty gave Washington the ball at Dallas’ 43-yard line with 1:06 remaining. Three plays and a timeout later Kirk Cousins connected with Jackson for a redeeming, 28-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 44 seconds left. The Cowboys then got the big kick return, this one 46 yards, and Matt Cassel found Dez Bryant twice to move the ball to the Redskins’ 36 with 21 ticks on the clock. Two incompletions left Dan Bailey with a 54-yard attempt, which he calmly nailed with just nine seconds left. Washington’s last-ditch attempt on the subsequent kickoff lasted all of two laterals, as Dallas climbed back into the division race, despite a 4-8 record, following the furious finish at FedEx Field.
DeSean Jackson runs 22 yards backwards only to fumble pic.twitter.com/By5LWiBY1F— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) December 8, 2015
Dec. 3, 2015 – Week 13: Green Bay at Detroit
Rodgers-to-Rodgers Caps Packers’ Improbable Comeback Against Lions
Detroit led Green Bay 17-0 at halftime and 20-0 nearly midway through the third quarter. The Lions seemingly had the Packers on the ropes, but failed to deliver the knockout blow. A Randal Cobb fumble recovery in the end zone finally got Green Bay on the scoreboard and then a Detroit turnover resulted in another touchdown. The Packers answered a Lions field goal with their third touchdown of the second half to make the score 23-21 with 3:04 remaining. A big third-down conversion allowed Detroit the opportunity to take the clock all the way down to just 29 seconds left before punting the ball away.
Green Bay took over at its 21-yard line with no timeouts and just 21 seconds on the clock. Two incompletions set up third down and seemingly the last play of the game. But a face mask penalty on the Lions gave the Packers one last chance. From his own 39-yard line Aaron Rodgers avoided the rush, buying just enough time to heave the ball high in the air. At the other end, tight end Richard Rodgers backed his way into the end zone and timed his leap just right to corral his quarterback’s heave for the touchdown. The failed two-point conversion was purely procedural, as the damage had already been done, allowing Green Bay to escape Ford Field thanks to the longest, game-winning, game-ending Hail Mary in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Nov. 30, 2015 – Week 12: Baltimore at Cleveland
Ravens Walk-Off Vs. the Browns on Blocked Field Goal
Week 12 action concluded with an AFC North matchup between the Ravens and Browns. By this point of the season, both teams were merely playing for pride and draft positioning, but it didn’t stop the divisional foes from staging a memorable final two minutes. A 42-yard touchdown pass from Cleveland third-string quarterback Austin Davis to Travis Benjamin tied the game at 27 with just 1:47 remaining. Each team punted on its next possession, as the game appeared headed to overtime. But Ravens quarterback Matt Schaub (also pressed into duty because of injuries) was intercepted, giving the Browns the ball in Baltimore territory with 50 seconds left and two timeouts. Davis completed one pass for six yards and scrambled for seven, setting up Travis Coons for the potential, game-winning 51-yard field goal with three ticks on the clock. However, the Ravens had a completely different ending in mind, as Brent Urban blocked the kick and Will Hill returned it 64 yards for the score after time had expired. For Baltimore, a break finally went its way, as Cleveland fans discovered a new, equally painful way to lose a game.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)
If you're upset with a call or no-call, don't trip a referee. Seems like common sense but evidently not.
In Oregon State's game against Utah, Jarmal Reid was visibly upset after he was tripped up but didn't get a foul called. As he was getting up from the floor, he stuck his leg out to the referee running up the court. Bad move. Reid was immediately ejected.
Tie game. 3 mins to go. Oregon State's Jarmal Reid ejected for tripping official. pic.twitter.com/bLAiWDH77q— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) January 18, 2016
Beavers head coach Wayne Tinkle announced Monday that Reid would be suspended for at least four games.
It's tough being a fan of the 76ers.
The team wants you to "trust the process" and if that's not enough, even cartoons are making fun of the Philadelphia team. The Simpsons hilariously showed how no one, not even fictional characters, want to be seen wearing the team's apparel.
The Alabama Crimson Tide were just crowned the kings of college football and here is Nick Saban's team already claiming the top spot as we turn our attention to next season.
As we bid adieu to the 2015 season, it’s time for an oh-so-early look at what games fall into the must-watch category for the upcoming season. After all, August will be here before you know it.
Some of these games could not only trip up the defending champion, but also give numerous other teams a chance to hold the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy high.
Here are the games you need to pin to the cork board and circle on your calendar to make sure you don’t miss:
|1.||Nov. 5||Baton Rouge, LA|
Leonard Fournette looks to get revenge in Death Valley.
|2.||Nov. 5||Waco, TX|
These games have only been a treat to watch since 2014. The trend continues.
This is the only true roadblock between the Tigers and the ACC title on paper.
|4.||Nov. 26||Columbus, OH|
They call it “The Game” for a good reason.
|5.||Nov. 26||Tuscaloosa, AL|
Throw records out the window when it comes to the Iron Bowl.
|6.||Oct. 1||Fort Worth, TX|
Two of the Big 12’s best meet to kick off the month.
|7.||Oct. 15||South Bend, IN|
We should have a good idea how strong the “Christian McCaffrey for Heisman” bandwagon is by now.
|8.||Sept. 5||Orlando, FL|
The Rebels could serve a large blow to the Seminoles’ title hopes right out of the gates.
|9.||Nov. 12||Norman, OK|
Much like Oklahoma-TCU, this game should have plenty of drama.
|10.||Sept. 3||Auburn, AL|
The College Football Playoff runners-up get to show if they have what it takes to get back in a hurry.
|11.||Sept. 17||Norman, OK|
Two traditional powerhouses get an early test that could potentially define their seasons.
|12.||Nov. 26||Los Angeles, CA|
The Trojans lose quite a bit, but they have home field advantage for the Irish’s visit.
|13.||Oct. 29||East Lansing, MI|
The ending to last year’s game was heart-wrenching for Michigan. Sparty has to hold off revenge without Connor Cook.
|14.||Sept. 3||Houston, TX|
Tom Herman’s team isn’t going to revert into a bunch of scrubs. Bob Stoops knows that all too well.
|15.||Sept. 10||Salt Lake City, UT|
The Holy War is a classic game between two teams that just flat out hate each other.
|16.||Oct. 8||Fayetteville, AR|
Bret Bielema made the Tide work for a home field win last year. Now is his chance to shock the world.
|17.||Sept. 17||South Bend, IN|
Another opportunity for Sparty to show it doesn’t need Cook, traveling to South Bend won’t be easy.
|18.||Sept. 10||Bristol, TN|
Time to see if Hokies' new head man Justin Fuente can back up all of the verbal accolades from peers.
|19.||Sept. 3||Green Bay, WI|
Leonard Fournette likely makes Wisky’s defense look like Swiss cheese, but the Lambeau Field setting makes the game worth watching.
|20.||Nov. 25||Tucson, AZ|
This is a game that always seems critical when it comes to eventually crowning the Pac-12 champion.
|21.||Sept. 3||Arlington, TX|
Ah, the Crimson Tide Early September Non-Con Smash. We’ll see if USC can make it sporting.
|22.||Oct. 22||Baton Rouge, LA|
If LSU can get past Alabama and Ole Miss, Leonard Fournette may be able to take them to the College Football Playoff.
|23.||Sept. 17||Lincoln, NE|
The Ducks meet Mike Riley again, only in different colors. A win would cause Nebraska’s momentum to surge.
|24.||Oct. 29||Salt Lake City, UT|
This could be a much-needed statement game later in the season.
|25.||Sept. 2||Palo Alto, CA|
We all learned last year what happens when Stanford schedules purple-colored Wildcats at home.
Best of the Rest:
26. Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 3)
27. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
28. West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Oct. 29)
29. Louisville at Houston (Nov. 19)
30. Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 25)
31. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Dec. 3)
32. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
33. USC at Stanford Sept. 17)
34. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 26)
35. LSU at Florida (Oct. 8)
36. USC at UCLA (Nov. 19)
37. Minnesota at Wisconsin (Nov. 26)
38. Notre Dame at Texas (Sept. 3)
39. Arizona at Washington State (Nov. 5)
40. Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, FL, Oct. 29)
41. Alabama at Ole Miss (Sept. 17)
42. UCLA at Arizona (Oct 15)
43. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 29
44. North Carolina vs. Georgia (Atlanta, Sept. 3)
45. BYU at Arizona (Glendale, AZ, Sept. 3)
46. UCLA at Arizona State (Oct. 8)
47. Washington at Washington State (Nov. 25)
48. Miami at. Notre Dame (Oct. 29)
49. Mississippi State at Ole Miss (Nov. 26)
50. Army vs. Navy (Baltimore, Dec. 10)
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The College Football Playoff era has been an interesting two-year period for the Big 12. The future shape and outlook for the conference is a source of ongoing debate, but the league got a much-needed boost last season with Oklahoma earning the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and a trip to the Orange Bowl. While one season isn’t enough data, the Sooners’ playoff bid shows the Big 12’s current format (round-robin schedule and no conference championship) is enough for a team to reach the top four.
As the page turns to 2016, Oklahoma is the clear favorite to win the Big 12 once again. The addition of play-caller Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield sparked the Sooners’ offense last season, and this unit will be just as deadly next fall. Baylor has to reload in the trenches, but the Bears have enough offensive firepower to be a top 10-15 team. Oklahoma State and TCU are next up in the early pecking order, with West Virginia, Texas Tech and Texas rounding out the next group of teams.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2016:
Early Big 12 Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Sooners were a year ahead of schedule in 2015 and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Big 12 and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. After an 8-5 finish in 2014, coach Bob Stoops overhauled his staff with four new assistants and tweaked the offense under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley. Oklahoma’s offense thrived under Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield by averaging 47.2 points a game in Big 12 contests. Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine anchor the 2016 version, but receiver Sterling Shepard will be missed. The offensive line must improve for Oklahoma to contend for the national title and question marks remain with the departure of center Ty Darlington and guard Nila Kasitati. The Sooners led the Big 12 in scoring defense (22 points a game allowed in 2015), and six starters return for coordinator Mike Stoops. However, this unit must replace cornerback Zack Sanchez, linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper.
The Bears have some work to do in the trenches, but there’s enough firepower coming back to Waco to ensure Baylor is back in contention for the Big 12 title. Additionally, coach Art Briles and his staff have upgraded the talent level in recent recruiting classes, allowing the Bears to quickly reload after key personnel losses. Center Kyle Fuller returns to anchor an offensive line that returns just one starter, and KD Cannon becomes the new go-to threat with Corey Coleman off to the NFL. Shock Linwood headlines a loaded backfield, but the biggest question mark on offense resides at quarterback. Seth Russell is expected to return to full strength after a neck injury in October. Will Russell hold onto the starting job or will Jarrett Stidham claim the No. 1 spot this offseason? It’s a good thing Baylor’s offense should have no trouble scoring points next fall, as the defense may need some time to find the right mix with new personnel. Ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer and defensive tackles Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear depart the line, and cornerback Xavien Howard left early for the NFL.
3. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys ended 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but the 10-3 record was a solid rebound for coach Mike Gundy’s team after a 7-6 mark in 2014. Matching 10 wins next fall isn’t unrealistic, especially if the offense continues to average over 40 points a game in Big 12 matchups. J.W. Walsh is not expected to gain a sixth season of eligibility, which leaves Mason Rudolph as the clear No. 1 at quarterback. Rudolph threw for 3,770 yards and 21 scores in 2015 and should take another step forward in his development next fall. Receiver James Washington (20.5 ypc) will be one of the top targets in the Big 12. However, question marks still remain on the offensive line and running back. Seven starters provide a solid foundation for coordinator Glenn Spencer, but the defense is losing some of its top performers from 2015, including end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson. After a favorable home slate in 2015, most of Oklahoma State’s toughest games are on the road in 2016.
Injuries and roster turnover on defense hindered TCU’s hopes of a playoff push in 2015. The Horned Frogs will enter 2016 with lower expectations, as coach Gary Patterson’s team must replace quarterback Trevone Boykin, running back Aaron Green, receiver Josh Doctson and four starters on the offensive line. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is considered the favorite to replace Boykin at quarterback, and the cupboard isn’t bare at running back and receiver. Defense should be a strength for Patterson in 2016. The Horned Frogs return seven starters and cornerback Ranthony Texada, safety Kenny Iloka and end James McFarland are back from season-ending injuries. TCU also has an intriguing home slate, starting with a home non-conference matchup against Arkansas and Big 12 games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
5. West Virginia
Last year’s 8-5 record was West Virginia’s best mark since joining the Big 12 in 2012. Can the Mountaineers take another step forward in 2016? Doing so will require more development from quarterback Skyler Howard and a quick rebuild on defense with only three returning starters. Howard closed out the 2015 season on a high note, throwing for 532 yards and five scores in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. Howard returns four starters up front and four of the top five statistical receivers. Running back Wendell Smallwood will be missed at running back, but Rushel Shell (708 yards in 2015) is capable of carrying the ground attack. The back seven on defense will require the most attention for coordinator Tony Gibson, as linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and cornerbacks Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut leave big shoes to fill.
6. Texas Tech
After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2014, the Red Raiders had a nice bounce back year, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play. Taking a step forward and climbing into the top half of the standings next season starts with improvement on defense. Coordinator David Gibbs was the right hire to fix Texas Tech’s defense, but this unit surrendered 43.6 points a game in 2015 and loses two of its top players in end Pete Robertson and Micah Awe. The good news for Gibbs? The secondary returns largely intact and linebacker Dakota Allen (87 tackles) turned in a solid freshman season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II is one of the nation’s most underrated signal-callers, but he will have to shoulder more of the workload with a revamped offensive line and the departure of running back DeAndre Washington and receiver Jakeem Grant.
The pressure is building on coach Charlie Strong. Can Texas take a step forward in 2016? We’ll see. The Longhorns are 11-14 in Strong’s two seasons and once again begin spring ball with question marks on offense. New assistants Matt Mattox and Sterlin Gilbert were hired from Tulsa to implement a spread attack, but do the Longhorns have a quarterback on the roster to run the offense? Jerrod Heard (1,214 yards, 5 TDs), Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Kai Locksley are back and will be joined by incoming freshman Shane Buechele to compete for the No. 1 job under center. While question marks exist at quarterback, the running back corps (D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III) and receiving corps (John Burt) feature a few promising playmakers. Three starters are back up front, including standout freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe. Strong’s specialty is defense, and this unit returns a handful of promising youngsters to build around, including linebacker Malik Jefferson.
8. Kansas State
Last season’s 6-7 record was the worst mark of coach Bill Snyder’s second stint in Manhattan. Retirement rumors popped up during 2015 for Snyder, but the 76-year-old coach put those to rest after the Liberty Bowl defeat against Arkansas. Snyder is slated to return on the Kansas State sidelines next fall with 11 returning starters. Injuries hit the quarterback position hard in 2015, but Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton will return to full strength and ready to compete with Joe Hubener for the No. 1 spot. Four starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including stalwarts Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson. The defense should be the strength for the Wildcats, as seven starters are back, and safety Dante Barnett returns after missing nearly all of 2015 due to injury.
9. Iowa State
Iowa State gets high marks for the hire of rising star Matt Campbell as the program’s new coach. Campbell went 35-15 at Toledo and should bring improvement to the Cyclones after three seasons of missing out on a bowl. Campbell inherits a few talented pieces on offense to build around, as running back Mike Warren (1,339 yards in 2015) and receiver Allen Lazard (56 catches) should contend for All-Big 12 honors. However, the offense needs more development from quarterback Joel Lanning and the offensive line returns only one starter. Iowa State’s defense returns nine starters, but this unit needs to get better against the pass (111th nationally in pass efficiency defense) and cut down on the yards allowed per play (6.16). It may not show too much in the win column this year, but the Cyclones will take a step forward in Campbell’s first season.
David Beaty’s massive rebuilding project at Kansas enters 2016 looking for small steps in the right direction. The Jayhawks showed some signs of life in league play with close losses to Texas Tech and TCU last year. But there’s a lot of work for Beaty and this staff to do next fall, as Kansas has a 15-game losing streak and the roster is littered with question marks. Quarterback Ryan Willis and running back Ke’aun Kinner are two promising players to build around on offense, and Texas A&M transfer LaQuivionte Gonzales joins the mix at receiver this spring. The defense surrendered 46.1 points a game last season and the overall depth and talent is still a work in progress. Freshmen Dorance Armstrong Jr. (DE) and Daniel Wise (DT), linebackers Joe Dineen Jr. and Marcquis Roberts and senior safety Fish Smithson form a foundation for co-coordinator Clint Bowen to build upon next year.
Starting with Miami in early October, seven different NFL teams fired their head coach this season, as Cleveland, the New York Giants, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Tennessee all decided to make a change at the top. Following a flurry of decisions leading into the Divisional Round of the playoffs, all of the available openings have been filled.
The Dolphins were the first team to make a move, hiring former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. The Tennessee Titans were the last when they announced on Saturday that the team was removing the interim tag from Mike Mularkey and making him the full-time head coach.
So how did the seven teams do in terms of the new hires? Let's hand out some grades:
Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns
The hottest name in the coaching carousel was Jackson. The former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and Oakland Raiders head coach was expected by many expected to become the next guy in Miami or San Francisco, but instead he accepted Cleveland's offer.
Jackson is now charged with turning around a franchise that has posted just two winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999. The 50-year-old Jackson had spent the past four seasons with Cincinnati, starting out as wide receivers coach before taking over as offensive coordinator in 2014. Jackson also has been an offensive coordinator for the Redskins, Falcons and Raiders.
In 2010, his Oakland offense 10th in yards per game, as the Raiders finished 8-8, their fist non-losing season since 2002. Because of his success, then Raiders owner Al Davis promoted Jackson to head coach after the season.
Oakland would finish 8-8 again in 2011, with the Raiders finishing ninth in the league in total offense. But Jackson was fired after just one season following the death of Davis and after his son, Mark, hired new general manager Reggie McKenzie.
If Jackson can find the Browns a quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft or through some other means, the team should improve instantly. Cleveland has an excellent offensive line and quality skill position players in running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson and as well as tight end Gary Barnidge and wide receiver Travis Benjamin.
Cleveland couldn’t have picked a better person to help the Browns return to respectability than Jackson. If Browns owner Jimmy Haslam gives Jackson time, the Browns should become a playoff team in two to three seasons.
Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In a bit of a surprising move, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith after only two seasons. Once the move was made, it was obvious that the team wanted to promote Koetter before he accepted a head coaching job with another team.
Koetter has nine years worth of experience as an offensive coordinator, including stints with Jacksonville and Atlanta. In 2007, Koetter led the Jaguars offense to a final ranking of seventh in yards per game. That was a major reason the team finished second in the AFC South (11-5) and advanced to the AFC Divisional Round before losing to the New England Patriots.
With the Falcons, Koetter guided quarterback Matt Ryan to his finest season in 2012. Ryan threw for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating 99.1 as Atlanta won the NFC South and led the NFC with a 13-3 record. The Falcons hosted the NFC Championship Game, only to come up short against the 49ers.
This was his first season in Tampa and all Koetter did was develop No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston into a 4,000-yard passer and improved the Buccaneers' offense from 30th to fifth in the league. If Koetter can find a defensive coordinator to help the Bucs improve their defense, Tampa could be a sleeper in 2016.
Chip Kelly, San Francisco 49ers
The case could be made that Kelly could have been the best head coaching hire of the offseason. In his three seasons in the NFL, Kelly has had just one losing season (6-9) after finishing 10-6 each of his first two seasons leading Philadelphia, including winning the NFC East in 2013.
The problem with Kelly and the Eagles was that he failed to treat his players like adults and did not hesitate to get rid of anyone (LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, etc.) he thought was not on the same page with him.
If Kelly can learn from his mistakes in Philadelphia and help revitalize quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s career, this could be a strong hire. Love or hate him, Kelly is a great offensive mind and he may finally have a quarterback to fit his system.
Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins
There're a lot of questions about the Dolphins' hire of Gase, but there also a lot of positives as well. Gase did help Bears quarterback Jay Cutler post the highest quarterback rating (92.3) of his career. He also helped Peyton Manning rewrite the NFL record book in 2013 when he threw for 5,477 and 55 touchdowns with the Broncos.
Some of the knocks against Gase are is his age (37) and inexperience. He is the youngest head coach in the league. Also, the Bears finished this with a 6-10 record and ranked 23rd in points per game.
Gase was hired to help quarterback Ryan Tannehill become the elite quarterback Dolphins fans have been yearning for since the days of Dan Marino. Miami has a lot of holes and questions to address, so owner Stephen Ross will have to have to be patient with Gase because there will be growing pains.
Ben McAdoo, New York Giants
The Giants have missed the playoffs each of the last four seasons, which led to them parting ways with Tom Coughlin, who led the team to two Super Bowl victories. Instead of looking for a candidate outside of the organization, the Giants decided to stay in house, promoting McAdoo from offensive coordinator to head coach.
McAdoo has never been a head coach at any level and the Giants finished 12-20 in his two seasons as offensive coordinator, but he has been handed the keys to one of the premier jobs in the NFL.
Yes, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. have excelled in McAdoo's system, but it still wasn’t enough to win a weak NFC East this season. Also, the Giants' defense is a complete mess and it appears they will retain defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Only time will tell if McAdoo is the right choice help the Giants become contenders again.
Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Pederson spent the last three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs as their offensive coordinator under former Eagles head coach Andy Reid. He also played in the NFL for 10 seasons, mostly as a backup quarterback.
It appears Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie wanted to hire a younger Reid to bring stability back to his franchise after the
Chip Kelly fiasco. The Pederson hire might have been a reach after Tom Coughlin removed his name from consideration and the Giants promoted offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans
Following the firing of head coach Ken Whisenhunt after a 1-6 start, Mularkey served as the team’s interim for the rest of the season. Even though the Titans went just 2-7 with Mularkey in charge, the team decided to stick with him, in large part due to his relationship with ownership and the front office, as well as rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.
"Our relationship has been great,'' Mariota told TitansOnline.com. "He did an incredible job with what happened this year and handling everything. I am very excited to have him as a coach, and I look forward to getting to work.”
There’s nothing inspiring about the hiring of Mularkey. New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would have been a much better choice. Despite McDaniels' failures as a head coach in Denver, his system along with Mariota's skill set could have made Tennessee's offense one of the best in the league.
Mularkey has a career record of 18-39 in his head coaching stops with the Titans, Bills and Jaguars. For a team that has won five out of its last 32 games, it will be tough to expect Titan fans to flock to Nissan Stadium on game days because of this decision.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The start of the NASCAR season is only weeks away with the Daytona 500 fast approaching on Feb. 21.
Everything you need to prepare for the 2016 autoracing season is available in Athlon Sports’ Racing Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
In this year’s issue:
• Top 25 Driver Profiles: Ranking, reviewing, analyzing and previewing the seasons ahead for the top drivers in NASCAR for 2016.
• Personality portraits on Kevin Harvick’s dabbling in MMA, Jimmie Johnson’s Twitter troll game, how Kyle Busch’s crash at Daytona is still making waves, a look behind Brad Keselowski’s blog life, and more.
• Young Guns by Joe Menzer: Jeff Gordon has retired, Tony Stewart is next up, and some of racing’s biggest names are into their 40s. NASCAR’s future is riding on a wave of rising talent.
• Brand New Man by Geoff Miller: How a personal and professional transformation has propelled Kevin Harvick to the head of the pack.
• Q&A with Joey Logano
• Culture Clash by Matt Crossman: Technology, analytics and fan demands are changing a sport that still clings to its roots.
As a sneak peek of the 2016 Athlon Sports Racing Preview, here are the top 35 drivers for the upcoming season.
1. Joey Logano
Logano has all the pieces to the championship puzzle, but in order to put them together, he needs to learn to work with his peers. At this level, respect is key; if it’s not there, it will come back to bite a driver. Logano found that out the hard way in 2015, and it will be the path he chooses from here that defines his 2016 season as champion … or chump.
2. Kevin Harvick
Harvick enters 2016 as a solid favorite for a second title, and he’s certainly capable. Harvick and his team are tough; it’s a lot easier to finish first when your starting point is often second place. Look for them to power on through this year as they have the last two.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson needs to act soon on that seventh championship; few drivers have won titles past 40. But few drivers have accomplished what Johnson has in just 14 years, either. He’s got a few surprises left.
4. Kyle Busch
All told, 2016 will be a season for Busch to both defend his title and add to his already impressive résumé. With a long-term contract extension for both him and sponsor M&M’s, expect this driver/team combination to be championship-ready for years to come. “I don’t know what my legacy is quite yet,” Busch says. “Certainly I think there’s a lot to add to it.”
5. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth’s team remains a fully funded entry in 2016 with sponsor Dollar General handling 30 races while DeWalt plans to sponsor six events. Between the stable funding and his race team’s company-wide success, Kenseth makes for an easy choice as again being a series frontrunner and championship competitor down the stretch.
6. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski is capable of winning his second career title this year. In order for that to happen, though, he’ll have to do more than lead laps and post a superior average finish. He needs to close the deal on track. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt Jr., the time is now if he’s going to win a Cup title. As a unit, his team has to cut down on miscues, including at tracks where they have struggled in the past. But as 2015 showed us, they’re just a few small breaks away from breaking through.
8. Kurt Busch
Busch, despite his lack of true consistency from year to year, is a proven champion, and he can be one again. It’s hard to say that 2016 looks like his year, given the considerable competition he’ll get from all sides, but he’s also a driver you never count out.
9. Denny Hamlin
In 2016, Hamlin’s fortunes will be predicated on his ability to avoid trouble. He’s proven to be impressive in the races that comprise the Chase’s third round (Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix) and would be an odds-on favorite to earn a spot in the finale in Homestead again should he advance that far.
10. Carl Edwards
That unbridled enthusiasm is what has JGR thinking that Edwards, 36, is still in his prime entering his 12th season of full-time Sprint Cup Series competition. Expect for him to be a factor again in 2016.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex, 35, now hopes both men can keep riding the wave in a 2016 season that will likely define the next several years of his Cup career.
12. Jamie McMurray
With investor Rob Kauffman’s addition and McMurray’s propensity to finish races — he’s failed to finish only five of his last 108 starts and last season completed the fourth-most laps in the series — consistency should earn McMurray a second straight appearance in the Chase. The next step is to figure out a way to advance and run up front once they get there.
13. Ryan Newman
If a RCR chooses expansion, Newman could stay in the fold, but his reputation for being a less-than-stellar team player coupled with lagging numbers in the last two years make him a hard sell to sponsors. Realistically, 2016 will be a year-long audition for Newman to find a ride for 2017 and beyond; that could either fuel the fire for the veteran driver or become a distraction.
14. Kasey Kahne
All the pieces of Kahne’s puzzle remain in place — fast cars, sponsor dollars, top-flight team. But what the driver needs to do more than anything is to make his own luck. If he and his team can find consistency to go with the speed they’re capable of, they can win races and make the Chase, which Kahne missed by a spot in 2015.
15. Kyle Larson
Together, Larson and crew chief Chad Johnston will go to work trying to resurrect each other’s reputations. Keep in mind that drivers with potential, like Larson, tend to bounce back during their third seasons. (Jeff Gordon, as an example, shot all the way up to become series champion.) We won’t go that far here, but there’s ample reason to expect that Larson, Ganassi’s biggest asset, can qualify for his first Chase appearance with a little luck.
16. Austin Dillon
17. Paul Menard
18. Greg Biffle
19. Chase Eliott
20. Tony Stewart
21. Aric Almirola
22. Clint Bowyer
23. AJ Allmendinger
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Danica Patrick
26. Ryan Blaney
27. Trevor Blaney
28. Casey Mears
29. Brian Scott
30. Landon Cassill
31. Christ Buescher
32. Matt DiBenedetto
33. Michael Annett
34. Alex Bowman
35. Ty Dillon
NFL reporter Chris Mortensen will be taking time away from ESPN.
The NFL Live and NFL Insiders regular has been diagnosed with throat cancer.
"More than a week ago, I was diagnosed with a Stage IV throat cancer," Mortensen said in a statement. "My focus shifted significantly gather information about the specifics of this cancer. the initial diagnosis was confirmed Friday and there is another test remaining that will determine the best possible treatment plan that will commence in a very immediate future. Consequently, with the support and encouragement from ESPN president John Skipper and many others at ESPN, I am temporarily stepping away from my normal NFL coverage duties to better engage this opportunity to fight the good fight that is projected to affect almost 1.7 million Americans with new cases in 2016."
Skipper later commented on the situation.
"Our thoughts are with Chris and his family as he faces this challenge," Skipper said. "He is an extremely respected colleague who has the complete support of his entire ESPN family. We wish him strength and hope in the battle ahead and look forward to his return whenever he chooses."
We will all be praying for Mortensen and his family during this difficult time.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine if Sunday evening’s AFC Divisional playoff matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) and Denver Broncos (12-4) is a football game or hospital drama.
Much like the Broncos on Dec. 20 were when they were without four players, most notably quarterback Peyton Manning, unable to play due to injury; the Steelers suffered serious injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown in their 18-16 wild-card victory at Cincinnati last week. Roethlisberger sprained his throwing shoulder and revealed this week he also has torn ligaments while Brown sustained a concussion and was ruled out by the team early Friday morning.
To add insult to those injuries, the Steelers also will be without their leading rusher DeAngelo Williams, who is still not ready to return from the foot and/or ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago against Cleveland. This will mark the first time in NFL history that team will play a playoff game without its leading rusher and receiver from that season, according to Elias. Not the kind of history Pittsburgh fans were hoping their team would make.
Takes away from the drama of the AFC’s best offense (Pittsburgh) taking on the NFL’s top defense (Denver), doesn’t it? A playoff game is always important, but this game truly holds the legacy of the franchises in the balance.
It’s well known the Steelers have the most Super Bowl victories in history (6). This season they also became the most prolific playoff participant since the AFL-NFL merger with their 28th appearance, and if they can reach the Super Bowl, it will be for the NFL-record ninth time.
Denver has played on Super Sunday seven times. If the Broncos earn a trip to Santa Clara, Calif., they will tie Pittsburgh, Dallas and New England as the Super Bowl’s most prolific attendees.
Individually, the only thing that has prevented Manning from receiving more “Greatest Quarterback of All-Time” recognition has been his performance in big games (Tracy Porter INT in Super Bowl XLIV , 11-13 career playoff record, 0-4 against Florida in college). But if the Broncos win the Super Bowl behind Manning, he’d be 14-13 in the playoffs and have two rings, eliminating most of this criticism.
Furthermore, this will be the eighth meeting between the two teams in the playoffs, which ties Bears-Giants and Cowboys-Rams as the most common playoff matchup. The Broncos lead the all-time postseason series, 4-3, where the meek (Eric Williams, Tim Tebow, Merril Hoge) have often become the hero.
AFC Divisonal Round: Pittsburgh at Denver
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Broncos -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks are Manning and Roethlisberger. Why don’t these teams want to throw?
In the Steelers’ case, it’s because nobody knows how well Roethlisberger can pass. After being temporarily knocked out of the game by Vontaze Burfict last Saturday, Roethlisberger returned to lead the Steelers to victory in Pittsburgh’s final drive, but struggled throwing the ball downfield.
At one point, facing 3rd-and-7 at their own 37-yard line with just 32 seconds remaining, the Steelers decided to run a draw play with third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday the Steelers were open to everything, including activating third-string quarterback Michael Vick. Don’t look for Roethlisberger to start unless he legitimately can throw the ball downfield for an entire game. A quarterback of his stature is not relieved unless he is injured.
While it doesn’t bode well for the Steelers if backup Landry Jones starts, the Steelers were able to overcome a 17-point deficit against the Broncos less than a month ago when they changed their defense from zone coverage to man, confusing quarterback Brock Osweiler and shutting out Denver in the second half. If Jones starts, the possibility of confusing the Denver defense with multiple quarterbacks arises, although the passing game will be missing its primary target in Antonio Brown.
Manning, 39, faces many of the same arm strength questions Roethlisberger does. Manning earned praise for his relief performance against San Diego in the season finale, yet completed just five of his nine attempts for 69 yards, leading to speculation if Manning has really reclaimed his throne or if Osweiler’s sprained MCL is the real reason for the switch.
After all, Manning was the quarterback most likely to throw an interception in 2015, hurling 17 of them in fewer than 200 attempts against just nine touchdown passes.
2. The running games
Because of the questionable status of the quarterbacks, both teams may try to play a possession game.
Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined to rush for 1,583 yards this season, but the running game failed to shine Dec. 20 against the Steelers, unable to protect a 17-point lead in a 34-27 loss with no player rushing for more than 48 yards.
Despite playing with third-stringers Toussaint and Jordan Todman, the Steelers surprisingly gained 169 yards on the ground against Cincinnati, the highest total of any of the eight teams playing on Wild Card Weekend.
With Williams set to miss another game, look for Todman to get on the field on running downs but Toussaint when the situation calls for a pass. Todman averaged nearly six yards on his 11 carries last week, and while Toussaint wasn’t as impressive, he’s considered the better blocker and caught four passes.
The key player to watch may be Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who famously intercepted Roethlisberger to give Denver hope late in the 34-27 loss to the Steelers. The Steelers’ offensive line was effective in taking out linebackers against Cincinnati, and if Marshall can’t get to the ball carrier on Sunday another unlikely player, in this case a backup running back, could prove to be the star as has happened so often when these teams meet in the playoffs.
3. The pass rush
Denver led the NFL with 52 sacks this season. Pittsburgh had 48 to place third.
Clearly both teams will blitz often. Luckily for Manning and Roethlisberger they have two of the quickest releases in the NFL. However, they also finished second and third in total interceptions thrown this season.
Don’t look for much deep passing, especially with Brown not playing.
The Steelers are banged up and a shell of themselves on offense. The Broncos are rested. For Pittsburgh to win, Peyton Manning will have to struggle. Are you really going to bet against Manning playing for his legacy against the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL?
Prediction: Broncos 23, Steelers 16
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
For two teams that reside in different divisions, clear across the country from one another, the Seattle Seahawks (11-6) and the Carolina Panthers (15-1) have grown very familiar with one another. Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game between these two cross-divisional rivals in Charlotte will mark their second meeting of the season and their fifth meeting in just four years.
In Week 6, the Panthers defeated the Seahawks 27-23 on the road in come-from-behind fashion. It would serve as Carolina’s first signature win of the season and play a significant role in fueling the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record. Carolina’s victory also snapped a five-game losing streak to the Seahawks dating back to 2010. More importantly, the Panthers were able to avenge a 31-17 loss to the Seahawks in last year’s divisional playoff matchup.
Sunday’s rematch should be another epic showdown in what has already proven to be a hotly contested series in recent years. A well-rested Panthers team has no intention of letting their storybook season come to an end. While the perennial playoff powerhouse Seahawks are just fortunate to be here following last week’s stunning close call against Minnesota in their wild-card game. It is loser-go-home football at this point for two of the hottest teams in the NFL with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
NFC Divisional Round: Seattle at Carolina
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Panthers’ Pass Rush vs. The Seahawks’ Offensive Line
Pass protection has been a glaring weakness for the Seahawk offense all season. It was especially evident in Week 6 when a lackluster Seattle offensive line gave up four sacks to the Panthers. For the entire regular season, the Seahawks allowed 46 sacks. The sixth most in the NFL and an alarmingly high number for an offense with an athletically gifted and mobile quarterback under center.
You can expect a healthy Carolina pass rush to once again dial up the pressure on Sunday in an attempt to exploit a sub-par Seahawks’ offensive front. Only five other teams in the NFL had more sacks than a Panthers’ pass rush that yielded 44 during the regular season. Panthers’ defensive tackle Kawann Short is a specific player of note to keep an eye on. Short led the Panthers with 11 sacks on the season, two of which came against the Seahawks back in Week 6.
2. The Seahawks’ Defense: Remarkable on the Road
Thanks in large part to Seattle’s “12th Man” (aka the Seahawks’ rabid fan base), no other team in the NFL has enjoyed more success on their home field in recent years than the Seahawks. That being said, the road has been especially kind to the Seahawks in 2015, especially on defense. Since Week 5, Seattle has allowed one lone touchdown in six road games. Just one!
Seattle hopes to carry that same good fortune into Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Standing in the Seahawks’ way will be a Carolina offense that led the NFL in scoring during the regular season (31.2 ppg). It seems crazy to even fathom that the Seahawks’ defense could keep the Panthers’ high-powered offense out of the end zone. However, the same thing was said about the Seattle defense before the Seahawks visited Arizona in the final game of the regular season.
The Cardinals also led the NFL in scoring prior to hosting the Seahawks. Arizona ended that game with just six points via two field goals. Seattle’s track record on the road speaks for itself, but it will still be a very tall order to prevent Carolina from finding paydirt on Sunday.
3. Russell Wilson vs. Cam Newton
Sunday’s divisional game will feature two of the hottest signal-callers in the NFL. Wilson is 7-1 over the last games, during which he has averaged 283 total yards per contest, while accounting for 26 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Wilson will have his work cut out for him against the Panthers’ aforementioned pass rush and a Carolina secondary that features lockdown cornerback Josh Norman. Ball-hawking safety Kurt Coleman also is expected to return from injury this week to further complicate matters for Wilson.
Newton has also led his team to a 7-1 record in his last eight games. He has averaged 289 total yards per game, also with 26 touchdowns to his credit and just one interception during that span. Newton should be well rested following the bye, and the extra week to prepare should have him at the top of his game. Regardless, Newton will still have a tough task on Sunday against a Seahawks defense that once again ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed this season. It will be entertaining to see which of these elite quarterbacks can overcome the odds and come out on top against top-shelf competition.
It’s not difficult to make a case for either one of these teams to move on to the NFC Championship Game. Seattle has a proven playoff pedigree, an amazing defense that has only given up one touchdown in its last six road games, an elite quarterback, and a strong desire to avenge a Week 6 loss to the Panthers. The Seahawks also may get Marshawn Lynch back this week, which would bolster their chances even further.
As for the Panthers, they will be fresher and healthier following last week’s bye, they also have an elite quarterback, a stellar defense, and have no desire to see an amazing season come to an end at the hands of the Seahawks for the second year in a row. Carolina also will get starting running back Jonathan Stewart back from injury, along with deep-threat wide receiver Ted Ginn.
There is no question that this will be a hard-fought game that could go either way. That being said, it’s hard to bet against a Carolina team that has not lost a game at Bank of America Stadium since Week 11 of the 2014 season. It’s also fair to assume that Seattle will be a little worse for the wear heading into this matchup after last week’s tooth-and-nail struggle against Minnesota in sub-zero weather.
Prediction: Panthers 21, Seahawks 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
In terms of wins and losses, I went 0-for-4 in my Outrageous Wild Card Predictions last weekend. Just because my picks were wrong, doesn’t mean the outrageous didn’t occur. In fact, I can’t remember a crazier weekend of NFL playoff games in my life. A missed chip shot, a meltdown and a shutout all stole the headlines during Wild Card weekend.
The Divisional Round features the eight teams that were really the class of the league for most of the year. Unlike last weekend, however, all four home teams are favored in the next round. That alone opens the door for the outrageous to happen. So what does this weekend have in store for us?
Outrageous Predictions for NFL Divisional Round
Denver wins, but Manning can’t finish
I have a tough time seeing the Steelers move the ball against the Denver defense, especially without a solid running game. The problem is, I’m not sure Peyton Manning is going to be on target, and the Bronco offense will sputter as a result. Look for this game to be close heading into the fourth quarter, when Gary Kubiak has to once again make a change at the quarterback spot to pull out a victory. Brock Osweiler steps in and hits one of the many throws Manning couldn’t make all day to win the game by one score.
There won’t be a single touchdown pass thrown in the Seattle-Carolina game
There will be offense, which will produce points. Most of that, however, will be due to the mobility of the two starting quarterbacks — not their arms. These defenses will be stingy against the pass in the red zone, forcing both offenses to keep it on the ground to punch it in. It’ll be dives, pitches and designed quarterback runs doing all of the damage in a game that will be decided by no more than a field goal.
Packers win by two scores
It looked like Aaron Rodgers found his mojo again against the Redskins — and that’s not a good thing for Arizona. The Cardinals are the sexy pick by many to get to Santa Clara, but this young team hasn’t had the pressure of being the favorite against a quarterback who has made a championship run on the road before. Green Bay Tight end Richard Rodgers will be big in the middle of the field, as he’ll have space to run with the attention Arizona’s corners will pay to the wide receivers. Look for the Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection to yield at least 120 yards and two scores en route to the Packers pulling away late.
Kansas City loses by the same score the Chiefs won by last week
New England is now healthy on both sides of the ball. The Chiefs were always going to struggle running it against the Patriots. Now, it’s looking like if wide receiver Jeremy Maclin plays, he’ll be nothing more than a decoy. Look for Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins to cover and take away tight end Travis Kelce, essentially taking away Alex Smith’s security blanket. When New England has the ball, it’s back to business as usually with short passes out of the backfield to James White, quick slants to a healthy Julian Edelman and darts down the middle of the field to Gronk. Oh, and lets not forget New England’s new hammer in the backfield, Steven Jackson, who has had a couple of weeks to get settled in and learn The Patriot Way. This will be a slow, methodical beatdown.
NFL Wild Card Weekend proved to be another profitable one for those who have been following along in this space all season. It was a crazy weekend with the home teams for the most part finding ways to lose when they were close to moving on.
Now we bring in the teams coming off of a bye and the recency effect is going to have a lot of gamblers thinking better of the teams on the road this weekend. One has to remember that this is the second straight road game for all of last weekend’s winners so that has to be a factor in handicapping.
Record: 45-24-2 (3-1 last week)
Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Chiefs had the least issues last weekend and enter this one with a lot of momentum as the win streak hits 11 in a row. Jeremy Maclin’s status is important, as Kansas City doesn’t exactly have a ton of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. The Chiefs have a good system, but we know that New England takes away what you do best. Because of that, you’ve got to think that Travis Kelce will be the Patriots’ main focus on defense. I hate to be the wet blanket, but look at the teams that the Chiefs beat during this win streak and you see a lot of garbage. It did begin with a home victory over Pittsburgh and does feature a road win at Denver, but other then that yuck.
The week off did great things for New England, which expects to have Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower all available for this one. This was a team that limped to the finish with four losses in its last six game, but the Patriots weren’t even close to healthy. Tom Brady struggled mightily down the stretch especially after he lost Edelman. With everyone back, this team is a force and a threat. Remember how well the Pats played, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots allow just 339.4 yards per game which is slightly higher then Kansas City’s 323.2.
All of this leads to my favorite pick of the weekend. People are giving the Chiefs a lot of credit and they deserve it. But let’s not overthink this though with New England 17-7 ATS at home over its last 27 games. SELECTION: New England -5 (Pats 28-13)
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
It’s a rematch of an ugly 38-8 victory by the Cardinals in Arizona back on Dec. 27. Aaron Rodgers struggled terribly that game, as well as the rest of the offense, which managed just 178 yards total. Last weekend the Packers went into Washington, D.C. and beat the Redskins 35-18 in a game that channeled the Rodgers of old. He threw for just 205 yards, but the swagger seemed to be back. He’ll need that against the Cardinals, playing their third straight home game and four of their last five.
The reason I bring this up is because Green Bay has its fourth road game in its last five. The Bills had a similar stretch during the regular season and they ran out of steam by the end of it. When you get down to it, the Packers are still a flawed team. None of their WRs scare you and the run game still isn’t consistent enough to be a factor. Arizona had two weeks to hear about its 36-6 loss at home to Seattle so you know the Cardinals will be ready to rock. This is a group before that game that scored 128 points over a four-game span. Carson Palmer is rolling and he has a ton of weapons at his disposal. Rookie running back David Johnson is the biggest revelation and he makes it harder to defend Arizona, which also has three top-notch WRs. The Cardinals are 25-12 ATS the last three years against conference opponents. SELECTION: Under 50 (Cardinals 28-13)
Seattle Seahawks (11-6) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Rematch No. 2 this weekend, as Carolina won in Seattle back in October a 27-23 contest that was 10-7 Seahawks at halftime. There are a couple of things to consider in this one. First, it’s another early kickoff for the visitors from the West Coast. Second, it’s the team’s third straight road game, going from Arizona to Minnesota and now Carolina. Third, the Seahawks’ defense is a lot better now than in October.
The numbers are fantastic for Carolina’s offense, but the Panthers are coming off a bye so who knows how good the timing will be? I’ll say this; they won’t get the 38 points that they’ve had in three of their last four. Seattle’s offense struggled in the cold in Minnesota, but the run game was without Marshawn Lynch. We still don’t know his status, but even if Lynch is able to return the Seahawks figure to struggle to get much going on the ground against the Panthers’ stout defense. Seattle has gone under in 25 of its last 41 games against conference opponents. SELECTION: Under 44 (Carolina 23-20)
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
Injuries may make this summary relatively useless, especially since most books have not released totals. Antiono Brown has already been ruled out because of a concussion, while DeAngelo Williams and Ben Roethlisberger are questionable. That’s pretty much the Steelers’ offense. Williams doesn’t look good to play and Big Ben may not be able to throw the ball past 10-15 yards due to his shoulder injury.
Pittsburgh won the first game between the two at home back on Dec. 20 34-27. This is actually the Steelers’ fourth straight game away from home and fifth in their last six. Part of me almost thinks that they will pack it in and get blown out in this one especially playing in the thin air of the Mile High City. There is a small contrarian part of me that likes the Steelers, especially if the line gets a lot higher. If we lose the big three, this line could go up to 10 I bet.
It’s not like the Broncos are blowing anyone out. They beat the Chargers by seven in Week 17 after a three-point home win over the Bengals. Bottom line, right now at 7, I like Denver, but that’s also assuming Brown and Williams are out. This one could be an under as well. SELECTION: Nothing official due to injuries.
— 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.
The way the Vikings lost to the Seahawks on Wild Card weekend was nothing short of devastating.
EA Sports doesn't seem to care based on this Instagram post. Blair Walsh's kick in the final moments was wide left and it's all anyone can talk about. It's a little soon for the fans of Minnesota to laugh at their team's dashed Super Bowl hopes, but when they're ready they are sure to get a chuckle out of this.
A photo posted by EA SPORTS (@easportsinsider) on
Jason Whitlock. If I could, I would end the article there.
He is a writer who is the definition of an "acquired taste", but if you love hot takes he'd be the way to go. Now that he's released of his duties of trying to get ESPN's "The Undefeated" off the ground, he's making his rounds on Fox Sports 1.
During the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson, the controversial writer had some thoughts on singer Ciara's attire. He wasn't the only one to comment, but in true Whitlock fashion he took it a bit too far on Colin Cowherd's show.
For those who missed it, this is the dress Ciara wore.
It's inappropriate, Ciara. Cover up, Ciara. Insert eye-rolling emoji.
I'm 100 percent serious. I'm not a prude. Love nudity. Not at national champ game. Inappropriate. https://t.co/LoTzEqBQQJ— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) January 12, 2016
The cheerleaders are wearing less clothes for goodness sakes. The singer was wearing a gown that went all the way to her feet and somehow that came off as thirsty to Whitlock.
It's strange for him to say that Ciara demanded the attention. She's a very famous singer, in the public eye, and dating Russell Wilson. It's hard for her not to command everyone's attention. If anything, Whitlock spent much of the time once she was gone still tweeting about her. He made it more about her than he's willing to admit. Beware ladies because wearing a full-length dress can get you the "thirsty" label. Trust me, I've seen thirsty and that's not it.
Keep in mind that Whitlock is the same person who said Serena Williams was overweight. Take a minute and let that sink in. He also said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't get criticized because he's black. Again if you need a minute to let that marinate, please do so.
You know what a "thirsty" person wants more than anything? Attention. Based on the blazing hot takes and the constant nagging about things that make no sense, it's clear Ciara isn't the thirsty one in this equation.